Thermal Transfer Ribbons

Thermal transfer ribbons are a key component of the thermal transfer printing process. This process was invented in the 1940’s by the SATO corporation
and works by having material melted and applied to the medium being printed on. This can be paper, card stock or just about anything else that needs to have something printed on it.

Thermal transfer printing is not the same thing as direct thermal printing, which does not use a transfer ribbon at all. When purchasing a thermal printer it is important to take note of this difference to ensure you get the type of printer that you’re looking for.

Comparing Thermal Transfer Printers & Direct Thermal Printers

Having a good understanding of both thermal transfer printers and direct thermal printers will allow you to make the most informed decision possible. Since every
business is unique, there is no one size fits all solution and taking the time to understand your options completely will avoid costly mistakes down the road.


Whenever discussing printers one of the first topics to come up is the ability to print in color. When looking at thermal based printers you will typically find that direct thermal printing is only going to be able to print in black and white. Some
models will allow you to create chromatic images but that is not the standard.

Thermal transfer printers, however, often do have the ability to print in color. This is done in a variety of ways (see below for details) but most often by using multiple thermal transfer ribbons, each with a different color wax ink. Having the
option to print in color is very important for many businesses so this is a key area to consider.


Another important thing to think about when choosing a thermal printer is where the items printed will be used. If they will be placed where direct sunlight will be on them, it is best to choose a thermal transfer printer. Thermal transfer printers won’t fade or be damaged when exposed to sunlight.

Direct thermal printing, however, can fade or even be erased with direct exposure to the sun. While it will take a prolonged exposure to cause the damage, it is a big concern. If you’re printing labels, for example, and they are applied to something
that will sit in the sun for more than a few hours then you will want to avoid direct thermal printing.


Another big difference between direct thermal printing and thermal transfer printing is how long what you print will last. Thermal transfer print jobs can last for years in most environments. They can stand up to most conditions quite well depending
on what you are printing on there is no reason to expect fading or damage to be an issue.

Direct thermal printing, on the other hand, will typically produce jobs that last for a year or less. Sometimes significantly less. This is why direct thermal printers are typically the right choice for temporary print jobs.

Transfer Process

One of the biggest differences between these two types of printers is the process by which the image is transferred from the printer to the medium being printed on. With a direct thermal printing the printer will heat up precise spots on the special paper that is used. The paper reacts to the heat, which is how the images are created.

With thermal transfer printers the image is actually transferred from a thermal transfer ribbon. The printer will heat up the ribbon, which is then pressed against the paper. The ribbon will have a special colored wax or resin, which is what the
image is made of.

Weighing the Options

As you can see there are some significant differences between thermal transfer printers and direct thermal printing. While both are excellent options, they really do have very different uses. Understanding how the printers work will allow you to make
sure you get the right one for your facility.

Thermal Transfer Printing Vs. Ink Jet Printing

When buying printers another option will be between thermal transfer printers and an ink jet printer. These are two very different categories of printers and they work in a very different way. If you’re not sure which will be right for your needs, consider some of the following important factors.

Type of Ink

The biggest difference is that an ink jet works by directly applying ink onto a piece of paper or other medium. The paper is run through the printer and the print head applies the ink very precisely to get the exact results you’re looking for. Ink
jet printers are most commonly seen in people’s homes since they can create very high quality results quickly and affordably.

One potential downside of an ink jet compared to a thermal transfer printer is the ability to stand up to moisture or wet conditions. Ink jet print jobs can get runny and smear when exposed to water. Thermal transfer print jobs, however, are very
resilient to moisture. This is because the images are actually made out of a wax or resin that is essentially water proof.

Print Mediums

Another thing to keep in mind is that ink jet printers are mostly used for printing on paper or card stock. Many thermal transfer printers can print on many other types of medium. This includes almost any type of label stock that you can imagine.

While ink jet printers certainly have a place for both home and business use, they absolutely can’t compete when it comes to creating custom signs and long lasting labels.

Types of Thermal Transfer Printing

There are three general categories of thermal transfer printers available to choose from. Each one works a little differently and should be chosen for different types of projects. The following are the three major variants:

  • Color Thermal Printers – Having a color thermal transfer printer is a great option for many things including signs, labels and more. This type of printer moves the paper and thermal transfer ribbon together beneath a thermal print
    head. Using a wax-based ink the thermal transfer ribbon is melted directly onto paper or another medium.
  • Solid Ink Printers – Solid Ink printers don’t require a thermal transfer ribbon but instead use a ‘block’ of ink. The ink block looks and feels much like candle wax and is loaded directly into the printer. During the printing
    process the ink is melted and applied to an oil coated drum, which then passes over the paper applying the ink as it cools. These printers require the use of less ink per page, but have a much higher standby power consumption rate.
  • MicroDry Printers – This type of printer uses a thermal transfer ribbon cartridge. Some printers will only have a black cartridge and others will also use a cyan, yellow, magenta cartridge to make color printing possible. Specialty
    printers can also include cartridges for white, metallic silver or other colors as needed.

Choosing the right printer for the job is very important. In most facilities a good color thermal transfer printer is an ideal option since it will give you the ability to print in color when you need to. These printers can also create high quality
black and white or monochrome when color is not necessary.

How Color Thermal Transfer Ribbons Work

If you choose a color thermal transfer printer it is a good idea to have an understanding of how the printer will work. The first thing to know is that just about any thermal transfer printer can technically print in color. If you put a color thermal
transfer ribbon into the printer, it will print in that color.

If you want to be able to create a label that has black text and red pictures, however, you’ll need a printer that can hold two (or more) thermal transfer ribbons. The number of ribbons able to be placed into the printer at once will determine how
many colors each print job can complete.

When you have a printer that can handle color it will usually have settings that allow you to identify what color is placed into which location. Unlike traditional printers that mix primary colors to get all the other colors, thermal transfer ribbons
can only apply the color of the actual wax or resin on the ribbon.

Fortunately, most people only need to use two or three colors on any given label or other print job. A good industrial thermal transfer printer can usually hold two, three or four color thermal transfer ribbons, in addition to a black one.

If you have a variety of print jobs that need to be completed, each with different color requirements, it is quick and easy to remove one ribbon and add another one between jobs. This will make it so you can have any color labels that you happen to
need based on your facility.

Choosing a Thermal Transfer Printer

If a thermal transfer printer is right for you, there are some important tips that can help you to choose the right one. Think about the following items so you can make sure you are getting the printer and print ribbons that will work best for your

  • Print Volume – How many print jobs will you be completing per day, month or year? There are many inexpensive thermal transfer printers out there, but they are not made for high volume. On the other hand, there are great options designed
    to produce hundreds of thousands of labels each year without a problem. Finding a printer that can handle your volume is essential.
  • Label Sizes – Different printers can create labels of different sizes. Take some time to think about what the largest potential
    job you’ll need to print will be and find a good printer that can handle this for your facility. Large sized thermal transfer printers can handle smaller jobs, but small printers can’t be used for large print medium.
  • Print Quality – The quality of a print job is typically measured in dots per inch, or DPI. The quality ranges from 203 dpi all the way up to around
    600 dpi. As you would expect, the higher the quality the more expensive the printer will be. In addition, you may need to get a thermal transfer ribbon that can work with the high end printers.
  • Print Environment – Where you your printer be located within the facility? If it is staying in a clean office a standard model will work fine. If it is going to be moved around a lot or placed in an area where dust and debris may
    come in contact with it, a more durable option may be best.

Avoiding Smudging with Thermal Transfer Printers

As you’re researching thermal transfer printers you will undoubtedly run into people who complain about smudging or blotting problems with their printer. This is one of the most common issues people have with a thermal transfer printer. This issue
is caused when the thermal transfer ribbon gets too hot so an excessive amount of the wax or resin melts onto the paper or label being printed on.

In most cases this will only happen when you are printing a large number of jobs at a time and the heat inside the printer builds up. It can happen more quickly if the printer is kept in a very warm environment such as at a busy factory.

These simple tips can help you to minimize the risk of this type of issue from occurring:

  • Buy a Quality Printer – High end thermal transfer printers are much less likely to experience this problem because they are built to produce a large number of labels or other print jobs at a time. Finding a printer that is designed
    for the level of output you require will almost always prevent this issue.
  • Manually Adjust Temperature – Most modern thermal transfer printers have a setting that will allow you to adjust the temperature of the print head. If you find that the print quality is low, consider turning the temperature on the
    printer down a little bit to see if that helps.
  • Quality Thermal Transfer Ribbons – Not all thermal transfer ribbons are the same. Some cheap options have a lower melting point, which can cause this type of issue. Purchasing a good quality ribbon will dramatically reduce the likelihood
    of having this type of problem.
  • Slow Printing – If you already have a printer and ribbon and you don’t want to invest in a higher quality option, and turning the temperature down doesn’t work, the next best option is to space out your printing. Giving the printer
    and ribbon time to cool between jobs can prevent this type of problem from occurring.

Information about Thermal Transfer Ribbons

For those who have chosen to use thermal transfer printers for their business it is important to learn about the thermal transfer ribbon. This ribbon is a key component of the printer and one that will likely get most of your attention since you’ll
need to purchase the right ribbons and replace them as needed.

The first thing to learn about thermal transfer ribbons is what it is that is actually being transferred onto the paper or labels. There are three primary options when it comes to what is being used:

  • Wax – Thermal transfer ribbons can have wax applied to them. During the print job this wax is melted and applied to the paper or label. Wax tends to have the shortest life of the three options, but it is still a good quality. It
    is also the least expensive option, which is why it is very popular.
  • Wax & Resin – This option combines wax with a special resin that makes the end result much more durable. It can stand up to being touched roughly or put through scanners. This option is also very durable in outdoor environments
    including wind, rain and snow.
  • Resin – Resin thermal transfer ribbons are the most durable option out there. They will look great even in very extreme environments. Resin print jobs can also stand up to exposure to many chemicals without a problem. Resin is also
    great for printing on polyester materials. Not surprisingly, this will also be the most expensive out of the three.

Most thermal transfer printers can use any of these types of thermal transfer ribbons without any trouble. You may need to adjust the settings on the printer to ensure the proper levels of heat are used to melt and apply the different materials.

As long as your thermal transfer printer is able to use all of these ribbon types you can have all of them available at any given time so those in the facility can choose which one is best for their particular jobs. This is a great way to limit expenses
and keep the overall price of printing as low as possible.

When Thermal Transfer Labels are Ideal

Labels and signs that are printed using thermal transfer ribbons can be a great option for just about any situation. They are commonly found in many industries and have been the standard for a wide range of different applications for years. For more
concrete examples, however, look at the following real life situations where labels printed with a thermal transfer ribbon are most frequently used:

  • OSHA Labels OSHA has many requirements when it comes to labeling things in the workplace. While they don’t specifically state that thermal transfer labels need to be used,
    it is a great option. Using thermal transfer ribbons to make labels will ensure they are long lasting and meet or exceed OSHA standards.
  • GHS Labels – The GHS set of standards have very specific requirements for what is on the label. This includes
    clear writing and symbols (which may include colors). Using a thermal transfer printer will give you the ability to create labels that are in compliance with the GHS requirements.
  • Cleaning Products – Many companies label containers that hold cleaning products to improve safety and ensure maintenance staff can find what they need. Any liquids, and especially chemicals, will destroy paper based labels that are
    printed with ink. Using resin or resin & wax thermal transfer printer ribbons for making these labels will help them to last for years.
  • Pesticides & Fertilizers – If you’re printing a label to go directly on containers that have these items, or vehicles that are used to distribute them, it is a good idea to use resin based thermal transfer ribbons. The resin
    can stand up to the outdoors, the chemicals involved and especially the rough environment in which they are used.
  • Medical Labeling – Whenever placing a label in any medical environment it is very important to ensure it is easy to read. In addition, the label must be able to stand up to frequent cleaning with potentially harsh cleaning solutions.
    Using a wax & resin or just resin transfer ribbon will help those using the labeled products or equipment to be able to read it quickly and easily.

When to Avoid Thermal Transfer Printing

While thermal transfer printing is obviously an excellent option for many scenarios, they aren’t the right choice for everything. In the following situations it is best to go with a direct thermal label or even having a laser printer or ink jet create
the label:

  • High Heat – If you’re planning a label on a machine that generates a very high amount of heat, it is possible that the wax or resin could melt on the paper again. This would take a very high temperature, but it is something to be
    aware of.
  • Areas that are Scraped – Since thermal transfer ribbons leave the wax or resin on top of the medium being printed on it is possible it could be scraped off. This is very unlikely in normal conditions but if the label is subject to
    hard, direct scraping it could occur. Direct thermal printers, on the other hand, will have no raised area that could get scraped.

Stocking Thermal Transfer Ribbons

Whether you already have a good thermal transfer printer in your facility, or you’re just starting to think about getting one, make sure you stock high quality thermal transfer ribbons as well. Having these ribbons on hand at all times is a great
way to ensure you never run into situations where you need to create a label, sign or other item and you are unable.

Thermal transfer ribbons can be stored in a box for years without a problem, which is why many companies will buy them in bulk and store them near the printer itself. If you choose to do this, however, make sure you make it clear which color ribbons
are to be kept where. It can be quite a hassle trying to dig through multiple boxes of ribbons to find the one that you need for a given project.

Additional Resources