Unveiling: Thermal Transfer Ribbons, the Pros and Cons

In the world of label and tag printing, thermal transfer technology is a popular choice for creating high-quality, long-lasting labels and tags for various applications. Unlike common Direct Thermal printers, which apply heat to the stock which changes colour, Thermal Transfer printers utilise a coated ribbon to transfer the image or text onto the label, tag stock or fabric media. Among the different types of thermal transfer ribbons, three commonly used varieties are wax, wax-resin, and resin thermal transfer ribbons. Each type of ribbon has specific characteristics, and each are used for different applications.

In this article we aim to explain the advantages and limitations of each type to help you make informed choices for your labelling needs.

Gold transfer ribbon printing on a black label.
Stock Code: DC-100300-R-GOLD-C25

Wax Thermal Transfer Ribbons

Composition: Wax thermal transfer ribbons are crafted with a wax-based coating on a polyester film.

Applications: Wax ribbons are primarily suited for printing on paper labels and tags. They are commonly used in industries such as retail, logistics, and office environments where labels are not subjected to environmental conditions for both short and long-term durability requirements.

Advantages: Wax ribbons are known for their affordability. They produce high-quality images on paper stock, making them ideal for applications like barcode labelling, retail price tags and office labels where there is no gloss or top coating on the media. Wax ribbon has a low melting point, meaning you can achieve fast printing at a low temperature which may increase the longevity of your thermal printhead.

Limitations: Wax ribbon printing, when used on polypropylene labels or paper labels that are glossy or top-coated, will produce a clear image but may smear or smudge when the label is rubbed. This may impact the readability of text and barcodes. On top of this, the sharpness of the print may not be as refined as other types of ribbon – especially when printing smaller fonts at 300DPI or higher.

Wax-Resin Thermal Transfer Ribbons:

Composition: Wax-Resin thermal transfer ribbons are a hybrid solution, combining wax and resin components in the “ink” component.

Applications: Wax-Resin ribbons offer a versatile printing solution, suitable for a broader range of label materials compared to pure wax ribbons. They can be used on paper stock, high gloss labels and some synthetic materials, including polypropylene and polyester. This makes them a good choice for applications where moderate durability and a greater resistance to smudging and scratching is required, such as in pharmaceutical labelling, inventory management, shipping, or shelf tags.

Advantages: Wax-resin ribbons strike a balance between cost-effectiveness and increased durability compared to pure wax ribbons. They provide good resistance to abrasion, some environmental factors and some chemical resistance.

Limitations: Wax-resin ribbons may smudge when in certain harsh environments. They may not withstand firm or regular rubbing resulting in a smeared image making text and barcodes unreadable. Wax-resin ribbons have some chemical resistance however print may not withstand some of the harsher chemicals found in some manufacturing and science/medical research environments.

Resin Thermal Transfer Ribbons:

Ink Composition: Resin thermal transfer ribbons are formulated with a resin-based “ink”, making them the most robust and durable option when used on the appropriate label stock.

Applications: Resin ribbons are designed for applications where high durability and resistance to harsh environmental conditions are critical. These ribbons can withstand moisture, chemicals, heat, and other challenging factors. As a result, they are commonly used in industries like automotive, electronics, healthcare, manufacturing component identification, asset tags and more. Resin ribbon is best used on synthetic/polypropylene and polyester stock where the resin can bond to the media material.

Advantages: Resin ribbons offer the highest level of durability and resistance among the three types of ribbon. They provide long-lasting print quality and are suitable for demanding labelling environments where labels must endure extreme conditions. Different resin can usually have very good chemical resistance for industries where the label or printed item is exposed to petrochemical substances or harsh cleaning and sterilizing chemicals. Resin ribbons allow for an extremely sharp image, making them desirable when printing on 300DPI or higher thermal printers, allowing you to print smaller fonts and finer detail (small barcodes, text, graphics, etc…) commonly in the jewellery industry, electronics and IC manufacturing, and any requirement for fine text below 8 points (nutrition & ingredients labelling for example).

Limitations: Resin ribbons are the most expensive when compared to wax and wax-resin ribbons. Resin ribbon may not perform as well on a plain paper media as the resin may not completely bond with the stock material, often requiring a higher print temperature to get a clear and complete image, which can impact the longevity of your thermal printhead.

What’s the Best Thermal Transfer Ribbon for Me?

There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution for thermal printing. For most general-purpose environments, a wax-resin ribbon should be suitable however there are many variables to consider – the printer, the media, the content being printed, the longevity of the label and the environment which it is being used.

A large consideration we see in our customers is cost, and the cost of the ribbon is largely based on the area of the ribbon. What does this mean? If you have a 4″ label printer, but the label you are printing is only 2″ wide, find a ribbon that is approximately 2″ wide. This will cut down your operating cost and waste.

At DCS (Aust.) Pty. Ltd., we offer a variety of high quality ribbon in different sizes and lengths to cover most printing and labelling needs. You can view our catalogue HERE.

If you are still unsure which thermal transfer ribbon to use, please reach out to DCS (Aust.) Pty. Ltd. via our Contact Us page and we can assist you selecting the most suitable ribbon for your specific application.

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