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You are here: Home » Products » Thermal Supplies » Understanding Thermal Labels

Direct Thermal vs. Thermal Transfer

Understanding Thermal Labels

Because they are so many different thermal labels available it can be a little confusing.  This "crash course" may help answer some of your basic questions. You can also call us at 1-800-899-9389 and we can help you select the right label to meet your requirements.

For more in-depth pages on certain subjects:

Thermal Labels vs. Direct Thermal Labels

The most basic idea is whether you need or use thermal transfer labels or direct thermal labels.

Direct Thermal Labels

Direct thermal labels do not use a ribbon to make an impression on the label paper. The printer uses heat to make an impression. If you have a thermal printer you can easily check to see if it uses a ribbon or not. One question we always ask is, "Have you ever had to replace a ribbon in your printer?" If the answer is no, then you probably don't  use a thermal  transfer ribbon or thermal transfer labels. You use direct thermal labels

Thermal Transfer Labels

Thermal  transfer labels require a thermal transfer ribbon to make an impression on the label paper.  Thermal transfer ribbons look like a black Cellophane material located at the front of the printer right where the labels exit.  Open your printer cover. If you use a thermal transfer ribbon you should be able to spot it quickly near where the labels exit the printer. It is on 2 spools.

Why Direct Thermal and Thermal Transfer

Direct thermal labels are good for short term labels needs, such as a shipping or address labels. Direct thermal labels are easy to use since you don't have to worry about changing ribbons. They're  very popular and there are many stock sizes to choose from. Costs are reasonable.

Thermal transfer labels are used where you need a longer label lifespan. Thermal transfer labels are less affected by heat and UV rays (compared to direct thermal material).  Many companies label parts for longer term storage using thermal transfer labels so parts can be easily identified in the future.

Core Size - 1" or 3"

Most thermal labels come on either a 1" core or a 3" core. 1" core rolls are designed for "desktop" printers and can have an outside roll diameter up to 5".

Popular desktop printers that use a 1" core include:
  • Zebra:  LP2824, LP2844,  GX420d, GK420d, ZP500 ( direct thermal models)
  • Zebra:  TLP2824, TLP2844, GX420T, GX430T, GK420T ( thermal transfer models)
  • Datamax E Class: available as both direct thermal and thermal transfer printer

Tabletop printers are larger and can be used with either direct thermal labels or thermal transfer labels. Tabletop printers use a 3" core and can handle up to an 8" outside diameter (some table top printers can use roll sizes with up to a 12" outside diameter)

Popular table top thermal printers include:
  • Datamax:  M, I, H and S Class Printers
  • Zebra:  110Xi4-220Xi4, ZM400, ZM600, 105SL, S4m, 110-220Xilll
TT-4-6P thermal transfer perforated 4\

Label size dimensions for thermal labels.

Label Size Dimensions

There are hundreds of stock label sizes. To understand label size dimensions let's look at a popular label size - 4" x 6".

The first measurement is the width of the label - 4". The width is the left to right dimension as the label exits the printer. The second measurement is the length of the label - 6". The labels are on a backing paper (or liner). This adds an extra 1/8" to the overall carrier width and a 1/8" gap between each label. You would not measure the backing paper when determining your labels width x length (or height).

The backing paper (or liner) usually has a perfed  liner. This makes it easy to tear the labels apart. However, when machines are applying the labels the perfed liner can break. To avoid this problem many labels are available with a non-perfed liner.

Paper Labels vs. Vinyl Labels

Paper labels are the most popular label material in either direct thermal or thermal transfer. They are low in cost and produce clear images for human readable fonts and bar codes. For greater durability you can also purchase vinyl type thermal labels. These are generally produced in a thermal transfer material. There are many types available depending on your application.  Vinyl labels are recommended for tougher applications where scratch and smear resistance is important, where labels are exposed to moisture and chemicals,  or where labels are to be used outdoors .

If you need UL approved labels then you must use a vinyl label and match it to a UL approved thermal transfer ribbon. We can assist you in selecting the right label/ribbon to meet UL requirements.

Custom vs. Stock Labels

While there are hundreds of stock label sizes available to choose form sometimes there are special requirements that call for a unique thermal labels. For example, you need to match an exact PMS color. We offer custom labels to meet just about any job requirement. There are some drawbacks. Custom labels cost more. If you are looking for a very specific size label, there may be a die charge. Dies are metal plates used to cut the labels to exact sizes.

Custom labels generally have a 2 week lead time. If you need labels overnight, custom is not the way to go. If you have questions about custom labels you can call us and we can discuss what options are available.

These are the basics of thermal labels. This hopefully provides you with some better understanding. If you have any questions, call us at 1-800-899-9389 and we can assist you .