What is Printer Toner?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Ink for computer printers is supplied in a variety of ways. An ink jet printer uses liquid ink that is applied to the paper either by spraying, by a drop-on-demand method, by a thermal method, or by a piezoelectric method. Solid ink printers ink a drum with melted wax, and the drum transfers the ink to the paper. By contrast, printer toner, the source of ink for laser printers, is a fine powder that is transferred to paper by electrostatic means.

Laser printer that uses printer toner.
Laser printer that uses printer toner.

Printer toner is supplied in a toner cartridge. The toner is mainly made of pigment and plastic, and it is supplied with an electrical charge, which is essential to how it works in the printer. When a print is requested, the printing drum starts off with a positive charge. The printer uses a laser beam to discharge certain spots on the drum surface as it revolves, creating an electrostatic image. Next, the drum is coated with the charged toner, which clings to the discharged areas of the drum only.

Printer toner is often supplied in a print cartridge.
Printer toner is often supplied in a print cartridge.

The paper is given a negative charge, and then as the drum rolls over the paper, the paper pulls the printer toner onto itself, picking up the image. Next, the paper passes to the fuser, which is where the role of the plastic in the toner comes in. The plastic is melted by the fuser and binds the pigment to the paper fibers, helping to prevent smudging and bleeding. In the meantime, the electrostatic image on the drum is discharged, readying it for the next image.

That description is the process for a black ink printer. For a color printer, the entire process must be repeated four times, with one pass for each of the ink colors: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black.

Printer toner is often supplied in a print cartridge, which may be printer-specific. This means that they are not interchangeable between printers. Many print cartridge suppliers offer a “regular” and a “high yield” toner cartridge, with the output being measured in typical pages. This allows customers to choose a size that fits their needs. Some organizations offer to refill toner cartridges, but care is required. Contrary to what many people believe, purchasing refill kits will not void a printer warranty, and it would be illegal for it to do so.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to EasyTechJunkie about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments


I don't think laserprinting does very well with color -- at least not with the powdered kind of toner. Black is fine, but color tends to get blurred.

If I'm going to print in color, give me an inkjet every time. I might have to wait for it to dry, but it's almost always crisper, sharper and more defined than laserprinter color, which tends toward the indistinct, blurred result. I've never been happy with it.

Printers are cheap. You can get one for well under $100. Toner or ink, however, are fiendishly expensive. But the makers know they've got you. If you have a printer, it has to have ink. At least my printer is multifunctional and will scan and copy, too.


I've never heard of being able to buy refill kits for toner. We always just bought the cartridge and replaced it ourselves. I know sometimes, the parts for the printer are reconditioned, but the toner comes as a round cartridge that snaps into place.

I didn't know you could buy loose toner in bulk, either. I've seen big toner cartridges, like the one our big office copier uses, but I've never seen it sold in bulk, loose. I've seen plenty of inkjet refill kits, but never toner! As messy as that stuff is, I'm surprised anyone wants to deal with it. It's loose and powdery and gets everywhere. It's like sand on the beach. You find it in the most unlikely places.

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