Thermal Printing: An Introductory Guide

Thermal Printing: An Introductory Guide

Thermal printing has been around since the 1970s and still has many uses and applications today. They have been used in everything from underwater explorations to the Game Boy Printer of the late 90s. But what is it, and why does it matter to labels?

What is Thermal Printing?

Thermal Printing is a form of digital printing that uses heat to print images and text. It is primarily a monochromatic printing process that allows for clear images at a resolution up to 1200 dots per inch(dpi).

Types of Thermal Printing

Direct Thermal Printing

Direct Thermal Printing(or DTP) is a printing method that passes thermochromic coater paper, or thermal paper, over a heated printing head. DTP is monochromatic because it is dependent upon the thermal paper. This is an inexpensive and quick way to print all kinds of images. DTP is most commonly used in receipt printing at restaurants and gas stations and shipping labels. The downside is that this paper will degrade in prolonged heat and UV light.

Thermal Transfer Printing

Thermal Transfer printing on labels is highly valuable and frequently used in many industries. This is a digital printing method that utilizes a heat transfer wax or resin ribbon between the heated print head and the substrate you are printing on. The heat from the printing head immediately melts the ink on the ribbon. This ink, coupled with the pressure of the rollers, makes for a durable, long-lasting image. Some common uses for thermal transfer printing include barcodes, variable data, and products that need freezer storage.

How to print on labels with a thermal transfer printer

Printing on a label with a thermal transfer printer requires trial and error to correct the speed and density depending on the substrate and type of ribbon you are using. Once these variables are defined, the rest is relatively simple. Our encouragement is not to rush this process and to use your printer software to dial in your printer for the most accurate print quality. Below is an example of what this process looks like.

Step 1: Grab extras of the substrate you are printing on. In our case, we used white plastic labels with our gloss or matte laminate. 

*** Because our Soft-Touch Matte is smudge-proof, it can not be used as a thermal transfer substrate.

Step 2: Load your substrate and the ribbon you are using. Wax ribbon is less expensive than resin and is often a great starting place.

Step 3:  Define your print image in your printer software. Take your time and test alignment.

Step 4: Pick a low speed and a 50% density. We used a Zebra ZT421 printer for this demonstration with the Zebra software. Our starting speed was 2 out of 10, and our starting density was 15 out of 30. 

Step 5: Adjust variables until you find the right combination of speed and density to meet your standards.

**Optional Step: Try different ribbon types to reach the optimal print clarity and quality.

The results of our process were as follows:

Using a Gloss Laminate with a wax ribbon worked best on speed 2 and a density of 20.

When used with a wax-resin ribbon worked best on speed 5 and a density of 20.

Finally, the Gloss Laminate with a resin ribbon worked best on speed 2 with a density of 25.

Our Matte Laminate had similar results.

Does it Last?

The short answer is that it depends on the type of printing you are doing. If you are using DTP, you have an estimated six months of clear print. Direct thermal is susceptible to heat and exposure to the elements. An example is a receipt you put in your wallet, and the image fades.

Thermal transfer printing, however, has a long-lasting image resistant to scratches, cold, and moisture.

Is it Cheaper?

Thermal printing is inexpensive and requires little maintenance. The primary cost for DTP occurs with buying thermal paper. Thermal transfer has a higher maintenance cost as you will have to purchase the ribbons and the substrate you are printing on.

Thermal Printing Pros and Cons


  • Inexpensive to own and operate
  • Can be compact and thus able to travel anywhere
  • Provide quality printing results with high speeds
  • Few moving parts, which means less maintenance and downtime


  • Limited color options
  • Depending on the type, the print can degrade over time with heat exposure
  • Thermal transfer printing may require time to dial in a new substrate

Should You Use Thermal Printing on Product Labels?

Thermal transfer printing is an incredible way to print barcodes and variable data onto product labels. In most instances, it is a viable option to meet your labeling needs. If you have questions about, don’t hesitate to contact the Customer Care Team by phone or Live Chat! Our team is ready to serve your business with care and excellence.

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