Thermal Transfer Ribbon and Printing FAQ

Which is better, thermal transfer or thermal direct?  It depends on the application. Thermal direct is normally used for short term labels, such as shipping labels, food labels at the deli, etc. Thermal direct paper is sensitive to UV light and will change colour in the sun or under fluorescent lights. Thermal transfer is normally used for labels that need to last longer, such as retail clothing tags, product ID codes, date and batch coding, etc. Thermal transfer labels will not discolour in UV light.

Is thermal direct cheaper than thermal transfer?  On balance, yes. With thermal direct there is no ribbon, so that cost is saved, however the ribbon has a special, low friction backcoat that protects the print head. Thermal direct paper is very abrasive compared to thermal ribbon and head life will be considerably reduced without a ribbon to protect it, so the saving gained by not using a ribbon must be offset by the cost of replacement heads. In some cases the head life for thermal direct will be ¼ that of a head protected by a ribbon. 

What ribbon should I use?  That depends very much on the application, so before we answer let’s look at the grades of ribbon available:
WAX ribbons are the cheapest grade and come in 2 basic variants, pure wax (also called economy, or just wax) and resin enhanced wax (also called premium wax or hard wax). The difference in price between pure wax and resin enhanced wax is very small, just a few percent. Pure wax is very soft and smudges and scratches very easily. The benefit of the added smudge and scratch resistance offered by the enhanced wax ribbon usually more than offsets the small increase in price.
Wax ribbons print well on very rough papers, such as vellum, as well as gloss and synthetic labels, however the smoother the paper the easier it will smudge.
WAX/RESIN is a combination of wax and resin. There is no standard definition for what constitutes wax resin and there is a great variation in the ribbons from different manufacturers. Wax is cheap and resin is expensive, so the more resin in the product, the more expensive it usually is. Wax resin ribbons generally have much better scratch and smudge resistance than hard wax types, and are often used where there is some chance that the label might be abraded in some way, for example in transit or exposed to higher temperatures (outdoor products).
Wax/resin ribbons work well on matt transfer and glossy labels stocks, as well as most synthetics.
RESIN ribbons come in several varieties for special applications. Standard resin is often used when the label/ribbon combination must endure a harsh environment or extreme abrasion, such as plant pots at a garden centre or goods in a builder’s yard, etc. Resin ribbons are normally used in conjunction with synthetic labels and together provide a very robust labeling solution.
There are special resin ribbons available with extreme chemical resistance, such as for wash care and dry cleaning applications, oil resistance (hardware products) and even high temperature resin for cook in the bag applications.
Resin ribbons do not print well on paper labels and even on synthetic stocks the ribbon requires a much higher temperature than wax or wax resin ribbons.

How wide should the ribbon be?  The ribbon should be wider then the label. Paper is abrasive and if the label is not covered by the ribbon it can damage the head where the paper touches the head. The ribbon is too thin to stop the paper abrading the head unless it covers the label completely.

What does FACE IN or FACE OUT mean?  The ribbons are made with the ink on the inside of the roll (inside wound - Face In), or on the outside of the roll (outside wound - Face Out. This is because different makes of printers have different winding paths from the spool of ribbon to the print head. Other terms for the same thing are CSO (carbon side out), CSI (carbon side in), ink in, ink out, IW (inside Wound) OW (Outside Wound) etc.

How often should I clean my printhead? When using Direct Thermal labels you should clean the printhead after every roll of labels. When using Thermal Transfer with ribbon then clean the printhead when you install a new roll of ribbon. If the printer is in a dirty environment then we recommend cleaning the printhead on a daily basis.  If you are using labels with a thick adhesive or where there is adhesive bleed then the printhead will need to be cleaned at least daily. Cleaning should be done with a lint free cloth impregnated with Isopropyl alcohol.

There is a thin white vertical line in my printing, what is it?  There may be some dust or debris on the printhead, try cleaning the printhead, if it is doesn't disappear then it is usually a blown printhead, which cannot be recovered.

What is the “best” ribbon?  The best ribbon is the one that works well for you at a price that is acceptable, However, many users buy ribbons on price alone and often don’t realise how this reduces the look of their product after it has been through several stages of the supply chain over a period of weeks.  These days there are very good wax resins available at a price that is not much higher than enhanced wax that maintain the “just printed” look for months, no matter how the product has been handled.
What if my printer supplier says I must use their ribbon?  All the ribbons supplied by all the printer manufacturers in the world come from the same sources. A Zebra ribbon, for example, is not made by Zebra. An Intermec ribbon is not made by Intermec. A TEC ribbon is not made by TEC. Reputable ribbon converters use films manufactured by the same coaters that supply the OEM branded ribbons for the printer manufacturers. Of course, there are ribbons that are better than others, just as there are brands, such as Ricoh, Fuji Copian, General, IIMAK, Armor, Union, etc, that are the leading brands of the world. Ribbons from Sticky Business are from films supplied by the world’s leading brands.