What is Thermal Transfer Printing?

Thermal printing is an on-demand printing technology where there is a transfer of ink from a base film (ribbon) to a label substrate using heat, pressure, and speed. Thermal Transfer Printing requires a Thermal Transfer Printer, Thermal Transfer Ribbon, and Thermal Transfer Compatible Label Stock.


What is The Difference Between Direct Thermal and Thermal Transfer?

Direct Thermal Labels do not require a Thermal Transfer Ribbon to print. A printer applies heat directly to the heat activated label.

  • Direct Thermal material requires a higher heat for printing than Thermal Transfer.
  • A print head will burn out faster as there is no buffer (ribbon) to keep the label from contacting the print head.

Thermal Transfer Labels require a Thermal Transfer Ribbon to transfer ink from the ribbon to the label. Printing with thermal transfer materials requires less heat than printing on direct thermal.

  • Printheads will last longer with thermal transfer printing as the ribbon works as a buffer and protects the printhead from the label material.
  • More versatile – will work with more applications than direct thermal


What is a Thermal Transfer Ribbon?

Thermal Transfer Ribbon Construction

Ink Layer: Creates the printed image

Primer: Bonds the ink to the base film

Base Film: PET – polyethylene terephthalate

Back-coat: Lubricating agent that protects the printhead


There are three types of Thermal Ribbon Formulations:

Wax (Also known as Resin Enhanced Wax)

  • Prints at high speeds
  • Produces dark and durable images
  • Can print on flood coated labels
  • Used 75% of the time



  • Prints on a wide variety of label stocks
  • Highly scratch and smudge resistant
  • Requires more heat than printing with a wax ribbon



  • Produces excellent barcodes and variable images
  • Higher durability than wax or wax/resin ribbons
  • Compatible with a vast array of substrates
  • UL recognized
  • Heat resistance is typically over 250°F
  • Requires more heat than when printing with a wax or wax/resin ribbon


Questions to Ask Your Customer When Selecting a Thermal Transfer Ribbon:

  1. What is the make and model of the thermal printer being used?
  2. What is the application and what is the expectation?
  3. What is the label material and size?
  4. What type of ribbon is currently being used; wax, wax/resin or resin?
  5. What is the ribbon volume? How many labels used per day/week/month?


Need help determining the best ribbon for your project?

Please reach out to our team at 866-516-7300 or We have a team of dedicated label and ribbon experts ready to help you determine the best solution. We also offer sequential barcode printing services for your convenience, so all your production needs are taken care of in one single step.