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Understanding Thermal Transfer Ribbons

By Online Labels
Thermal transfer printer alongside different thermal transfer ribbon choices

If you're planning to print labels with a thermal transfer printer, you're going to need thermal transfer ribbons in addition to thermal transfer labels. Here's everything you need to know about selecting the right thermal transfer ribbon for your printer and project.

Ribbon Type / Wind Direction

Wind directions of CSO vs CSI thermal transfer ribbons

You may notice when shopping for printer ribbons that there are two categories: coated side out (CSO) and coated side in (CSI). This refers to where the ink coating is placed on the ribbons. It affects how they're wound and fed through the printer – most printers can only take one style or the other.

Coated Side Out (CSO) Ribbons

Coated side out ribbons are printing ribbons that have the ink coating facing outside. Zebra® thermal transfer printers typically use this type of ribbon. You'll notice that the ink is on the outside of the ribbon roll and that it unrolls from the bottom before making contact with the print-head and label.

To correctly insert this ribbon type into your printer, unroll it from the bottom and feed it underneath.

Shop CSO Ribbons

Coated Side In (CSI) Ribbons

Coated side in ribbons are printing ribbons that have the ink facing inside. Datamax® and Sato® thermal transfer printers most commonly use CSI ribbons. You'll notice that the ink is on the inside of the ribbon roll and that it unrolls from the top before making contact with the print-head and label.

To correctly insert this ribbon type into your printer, unroll it from the top and feed it over.

Shop CSI Ribbons

You can also determine your ribbon type/wind direction using the tape test: Stick a piece of tape to the outside of your ribbon roll. After a few seconds, peel the tape off. If ink sticks to the tape, you were using a CSO ribbon. If no ink sticks to the tape, you were using a CSI ribbon.

Ribbon Size

There are a couple of criteria to consider when selecting a thermal transfer ribbon size. They are:

  • Label width. Pick the ribbon width closest to that of your most commonly used label. For example, if you're printing a 2.5 inch wide label, you should purchase a 3.27 inch ribbon as opposed to a 4.33 inch one. Any unused ink on the thermal transfer ribbon will go to waste otherwise. You should also be conscious to buy a width that fits in your printer.
  • Ribbon length. Typically, ribbons with a shorter length are intended for desktop thermal transfer printers while the longer lengths are intended for industrial ones. Our ribbons range from 243 feet to 1,476 feet.
  • Core size. Smaller printers don't have as much space to accommodate larger ribbon cores. While a 1 inch core is standard, smaller printers use a 0.5 inch core.

Is your label size the best fit for your project? Our selection of thermal transfer roll labels includes more than 75 unique label sizes for both 1 inch and 3 inch core sizes.

Ribbon Material

Once you've identified compatible ribbon choices and selected a size, it's time to select the ribbon material best suited for your application. What you use the labels for will determine the strength and durability you need from your thermal transfer ribbon. Finding the right printing ribbon can be an important step in ensuring your labels are scannable, readable, and reliable. There are three main categories: resin-enhanced wax (aka full wax), durable wax-resin (aka wax-resin), and full resin (not currently available at OnlineLabels.com).

Resin-Enhanced Wax Ribbons (aka Full Wax)

Transparency test of resin-enhanced wax thermal ribbons A full wax thermal transfer ribbon is coated with a wax-based ink.

Resin-enhanced wax ribbons are the most economic choice of thermal ribbons. They are ideal for basic, general uses such as shipping and retail labels. Their full wax composition requires a lower melting temperature resulting in a lighter print. It's less durable but also less expensive.

Key Facts

  • Most common type of thermal transfer ribbon
  • Recommended for coated and uncoated paper stock
  • Softer image durability
  • Inexpensive
  • Good for shipping, shelf, bin, retail, and warehouse labels
  • Ideal for short-term/temporary use
  • Can hold up to indoor use

Durable Wax-Resin Ribbons (aka Wax-Resin)

Transparency test of durable wax-resin thermal ribbons A wax-resin thermal transfer ribbon is coated with a combination of wax and resin.

Wax-resin thermal transfer ribbons are more durable than the full wax of resin-enhanced ribbons. They provide excellent resistance to scratching, abrasion, and contact with moisture and create sharp and clear images on a wide range of material types. These ribbons are the perfect choice for printing labels that will be exposed to extreme conditions such as industrial refrigerators and freezers, as well as for applications that involve heavy or frequent handling.

Key Facts

  • Ideal for both standard and weatherproof thermal transfer labels
  • Harder printed area than full wax; more resistant to occasional heavy handling, moisture, and temperature changes
  • Intermediate price bracket
  • Good for barcode, shipping, prescription pharmaceutical, and shelf labels
  • Ideal for medium-term/standard use
  • Can withstand indoor use, moisture, handling, scratching, abrasion, sunlight, and moderate temperature changes

Full Resin Ribbons

Transparency test of resin thermal ribbons A full resin thermal transfer ribbon is coated with a resin-based ink.

Full resin thermal transfer printer ribbons are made of pure resin. They melt at a much higher temperature, dissolving into the material on which they're printed, resulting in extreme durability. Unlike certain situations where having the top-of-the-line product is better than an economy version, full resin ribbons can be overkill when the situation doesn't call for it. You should likely bypass them for either of the more economic options detailed above if your project doesn't necessitate their durability.

Key Facts

  • Most expensive ribbon type
  • For use on non-paper, synthetic stocks
  • Most durable of the ribbon types
  • Good for medical applications, chemicals, textiles or garments, automotive, and flexible packaging
  • Ideal for long-term/permanent use
  • Can endure indoor use, moisture, handling, scratching, abrasion, sunlight, extreme temperature changes, water, chemicals, medical machinery, outdoors, and UV exposure

Remember to consider the label material, too. We offer a variety of thermal transfer label materials, including standard white, removable, and weatherproof.

Ribbon Quantity

When you're printing large quantities or are on a tight timeline, we'd hate for you to run out of ribbon in the middle of your project. Use our thermal ribbon calculator to determine how many ribbons your project will require. Select the label product number, label material, the number of label rolls you have, and your ribbon product number, then let the calculator do the rest.

Ribbon/Printer Compatibility

Below, you can view a list of which printer brands and models are compatible with our selection of thermal transfer ribbons. Jump to: Zebra, Datamax, or Sato.

CSO Thermal Ribbons for Zebra® Printers

Tip: You can scroll the chart left and right.

Printer Model TR2181 TR2182 TR2183 TR2622 TR2623 TR3101 TR3653 TR3654
Zebra® 105SL Plus
Zebra® 110Xi4
Zebra® 140Xi4
Zebra® 170Xi4
Zebra® 220Xi4
Zebra® GC420t
Zebra® GK420t
Zebra® GX420t
Zebra® GX430t
Zebra® ZM400
Zebra® ZM600
Zebra® ZT220
Zebra® ZT230

CSI Thermal Ribbons for Datamax® Printers

Tip: You can scroll the chart left and right.

Printer Model TR2624 TR2625 TR2626 TR2631
Datamax® E-4204B
Datamax® E-4205A
Datamax® E-4206L
Datamax® E-4206P
Datamax® E-4304B
Datamax® E-4305A
Datamax® E-4305L
Datamax® H-4212
Datamax® H-4212X
Datamax® H-4310
Datamax® H-4310X
Datamax® H-4408
Datamax® H-4606
Datamax® H-4606X
Datamax® H-6210
Datamax® H-6212X
Datamax® H-6308
Datamax® H-6310X
Datamax® H-8308X
Datamax® I-4212e
Datamax® I-4310
Datamax® I-4606
Datamax® M-4206
Datamax® M-4210
Datamax® M-4308
Datamax® p1115
Datamax® p1115s
Datamax® p1125
Datamax® p1725

CSI Thermal Ribbons for Sato® Printers

Printer Model TR2628 TR2630
Sato® CL408e
Sato® CL412e
Sato® CL608e
Sato® CL612e
Sato® GL408e
Sato® GL412e
Sato® GT408e
Sato® GT412e
Sato® GT424e
Sato® LM408e
Sato® LM412e
Sato® M84Pro
Sato® X-2000V
Sato® X-2300ZE



Hopefully the information provided here will make selecting the proper transfer ribbon a little less daunting. If you need any additional assistance choosing a ribbon, please feel free to contact our customer service department for guidance.

Shop Thermal Transfer Ribbons
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