Much Ado About Ink – Ribbons

So, you’ve graduated to the big leagues, to the pinnacle of label printing in the form of thermal transfer printing? Your challenges have exceeded the capabilities of the lowly laser printer and even the constrictions of direct thermal printing, eh?

While you totally get the strengths and specifications of a thermal transfer printer, you may be at sea about the ribbon thing. Let’s start with a little primer:

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Diagram of the Thermal Transfer Printing Process

A thermal transfer printer prints on a substrate (such as paper or some other material) by melting a coating of ribbon so that it stays glued to the material. Thermal ribbons come roll-form in three main types—wax, wax/resin or pure resin—and are almost always black. The ink formulas are coated on one side of a thin polyester backing. When heat is applied from the printhead, it makes the ink release from the carrier and stick to the label or tag.

These three ink categories cover the basic needs of printing—either on paper, on mid-range synthetics or on glossy, hard films (such as polyester). Due to the wide array of label and tag materials, the extensive number of printers being used, and the endless types of applications to which labels are subjected, ribbon manufacturers have developed a broad selection of ink formulas within each category. Since the bond created between a well-matched ribbon and its label partner can be far superior to other ink technologies, you get the best print durability. You can often avoid the need for a protective film laminate, which is an additional cost consideration. We offer ribbon/label combinations which are tested and demonstrated to work well together.

WAX RIBBONS are for printing onto paper labels (either matte or semi-gloss). Here the labels can survive unsmudged for many years. However, the labels must be kept dry, must not be abraded or subjected to chemicals/oil—all of which would melt the wax image.

WAX / RESIN RIBBONS produce a finer image on very smooth paper or coated paper labels (either semi-gloss or high-gloss). The printed image is much more durable than wax, yet can still only stand incidental contact with water or moisture.

RESIN RIBBONS are formulated to print onto plastic labels—such as polyester, polypropylene and vinyl. The ink is designed to slightly dissolve into the plastic surface of the label. The tight adhesion of the ink to the surface of the label renders the printing extremely durable. Plastic labels with resin printing will survive outside in full sunlight, can withstand immersion in water, are highly scratch-resistant and may be resistant to chemicals and oils (depending on the formula). When you need to meet the challenge of a demanding application—such as chemical-resistant identification or high-temperature PCB soldering—then a super-durable resin ribbon will be a clear choice. The choice depends on your application and investment dollars. If a multiple-choice quiz always throws you into a panic, call us at 800-535-6987. When in doubt, shout! We’ll calm you down and get you on the right track.