Printer toner

This article explains what is printer toner. Whether you’re thinking about buying a laser printer or have questions about the one you own, The Printer Jam has answers. Our in depth explanation about this remarkable powder and how laser printers use it covers everything from how it works to the best practices for cleaning it up.

Printer toner is a specific component of the laser process. Without it a laser printer would just produce blank pages. It comes in 4 colors:

  • Black
  • Cyan
  • Magenta
  • Yellow

No matter the color it works the same. Printer toner produces the images and text that come out of a laser printer.

This article covers what it is, how it works, differences with ink, pros, and cons. A few tips, tricks, and FAQ are also included.

Glossary of Terms

Toner– The fine dry powder used in laser printers and photocopiers to form the images or text printed on paper.
Toner cartridge– The unit that houses the toner. Or another name for the developer unit which goes into laser printers.
Toner bottle– A bottle that contains toner.
Printer cartridge– Generic name for any unit installed into a printer. Typically the toner cartridge.
Developer– The combined dry powder containing toner and carrier.
Developer unit– The technical term for the unit that houses the toner, carrier, and other components related to development.
Image unit– The unit which houses the photoconductive drum. Also known as a drum unit.
Carrier– A fine material that has electrical and magnetic properties.

How Does Toner Work?

More in depth articles covering inkjet & laser printers and how they work can be found here.

In a nutshell, laser printers work by the principle of opposite charges attract and like charges repel. One charge is applied to toner and another charge to the photoconductive drum. Discharging specific areas on the rotating drum differentiates where toner sticks or does not. Which essentially creates the images or text sent to the printer. The developed image is then transferred and finally fused to the paper.

Toner is a finely ground blend of pigments, wax, silica, and thermoplastic resin. This fine powder by itself can’t be charged. To hold an electrical charge another material called carrier is required.

Printer toner

Carrier is fluorocarbon coated spherical ferrite particles. It is a fine material (45-125 μm) but not quite as fine as toner (7-30 μm). This material is magnetic and can hold a static electrical charge. By mixing carrier and toner, a triboelectric charge is obtained. Its magnetic properties carry the toner particles to the photoconductive drum.

In the developer unit is a roller has a built in magnet. This stationary magnet running the length of the roller forms a uniform layer of developer on the roller.

The charged toner is then attracted the the drum in specific areas. This develops an image which is then transferred from the drum to the paper. Which is finally fused to the paper before leaving the printer.

Dual and Mono Component

Toner and carrier manufactured in separate processes are called dual component. Both components are then put in the developer unit or toner cartridge. Which mixes and combines the two materials.

Printer toner

If a printer takes a separate bottle, like HP’s neverstop printer, it contains toner. Although there is usually a tiny amount of carrier added, a bottle of toner is much cheaper than an entire toner cartridge (developer unit). Most other brands, such as HP, Ricoh, etc, use dual component toner.

Some brands, such as Canon and Kyocera, use mono component toner. Carrier and toner manufactured in the same process is known as mono component. Canon developed this process and held the patent for many years.

While it contains the same materials as dual component toner, mono refers to the final product. As opposed to two separate components.

One drawback to mono component toner is the spherical ferrite particles stay with the toner on its journey to the paper. Which used to give text a distinct dark grey appearance. With dual component toner the carrier stays inside the developer. Only the toner is transferred to the paper.

Only B&W printers and photocopiers use mono component toner. All color laser printers and photocopiers use dual component toner.

What is the Difference Between Toner and Ink

The biggest, most obvious difference between ink and toner is one is a liquid and the other is a powder. Inkjet printers can only use ink and laser printers use toner.

However, back in the early days of photocopiers they did use a liquid ink toner. It held an electrical charge through a carrier and otherwise operated as a photocopier. The liquid ink toner was phased out by the 1980’s. All modern copiers and laser printers use a dry powder toner.

Another difference between them is how they get to the paper. Opposite electrical charges attract toner first to the rotating drum, then to the paper. While only heat or mechanical pressure sprays ink onto the paper.

Ink being a liquid with finer particles mixes better than toner. The pile of colored toner on the paper is briefly melted in the fusing process but not to the extent of a liquid ink.

Ink and toner use the same pigments, such as Carbon Black, Pigment Yellow 180, Pigment Red 122 , and Pigment Blue 15:0. Yet very different materials comprise the base material for ink and toner.

Pigment and dye based inks dissolve the colorant in a liquid. This diffuses the pigments. Which makes smaller particles when sprayed onto the paper.

Toner adds materials, such as wax, silica, and plastic resin. This increases the size of the particles.

This image shows printer toner and ink on paper magnified 1000x:

Printer toner
Left side is toner, right side is ink

The difference between toner and ink particle sizes can be easily seen. On the left toner forms a larger and ordered pattern. Ink on the right shows a smaller but homogeneous distribution.

What this means is ink has better print quality than a laser printer. View more inkjet and laser printer image comparisons.

Advantages and Disadvantages

While ink makes better quality, durability goes to toner. Printer toner will last longer than ink. The plastic and wax base of toner protects the pigments much longer than ink. Dye based inks have vivid colors yet offer little protection from fading. If the paper gets wet toner doesn’t smear or run, unlike ink.

Printer toner is more cost effective than ink. See the cost comparisons here. Laser printers are typically a few cents per page cheaper to operate than inkjet printers. On multipurpose paper. Ink needs photo paper to really outdo toner for print quality. Ink and toner costs range from less than a penny to 15 cents a page. Adding a 37 cent or more cost per page for photo paper to that total puts ink costs well above toner costs.

Another advantage of toner is less waste. Unlike ink cartridges, toner does not dry out so won’t need thrown away. While ink cartridges require cleaning cycles, toner cartridges do not.

Toner can be recycled in certain cases. Toner that doesn’t transfer to the paper is known as waste toner. A few B&W printers recycle it from the cleaning unit back into the developer unit.

Color printers can’t use waste toner since it contains all the colors. They mix in the cleaning unit, along with some paper dust. Toner isn’t as effective after going through the development and cleaning process.

What is Inside a Cartridge?

If you were to open a toner cartridge what you would see inside would be mostly toner. One or sometimes two augers can be found buried in the toner. They agitate or push the toner to the magnetic roller.

Components found in a typical toner cartridges:

  • Magnetic roller (Developer roller)
  • Regulating blade
  • Agitator or feed screws
  • Drive gears
  • Piezoelectric sensor (depending on the model)
  • Microchip (depending on the model)
  • Photoconductive drum (depending on the model)

Most of the toner was removed so all the internal parts can be seen. The agitator keeps a fresh supply of toner for the magnetic roller, sometimes called a developer cylinder. This model has only one agitator, instead of an auger shape it has mylar flaps to stir the toner. The regulating blade keeps a uniform layer of on the magnetic roller. It is not sharpened like a knife but rather a flat piece of sheet metal. Which is still sharp enough to cut.

Printer toner

There is no sensor or drum for this model. If there were a sensor it would tell the printer when toner is empty. Most brands use a microchip to tell the printer a new unit has been installed. Then estimate when the toner cartridge is empty based on usage.

Many times the drum unit is also part of the toner cartridge but not necessarily. For example, Brother printers tend to have separate toner cartridges and image units.

Toner cartridges and printer cartridges are terms sometimes used interchangeably. They both refer to the developer unit which is installed into a laser printer by the user.

Understanding Laser Printer Supplies

To understand laser printer supplies, we need to examine different brands and the components of their supplies.

The simplest way to explain this is with examples of brands the most and least components in a toner cartridge. Kyocera laser printers generally separate the components into the most units. Their supplies include:

  • Image unit
  • Developer unit
  • Toner cartridge
  • Waste toner

The image unit is composed of a drum, a charge unit, and a cleaning unit. It usually goes without saying an image unit includes the charge and cleaning components.

The developer unit has toner, carrier, a magnetic roller, and toner feed screws.

The toner cartridge, in Kyocera’s case, has only toner. It’s rectangular shape earns it the title of cartridge but if it were round it would be a toner bottle. In either case, it empties toner into the developer unit and is then discarded.

The waste toner is a separate container that attaches to the image unit. The cleaning unit sends the waste toner to the container. Which is thrown away once it is full.

While Kyocera has four replaceable items, while HP combines everything into one replaceable unit. The drum, toner, developer unit, and waste toner combine to make a HP toner cartridge.

Obviously a Kyocera toner cartridge, which only has toner, costs less than a HP toner cartridge, which has all the imaging components.

HP isn’t the only brand to make singular toner cartridges with all the parts. The next most common configuration is a separate image unit and toner cartridge. HP, Canon, Lexmark, Brother, Xerox, Ricoh, and the rest also make two item supplies: an image unit and toner cartridge.

The only thing for certain in a toner cartridge is toner.


Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is toner inter changeable? No. Different toner has different melting points and electrical charges.
  • What is OEM toner cartridge? Original Equipment Manufacturer. The same company which made the printer.
  • What is a compatible toner cartridge? A new toner cartridge manufactured by a company other than the OEM.
  • What is a remanufactured toner cartridge? Used OEM or occasionally a compatible toner cartridge which is refilled with toner.
  • What is the best way to clean up toner? For clothes use a can of air or air hose. If you have to use water, cold water with a little soap is best. Warm water easily melts (and fuses) toner. A dry rag works for the inside of a printer. For the floor a slightly damp towel or rag. Do not use a vacuum or alcohol, bad things can happen.
  • Are there any health risks with printer toner? Toner is over 85% plastic. There are no special precautions for handling or disposal. In my experience, nobody ever got sick from toner. Two people (in 25 years) mentioned headaches from the ozone created by a photo copier. This was from high volume color copiers, which used corona wires. Small printers mostly use charge rollers which don’t generate ozone. The few that do use corona wires would only have a tiny fraction of the output of those large production copiers.
Printer toner
copier guy

The Copier Guy, aka Dave. I’ve worked on scanners, printers, copiers, and faxes over 23 years. When I’m not fixing them I’m writing about them. Although, I’m probably better at fixing them. I have certificates from Canon, Xerox, Ricoh, Kyocera, Lexmark, HP, and Konica Minolta. My experience includes other brands as well as several types of processes. If it uses paper I’ve probably worked on one.

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