Futureproofing the Epson 9600

» This is part 2 of my continuing experience with an old Epson 9600 i picked up on Craigslist. Be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 3)

That’s so 20th Century

First, I wanted to update the firmware to the latest version.  The biggest challenge was that for the Mac, the installer was only available for Mac System 9. (I know, right?) So, being the techno-wizard I am, I dived head-first into looking at emulators to run the older Mac OS (like Sheepshaver and Basilisk II) but they couldn’t access printer drivers. Even using a DOS emulator like DosBox or a Virtual Machine like VirtualBox didn’t help. Eventually I tossed in the towel and went with the path of least resistance (or so I thought), dug up an old PC, some boot disks, and a copy of Windows XP (I know, right?) After several hours of being reminded why I made the switch to Mac, I finally was able to get XP running. I installed the printer driver, and then the Printer Service Utility v1.33 but the utility would not “see” the printer despite being able to print test pages. I uninstalled the utility, installed Status Monitor3 v3.1b to check the connection and that application worked fine. After rebooting and reinstalling, the utility finally recognized the printer and I was able to update to Firmware version BW1452_Q.UPG .

Hello Windows, my old friend...

Hello Windows, my old friend…

Gather ye Spare Parts while ye may…

The printer came to me in fairly good shape; no clogs or any of the major issues I saw commonly cited on Luminous Landscape and in the Epson Wide Format Yahoo group. So my concern with such an old printer was more on future-proofing; guarding against some of the planned obsolescense inherent in today’s hardware.

There are only a few parts distributors listed on Epson’s Support Page for user replaceable parts. Most of these sites are god-awful, user-unfriendly garbage.

  • CompassMicro – Surprisingly, this website was updated in 2013. I hope they didn’t pay a lot. Of the few parts listed for my model, most are marked as unavailable.
  • Encompass Parts – Looks like it has a lot of parts but once you drill into the details and check the Total Availability or Estimated Ship Date you’ll see there actually aren’t.
  • National Parts Depot
  • TSAWorld – Shows one part, but if you search by part number it has some listed under the 7600. Requires login to view pricing.
  • PC Parts Canada – no pricing/availability just quotes.

My foray into these virtual junkyards made me feel only more certain that I needed to stockpile some parts if and when I could find them. So the next stop, of course, was Ebay. I picked up an Automatic cutter (part # C12C815291) for $60, less than the $95 Epson charges.

I also bought three (at $6 each plus shipping) Head Cleaners aka Wipers (part #1230744 or #1113691 depending on where you look) from American Injet Systems because I didn’t trust the cheap knockoffs from China floating around on Ebay. Manual says they last about a year each and the status page I printed said mine was about 3/4th of the way through its useful life.

Epson 9600 cutter replacement and wipers

Epson 9600 cutter replacement and wipers

US invasion of Epson imminent

A 220ml cartridge of Epson Ink for the 9600 retails at $138. So while people go crazy when gas goes above $4/gallon, a gallon of printer ink will set you back over $2,300.

High-quality third-party ink like Ink2Image’s Cave Paint and InkJetMall’s ConeColor inks run about 50% less (a reasonable $1,150/gallon). That discount and the possibility that Epson may discontinue manufacturing cartridges for this model — as ConeColor just recently discontinued their K2 inks in favor of the K3 used by newer Epson models — led me to invest in refillable cartridges. ConeColor’s cartridges were highly recommended but, in my opinion, over-priced at $242. I ended up getting a full set of eight from InkJetCarts.us for $153. The same set were cheaper at InkPro2Day and InkOwl but InkJetCarts had a better reputation for support on some of the forums. Which turned out to be true, since one cartridge was missing a stopper and chip. I contacted them and the next day received a replacement. Be sure to check the chips on you set aren’t loose and apply a bit of glue if they are (be care not to get glue on the contacts). If any one falls off inside the bay, you might have to dismantle the whole thing to retrieve it. (Edit: I’m now on my second set which I purchased from InkOwl . Looking at another vendor on Amazon they must come from from a common supplier because they look exactly the same, only less expensive.)

Refillable cartridges

Refillable cartridges

I wasn’t completely happy right off the bat. I found the cartridges wouldn’t stay in their slots like the OEM carts and constantly pop back out. Because of this, I couldn’t get the printer to recognize that all new the cartridges were installed. It ended up being a game of whack-a-mole. When I got one working, the red light on another turned on. What finally worked was turning off the chip counter that keeps track of ink levels. I had planned to do that anyway to reduce the wear and tear on the delicate gaskets and chips caused by taking the cartridges in and out.

Bump in the road

When I installed the cartridges, I hadn’t received my inks from ConeColor yet. I was too eager to play with my new toy and transferred the ink from my old OEM cartridges using a syringe. However, I was really low on Light Magenta and the amount in the cartridge wasn’t enough to keep air from getting into the line when I first ran the Int Fill procedure. My heart dropped when I saw bubbles in the line. I had to deal with the same issue for hours once with my 2200 and now I had the same problem on a printer 5 times as big and complex. Nearly all suggestions I read talked about taking out the dampers or running cleaner through the lines; actions that require lots of dismantling, replacing, and praying. My heart dropped with every word.

Air bubbles than can potentially kill your print head.

Air bubbles than can potentially kill your print head.

One forum suggested just running the Int Fill procedure again. This seemed the least invasive course of action. So when my ink arrived, I filled up the carts, primed each one again (just to make sure), and ran int fill. I watched it run, thinking there’s no way it’ll be this easy. Once it finished, however, a quick inspection showed the line was clear of bubbles. Nice! The printer gods must be smiling upon me. Next step was to print a nozzle check. “Error: Maintenance Tank Full”. Curse you, printer gods!

The maintenance tank gets filled up quickly with all the ink the printer wastes constantly cleaning the print head. So, you always needs a spare. Epson charges $40 for this plastic container filled with absorbent material. Luckily, the chip resetter that came with my ink cartridges (more on those) also also worked on the tank. So my plan was just to crack open the tank, replace the material, reset the counter, and feel better about not adding needless waste to our landfills. Edit

When I took out the tank, I could feel that it weighed about 5 pounds (in other words, a few hundred dollars worth of ink). Mind you, I had just installed this new tank less than a month ago. When you crack it open to get the used material out, you’re going to want to do this over the sink because a good amount of the ink will pour out. I rinsed out the whole thing being carefull not to get the chip on the side wet. (I was also able to rinse out the material — which comes in pre-cut slices — and save it for future reuse.) Then I stuffed the dried tank full with 2 packs of 2×2 Cotton Squares that I had bought for $5. Incidentally, I did look at using diapers but, damn!, they are expensive for something that just gets sh*t on. Paper towels are not a good choice since tend to disintegrate as they get wet. Cotton holds together better and, when placed on their side, I was able to pack the squares in much tighter than cotton balls. I used the chip resetter, popped the tank back in, and everything was good to go at 1/10th the cost.

Packing an emptied maintenance tank with cotton squares.

Packing an emptied maintenance tank with cotton squares.

Before and after

Before and after

Next Steps or The Long March to Diminishing Returns

Since I’m not using official Epson inks anymore and I’ve heard about the 9600 exhibiting color drift over time, I’m planning to color calibrate the printer. My recent effort with my Spyder 2 helped calibrate my display so, I know what I see on the screen is what’s getting sent to the printer’s driver. However, without measuring the final output, I still haven’t closed the color management loop. For that I’ll need a Spectrophotometer. Back to Ebay, I guess.

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Resurrecting an Epson Stylus Pro 9600 large format printer

» This is Part 1 of 3 part series. Be sure to check out Part 2 and Part 3.

Epson9600

In NYC we keep our large format printers in the kitchen.

So, what started as a simple desire to enlarge some of my photos ended up with me on Craigslist and ultimately hauling a six foot wide, 100+ lb printer from South Jersey into my one bedroom NYC apartment. Go big or go home, right?

Is it Y2k compliant?

The Epson Stylus Pro 9600 with Ultrachrome ink is a bit of a throwback (mine was manufactured in 2004) but, from what I’ve read, it is still the workhorse of many print shops and photographers. However, the biggest con of buying antiquated (and used) hardware is digging up all the manuals and software necessary to get things running. In my ongoing effort to give back to the internet, I’m documenting my experience and trying to centralize some of the information I’ve found thus far.

One of the more interesting things I’ve noticed is that given that this printer was first introduced over a decade ago, some of the web pages devoted to it (like here and here) look like something you’d find on the Wayback Machine; lots of pixelated gifs and centered white text on black backgrounds, if you catch my drift.

My Mac OS X 10.8.x didn’t recognize the 9600 when I first plugged in the USB. So, my first stop was the Official Epson 9600 product page. Luckily they have drivers compatible with the latest versions of Mac OS X. Not as much luck with the utilities, ICC profiles, and firmware, however.

On the Drivers and Downloads page, there is a link to a set of ICC profiles produced by Bill Atkinson, which are purportedly better than those that come with the standard printer driver. Unfortunately, the files available for Mac’s all have a .SEA.HQX extension which is an ancient compression format (Mac 9 or earlier). You’ll be able to use the standard Archive Utility app to extract the .SEA file from the .HQX archive, but the resulting .SEA file is an executable archive can’t be opened in newer versions of Mac OS (Leopard, Snow Leopard, Lion, Mountain Lion, Maverick). If you don’t understand what all that meant, ignore it, and just know that using some Technomancery©, I was able to extract the profiles and a link to a Mac OS X-compatible file containing all the Bill Atkinson 9600/7600 icc profiles is available below. All you need to do is double click the zip file and copy the .ICC files to Macintosh HD > Library > ColorSync > Profiles. You’ll be prompted for your password to copy files into this directory.

Once you’ve loaded the profiles they will appear in the list of the Printer Profiles when you print from Photoshop.

Icc Profile

Moment of Truth

From the previous owner I learned that the printer had been sitting idle for a few months (at least). The first thing I did was to print off a standard test file on a sheet of 8.5’x11″ Epson Premium Photo Glossy paper to see where things stood. First results were promising. No noise from the printer that would imply any worrisome mechanical issues and the print itself was fairly sharp. I was so pleased I even went ahead and shot off a 36″x44″ print using a roll of Epson Premium luster paper.

A second test with Epson Enhanced Matte Paper showed some fairly significant horizontal banding. A post to the Epson Wide Format Yahoo Group told me that this could be resolved by running through the Head Alignment utility on the control panel (details in the Epson Stylus Pro 7600/9600 Printer Guide, page 57). After a few runs, I was able to get rid of the banding. Thanks, jrstewart8.

Getting under the hood

Now you think I’d leave well enough alone, but dealing with the head alignment issue got me thinking about getting ahead any other potential maintenance issues. One of the most common issues cited on the forums was the printer head clogging. First stop, Nozzle Check. Result, not so good. There were very noticeable gaps in the Magenta and Yellow sections.

From a few of the resources below, I understood that I needed to get some windex and clean the printer head, capping station, flushing box, and wiper blade. This page from Northlight Images has a nice set of instructions on how to do this. This video shows how to get the head free and use a saturated paper towel to clean it. This video gives you a slight out-of-focus view into cleaning the wiper and capping station, albeit on a Epson 4600 (I think). The previous videos in conjunction with the repair manual from American Inkjet Systems should help illustrate the process for you (see Figs 2-15 & 2-15 on pgs. 12-13).

When I opened up the front cover, moved the head, and first inspected the station, I was not completely surprised to see tons (probably years worth) of dust and dried ink all over. I saturated a strip of paper towel with Windex and put it behind the head and let that sit while I worked on the rest. Now the AIS manual shows how to take of the whole side to get at the cleaning station, but I thought that would be tempting the Gods. (The Gods and I have have some history when it comes to electronics repair.) So, I left the screwdriver in the toolbox and worked on what I could access from the small opening. I had a syringe that I used to set up the continuous ink system on my Epson 2200 which gave me the reach I needed to saturate the capping station and flushing box. The wiper was a bit more difficult. I was able to reach it with some q-tips but wasn’t able to clean it as thoroughly as I would have liked. I ran through the steps three times with a standard clean (press the control panel button for 3 seconds) and nozzle check after each. (Hint; use plain cheap printer paper for the nozzle checks) It got worse before it got better. At the end however, I still had one tiny gap in the Magenta that would not go away.

I ran a power clean but that didn’t help and only succeeded in killing my Photo Black cartridge. Luckily, I had an extra. That’s the worse thing about using the clean cycles; they consume ink across the board -not just for the nozzle you’re trying to clear — and a lot if it. That gave me an idea (sure enough some others have come to the same conclusion before me) to just print a page of only that color to simulate a clean. An additional suggestion was to use as high a resolution as possible to do this, so I sacrificed a sheet of photo glossy to the cause and printed out a single sheet of magenta. Well, it was a nice idea in theory but in the end I still had that small gap.

I probably could waste more ink, paper, and time on this but, perfection is the enemy of done. So, I decided to let it go and move on. Given some of the severe head clogging posts I’ve read, I’m in good shape and probably approaching the point to diminishing returns. If I ever want to revisit this, it looks like the next option is to purchase cartridges filled with cleaning solution and run that (AbsoluteInkjet, Inksupply , and Amazon have them). Unfortunately, that’s a expensive investment and people seem to have mixed experiences with it.

Future-proofing

I believe the 9600 isn’t officially supported by Epson anymore. If it is, I have to imagine it’s soon approaching end-of-life status. So, if they’re going to stop making parts for it, I wanted to see where things stood with the consumables and hardware. I’ll probably want to stock up on some items now rather than when they become scarce and presumably more expensive. The Printer Status page (see page 131 in the EPSON 7600/9600 Quick Reference Guide) told me that the two motors and head were in great condition (5 stars). Great news given how expensive and difficult to replace those parts are. The automatic paper cutter blade was good (4 stars) but the Cleaner (2 stars) and Maintenance Tank (1 star) less so.

From what I’ve read the paper cutter blade (part # C12C815291) can’t be sharpened, so the only option is to lay down ~$100 for a replacement. Might be worth stocking up on one of these. Though, since this same part is used in the newer 9800, I’m not as worried about future availability. Also, I’ve been know to wield an X-Acto with some degree of skill.

An extra Maintenance Tank came with the printer when I bought it. Even then, this is where are the extra ink is dumped during ink cartridge changes and cleans, which happen frequently. It’s just a plastic tank with some absorbant material to catch the excess ink that somehow costs ~$25-$30. I read more than one forum that suggested reseting the maintenance tank chip and just replacing the absorbant material with .. *ahem* … tampons. For those men wanting to save themselves the awkwardness of buying feminine pads at CVS, you can use the chip resetter that came with the InkOwl Refillable Cartridges I ended up buying. When it gets full, I dump out the contents, pack it with 2 boxes of 2×2 Cotton Squares, and reset the chip.

I had no idea what “Cleaner” meant. Maybe it referred to the cleaner head (a.k.a wiper, part # 1113691) or the flushing box (part # 1112239) or cap assembly (part # 1091110), all of which I had tried to clean earlier. Wipers were hard to find. AIS and Ebay had them for $6 – $20. The other items are even harder to find. The few that google showed where in Europe and more than I spent on the printer itself. This might require more research.

Really though, the biggest concern is the ink cartridges. OEM inks range from $87 – $138. That’s likely to increase if Epson stops producing them. I bought a Continuous Ink System for my Stylus Pro 2200 for exactly the same reason. There are a number of refillable cartridges available at Ink2Image, InkOwl, Inksupply, InkPro2Day, InkJetMall, and of course Ebay. Though, I’m less concerned with the cartridge than I am with the quality of the ink. ConeColor seems to have well-regarded ink that allows people to use the standard Epson ICC profiles, which goes a long way in simplifying my digital workflow. After all this, I’m not investing in printer profiling hardware. (Edit: I ended up buying the InkOwl Refillable Cartridges on Amazon and eventually getting profiling hardware. Read more.)

I’ll follow up with another post when I’ve decided a course of action of these last items. Until then, here are some resources I found very helpful.

Files:

Useful Links: