Thermal Transfer Label Printers & How They Work

By: CableOrganizer®


thermal transfer

A thermal transfer printer is a type of printer that creates labels and signs by melting wax or resin-based “ink” onto paper, tape (made of nylon, polyester or vinyl), and even materials like heat shrink tubing. Thermal transfers printers are known for their smear-proof images and resistance to fading; and are particularly well suited for creating barcodes.





The main functional component of a thermal transfer printer is its printhead, which spans the width of whatever tape or printing medium the printer is built to handle. The thermal printhead is made up of tiny heating pins, each of which represents a single pixel (pixel size and density differ by printer — many handheld models range between 203 and 300 dpi or dots per inch).

The key material used in thermal transfer printing is wax or resin-based ink, which is loaded into the printer in the form of a ribbon. In a solid state, it is applied in a very thin layer to a backing of polyester film. This “ink” ribbon is drawn through the printer between the printing medium (paper or tape, as discussed earlier) and the printhead.

The printhead is controlled by a microprocessor. That determines which heating pins need to be activated in order to form a specific image. From there, signals are sent to the selected pins, causing them to rapidly heat and cool against the ink ribbon, melting and transferring ink off its backing film and onto the blank label surface.


The final results might not differ much to the eye, but the truth is that all thermal transfer inks are not created equal. Always be aware of the demands of your particular application before you choose which type of transfer ribbon to use. Because of their distinctly different characteristics, wax and resin generally can't be interchanged, but in some cases, they're actually combined into a wax-resin hybrid ink. Read a little more about the traits of — and best uses for — the 3 main types of thermal transfer inks below:

    • Wax: Wax thermal transfer ribbons are most used for printing onto paper labels. The images they produce can last for years, but not without protection: wax-printed labels need to stay dry. They are highly sensitive to abrasives, chemicals and oils, which can wear or melt wax inks away.

    • Wax-Resin: Wax-resin compounds work well with smooth — as well as coated — paper labels. The wax-resin combination produces a more refined image. While it still needs to be guarded against excessive moisture, it offers much more durability than plain wax.

    • Pure Resin: Out of the three, pure resin is the toughest stuff you can print a thermal transfer label from, but it isn't designed for use with paper. Resin-based thermal inks are engineered to fuse onto vinyl, polyester and polypropylene labels, making them incredibly durable. Plastic label/resin ribbon combinations are made to weather the harshest environments: they won't fade in sunlight, can be immersed in water, and — depending on material — can be resistant to damage from oils and chemicals. Resin is the “ink” of choice for marine, automotive, aircraft, industrial and hazardous chemical applications.


    • Durable and Fade-Proof: When you hold them up against traditional ink-on-paper and direct thermal labels, thermal transfer labels — especially the resin ribbon/plastic tape combinations — can't be beat for durability and fade resistance. While regular ink bleeds easily, and direct thermal media can darken and become unreadable in the presence of sunlight and heat sources, thermal transfer images offer far greater stability in the face of destructive elements.

    • Superior Barcodes: If you're going to invest time and money into bar-coding your business, you want to be confident that — in the end — the barcodes will be readable. Because they're able to cleanly and precisely print exact bar widths, thermal transfer printers produce the most accurate and easily scannable barcodes.

    • PC Compatible: Many thermal transfer printers on the market are PC-compatible, allowing you to quickly import images and text from your computer to the label printer.

    • Many Print Media Choices: With thermal transfer printers, your choice of print media isn't limited to plain old paper. Thermal transfer manufacturers offer an impressive variety of materials to print on, ranging from reflective and tamper-resistant tapes to self-laminating labels and heat shrink tubing.

Does a thermal transfer label printer sound like the ideal organizational tool for your office, network, laboratory, medical facility, boat, aircraft or industrial jobsite? At CableOrganizer®, we carry a wide variety of thermal transfer label printers, tapes and ribbon cartridges from BRADY®, Panduit®, HellermanTyton® and DYMO® to meet virtually any labeling need.

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