How Do Thermal Transfer Label Printers Work?

An individual operating a thermal transfer printer

We have Charles Babbage to thank for designing the world’s first mechanical printer in the 1800s. However, it wasn’t until 1981 that the first thermal transfer label printer was produced. 

A thermal transfer printer is a digital printing method that is applied onto paper or other types of printable surfaces by melting a coating of ribbon. This way, the print stays permanently glued to the material. This technique is not to be confused with direct thermal printing, wherein no ribbon is included in the process. 

If you are curious about the exact steps present in the thermal transfer label printing method, this blog will discuss its primary components and the different types of thermal transfer printers. 

The Thermal Transfer Label Printing Process

A thermal transfer printer works by melting wax within the print heads of a specialized device. It utilizes three primary components: 

A Non-Moveable Print Head 

Non-moveable print heads are typically available in 203 dpi (dots per inch), 600 dpi, and 3000 dpi variants. Each dot is addressed independently and electronically, which enables it to heat up immediately to a pre-set temperature. The heated element melts the wax on the side of the ribbon film facing the print surface at a fast rate. Thanks to this brilliant feature and the constant heat pressure being applied by the print-head locking mechanism, your prints will be transferred onto the paper or textile in no time. 

Once the thermal transfer label printer is done addressing each dot, that part of the print head instantly cools down, allowing the print to dry. Once your finished product comes out of the printer, it will be ready for use right away.   

A Carbon Ribbon (Ink)    

Carbon ribbons are available on rolls that are fitted onto a reel holder or spindle inside the printer. These carbon ribbons are also often referred to as “one-trip” ribbons, because they are rewound by a take-up spindle once used. The used roll is then discarded and replaced with a new one. 

The interesting thing about these carbon ribbons is that if you hold a strip up to the light, you would be able to see an exact negative of the images that it helped print (much like a roll of negatives from a film camera). 

The main benefit to using one-trip carbon ribbons is that a 100% density of printed images is guaranteed. You literally cannot go wrong with them. It gives users that “what you see is what you get” kind of feature, unlike its pre-inked ribbon counterpart, which is commonly used for dot-matrix impact printers. These are known for fading over time.


The thermal transfer process works best on surfaces that are sensitive to heat. This includes paper, textile, cards, or synthetics. These three components are specially designed to form a sandwich with the ribbon placed in the middle, making the optimal conditions to produce perfect prints. 

A barcode being scanned

Types of Thermal Transfer Label Printers

Colour Thermal Printers 

This specific type of thermal transfer printer is designed to produce colour images by adhering a wax-based ink to paper. This works by making the paper and ribbon travel simultaneously beneath the thermal print head. As a result, the wax-based ink from the transfer ribbon will melt onto the paper. While seldomly used for full-page printing, colour thermal printers are considered highly dependable and efficient due to their limited number of moving parts. 

These types of thermal transfer prints are known to be sensitive to scrapes and abrasion, but you can increase their durability by printing them on polypropylene or polyester. On the other hand, if you really want to deck your office with high-quality printing that lasts, you should opt for multifunction printers that come in compact sizes and unparalleled features. 

Xerox Solid Ink Printers   

With Xerox solid ink printers, rectangular ink blocks that resemble candle wax are loaded into the top of the printer. Next, the ink blocks are melted and the liquid ink is transferred onto a rotating oil-coated print drum by means of a piezoelectric inkjet head. The next step pushes the paper over the print drum, allowing the mage to be transferred to the surface. 

Xerox solid ink printers are quite similar to water-based inkjets and are highly economical, as they do not require a carbon ribbon to produce prints. All you need to do is throw in some ink blocks, and you’re good to go!  

ALPS MicroDry Printers

Hailing from Japan, this category of thermal transfer label printers uses a wax or resin-based transfer system consisting of individual coloured thermal ribbon cartridges. This method in particular gives users the option to print a wide range of colours, including cyan, yellow, magenta, black, white, metallic silver, and metallic gold. 

A person using a thermal printer

Uses For Thermal Transfer Label Printers

A thermal transfer printer is popularly used in various industries for creating barcode labels and identification labels on plastic, paper, fabric, and metal material. 

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Whatever type of printer you might need for your home or office, you can count on industry leaders like to provide only the best quality. From Toshiba all the way to Konica Minolta, our company has it all. 

Want to learn more about thermal transfer label printers or multifunction printers? Reach out to our office today!

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