Thermal Transfer VS Direct Thermal: Know the Difference

February 24, 2011

When purchasing labels for thermal printers it is critical to know which of the two thermal imaging technologies the printer uses:  thermal transfer or direct thermal.

Thermal Transfer

This printing process uses a ribbon along with roll or fan-folded labels.  Heat from the printhead melts the ink in the ribbon which then images the label.  The image is transferred from the ribbon to the label.  Thus comes the name thermal transfer.  Purchase thermal transfer labels for a printer that uses this imaging technology.

Direct Thermal

This printing process uses a specially-coated label stock that reacts to heat.  The heat from the printhead causes a chemical reaction in the specially-coated label stock which produces an image directly on the label without the aid of a ribbon.  Thus comes the name direct thermal.  Purchase direct thermal labels for a printer that uses this imaging technology.

To determine which type of imaging technology your thermal printer uses, simply check for a ribbon.  If the printer requires a ribbon, it is a thermal transfer printer, if not, then it is a direct thermal printer.

If you have a sample label and want to determine whether it is a thermal transfer label or a direct thermal label, simply perform the scratch test.  Lay the label on a hard, flat surface such as a desktop.  Run your fingernail or a pen cap quickly back and forth across the label.  If a black line appears where you scratched the label, it’s a direct thermal label.  If not, it may be a thermal transfer label.

If you are still unsure about the appropriate label stock for your printer, contact us with the printer make and model, and we will try to assist you.  You can also request samples of any label offered in our blank label catalog.

Remember, we offer free shipping on blank direct and thermal transfer labels.

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