For all the talk of a paperless office, there are times when you need a physical copy of something – be it an airline boarding pass, a letter to sign or just a photo for the mantelpiece.

Getting the document from your device to your printer is often tricky if your printer's in one room and the Mac you're working on is in another. But sharing a printer on your home network is really easy – and if you've got a MacBook with Wi-Fi enabled it means you can print from as far as your wireless network reaches.

We've put together this tutorial to look at a range of ways you can do it. Some of these methods will use kit you've probably already got, such as a USB printer and a wired or wireless router. But we won't stop there, because there are plenty of other ways in which you can share a printer on your network.

Throughout this tutorial, we'll be talking about the Print & Fax pane a lot – you'll find it in System Preferences, accessed via the Apple menu. And to avoid repeating ourselves as we go through, you need to make sure you install the driver software that came with your printer on each of the Macs you want to print from. Do this by putting the CD that came with your printer into your Mac's drive, or by downloading the latest version for your model from the manufacturer's website.

Remember also that once you share a printer on your network, it'll be available to PCs as well, so if you have an unconverted friend or relative visiting, they should be able to access it from their notebook.

First off, let's look at the simplest method of sharing a USB printer. This involves hooking it up to one computer (the host) and sharing it so that other machines on the network can print to it, provided the host Mac is switched on.

First, open the Print & Fax pane on the host Mac and, if the printer isn't already listed, click +. In the window that appears, you'll see it listed under Default. Below, give it a recognisable name, which could be anything from the make and model to 'My colour printer'. Use the Location field to let people know where it is – such as 'Downstairs study'. Then click Add.

Printer alert

If the printer is already in the list and you want to alter the Name and Location information, just click Options & Supplies. Once you're happy, tick the box marked Share this printer on the network. You may then see an alert that Printer Sharing is disabled.

In any case, click Sharing Preferences… and make sure the box next to Printer Sharing in the left column is checked. Your printer will appear ticked in the middle box – if you have more than one, you can pick and choose which to share.

If you have Snow Leopard, you'll see another box on the right. Use it to select who can and can't print to each printer. In most cases, such as your home network, you'll be fine leaving this set to Everyone, but you can add specific users if you prefer – just click + and add who you'd like to be able to print – it's best to give them the exact names they use to log into their Macs. Give each person a password that they'll have to type in to print.

All you need to do then is to add the printer on each computer you want to print from. Go into the Print & Fax pane and click +. Your shared printer should appear under the Default tab, showing the name and location you gave it. Click Add and you're ready to print.

Off on a print job

The downside to this method of sharing is that you need to have the host machine switched on (but not necessarily logged in) for the printer to kick into action. If the host Mac's switched off, the print job will remain on your local Mac until both are switched on simultaneously, at which point your document will hop across and roll off the press.

So while this setup is simple to configure and almost certainly doesn't require you to buy extra hardware, it's not the most convenient way to go about things. Having to go and switch on your host Mac, wait for it to start up, let the file print and then shut it down again, makes this less appealing.

So let's look at some other ways to share a printer. The first alternative is to hook your printer up to your broadband router directly, so that it's not dependent on a particular Mac being switched on. Some printers, primarily those aimed at small or home offices, will have an Ethernet port, which makes plugging them into any router straightforward.

For this system to work as efficiently as possible, remember to leave your router and printer switched on all the time, so that you can always print at the click of a button.

Setup will vary between printer models, and with some it'll just be a case of plug and play, especially if your router's set up as a DHCP server and you've got the printer drivers installed on your Mac. Simply click + in the Print & Fax pane and the printer should be listed under Default.

If it isn't, you may need to configure it manually using the IP Printing tab. This will probably involve looking up your printer's IP address, which you can do via its built-in display, and most models will print you out a sheet containing all the vital network details. For more information on setting this up, have a look at your printer's documentation.

We've always found an Ethernet link to be one of the easiest methods to set up and most robust in use, so if your printer and router have both USB and Ethernet ports, use the latter.

Networking USB printers

If your printer doesn't have an Ethernet socket, there are now many routers and network-attached storage (NAS) boxes with USB ports on them, to which you can connect a printer.

Apple's AirPort Extreme or Time Capsule both offer this functionality. These models even enable you to connect more than one device to their single USB port, using a hub. This means you needn't give up the hard drive you use for Time Machine backups in favour of a printer, for example.

It's worth noting, however, that not all router USB ports support printing, so check that your model does before plugging your printer into it (or going to the effort of investing in a new one). When it comes to setting this up, some routers may do all the donkey-work for you and the printer will appear in the Default area of the Print & Fax Add Printer window.

Have a look at the walkthrough below, where we take you through setting up and sharing a USB printer with a Time Capsule.

Third-party routers may not be so helpful, and could require you to use their web interface to enable the printer, and with others you may have to add the printer using the IP Printing tab in the Print & Fax Add Printer window. Depending on your router model, getting this to work can take quite a bit of fiddling around with settings and emails to the support team, but check the documentation that came with it first; it should give you step-by-step instructions on how to connect a USB printer so that anyone on the network can use it.

One device that saw everything working smoothly, was a new high-end Belkin router, which comes with software you install on each Mac. This guides you through the few steps required to print to a printer hooked up to the router's USB port.

If your printer's ever been linked directly to any of the Macs on your network, make sure you remove its entry from the Print & Fax pane on every machine before you connect it to your router and attempt to set it up. If you don't, its presence could cause conflicts when you try to print to it via the router. To remove it, select its old entry in the Print & Fax pane and click the – button.

One device we haven't mentioned yet is the AirPort Express. This is Apple's wireless printing and audio box, which, at under £90, is an affordable way to network your USB printer if you don't have a router with USB.

It links up to your existing network – wired or wirelessly – and enables you to share a USB printer. Switch on the printer and make sure the AirPort Express is connected to your network. Then all you need to do is open up the Print & Fax pane and click +. The printer should appear in the Default tab, so just click Add and you're ready to print.

If you want to share several printers in different locations, you can plug each one into an AirPort Express.

Wireless printers

Some printers will now do away with wires and enable you to print over Wi-Fi. This is an incredibly easy way of doing things, and in some cases doesn't even require you to have a router – but in our experience, it's easier if you do use one.

To set this up, make sure your Mac's connected to the router, either over Wi-Fi or via Ethernet. Then switch on the printer and connect it to your Wi-Fi router – the documentation that came with the printer will show you how to do this.

Once it's connected, open up your Print & Fax pane and click +. The Wi-Fi printer should appear under the Default tab. Click its name and your Mac should detect its driver on the Print Using drop-down.

In the Name field, you can give it a memorable title and enter a location for it, such as 'Study'. Then click Add, and your Mac will spend a moment connecting to the printer, after which you'll be returned to the Print & Fax dialog, with your newly added printer visible. You can now print to this from your Mac.

Again, remember to leave the router and printer switched on for this setup to work efficiently – some printers prefer their sleep mode.

How to share a USB printer via Time Capsule

01. Get started

step 1

Install the printer driver and Time Capsule software on your Mac, then connect the latter to the mains. In Applications/Utilities, open Airport Utility and select the device, then go through the steps to set it up. Let the device restart, then quit Airport Utility.

02. Connect printer

step 2

Go into the Print & Fax pane and make sure the printer you're about to connect isn't listed there. If it is, click the – button. Then, hook it up to the Time Capsule's USB port, switch it on and re-open AirPort Utility. Right-click your device and choose Manual Setup.

03. Manual setup

step 3

Type the router password if prompted and you'll be taken to the main configuration screen. Click Printers along the top and you should see yours listed on the right-hand side. If you don't, make sure the printer's switched on and connected, quit and re-open AirPort Utility.

04. Change its name

step 4

Your printer will appear on the network under the name you can see here. Depending on the model and driver, this may not be the most memorable or appropriate moniker, so you can change it to anything you like, simply by selecting it and clicking Edit. Then click Update.

05. Further sharing

step 5

If the Time Capsule is your main or only Wi-Fi router, skip to Step 6, but if you're using it in addition to the router your ISP supplied, you'll need to enable the Share printers over WAN option. This will ensure devices on your main network can use the shared printer. Click Update.

06. Ready to print

step 6

Your printer's now ready to print to from any computers on your network, regardless of whether they're connected over AirPort or Ethernet. Just go into the Print & Fax pane, click + and you should see it under Default as a Bonjour printer. Select it and click Add.

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First published in MacFormat Issue 229

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