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How To Choose The Right Thermal Printer Ribbon 

TOPICS: Asset Tracking

Content originally posted on

So you’re using (or plan to use) a barcode label printer…and now you’re wondering which thermal transfer ribbon you should choose for your application. Well you’ve come to the right place! This post outlines the basic features and best applications for wax, wax-resin, and resin ribbons. 

A little relevant background first: To print information on a label, thermal barcode printers press a printhead onto some type of media; Direct Thermal (DT) media has heat-sensitive chemicals inside that respond directly to the heat from the printhead and produce an image. These labels are highly sensitive to abrasion, heat, and UV exposure, so they’re not typically used outside of receipt paper, shipping labels, when using a mobile printer, and a few other specific applications. For more durability in the printed image, between the printhead and the label we add a Thermal Transfer Ribbon (TTR), which is a clear PET film that’s been coated with a specific combination of wax and resin based inks. As the label and ribbon move under the printhead, digital elements on the head are rapidly heated and cooled in order to transfer the ink off of the film and onto the label.

(Side note: The ink coating can be manufactured to face in or out on the roll. While most barcode label printers today work with both methods, some printers only support one or the other. Because of this, it’s very important to check which wind direction your printer supports.)

The ribbon formula you’ll use will depend on your specific application; combinations are produced and certified to print on different types of media and are intended for specific applications. It’s important to choose the right one, as it’ll ensure the quality and durability you’re looking for. There are three general combinations available for most thermal transfer printers: wax, wax-resin, and resin. Here’s a look at the features of each.

Wax Ribbons

Wax ribbons, sometimes referred to as “resin enhanced wax” ribbons, are the most common (and least expensive), suitable for uncoated or matte coated labels.

Durability: Wax ribbons are less durable than other types but are less expensive, too. They provide an image that will resist fading better than Direct Thermal labels, but the image is still going to be susceptible to scratching and smudging. Wax ribbons also offer limited chemical resistance compared to wax-resin or resin. 

How the process works: All wax ribbons have some resin in them. The combination of wax and resin inks are melted down and coated onto a PET film. A backcoating is applied to the reverse side; then the rolls are slit down to various widths and lengths for different printer models. In the printer, the printhead elements receive a digital signal to rapidly heat up and cool down. When hot, they transfer the ink from the ribbon onto the label (assuming you have the correct label/ribbon combination, the ink will stick to the label).

Uses: Wax ribbons are used for short-term and light durability applications such as shipping labels, retail tagging, storage locations, signage, and many more. They are by far the most popular and make up more than 70% of thermal transfer ribbon (TTR) sales.  

Wax-Resin Ribbons

Wax-resin ribbons are typically pretty close to half wax, half resin. They are more expensive than wax ribbons, but offer more durability and substrate versatility. They can print on almost all types of label and packaging films.

Durability: Wax-resin is more durable than wax when it comes to scratch and smear resistance and is resistant to moderate-to-harsh chemicals, as well more extreme temperatures. 

How the process works: The process is essentially the same as that of the wax ribbon process, the difference being that instead of mostly all wax, this method uses a more even split of wax and resin inks. 

Uses: Wax-resin ribbons are used for applications requiring some added level of abrasion, chemical, or environmental resistance. Some typical applications are laboratory labeling, outdoor product /UL labeling, or cold-chain/freezer applications where added durability is a must if you don’t want that barcode deteriorating. 

Resin Ribbons

Many resin ribbons still have some level of wax in them, but they are mostly pure ink resins. These are the most durable and expensive type of TTR, formulated for the most demanding applications and compatible with glossy coated paper labels, synthetic film labels like Polypropylene, Polyethylene, Polyester or even specialty receptors like Polyimide, Acrylate, and textiles. 

Durability. These are by far the most durable of the ribbon formulations. Extreme heat or cold, extreme chemicals and solvents, rough abrasions, and outdoor environments are no match for the properly spec’d resin ribbon with an appropriate label stock.

How the process works. As the level of resin in the ribbon increases, the process differs, as these inks require more energy to melt them onto the substrate. The printhead darkness and speed settings need to be adjusted in order to effectively transfer the ink and produce the durable image.

Uses. The extreme durability of resin ribbons makes them a requirement for some harsh-environment or mission-critical applications. Typical uses range from medical device labeling, electrical component/PCB labeling, apparel care tags, plant stakes, chemical drum labeling, and many more. 

Lastly, there are label applications with requirements beyond what an on-demand print can produce. For these applications, Barcoding has strategic partnerships with major converting partners nationwide who can have your labels produced to almost any specification. We commonly preprint labels and add clear laminations for additional abrasion, UV, or chemical resistance. We can even help with barcodes produced on anodized aluminum or laser etched into steel for ultimate durability, or ceramic barcodes for the ultimate in heat resistance.

Thermal transfer ribbons are just one small part of an efficient and effective barcoding system, but one that’s important because of the cost to your operation should you choose the wrong one. The Barcoding team is on hand to help you identify the best solutions – large or small – for your needs, and that includes sourcing the right printer, too. Reach out to chat with one of our experts about your labeling and printing needs by scheduling a free assessment now!

Schedule A Barcoding Label Assessment Now!