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Printer ink (types, uses, how to buy) 


Printer ink is a coloured liquid, used in inkjet printers to transfer images from your computer screen onto paper or other printable media. When you click "PRINT", hundreds of tiny ink nozzles go to work, spraying thousands of precisely positioned, miniature ink droplets, as the ink carriage (print head) moves across the page. The ink penetrates the paper fibers and when it dries, the print becomes permanent part of the paper.

Colour printers generally use three colour inks (cyan, magenta, yellow) and one black ink. By progressively laying appropriate colour ink drops on top of each other, they can create just about any shade of colour imaginable. 

Photo printers typically use more than three ink colours to extend the printable colour range. Light cyan, light magenta and light black are the most common "extra" inks. Less common colours are red, blue, green, orange, grey, very light black  etc. Some high end photo printers use all of above colours, but more commonly only one or two are added to the main ink set.

Ink types & combinations

Two main ink types are used in desktop printers - dye and pigment. Each is optimised for different print media and/or application. In general terms, dye ink works best on gloss media while pigment inks perform better on matte or plain paper. There are exceptions. Many of today's printers use pigment black ink in combination with dye colour ink set.   

Dye ink is made by dissolving a colorant in liquid, usually demineralised water. Other chemicals are then mixed in to determine the ink's properties (viscosity, drying rate etc). Dye ink is relatively cheap and produces good results on variety of media. It's great for printing photographs. Dye prints fade faster than pigment prints under light, but will keep for many years, if stored in a photo album etc. Because dyes remain water soluble, the prints can smudge on plain (copy) paper. Good quality dye ink shouldn't smudge, or run on coated photo paper, providing the paper is also reasonable quality.

Pigment ink is made in a similar way to dye, except the colorant is a non soluble, fine coloured powder.. This makes pigment prints more water and fade resistant. If you plan to display whatever you print, expect extended print life or water fastness, you should use quality pigment inks - if your printer can handle pigment.

Most printers can be filled with either pigment or dye ink, providing the correct ink is available. All Epson, some Canon and some HP printers are suitable to using pigment colour inks. 

All Epson dye printers can be converted to pigment, but don't expect the change over to be straight forward. Pigment inks aren't as vibrant as dyes and photographs can look dull or washed out, when printed with "dye print settings". This can be corrected by making adjustments to colour settings (in printer properties), or using a new profile. Unless you are prepared to do this (and print photos), don't change over to pigment ink. For printing on plain paper, no adjustments are generally required except for higher "print quality" settings. Without changing the quality settings, pigment prints do look washed out.

Important note: Once dry, pigment ink is not easily soluble, so it is important to prevent the ink from drying in the print-head. Don't leave the printer with no cartridges fitted for any longer than necessary, use high quality ink if refilling and it is a good practice to print a nozzle check, before turning your printer off. If any ink nozzles appear clogged (not printing), use the print head cleaning utility until you get a good nozzle check. Don't be afraid to waste a bit of ink!!! It is far cheaper than having to replace a clogged print-head.

Most current printers use both ink types. All printers with two ink cartridges or four individual ink tanks (except Epson), use combination of pigment black and dye colour inks. It is a compromise, but works quite well. The black (pigment) ink only gets used for plain paper printing. When printing on gloss paper, the black cartridge is disabled and the printer makes black ink by mixing the CMY colours. Black areas of photographs printed with these printers may not be true black, but it is not that obvious, unless compared with a "photo printer" produced picture.

Some Canon and HP printers come equipped with two black cartridges - one filled with pigment ink, the other with dye ink. These printers produce higher quality photographs and can use less colour ink as well. 

Some pigment only printer models also run two (or more) black ink cartridges. Pigment photo printers usually have "photo black" and "matte black" ink tanks. Both are pigment, but each is formulated for different paper type. Few high end photo printers also come with light black, light-light black, grey etc cartridges to extend the printer's black & white printing capability. 

Some Epson printer models (C110, T30, T1100, Workforce 525 etc) use two black ink cartridges filled with the same ink. This is apparently to increase the print speed...

How to buy ink?

As with most other things, you can buy ink in different forms...

Original ink cartridges (made by the printer makers) are easy to find and top quality, but you can pay dearly for the privilege. The amount of ink they hold can be valued at anywhere up to $3000 per litre. If you don't print a lot, this may not be a problem, but if you do, buying original ink can get expensive.  

Compatible ink cartridges are another way of buying ink. Compatible (generic) cartridges are similar to ink cartridges sold by the printer makers, but are made by independent companies. There are many different brands and grades of compatible cartridges on the market, some almost as good as original, some not so good, some really bad. You usually get what you pay for. Don't expect too much from a 99c ink cartridge! Print-rite cartridges are good value for money. They fit and work well and Print-rite ink quality is consistently good. Not quite as good as OEM ink, but Printrite cartridges are a lot cheaper.

Refilling your ink cartridges or fitting a CISS (continuous ink system) is the most economical way to print. That way, you aren't replacing the ink cartridges, just the ink that is used up. Not only does it work out much cheaper, refilling is kinder to the environment and rather convenient as well.

Another advantage of refilling or CISS is that you are not limited to the ink offered by the printer / cartridge makers. Most Epson printers for example can be set up with different ink types, depending on what you want to print. Anything from dye (general printing, photos, CD's), pigment (longer lasting prints), B&W (for black & white photos) to dye sublimation (for "non printable" materials), heat transfer ink (iron-on transfers)...endless possibilities. With genuine ink cartridges you have no choice other than the ink they're filled with.    

Be careful when shopping for cartridges, refill ink, CISS etc. If you base your buying decision on price alone, you may end up with less than you bargained for.   

Find refill kits, bulk ink or ink cartridges for your printer, by clicking on the respective link. Can't find the printer ink you are looking for? Please contact us.   

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