Printers are great when the work, but when they don't it can be extremely frustrating. Here's how to solve some of the most common problems.

Printers can run reliably for many years and thousands of prints, but they can also malfunction or stop working entirely. Sometimes the reason is as simple as over- or under use. Many people simply don’t use their inkjet printers often enough these days and this can lead to problems with dried-up ink blocking the nozzles. Over use is less common than misuse: paper clips, hair bands and even food can fall into printers and cause paper jams (and worse). 

If your printer has had it, a new one might be the most cost-effective solution, so check out the best printers to buy - the cheapest is only £55.

Fix printing problems: The printer won’t print

There are numerous possibilities as to why your printer won't print, so start with the basics, such as checking to see whether there is an error message or warning light on the printer, making sure there is paper in the tray, checking the ink cartridges aren’t empty, the USB cable is plugged in or the printer is connected to Wi-Fi. And if it is a wireless printer, try using a USB cable instead.

Sometimes the reason it won't print is because you've installed some software which has a 'virtual' printer and this has set itself as the default, so when you hit Print in Word, you're actually saving a file instead of sending the document to your real printer. To check, open the Control Panel from the Start menu. Then go to Devices and Printers, right click the correct printer to use and set it as the default.

Then, make sure that the correct printer is selected in the program you are printing from - you should see an option to choose from a list as in the image below.

Solve common printing problems: default printer

Microsoft has a printing troubleshooter that can help to identify problems. Click the Fix it button, download and run the program, then follow the steps in the wizard.

You can also open the Control Panel, Devices and Printers, right click the printer icon and select Troubleshoot. It doesn’t always help, but it’s worth trying.

HP has a Print and Scan Doctor to identify problems, and Canon has lots of great videos on its website – click your printer model and then click the Troubleshooting videos link.

Fix printing problems: I can’t print from my phone or tablet

Solve common printing problems: Cloud Print

To print from an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch, the printer must not only be wireless, but also support AirPrint. The list of AirPrint printers is growing, but there are still a lot of printers, particularly older models, that don’t support it.

If you have a Mac with a printer attached, you can turn it into an AirPrint printer using HandyPrint. Printer Pro is an app for iOS devices that enables them to print to many wireless printers or a wired one attached to a PC or Mac.

Some Samsung phones, tablets and printers are designed to work together and printing is straightforward.

To print from any Android phone or tablet to any PC printer you can use Google Cloud Print.

Install Cloud Print on the mobile device from the Google Play store. Next, using Google Chrome on your PC, go to the menu, Settings, Advanced Settings and click Manage. You can then add the printer attached to the PC. Provided the PC and printer are switched on, you can print from the Android device.

Fix printing problems: Replace the cartridges

Printers warn that the ink is running out before it actually does. A home user printing only occasionally could find that it lasts another couple of weeks, if not months. Order new cartridges as soon as the message appears, but don’t install them until it either stops printing or the colours fade.

HP has an interesting scheme with many of its printers where you pay per month and cartridges automatically arrive at the right time. 

If your colour ink has run out, but you must keep printing, you might be able to set your printer to print in black and white only. This is a setting you'll find in printer properties in the Control Panel - or click the option when you go to print via an application you want to print from.

Fix printing problems: Web pages, Excel documents and photos won’t print properly

Web pages

Web pages can be any size and they aren’t limited by the width or height of the paper in your printer. They aren’t usually designed to be printed, which is why problems can occur. Always choose the Print Preview option so you can see what you’ll get. You might not need all the pages, for example, if there are lots of comments or adverts, so use the option when printing to select the pages to print, such as 2-4 to print pages 2 to 4. Choose landscape mode if the web page is very wide.

Much of the time you will find a shrink-to-fit option in the printer settings that helps when your document or photo is just a bit too big to fit on the page. Some web pages, such as those with printable coupons, have a print button within the web page. Use that and not the print menu in the browser.

Office documents

If you're trying to print an Excel sheet, be sure to select only the cells you need to print before clicking Print. Then you can choose 'Print selection' and change the other options to make sure it fits well on an A4 sheet. You can do other things, such as reducing the size of the margins, and switching from landscape to portrait orientation.

Fix printing problems - Excel

Similarly, when printing a Word document or any other, you can usually specify which pages to print so you don't have to print them all. 

Photos and pictures

For photos or images you want to print, it's usually best to right-click on them in Windows Explorer and click Print. This way you will get to choose how large to print each photo. If you select multiple photos in a folder, then right-click and choose Print you will be able to print them all at once, with more than one per sheet of paper (and you can choose the paper size here too). It's similar to the n-up option that you'll find in Printing properties which allows you to print multiple pages of a document on a single sheet of A4.

Fix printing problems - Photos

Fix printing problems: Paper jams

Paper jams are fairly common, but try to work out why it's happening rather than just pulling out a crumpled piece of paper from the paper tray. Take the paper out of the tray, open all the flaps and look inside. You might need a torch to see the paper and long tweezers to reach it, especially if it's only a very small piece which has been ripped off and left inside.

Look underneath the printer because there may be an access panel that can be removed to examine and clean the paper feed mechanism.

Old paper can absorb moisture, which makes it stick and then it is pulled through two or more sheets at a time. Keep it in a bag until it is needed. Check out Canon's troubleshooting videos to see how to remove pieces of paper stuck in printers.

Also, try using thinner paper: most home printers will only handle photo paper at a maximum. They can't usually print on card as it's too stiff to be fed around corners.

Fix printing problems: Poor print quality

The nozzles on inkjet printer heads can become blocked causing horizontal streaks on prints and poor or wrong colours. Cleaning the print heads can solve the problem. The procedure varies from printer to printer and there may be an option on the printer control panel or in the printer software on the computer. You might need to look this up in the manual. With an HP inkjet for example, there is a Start screen app for Windows 8 users and this has a Maintenance button. Click it and you can clean the print heads or align them. Head cleaning kits are available for around £10 from Amazon although you should compare it to the cost of a new cartridge.

The type of paper affects the print quality and photocopier paper won’t do. It is too absorbent and inkjet ink soaks into it like blotting paper. Buy good quality paper for the best prints. It’s a similar situation with laser printers and the right paper gives the best results.

 Solve common printing problems: maintenance