This saying illustrates how two different things go well together.

We have great pairs like peanut butter and jam, salt and pepper, pen and paper, nuts and bolt, needle and thread.
Similarly, the label material needs to find its suitable pair of thermal transfer ribbon (TTR).

A mismatch would spell disaster – text will be blurry, barcode not scannable, and printing can easily smear.
Before we jump into the right pairing, let’s find out what a thermal transfer ribbon is.


A TTR is a roll of clear plastic (PE) film with one side being ink coated.

It is also known as barcode ribbon – as it often used for printing barcodes onto price tags.
When placed inside the thermal printer, the ink is transferred by heat, forming text or images onto the label.
On a side note, there are thermal printers which do not use ribbons.
It utilizes specialized label that already has ink embedded within it, called the thermal label.  


As thin as a thermal transfer ribbon may seem, it is actually made up of four layers!

Each layer has its unique features to ensure the highest quality of images formed on the label.

  • Ink Layer has ink coated on it. Upon receiving heat, the ink is transferred and generates an image onto the label surface.
  • Release Layer / Primer facilitates the release of ink from PET base film.
  • PET Base Film Layer bridges the heat from the printer head to the ink layer.
  • Back Protection Layer protects both PET base film and printer head by reducing static electricity & excessive friction issues.


The pairing of a label with the correct type of TTR is important. TTR comes in three different range of ink formulation:

(1) Wax.
(2) Wax-resin.
(3) Resin.

Which type of ribbon is suitable for my label?
Let us look at their differences and their suitable applications.

ELEMENTSCarbon & wax.Carbon, wax & resin.Carbon & resin.
TRAITSMost cost-effective Low melting point due to high wax-based substance. Printing can be done at lower heat settings. Least durable. Low scratch, smudge, and chemical resistance.Moderately priced Resin holds a higher percentage compared to wax. Hence, a mid-heat setting is required. Mid scratch, smudge & chemical resistance. Withstand moderate temperature change.Most durable, also most costly. Mid to high heat settings required due to high resin-based substance. Best choice for harsh & extreme environmental conditions. High resistance against scratch, smudge, heat, moisture, UV, and chemicals.
LABEL PAIRINGPrinting / simile / woodfree paper. Semi-gloss paper. Uncoated tag / card.Semi-gloss paper. Coated & uncoated tag. Synthetic PE & PP labels.Synthetic PE & PP labels. Polyester labels.
COMMON USESShort-term use. Not subjected to abrasion. Suitable for fast moving or frequently changed price labels. Warehousing; inventory tracking. Shipping & packaging; shipping information. Retail; price and barcode tags. Inventory; documentations. Shelf tagging; price and SKU information.Lasting print quality for data recording. Logistic; parcel and document information. Warehousing; inventory tracking. Barcoding; asset tagging. Hospital; patient data and documents. Retail; price tagging.For vital info printing. Product Labelling; expiry / best before date. Manufacturing; manufacturing date. Warehousing; inventory tagging. Barcoding; asset tagging. Outdoor; exposed to moisture and water. Pharmaceutical; essential data and barcode.



There are two types of thermal printer – direct thermal and thermal transfer.

Generally, TTR is only used on barcode printer with thermal transfer printing option.

Thermal transfer printer may be more costly, but that’s because it can perform both printing methods.

Yes, you can use a thermal transfer printer to do direct thermal printing too.

To understand better how thermal transfer & direct thermal technologies work, check them out in our previous article, “Thermal Transfer Vs Direct Thermal”.

Are you using the right printer for your application?

Does it cater for thermal transfer printing method?


There are two different printer head technologies – flathead and near-edge.

Flat Head Technology

Most barcode printers use flathead technology – an orthodox method for thermal printing.

These printers are compatible with most thermal transfer ribbons in the market.
As its name suggests, the flathead printer head lies flat against the ribbon and the label.
Both ribbon and label remain in contact for a short distance as they are passed through the heating area, before their eventual separation.

Near Edge Technology

Barcode printers with near-edge technology however uses specially formulated TTR.
Its 45 degrees angled printer head allows rapid speed printing at rates much higher than flathead technology.
The ribbons are specially made to release ink immediately upon brief contact with the heating element, making the printing process much speedier.
Near-edge printer models includes TOSHIBA B-SX4 and B-EX4T1.
If you are using near-edge printer, you need to choose ribbons formulated for near-edge technology.

Note: Using a flat-head ribbon in a near-edge printer or vice-versa would not produce the proper texts/images on your labels. They could be unclear & smeared off easily.

The printing will be blurry, & incomplete too.
What happens when wrong ribbons are purchased?
Most users would increase the printer head temperature in attempt to improve on the print quality.

This action however, is done at the expense of your printer head’s lifespan.
Printer heads cost much more than ribbons.

You do the match.
So yes, always match the right ribbon for the right printer.


In a rolled form, the ink of thermal transfer ribbons is either coated outside or coated inside.
If the ink is on the outer layer, it is known as coated side out, ink outside, or face-out (FO).
Likewise, if the ink is in the inner layer, it is known as coated side in, ink inside, or face-in (FI).

Different brands and models of barcode printers may require either one of the configurations.

Very rarely a model is able to cater for both ink setups.

If you choose the wrong configuration; ribbon coated side out (FO) but thermal printer require ink coated side in (FI) or vise verse, no printing can be produced.

Worse, it may damage the printer head.

You can determine your current ribbon set up with a simple test.
Simply paste a tape on the outer layer.
When you peel the tape off, observe if the ink sticks to the tape.
If it does, then the ink is coated outside (FO).
If it doesn’t, stick the tape to the inner layer.
If the inner layer ink comes off, the ribbon is coated inside (FI).