Thermal transfer ribbons are a crucial part of the thermal label printing process. They are a necessary component when printing with thermal transfer labels.

Compatible desktop and industrial printers can use thermal transfer labels and ribbons. 

Unlike their direct thermal counterparts, thermal transfer labels do not have ink embedded within the substrate. Thermal transfer labels need a ribbon for the transfer of ink, and will not work without one. However, they are a more stable option as they last much longer than direct thermal and are less likely to scratch or fade.

Thermal transfer technology works by using heat-sensitive carbon ribbon, which is melted onto the substrate as it passes over hot the print head. This process prints images and texts onto a label.

Choosing the right ribbon depends on the media type and printer used as well as the application. Let’s look at the necessary information you’ll need when looking to purchase thermal transfer ribbon.

Ink Configuration 

An image showing thermal ribbon being wound coated side in and coated side out

Once you’ve determined which thermal ribbon material is the right choice for your printing needs, you will need to consider your printer compatibility. Each printer model has its own specific functionality, therefore where the ink sits on the ribbon matters to the printing process.

Thermal transfer ribbons come in two classifications: Coated Side In (CSI) and Coated Side Out (CSO). These classifications refer to if the ink is located on the inside or outside of the ribbon roll. This location determines how the ribbon is wound and fed through the printer, which affects how the substrate is printed on. Depending on the printer type, you must use either one or the other. 

Need an easy trick to tell whether your ribbon is CSI or CSO? Simply stick a label onto the outside of the thermal ribbon roll. If ink sticks to the label, it is CSO ribbon. If not, it is CSI ribbon.

Coated Side In (CSI)

Coated side in (CSI)  means the ribbon is wound in around the core, and therefore the ink on the ribbon is facing inward. To use CSI thermal transfer ribbon with compatible printers, you will want to unroll it from the top and feed it over the print head.

Printers compatible with CSI ribbon:

  • SATO
  • Datamax

Coated Side Out (CSO)

Coated side out (CSO) means the ribbon has been wound out around the core, and therefore the ink on the ribbon is facing outward. To use CSO thermal transfer ribbon with compatible printers, you will want to unroll it from the bottom and feed it underneath the print head.

Printers compatible with CSO ribbon:

  • Zebra
  • Intermec
  • Printronix

Different Ribbon Materials/Coatings

Thermal transfer ribbons come in several different varieties but we’ll focus on the most basic: full wax, wax/resin, and full resin. It is important to know which type of ribbon to use for your printer, as different materials can affect print quality. Using the wrong thermal ribbon type will end up wasting time and costing money.

Make sure to consider how and where your labels will be used so you can determine which ribbon material is the best choice for your printing needs.

Label Material Wax Wax/Resin Resin
Paper (Coated or UnCoated) Χ  Χ*
Polypropylene  Χ Χ
Polyester Χ
Vinyl Χ
Nylon Χ

*Can be used but not necessary


Thermal ribbon made with wax is the most common type of thermal transfer ribbon available. This ribbon type is inexpensive and can be used at higher print speeds. Full wax ribbons have a low melting point, leading to lighter and less durable print jobs. This makes them an optimal choice for short-term use.

Due to its durability, full-wax thermal ribbons are typically used on coated and uncoated paper stock. This makes them a reasonable choice for labels meant for indoor use.


Wax/resin ribbon is exactly like its name describes: a combination of both wax and resin materials. Slightly more expensive than basic all-wax ribbon, the addition of resin creates a protective barrier over images and texts, increasing durability against smudges, scratches, and abrasions. This makes wax/resin a great choice for printing labels that need to withstand more exposure to water, changing temperatures, and some chemicals.

Because wax/resin thermal ribbons are more durable than full-wax, they can be typically used on synthetic substrates, such as polypropylene, as well as materials that are coated and glossy, matte, or weatherproof.


Full resin thermal transfer ribbon is the most expensive type of ribbon available. However, these ribbons are also the most durable, resilient, and long-lasting, making them the best choice for labels needed in harsh environments, exposure, and extreme chemical conditions. 

Resin ribbons require slow print speeds to get the best quality but they are scratch and smudge resistant. They can withstand contact with water, grease, and oil, as well as intense temperature changes. 

Resin thermal ribbon should only be used for print jobs that require its high-class durability. They are typically used with non-paper, synthetic materials and facestock, like polypropylene, polyester, vinyl, and nylon.

Looking for thermal transfer ribbon? You can shop, where we carry different thermal transfer ribbon types and sizes for compatible printers. Or you can call us at 1-800-875-7000 to place your order.

Near Edge Ribbon 

Near edge printing is a technology where the printhead is at an angle instead of a horizontal position. At this angle the heating elements are at the edge of the print head, where the it comes in contact with the ribbon and surface. For this specific type of printhead, you will need to use a near edge ribbon.

Near edge ribbon is composed of different materials and ink specifically for this style of printing. The technology makes the printing process quicker and able to print on thicker substrates. Only certain printers require near edge ribbon. While using the wrong kind of ribbon won’t immediately damage the printer, in the long run it will reduce the printhead life, which is expensive to replace.

Choosing the Correct Ribbon Application 

Applications Wax Wax/Resin Resin
Warehousing Χ Χ
Shipping  Χ Χ
Retail Χ
Shelf Tags  Χ
Barcoding Χ
Outdoor  Χ Χ
Pharmaceutical  Χ Χ
Chemical  Χ
Automotive Χ
Medical  Χ
Electronic  Χ
Textiles/Garments Χ

Ribbon Sizing 

It is important to match the proper ribbon size to the labels you are using. Ribbons are not sized the same as labels. For example, you will not be able to buy a 4×6 thermal ribbon for a 4×6 thermal label. Trying to figure out the criteria for the ribbon you’ll need may be a little tedious, but knowing how to match your ribbon and labels correctly will save both time and money.

Here are the factors you need to consider when shopping for the right thermal ribbon.


To prevent damage to the print head made from the label material, you will want a ribbon width that extends past the edge of the label material. Choose a ribbon width that is closest to the label you are using as a larger ribbon width will result in wasted ink and a smaller width will hinder the printing process. For example, if you purchase a 4” wide thermal label, you will want to choose a 4.33” ribbon.


Thermal ribbon length extends longer than a roll of labels. This means less time changing out ribbon between print jobs, maximizing efficiency. Depending on the ribbon, you can typically print through 2-3 rolls of labels for 1 roll of ribbon. You can determine the length of ribbon by using your roll of labels. For example, our 4×6 thermal transfer label is 510 feet long. If you purchase a 4.33” x 1182’ thermal ribbon, you would be able to use about 2 rolls of labels. In this instance, a smaller ribbon length would run out before the labels.

Core Size 

Industrial printers use ribbon with a standard 1” core while smaller, desktop printers will need to be fitted with ribbons using a 0.5” core.

How to Load the Thermal Ribbon 

Now that you have all of the information on which ribbon to choose, you will want to make sure you are correctly loading your industrial or desktop printer. Here are several video tutorials to help guide you.

How to Load a Ribbon in an Industrial Zebra ZT610

  1. Place the ribbon roll (CSO) onto the ribbon spindle
  2. Slide the ribbon over the ribbon roller and printhead
  3. Wrap the ribbon around the ribbon take up spindle and wind counterclockwise

Make sure to stick a label onto the ribbon to ensure the ink is Coated Side Out.

How to Load a Ribbon in a Desktop Zebra ZD620

Desktop printers will need thermal transfer ribbon with a 0.5” core size in order to print. 

  1. Slide a used ribbon core onto the ribbon core adaptor
  2. Insert the ribbon on the lower spindle and pull the ribbon up to the used core
  3. Wind the take-up spindle towards the back of the printer

Make sure to stick a label onto the ribbon to ensure the ink is Coated Side Out.

How to Load a Ribbon in an Industrial SATO CL4NX

Industrial printers will need thermal transfer ribbon with a 1” core in order to print.

  1. Push in the ribbon rewind spindle
  2. Unlock the print head
  3. Load the ribbon (CSI) onto the ribbon supply spindle
  4. Pass the ribbon under the printhead
  5. Wind the ribbon counterclockwise onto the ribbon spindle

Make sure to stick a label onto the ribbon to ensure the ink is Coated Side In.