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Experiments with homebrew CIS

Photography & Video Technology
Experiments with homebrew CIS

So-called Continuous Ink Systems (CIS) are after-market goodies that attach to your inkjet printer, replacing the pricey consumable ink cartridges with permanent cartridge-heads that are continuously refilled from external ink bottles connected by silicone tubing. So to replace the ink in the printer, you just pour more ink in the bottles. Here’s a good review of an aftermarket CIS system priced at $250 (which still seems like a lot to me since it’s basically just a couple hundred grams of injection molded plastics.)

The idea of a CIS is simple enough, and beautifully subversive of the military-industrial-inkjet complex, but it’s received surprisingly little attention from the DIY community. Eddie Matejowsky of Brisbane, Australia, has one of the very few pages I could find on DIY CIS, and its records of his experiments–both successful and otherwise–make very interesting reading for those interested in the idea.

Know of other cool pages about this? Drop me a link in the comments!

38 thoughts on “Experiments with homebrew CIS

  1. Anon says:

    “The idea of a CIS is simple enough, and beautifully subversive of the military-industrial-inkjet complex, but it’s received surprisingly little attention from the DIY community.”

    Probably because it’s easier to just buy a color laser printer that can do 5,000-10,000 pages of print that won’t soak, smudge, or fade for a fraction of the price of ink.

    1. Sean Michael Ragan says:

      Cool! Can you link us one?

      1. John says:

        Sean, you are very unprofessional. People make legitimate comments on your articles and you always reply with some sarcastic comment. We don’t need it, stick to writing articles.

        1. The Oracle says:

          Looks like Sean wants to start another round of “Make hates their customers!”. Think we can pass 100 comments again?

          Seriously though, How can Make managment allow ‘people’ like Sean to post articles here when all they want to do is stroke their own egos and attack the community?

          1. Sean Michael Ragan says:

            Dude, if this post ran to 100 comments, I’d be turning handsprings, because it’d mean that I’d written something that engaged folks enough to get them talking about, thinking about, and (hopefully) participating in the development of technology. Which is a major goal not just of we bloggers but of the whole MAKE enterprise. So keep it up!

          2. Grover says:

            Seriously, how did you get that interpretation out of, “Cool! Can you link us one?”

            The original poster implies knowledge of the subject, why is it unreasonable to ask for more information? Should we ban questions next?


            As I understand it, color laser printers are good workhorses but lack the color reproduction quality of inkjets. They’re also bad at printing on exotic materials, like fabrics or anything with a meltable coating. And, like Sean pointed out below, you can’t really use your own “ink” with a laser.

            Alternate inks aren’t even as exotic as you might think. There are a few black-and-white print systems (Piezography is one) that use regular inkjet printers loaded with “color” cartridges that contain different shades of grey for superb B&W photo reproduction. Google turns up a company called Novacentrix that makes electrically-conductive inks (

            Try a search for “specialty inkjet inks”. Cool stuff out there.

        2. Andy says:

          How is that unprofessional?

          Someone posted an anonymous comment using an unsubstantiated claim to subtley bash Sean’s article. Sean politely asked the commenter to back up his claim with an example of such an economical unit with quality that matches that of an inkjet by posting a link to such a unit that backs up their claim.

          In my experience, color laser printers are great for color documents (such as shiny PowerPoint slides) but can’t compete with inkjets quality-wise for photographic work. It’s called the right tool for the job, and for many jobs a color laser IS the right tool, but for the typical person looking for a CIS system, a color laser is NOT the right tool.

          There’s a reason all of Epson’s high-end professional photo printers are inkjets, and all of the high-end color lasers I’ve seen tout throughput as a feature and not color quality.

  2. Chris Thompson says:

    I used to work as a production technician for a ink and toner remanufacturing company, in which I was either taught or learned hands-on a lot about printers and the consumables. I haven’t personally worked with any CIS systems, but some things are likely similar: you’re still dealing with ink, and you’re still dealing with the printheads and electronics.

    1) Some cartridges are chipped so that they eventually expire. So be careful what printer you choose for this (older HP models that take the 56/57 are some of the sturdiest and have the least complications). Otherwise, look into a cartridge chip resetter (these are little battery powered circuit boards with pins to match the chip that reset their printer and expiration information).

    2) Ink is a nasty bitch, all things considered. From experience, OEM ink tends to turn to gunk easier than the ink we used — we bought ours through OCP (a german ink company). The tendency for ink to dry leads to a few issues —
    — printheads in cartridges tend to accumulate the particulate matter and clog the fastest, and can need thorough cleaning. On some cartridges, these are very sensitive, and mishandling can cause jets to be bent out of alignment or otherwise damaged (and thus unable to fire). Handle with care. Use only deionized water, or specialized cleaning solution.
    — clean the tubing frequently. Our ink pump used common flexible plastic tubing and valves/connectors. Running deionized water through the system to flush out dried ink and particulates helps improve flow and reduce problems.

    Those are the main things that come to mind, (somewhat) briefly summarized. If I have time, I’ll take a look over the linked content and see if I have anything else to add.

    As far as the laser printer comment goes — it’s true. In general, I hardly ever have needed to print color documents at home. We have a simple, cheap black-and-white Brother laser printer. Anything fancier that we need to print gets taken to Kinko’s or OfficeMax (or a professional printer for the big projects). Although, I’ve never been the type to need to print out copies of every photo that I take (that’s what the Internet’s for!). If you really need to print a lot of color documents on-site, color laser printers are coming down in price with time. Both Samsung and HP have color lasers under $400 (, or, for example — no specific recommendation here though, I haven’t used either of them).

    1. Sean Michael Ragan says:

      This is one of the best comments I’ve had, Chris. Thanks very much for taking the interest to share your experiences and the time to write them down.

      My own experience with color laser printers, even relatively new ones, is that they just don’t compete with inkjets for high-quality color reproduction, especially in photographs. I’ll admit, however, that the last color laser printer I owned would now be 5 years old, which is hardly cutting-edge. Maybe things have improved, in which case a $400 color laser might really make more sense than a color inkjet for a lot of people, although I think I still might take issue with the claim that $400 constitutes a “fraction” of the price of color. Personally, I’m like you: I print black at home from a laser, and if I need quality I usually hire professional printing.

      1. Chris Thompson says:

        Specifically for color photography printing, high-end inkjet printers with the proper paper (and photo-color inks) are the way to go, if you need to print in-house (and aren’t looking for a very high-end solution, like a professional print-house would use). That I agree with. For mixed printing, color graphics, etc., color laser is still the way to go (color brochures, letterhead, and so on) if you want to do it yourself. But when a set of color toner cartridges can cost upward of $300, I’ve never done enough printing to warrant it. You really need to crunch the numbers yourself before you make any decisions, because everyone’s use patterns are different.

  3. Sean Michael Ragan says:

    Besides addressing the inkjet-cartridge-price racket, with which everybody is probably familiar, the idea of a printer into which you simply pour ink to refill has interesting implications for the accessibility of ink itself as a hackable technology. A major barrier to folks’ experimenting with their own inkjet inks is the annoyance of refilling the cartridges, which is even more inconvenient if you’re trying to wash all the old ink out of there so you can replace it with a formulation of your own. So if somebody could put together a robust and inexpensive “standard” printer/CIS hack it would be a great starting point for those interested in adapting inkjet inks to alternative purposes. If all you had to do was pour it into a bottle, I think we’d start to see people applying all kinds of stuff with inkjet printers–food products, conductive inks, invisible inks, etc.

  4. nisse says:

    I must say that buying a CISS is one of the better investments I have made.

    I have a HP Photosmart c7180 which makes the printer useless when one color runs out (yellow ran out for me and I still couldn’t use the black ink)

    So I bought a prefilled ciss with reset chips for something like $40 (mind you the cartridges costs over $35 a kit here!)
    The ciss had over 10 times the ink compared to regular cartidges and it is still going strong after ~1 year, half the ink is left and I have never had a problem with it.
    Installation is the only thing that is kinda annoying with the tubes.

  5. Spokehedz says:

    I find that the best printers for this are the bigger ‘business’ class inkjet printers that tried to compete with laserjet a few years back. The reason being is that a lot of these had large ink tanks that were seperate from the printheads. This is very key in several ways:

    1. The printheads were designed to last longer than the cartridges.
    2. They are smaller, and can therefore move faster back and forth across the page without all the mass of the ink slowing them down.
    3. you have a seperate printhead for each color–not just black and the tri-color.

    The one I have in my home is the HP DeskJet 2280tn and let me tell you it is a BEAST before you go mucking about with CIS at all. The black is 69ml (I’ve managed to get ~100ml into them with no ill effect) and each of the other colors is 28ml which is almost double what most ‘home’ units have. The icing on the cake is the network jack. Never have to worry if the computer that the printer is connected to is turned on.

    And also each ink tank is seperate from the others–run out of cyan? Replace just cyan. Done. Same with the printheads too.

    The CIS system I bought was only $75 including 4 tanks full of ink, (cost me roughly $20 for 800ml of all colors) the auto-reset chips, the special cartridges that go inside the printer with tubes leading from them to the external tanks, and shipping.

    All in all, I think I have saved somewhere like $700-800 worth of ink in this printer, while only spending $100.

    I see these printers used for $100 all the time on Ebay and even if you have to replace the printheads you will only spend another $70 on all four. chances are you just replace black.

    And I know this is make–so I would be remiss if I did not make something…

    I have hooked up the 800ml bottles of ink instead of the 200ml external tanks they provided. This way, I just replace the cap with the vent and tube running down into the ink. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.

  6. Charles says:

    About ten years ago I was doing a consulting job at HP. As I walked through cube land I saw the same cheapo inkjet printer I had at home, expect that above it were what looked like four of those IV bottles from M*A*S*H, filled with ink.

    1. Sean Michael Ragan says:

      Fascinating. That is exactly what I imagined when I first started thinking about how to build one of these in the garage: A printer mounted under a hook an IV bag hanging down from above. My reading suggests that this can cause ink to leak out when the printhead is not in operation, but if they were doing it AT HP….

  7. stoop says:

    I loved my CIS — bought a highly rated one from ebay seller. Worked a treat. Great color, easy to install.

    Only drawback? You’ll need to print regularly to avoid clogs. First clog on mine was all she wrote (went away for long weekend — came back, no prints). Tried all the online methods to clear — no luck. To the trash.

    Next in line was a high-end color laser I purchased from a wee company going under. Low page count – gorgeous for biz docs & fast. Alas, the drum just went bad a few weeks back. $300 to replace.

    Seems snarky-poster-#1 might have a point about those cheap laser printers… off the ‘egg I go.

  8. alandove says:

    Hacking the ink delivery system of an inkjet printer is also a very useful tool in cellular and molecular biology. See for one of the earlier references. The literature on this is fairly technical, but the main idea is to use the printer as a precision cell-arraying (or matrix-arraying) robot, producing intricate microstructures that would be difficult or impossible to make any other way.

    Of course, laser printers also have cool lab uses, such as printing patterns onto ShrinkyDinks and miniaturizing them into microfluidic devices (

    1. Sean Michael Ragan says:

      I’m glad somebody mentioned this. I was in grad school a couple years ago when the first inkjet shrinky-dink microfluidic paper came out, and I pointed it out to everybody who would listen as one of the coolest papers I’d ever seen, because of the way it repurposed a cheap, familiar technology to do something very sophisticated.

    2. Sean Michael Ragan says:

      I’m glad somebody mentioned this. I was in grad school a couple years ago when the first inkjet shrinky-dink microfluidic paper came out, and I pointed it out to everybody who would listen as one of the coolest papers I’d ever seen, because of the way it repurposed a cheap, familiar technology to do something very sophisticated.

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I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I am a long-time contributor to MAKE magazine and My work has also appeared in ReadyMade, c't – Magazin für Computertechnik, and The Wall Street Journal.

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