Choosing the Right Ribbon for Your Thermal Transfer Printer - Obeeco - Processing & Packaging Equipment

Choosing the Right Ribbon for Your Thermal Transfer Printer


Thermal transfer printing is a versatile digital printing method that uses heat to transfer material, usually wax, resin, or dye, from a ribbon onto a substrate like labels, tags, or packaging.

In industrial settings, thermal transfer printing is commonly used for printing important information such as timestamps, serial numbers, barcodes, and graphics onto products and labels.

For these applications, resin ribbons are often preferred for their durability and resistance to heat, chemicals, and abrasion, but depending on your printing needs,  they may not always be the best choice.

When selecting a thermal transfer ribbon for industrial use, you have to consider factors such as fast print speeds, extensive printer usage, and the need for special inks like UV-resistant or metallic. It’s an important decision and one that will affect the quality of your labelled products.

How to Choose a Thermal Transfer Ribbon?

Selecting the optimal thermal transfer ribbon is crucial for achieving the best possible print quality for your specific application.

At Obeeco, we are leading suppliers of thermal transfer printers and ribbons, here are some factors we recommend taking into account when choosing a ribbon.

  • Ink/wax type – Wax ribbons are economical but less durable than resin ribbons, which better resist scratches, smudges, and chemicals. There are also wax-resin blends.
  • Colour – Black is standard but coloured ribbons allow for branding, coding, and decorative effects. Also consider colour fastness.
  • Width – The ribbon width must match the substrate width to ensure full coverage during printing.
  • Length – Longer ribbons require less frequent changes. Consider the printer’s maximum ribbon length.
  • Other factors like printer settings, coatings, and specialty inks for specific substrate materials.

Taking the time to properly evaluate your printing needs and match the ribbon to the printer, substrate, and application will ensure that you produce optimal quality thermal transfer prints.

In this article, we provide an in-depth overview of the critical considerations when selecting a thermal transfer ribbon, keep reading to find out more.


1. Ink/Wax Type

When it comes to thermal transfer ribbon inks, there are two main types – wax and resin. Wax ribbons tend to be more economical but resin ribbons provide much better durability and resistance.

Thermal wax ribbon for short-term use

Wax ribbons are the more affordable option. They work well for short-term applications like temporary indoor labels and signage that only needs to last a few weeks or months. However, wax is also less resistant to scratches, smudges, and chemical exposure compared to resin ribbons. The wax ink won’t hold up as well to abrasion or long-term use.

Resin ribbons for durability

Resin ribbons are more expensive but provide excellent durability, abrasion resistance, and resistance to chemicals and heat. They are the best option for labels, signage, or prints that will be used outdoors or need to withstand chemicals and extended use. The downside is resin ribbons cost noticeably more than wax.

Wax-resin for economy and performance

Wax-resin blend ribbons offer a balance of the properties of pure wax and pure resin types. The ratios can vary, with more resin content improving the durability. Wax-resin blends provide a good combination of economy and performance. They offer moderate durability for general use.

If you are unsure of which will work best, try testing different ribbon types with your printer, substrates and applications to determine the right match.

2. Colour

When choosing a colour of ribbon, you should consider factors like colour fastness and how well the colour will hold up over time. Some dyes used in coloured ribbons have better longevity than others, so it’s important that you make the right choice for your application.

Black thermal transfer ribbons

Black thermal transfer ribbons are the most common and widely used. Black provides high contrast on most substrates and is suitable for the majority of text and barcode applications. If you only need to print text, logos, or barcodes that don’t require specific colours, black ribbons are typically the way to go.

Coloured ribbons

Coloured ribbons expand the possibilities for branding, coding, and customisation. Spot colours can match company colours or allow colour coding of labels, whereas process colour ribbons can also reproduce full-colour images and designs. The only downside is that coloured ribbons typically cost more than black.

Metallic ribbons

Metallic ribbons like gold, silver, and holographic are available for printing decorative designs or special effects onto packaging, invitations, labels, and more. They can create an elegant, eye-catching look. Cost is higher but metallic ribbons enable applications beyond basic black text and barcodes.

When choosing a colour of ribbon, be sure to look at manufacturer specifications for expected colour fastness under certain lighting conditions and exposures. Testing a ribbon with your specific application and substrates will determine if the colour performance meets your needs.

3. Length

Thermal transfer ribbons come in varying lengths, typically ranging from 300 metres up to 1000 metres or more. Standard ribbons are usually 300 – 450 metres while longer 1000+ metre ribbons are designed for extended printing runs.

Printer maximum ribbon length

When selecting a ribbon length, consider your printer’s maximum ribbon length capacity. If your printer can hold a 1000 metre ribbon, opting for a 300 metre length will require more frequent ribbon changes. This increases downtime and waste from discarding used ribbon cores.

Frequency of printing

Also factor in your typical application. If you frequently print large jobs of a single colour like black text, a longer ribbon that minimises changes may be preferred. For printing shorter runs or frequently switching between colours, shorter ribbons around 300 metres are likely sufficient.

Assess your application volumes and printer capabilities when choosing between longer or shorter ribbon lengths in order to get the best possible value.

Other Considerations

Although we have covered the major components of selecting a thermal ribbon, there are other considerations you should think about. Check them out below.

Printer settings

Printer settings can impact print quality. Higher printhead energy will transfer more ink resulting in darker prints, however this also reduces the printhead lifespan. Try to find a printer density setting that provides an acceptable print quality while using minimal print energy.

Specialised ink panels

Specialised ink panels and top coatings are designed to optimise certain ribbons for specific substrate materials like synthetics, card stocks, textiles, etc. These enhancements can improve ink transfer and print durability on those surfaces, be sure to review ribbon specifications to ensure compatibility with your application’s substrates.

Top coatings

Top coats are applied to the ink surface of some ribbons to improve resistance to smudges, scratches, and chemicals after printing. The extra protection prevents print damage during handling and use. Top coated ribbons are ideal for printed materials that will be subjected to friction or abrasion in use.

Testing out different ribbon options using your actual printer, software, and substrates is highly recommended to verify performance firsthand. Manufacturer’s guidelines and expertise are also valuable resources to help determine the ideal ribbon for your needs.

Obeeco for Industrial Transfer Ribbon

Choosing the optimal thermal transfer ribbon may seem complicated, but taking the time to properly match the ribbon to your specific application, printer, and substrates will ensure excellent print quality and performance.

With the right ribbon matched to the application, thermal transfer printing produces crisp, long-lasting prints even on the most demanding industrial materials and products. Keep in mind that a little upfront consideration will go a long way to achieving great results and return on investment.