Understanding Thermal Transfer Ribbons
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
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.
There are a couple of criteria to consider when selecting a thermal transfer ribbon size. They are:
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
- Most common type of thermal transfer ribbon
- Recommended for coated and uncoated paper stock
- Softer image durability
- 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)
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.
- 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
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.
- 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
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.
CSO Thermal Ribbons for Zebra® Printers
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CSI Thermal Ribbons for Datamax® Printers
CSI Thermal Ribbons for Sato® Printers
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