Barcode Label Solutions Blog

How to choose the right thermal transfer ribbon

Posted by Susan Fields

 Thermal ribbons

A thermal printer is designed to produce labels and tags, but it is only as good as the thermal transfer ribbon and media you install in it. A high-performance printer is not going to give you the results you want unless you use the right supplies. To appreciate the importance of choosing the best thermal transfer ribbon for your printer, you need to understand the role of the ribbon itself in the thermal printing process.

The thermal transfer ribbon is a roll of clear plastic film that is coated on one side. Most often, the ink is black but you can also purchase ribbons with a color other than black. The ribbon’s ink coating is made of wax, resin, or a combination of the two.

During the printing process, the uncoated side of the thermal transfer ribbon passes over the print head, which transfers the heat to the ribbon. The coated side contacts with the label media. The heat process then transfers the ink from the ribbon to the label.

There are two types of thermal transfer printers: flat head and near-edge. There is no distinct advantage between the two but it’s important that you know which type of printer you have. Putting a near-edge thermal transfer ribbon in a flat head printer will not damage the printer but the print quality will not be as good. Some people try to overcome the problem by adjusting the print head pressure. Eventually, this practice will cause premature wear on the print head, which is a very expensive part to replace. If you simply take the time to learn the type of printer you have (flat head or near-edge), you can protect the print head and preserve the quality of the printing.

Wax ribbons contain a layer of wax-based ink. Wax melts at a lower temperature than resin so the heat setting should be lower when using this type of thermal transfer ribbon. However, wax is also a softer substance and therefore is less resistant to smudging, scratching, chemicals, heat, cold, and moisture, which makes it a poor choice for any labels that need to be used outdoors or in any conditions where they are exposed to these elements. Wax ribbons are most often used for general purpose labels, like compliance, shipping, address, and warehouse labeling. The wax variety is the least expensive thermal transfer ribbon, but the economy comes at the cost of durability.

Wax/resin ribbons are formulated with an ink blend of wax and resin. Resin melts at a higher temperature than wax, so using this type of ribbon require a higher heat setting on the printer. The resulting wax/resin image is more durable—resisting scratches, smudges, and chemicals. This type of thermal transfer ribbon delivers a quality image at a high print speed on a variety of surfaces. Wax/resin ribbons are a bit more expensive than wax ribbons but they are a better choice when you need labels that will last longer.

Resin ribbons feature a much greater percentage of resin in the ink coating than the wax/resin ribbon. Because of the high concentration of resin, this thermal transfer ribbon requires a high heat setting. The resin image is extremely resistant to abrasion, heat, and chemicals, making resin ribbons the ideal choice for any labels that require maximum durability, such as medical, chemical, lab, pharmaceutical, industrial, automotive applications and exposure to harsh environments. The durability is also preferred for labeling garments and textiles, as well as warranty labels. Resin is both the most durable and the most expensive thermal transfer ribbon choice, and also delivers the highest quality label.

If you have any questions about how to choose the right thermal transfer ribbon for your printer or application, give us a call.

If you'd like to learn more about ribbons, you can also download our ebook, Selecting Ribbons. 

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Tags: thermal transfer ribbon