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How To Choose The Right Ink Type For Your Thermal Transfer Printers

by Jared De Hooge

Unlike direct transfer printer systems, thermal transfer printers rely on a durable ribbon to deliver the ink that is heat set onto your label or package. There are three main types of ink applied to these ribbons, all of which are based on either wax, resin, or a combination of the two. These materials are used because they react to heat and form a durable printed image that better resists smudging or water damage than alcohol or water based inks. When you're shopping for new ribbons and aren't sure which ink type of choose, use this quick guide to make the right choice.

Wax Based Inks

Choosing a ribbon coated in a wax based ink helps you make the most of your label or packaging printing budget. These inks are the most affordable, so they're widely used for printing barcodes, temporary paper labels, and other materials that are routinely replaced or removed. Only a low heat setting is required to melt the wax onto the surface, resulting in energy savings when you're running your thermal transfer printers for hours at a time to produce a high number of labels or tags.

In terms of durability, wax inks produce the least durable image. The wax can be smudged or scraped with enough force. However, the wax is still water resistant and tougher than many other types of inks. The wax bonds best to non-coated forms of paper with a slightly rough surface, so you'll need a different ink type if you want to print on a glossy coated paper or thin and flexible plastic materials like polyester. It's also harder to find colorful wax inks since most of them are the basic black widely used for labeling purposes, but they are available in single color applications for more eye-catching printed materials.

Resin Ink Products

On the opposite end of the spectrum, resin ink products for thermal transfer printing offer the highest amount of durability but also come at the highest cost. Full resin mixtures are extremely resistant to chemicals, heat, smudging, scratching, and more. If you're concerned about anyone altering a label, tag, package, or wristband, the toughness of a resin ink is worth the investment. It's very hard to remove or alter anything printed in resin based ink, but it also takes more heat and therefore more energy to melt the resin inks and adhere them to the surface.

Resin ink ribbons are generally used for printing on high gloss and coated surfaces because they still create a durable bond. They also don't weaken if the material bends and flexes below the layer of ink, making it the best choice for wristbands and similar high difficulty printing jobs. Outdoor labels that need high weather resistance and sensitive medical labeling all rely on full resin inks.

Wax and Resin Combinations

Need a higher level of durability at a more affordable price? Get the best of both types of ink by choosing ribbons coated in a mixture of both wax and resin. When applied to paper, even coated versions, wax resin inks offer greater smudge resistance than plain wax products. However, they're still not entirely as durable as full resin inks, especially when printed on plastics and flexible surfaces.

Wax resin inks vary in their weather and chemical resistance. This allows you to choose exactly the amount of moisture resistance or tamper proofing you need without spending more on a product with a higher resin content. If you're not sure which formula you need for a specific purpose, discuss your plans with a thermal transfer printing supplier to find the product with the right features for you.