Friday, March 19, 2010

Know the tools of the poet's craft: Printer Edition

It goes without saying that any venture you're going to invest a considerable amount of money in deserves the same kind of special attention you give your car, or your home. But I never hear writers talk about these kinds of things; it's always about art, or the struggle, or even the business (that is, trying to land gigs or teaching jobs), but rarely the more technical side.

I'm talking about the things that can save us a ton of money, like management of resources on road trips, or filing for taxes as an artist, or in this case, getting a printer.

A while back, when I had some cash burning a hole in my pocket, I made the somewhat drastic decision to buy a new printer. Don't let this precursor dissuade you from doing the same, because it turned out to be an excellent decision, but I'm not going to act as if a ton of planning went into this; I had an old printer I hated, and I wanted a new one.

But my inability to look before I leaped is to your benefit. First things first.

Should I buy a new printer?

Good question, self. The answer to this depends entirely on what you plan on using your printer for. If you are only going to print black and white (or all text), I'd say yes, definitely. Even if you print photos or other color documents, if you are serious about printing out copies for submissions to literary journals, or copies of your novel or poetry for work shopping, I'd get a second printer just for that purpose.

See, I had a color ink jet printer. And for much the same reason that a lot of people get cell phone cameras; it was listed as a cool option, and I wanted that cool option without thinking for a second what I'd use it for.

What ended up happening was that in a 2 year period, I only needed about 2 color copies of anything. Ink jet ink dries out, so at about 45 dollars a pop for ink, those two copies cost me 90 dollars. I don't think I need a chart to explain why it's better for me to take my color documents to Kinkos, even if they DO charge far too much considering what it costs them.

What are my options?

Simply put, there are only about three options you're going to want to look into unless you have very specific (or unique) printing needs.

Ink Jet Printer

These are popular because they run so cheap. A quick Google shows me that Walmart is selling one right now for less than 30 dollars.

An ink jet printer essentially operates by spraying tiny droplets of ink on the paper, which allows for crisp and colorful options. If you're doing anything creative, this is the choice for you, because you can't do those printer-friendly iron on t-shirt transfers, color documents, or photo-quality pictures any other way.

But the downsides are many. Ink jet ink costs from 17-25 dollars, and you'll need both a black and a color if you want to take advantage of printing text for your writing, and the photo options.

What's more, ink jets dry out. If you have that color cartridge in your printer, and wait a few months before you print something in color, it is as good as dead, and it's off to the store to buy another 16 dollars worth of ink.

It literally may be cheaper just to buy a new printer every time you need to refill your ink, which is making mother earth cry as I type this, or to try to refill your cartridges (and void your warranty) yourself, which sounds like such a messy nightmare that I don't know why anyone would do it.


A laser printer operates by laying ink on a paper and using heat to burn the ink to the paper. A laser printer, which is more expensive than an ink jet uses an ink drum, which is usually more expensive than ink jet ink. But not by much. On, right now, I can buy ink for my printer, a Brother HL-2140, for 35 dollars.

So how long does it last?

Well, more on this later, but while I used to swap ink in my ink jet every 1 to 2 months (and this is before I REALLY began to print things out), I haven't had to change my drum since I bought my printer, and that was a year ago. If I'm conservative, and say that I ONLY changed my ink jet ink every two months, and that I also ONLY changed the black ink cartridge and not both, I save over 96 dollars a year in ink. Assuming that I run out of ink right this second.

And while I don't keep great track of how much paper I run through, I think it's safe to say that I run through around 20-50 sheets on an average month, and many more depending on what I am submitting or how much I'm work shopping. And for you environmentalists, I use both sides of the paper when I can. I wish our neighborhood offered recycling, and I'm not sure I actually help the environment by driving all the way down to the plant.

Multi-Function Printer

I will leave it to you, gentle reader, as to whether this is another feasible option for your needs.

A multi-function printer offers two or more services a 'normal' printer doesn't offer, such as a scanner/printer or scanner/fax/printer. This can save you money and room if you're in need of these gadgets, but on a personal level, I've always hated multi-function anythings. You know what happened when, back in the day, you bought a TV with a video cassette slot in it? When the VHS broke, you had to go out and buy a new VHS and sit it on top of your huge, ugly television set.

The same thing can happen with a multi-function printer. If the scanner breaks, you will either have to buy a completely new multi-function printer(and they're more expensive than any other kind of printer, as you might imagine), or buy a separate scanner and sit it next to your giant scanner printer which only prints.

And I know that times have changed, and the multi-function printers are actually sometimes smaller than other single-function printers. But I stand by my opinion that it's silly to have an item with extra, unworking parts for any reason. Plus, any engineer will tell you that the more moving parts a machine has, the more likely it is for something to go wrong.

So what next?

Next, familiarize yourself with the product, either before (suggested) or after you buy it. Google it, find out if people are having problems on Amazon's comment system. Really, spend about a day at this before you make an expensive investment.

When, after about 5 months, my printer said it was out of ink, I Googled it. It had lasted me more than twice as long as my old printer's ink, but I was curious about whether this was a normal period of time before replacement was necessary.

Turns out that the sensor for my brand of printer goes off way early. This is kind of shifty of Brother; I suspect that the company will claim it only wants the 'absolute best printing quality' and therefore tells you to change early. But there's not even an option to print anyway. It's flashing red light, and out to buy a new cartridge.

That is, unless you read up on it. Turns out, if I taped over the censor (which I promptly did), the printer would continue to print, oblivious to the fact that it was 'out of ink.' 7 months later, and I finally begin to see some wear and tear. The paper is splotchy with ink. So I open it up, study the parts some, and figure out what to clean, and voila. Good as new.

What's more, my printer offers a 'high-yield' ink. Whether or not this is worth the extra money, I don't know. But you can bet that when this ink finally runs out, I'll do my research.

Oh, and one last thing: both ink jets and laser printers often have an option to 'print quickly' or a 'low quality' option. This uses much less ink, and a lot of times, doesn't obviously detract from the quality of the print.


  1. reblogged on my site. It's true that this is not often discussed. I bought a printer that requires a $30 ink cartridge. eek! It's better to check with the local Walgreens ($10 refills) and see what printers they support, then purchase a printer - especially if submitting or making chapbooks.

    I'd love to buy a saddleback? IS that what it's called? Hole puncher. The one that automatically binds papers into books. I think that would encourage me on my 5 poems a week project (that I'll one day embark on).

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