How to Select the Right Thermal Transfer Ribbon

One of the most popular label printing methods is thermal transfer printing, an on-demand printing technology that uses a combination of heat, pressure and speed in order to transfer wax and/or resin from a base film (or ribbon) onto a label substrate. It requires the use of a thermal transfer printer, thermal transfer ribbon and compatible label stock.

With thermal transfer printing, black ribbons tend to be the most commonly used—although colored ribbons can offer a unique advantage depending on the application at hand.

Direct Thermal vs. Thermal Transfer—What’s the Difference?

If you’ve ever wondered what the difference is between thermal transfer and direct thermal labels, there’s a simple trick you can use. Scratch your label quickly with your fingernail, as if you were lighting a match. This may take a couple of hard strikes. If a dark mark appears on the label, it is direct thermal. If no dark marks are left behind, it is thermal transfer.

Here are several key differences between the two labels:

  • Direct Thermal: A direct thermal label does not require a thermal transfer ribbon to print. Because the printer applies heat directly to the heat-activated label, direct thermal material needs a higher heat for printing. The downside is that printheads tend to burn out faster, as there is no ribbon to act as a buffer against the label material.
  • Thermal Transfer: Requiring a thermal transfer ribbon to transfer ink from the ribbon to the label, thermal transfer labels need less heat when printing. In addition to its versatility across multiple applications, thermal transfer printing allows printheads to last longer, as the ribbon works as a buffer to protect the printhead from the label material.

Types of Thermal Transfer Ribbons

While the uses may vary depending on the application at hand, it’s important to pair the right thermal transfer ribbon with the correct label in order to achieve optimal print quality. Thermal transfer ribbons are classified into three main categories: wax, wax/resin and resin.

  • Wax Ribbons

    Also known as resin-enhanced wax, these ribbons are ideal for in-process products or inventory labels that are used indoors—such as warehouse shelf labels, food and beverage products, or exterior box labels. With the ability to be printed at high speeds, wax ribbons produce dark and durable labels. They can also be printed on flood-coated labels. Wax ribbons are used in nearly 75% of all applications.

  • Wax/Resin Ribbons

    Ideal for printing on a wide variety of label stocks, wax/resin ribbons work best when used on gloss paper or synthetic labels like polypropylene, polyethylene and synthetic paper. Highly scratch- and smudge-resistant, these ribbons are perfect for harsher environments like warehouse labeling, inventory tags, bin labels, horticulture tags, medical cannabis ID tags and more. They require more heat than printing with a wax ribbon.

  • Resin Ribbons

    Featuring a higher durability than its counterparts, resin ribbons are compatible with a vast array of substrates and produce high-quality barcodes and variable images. Certified with UL recognition, these ribbons are well suited for many applications when used on polyester—including nameplate labels, safety labels, asset tags, electronics product labels, perfume labels, and chemical labels complying with the Globally Harmonized System (GHS). With a heat resistance of more than 250°F, resin ribbons require more heat than when printing labels with a wax or wax/resin ribbon.

Questions to Ask When Choosing a Thermal Transfer Ribbon

When it comes to selecting the right thermal transfer ribbon for your specific application, it’s important to start by asking yourself the following five questions:

  • What is the make and model of the thermal printer being used?
  • What is the application at hand? And what is the expectation that needs to be met?
  • What is the label material and size?
  • Which type of ribbon is currently being used—wax, wax/resin or resin?
  • What is the ribbon volume? How many labels are used per day/week/month?

Need Help Selecting the Right Thermal Transfer Ribbon?

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