The Linux Printing Usage HOWTO
by Mark Komarinski
v1.2.2, 6 February 1998
This document describes how to use the line printer spooling system
provided with the Linux operating system. This HOWTO is the
supplementary document to the Linux Printing Setup HOWTO, which
discusses the installation and setup of the Linux printing system.
The material presented in this HOWTO should be equally relevent for
all flavors of the BSD operating system in addition to the Linux
1.1. Linux Printing HOWTO History
Note from Mark Komarinski :
I'd like to thank Matt Foster for doing a lot of work in the re-write
of this HOWTO. I'm keeping his style, and adding when necessary to
keep everything updated.
Note from Matt Foster :
This version of the Linux Printing HOWTO is a complete rewrite of the
one originally written by Grant Taylor and Brian
McCauley . I have tried to keep with the
coverage of material presented by Grant and Brian's HOWTO, but I have
drastically modified the style of presentation and the depth of
material covered. I feel that this makes the HOWTO more complete and
easier to read. I can only hope that you agree.
1.2. Version History
o Re-indexed, other changes to fit in the new RedHat docs. Thanks
o updates, some changes for Dr. Linux publication
o Windows Printers
o Changing max size of print files
o new maintainter!
o Added lpc info
o Added some info for troubleshooting
o A start on printing graphics files!
o revised some of the wording
o developed section on PostScript printing
o attempted to clarify some of the examples 8-)
o fleshed the discussion of the basic Linux printing utilities
o initial public release of the Printing Usage HOWTO
1.3. Copyrights and Trademarks
Some names mentioned in this HOWTO are claimed as copyrights and/or
trademarks of certain persons and/or companies. These names appear in
full or initial caps in this HOWTO.
(c) 1995 Matt Foster (email@example.com)
(c) 1996-1997 Mark F. Komarinski (firstname.lastname@example.org)
All translations, derivative works, or aggregate works incorporating
any Linux HOWTO documents must be covered under this copyright notice.
That is, you may not produce a derivative work from a HOWTO and impose
additional restrictions on its distribution. Exceptions to these rules
may be granted under certain conditions; please contact the Linux
HOWTO coordinator at the address given below.
In short, we wish to promote dissemination of this information through
as many channels as possible. However, we do wish to retain copyright
on the HOWTO documents, and would like to be notified of any plans to
redistribute the HOWTOs.
If you have questions, please contact Tim Bynum, the Linux HOWTO
coordinator, at . You may finger this
address for phone number and additional contact information.
1.4. Downloading the Linux Printing HOWTOs
I recommend that if you want to print a copy of this HOWTO that you
download the PostScript version. It is formatted in a fashion that is
aesthetically appealing and easier to read. You can get the
PostScript version from one of the many Linux distribution sites (such
as SunSITE ).
Questions, comments, or corrections for this HOWTO may be directed to
Thanks go out to all of the people who took the time to read the alpha
version of this HOWTO and respond with many helpful comments and
suggestions---some of you may see your comments reflected in the
I'd also like to thank Matt Foster who did the original re-write.
2. Printing Under Linux
This section discusses how to print files, examine the print queue,
remove jobs from the print queue, format files before printing them,
and configure your printing environment.
2.1. History of Linux Printing
The Linux printing system---the lp system---is a port of the source
code written by the Regents of the University of California for the
Berkeley Software Distribution version of the UNIX operating system.
2.2. Printing a File Using lpr
By far, the most simplistic way to print in the Linux operating system
is to send the file to be printed directly to the printing device.
One way to do this is to use the cat command. As the root user, one
could do something like
# cat thesis.txt > /dev/lp
In this case, /dev/lp is a symbolic link to the actual printing
device---be it a dot-matrix, laser printer, typesetter, or plotter.
(See ln(1) for more information on symbolic links.)
For the purpose of security, only the root user and users in the same
group as the print daemon are able to write directly to the printer.
This is why commands such as lpr, lprm, and lpq have to be used to
access the printer.
Because of this, users have to use lpr to print a file. The lpr
command takes care of all the initial work needed to print the file,
and then it hands control over to another program, lpd, the line
printing daemon. The line printing daemon then tells the printer how
to print the file.
When lpr is executed, it first copies the specified file to a certain
directory (the spool directory) where the file remains until lpd
prints it. Once lpd is told that there is a file to print, it will
spawn a copy of itself (what we programmers call forking). This copy
will print our file while the original copy waits for more requests.
This allows for multiple jobs to be queued at once.
The syntax of lpr(1) is a very familiar one,
$ lpr [ options ] [ filename ... ]
If filename is not specified, lpr expects input to come from standard
input (usually the keyboard, or another program's output). This
enables the user to redirect a command's output to the print spooler.
$ cat thesis.txt | lpr
$ pr -l60 thesis.txt | lpr
The lpr command accepts several command-line arguments that allow a
user to control how it works. Some of the most widely used arguments
are: -Pprinter specifies the printer to use, -h suppresses printing of
the burst page, -s creates a symbolic link instead of copying the file
to the spool directory (useful for large files), and -#num specifies
the number of copies to print. An example interaction with lpr might
be something like
$ lpr -#2 -sP dj thesis.txt
This command will create a symbolic link to the file thesis.txt in the
spool directory for the printer named dj, where it would be processed
by lpd. It would then print a second copy of thesis.txt.
For a listing of all the options that lpr will recognize, see lpr(1).
2.3. Viewing the Print Queue with lpq
To view the contents of the print queue, use the lpq command. Issued
without arguments, it returns the contents of the default printer's
The returned output of lpq can be useful for many purposes.
lp is ready and printing
Rank Owner Job Files Total Size
active mwf 31 thesis.txt 682048 bytes
2.4. Canceling a Print Job Using lprm
Another useful feature of any printing system is the ability to cancel
a job that has been previously queued. To do this, use lprm.
$ lprm -
The above command cancels all of the print jobs that are owned by the
user who issued the command. A single print job can be canceled by
first getting the job number as reported by lpq and then giving that
number to lprm. For example,
$ lprm 31
would cancel job 31 (thesis.txt) on the default printer.
2.5. Controlling the lpd program with lpc
The lpc(8) program is used to control the printers that lpd serves.
you can enable or disable a printer or its queues, rearrange entries
within a queue, and get a status report on the printers and their
queues. Lpc is mostly used in a setup where there are multiple
printers hanging off one machine.
The above will start the lpc program. By default, this enters you
into an interactive mode, and you can begin issuing commands. The
other option is to issue an lpc command on the command line.
$ lpc status all
A list of the available commands are in the lpd man page, but here are
a few of the major commands you'll want to know about. Any commands
marked with option can either be a printer name (lp, print, etc) or
the keyword all, which means all printers.
o disable option - prevents any new printer job from being entered
o down option - disables all printing on the printer
o enable option - allow new jobs to enter the print queue
o quit (or exit) - leave lpc
o restart option - restarts lpd for that printer
o status option - print status of printer
o up option - enable everything and start a new lpd
2.6. The RedHat printtool
Just a quick note here on RedHat's amazing printtool program. It
seems to do everything that a magicfilter would do. RedHat already
installs many of the programs to do the filtering. Here's how I have
my printer set up under RH 4.0 with an HP LJ 4L connected to my
parallel port (should be the same for other versions of RH as well).
o Become root and fire up printtool (if you su'ed, you remembered to
SETENV DISPLAY :0.0 and xhost +, right?)
o Click "Add", and hit "OK" for a local printer.
o Fill in the printer device (/dev/lp1 for me)
o Fill in the input filter - Select a printer type, resolution, and
paper size (ljet4, 300x300, and letter)
o Hit "OK" all the way back, and restart the lpd.
Just like rolling an /etc/printcap file by hand, you can have
multiple printer definitions for each physical printer. One for
different paper sizes, resolutions, etc.
3. Printing files
This section covers printing the kinda of files that you'll run across
in a Linux setup.
3.1. Printing graphics files
Printing graphics files through a printer usually depends on the kind
of graphics you're converting, and the kind of printer you want to
send to. Dot matrix is usually out of the question due to differences
in the way dot-matrix handles graphics. Your best bet in this
situation is to see if your printer is compatable with an Epson or an
IBM ProPrinter, then convert the graphics file to PostScript, then use
Ghostscript (see next section) to print the graphics.
If you have a laser printer, things are a bit easier since many are
compatable with PCL. This now gives you a few options. Some programs
may output directly in PCL. If not, programs like NetPBM can convert
into PCL. Last option is to use ghostscript (see next section).
Your absolutely best option is to install packages like NetPBM and
Ghostscript then installing a magic filter to process the graphics
3.2. Printing PostScript files
Printing PostScript files on a printer that has a PostScript
interpreter is simple; just use lpr, and the printer will take care of
all of the details for you. For those of us that don't have printers
with PostScript capabilities, we have to resort to other means.
Luckily, there are programs available that can make sense of
PostScript, and translate it into a language that most printers will
understand. Probably the most well known of these programs is
Ghostscript's responsibility is to convert all of the descriptions in
a PostScript file to commands that the printer will understand. To
print a PostScript file using Ghostscript, you might do something like
$ gs -dSAFER -dNOPAUSE -sDEVICE=deskjet -sOutputFile=\|lpr thesis.ps
Notice in the above example that we are actually piping the output of
Ghostscript to the lpr command by using the -sOutputFile option.
Ghostview is an interface to Ghostscript for the X Window System. It
allows you to preview a PostScript file before you print it.
Ghostview and Ghostscript can both be swiped from
3.3. Printing PDF files
Adobe has released an Acrobat reader for Linux, and it's available on
the Adobe home page . Its predecessor, xpdf,
is also available. Both should print to a postscript device.
3.4. Printing TeX files
One of the easiest ways to print TeX files is to convert them to
PostScript and then print them using Ghostscript. To do this, you
first need to convert them from TeX to a format known as DVI (which
stands for device-independent). You can do this with the tex(1)
command. Then you need to convert the DVI file to a PostScript file
using dvips. All of this would look like the following when typed in.
$ tex thesis.tex
$ dvips thesis.dvi
Now you are ready to print the resulting PostScript file as described
3.5. Printing troff formatted files
$ groff -Tascii thesis.tr | lpr
or, if you prefer,
$ groff thesis.tr > thesis.ps
and then print the PostScript file as described above.
3.6. Printing man pages
$ man man | col -b | lpr
The man pages contain pre-formatted troff data, so we have to strip
out any highlighting, underlines, etc. The 'col' program does this
just nicely, and since we're piping data, the man program won`t use
4. Miscellaneous Items
This covers topics not in any of the others.
4.1. Formatting Before Printing
Since most ASCII files are not formatted for printing, it is useful to
format them in some way before they are actually printed. This may
include putting a title and page number on each page, setting the
margins, double spacing, indenting, or printing a file in multiple
columns. A common way to do this is to use a print preprocessor such
$ pr +4 -d -h"Ph.D. Thesis, 2nd Draft" -l60 thesis.txt | lpr
In the above example, pr would take the file thesis.txt and skip the
first three pages (+4), set the page length to sixty lines (-l60),
double space the output (-d), and add the phrase "Ph.D. Thesis, 2nd
Draft" to the top of each page (-h). Lpr would then queue pr's
output. See its on-line manual page for more information on using pr.
4.2. The PRINTER Environment Variables
All of the commands in the Linux printing system accept the -P option.
This option allows the user to specify which printer to use for
output. If a user doesn't specify which printer to use, then the
default printer will be assumed as the output device.
Instead of having to specify a printer to use every time that you
print, you can set the PRINTER environment variable to the name of the
printer that you want to use. This is accomplished in different ways
for each shell. For bash you can do this with
$ PRINTER="printer_name"; export PRINTER
and csh, you can do it with
% setenv PRINTER "printer_name"
These commands can be placed in your login scripts (.profile for bash,
or .cshrc for csh), or issued on the command-line. (See bash(1) and
csh(1) for more information on environment variables.)
5. Answers to Frequently Asked Questions
Q1. How do I prevent the staircase effect?
A1. The staircase effect is caused by the way some printers expect
lines to be terminated. Some printers want lines that end with a
carriage-return/line-feed sequence (DOS-style) instead of the line-
feed sequence used for UNIX-type systems. The easiest way to fix this
is to see if your printer can switch between the two styles
somehow---either by flipping a DIP switch, or by sending an escape
sequence at the start of each print job. To do the latter, you need
to create a filter (see Q2).
A quick fix is to use a filter on the command-line. An example of
this might be
$ cat thesis.txt | todos | lpr
Q2. What is a filter?
A2. A filter is a program that reads from standard input (stdin),
performs some action on this input, and writes to standard output
(stdout). Filters are used for a lot of things, including text
Q3. What is a magic filter?
A3. A magic filter is a filter that performs an action based on a
file's type. For example, if the file is a plain, text file, it would
simply print the file using the normal methods. If the file is a
PostScript file, or any other format, it would print it using another
method (ghostscript). Two examples of this is magicfilter and
APSfilter. One caveat of these filters is that the appropriate
programs have to be installed before you install the filter.
The reason for this is that when the magicfilter gets installed, it
queries your system for specific programs (such as ghostscript - if it
finds it, then it knows it can handle PostScript data), then builds
itself based on what it finds. To handle all the printer files, you
should probably have at least the following installed:
o jpeg utilities
Q4. What about the Windows Printing System? Will Linux work with
A4. Maybe. Printers that accept only the WPS commands will not work
with Linux. Printers that accept WPS and other commands (such as the
Canon BJC 610) will work, as long as they're set to something other
than WPS format. Other printers, such as some HP DeskJet 820Cxi/Cse,
will *not* work with Linux. That being said, Linux can act as a print
server (See Samba) for Win95 machines, since Win95 has drivers for
Q5. What kinda cheey system is this? I can't print more than 6 pages
or else I get a "file too large" error.
A5. One of the options in the /etc/printcap file relates to the
maximum size of a print file. The default is 1000 disk blocks (about
500k?). For PostScript files and the like, this will give you maybe
6-8 pages with graphics and all. Be sure to add the following line in
the printer definition:
The primary reason for this is to keep the spool partition from get-
ting filled. There is another way to do it, by making lpr create a
soft link from the spool directory to your print file. But you have
to remember to add the -s option to lpr every time.
This section covers some common things that can go wrong with your
If your printer doesn't work:
o Do other print jobs work? (application problem?)
o Is lpd running? (check it using lpc) (print controller?)
o Can root send something directly to the printer? (print services?)
o Can you print from DOS? (cable/printer problem?)
Answering these questions can help find a solution.
Send other suggestions for this section to .
This is a section of references on the Linux printing system. I have
tried to keep the references section of this HOWTO as focused as
possible. If you feel that I have forgotten a significant reference
work, please do not hesitate to contact me.
Before you post your question to a USENET group, consider the
o Is the printer accepting jobs? (Use lpc(8) to verify.)
o Is the answer to your question covered in this HOWTO or Grant
Taylor's Printing HOWTO?
If any of the above are true, you may want to think twice before you
post your question. And, when you do finally post to a newsgroup, try
to include pertinent information. Try not to just say something like,
"I'm having trouble with lpr, please help." These types of posts will
most definitely be ignored by many. Also try to include the kernel
version that you're running, how the error occured, and, if any, the
specific error message that the system returned.
On-Line Manual Pages
o cat(1) concatenate and print files
o dvips(1) convert a TeX DVI file to PostScript
o ghostview(1) view PostScript documents using Ghostscript
o groff(1) front-end for the groff document formatting system
o gs(1) Ghostscript interpreter/viewer
o lpc(8) line printer control program
o lpd(8) line printer spooler daemon
o lpq(1) spool queue examination program
o lpr(1) off-line printer
o lprm(1) remove jobs from the line printer spooling queue
o pr(1) convert text files for printing
o tex(1) text formatting and typesetting
o comp.os.linux.* a plethora of information on Linux
o comp.unix.* discussions relating to the UNIX operating system