Do Thermal Printers Run Out of Ink?

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Our team has been researching if thermal labels ever run out of ink. Many retail businesses now use thermal printers because it’s a cheaper option for printing solutions. In this comprehensive article, we will answer this question and explain everything you need to know about the inkless mechanism of thermal printers.

Do thermal printers run out of ink? Thermal printers can never run out of ink because they don’t use ink in the first place. They use a special mechanism that creates imprints with the application of heat. Thermal transfer printers use heat to met print ribbons. Direct thermal printers, on the other hand, don’t even use ribbons. They use special thermochromic labels (labels with heat-sensitive pigments).

If thermal printers don’t use ink, how then do they create imprints? How do thermal printers work? If thermal printers can’t run out of ink, why do they print faded imprints after some time? You will find answers to these questions as you read on.

Do Thermal Printers Run Out of Ink?

How Do Thermal Printers Create Inkless imprints?

Thermal printers use heat to create imprints by changing the paper’s color or transferring pigment from a ribbon to the label material. Direct thermal printers change the color of heat-sensitive papers, while thermal transfer printers transfer pigment from a thermal transfer ribbon to the label material.

The printhead of thermal printers heats up so that as the label material moves through the printer, heated points create imprints while other areas remain plain. Since this process doesn’t use ink, it’s durable and only requires buying label materials, such as paper.

Direct thermal printing and thermal transfer printing are the two types of thermal printing mechanisms. We mentioned earlier that direct thermal printers change the paper’s color while thermal transfer printers transfer ribbon pigments. Now, let’s take a closer look at how these two types differ in the way they create imprints.

Why Direct Thermal Printers Never Run Out of Ink?

Instead of ink, Direct thermal printers use special papers coated with heat-sensitive chemicals. Electrical currents generate heat on the thermal printhead which, in turn, heats the paper. Heated areas of the paper change color because of the special chemical coating on them.

This mechanism does not involve the use of conventional ink cartridges or toners. Once you have the direct thermal printing paper, all you need is heat from the printhead to activate specific areas of the paper’s chemical coating. The paper darkens in those areas to produce an image on the label.

Why Thermal Transfer Printers Never Run Out of Ink?

Thermal transfer printers also don’t use ink at all. Instead, they use printing ribbons and roll-form labels. So rather than print ink on label, their printheads transfer heat to thermal ribbons. When this happens, the ribbon material melts and adheres to the label material in specific areas to create an imprint. These printer can never run out of ink. They will keep printing so long as you replace the ribbons when they are exhausted.

Thermal transfer ribbons contain color pigments that melt onto the label material when heated. The most common pigment color is black but many other colors are available. In the section that follows, we will talk about these ribbons and the different types available.

What Are Thermal Transfer Ribbons?

Thermal ribbons are rolls of PE (polyethylene), a clear plastic, with pigment coating on one of its sides. They are of three types: wax, resin, and wax/resin mix. The ribbon’s coated side presses against labels during printing and the pigment bonds to the paper’s surface when the printhead heats it.

Both the ribbon and label paper pass under the printer together. As the ribbon pigment melts on the paper, the printer cools it rapidly so that it binds to the paper. If you match the right label, ribbon, and printer, you can print labels at an amazing speed of 300mm/second or faster.

Here are the different ribbon types:

Wax Ribbons

Most people use wax ribbons because they are very cheap, but they are also the least durable. Because of their soft texture, they are vulnerable to scratch and smudging. So they are only suitable for labels that are for short-term purposes, including mail and address labels. To get the best results, use them on uncoated paper stock.

Wax/Resin Ribbons

The combination of resin with wax increases the durability of printed labels but they are costlier than wax ribbons. Wax/resin materials are smear and smudge resistant. They can also withstand changing weather conditions and temperatures. You can use them on different types of print materials, including coated paper stocks, glossy papers, waterproof materials, and synthetics.

Resin Ribbons

Resin is more resilient than the other two types of ribbon materials but it is also more expensive. Resin ribbons are more durable because they can withstand harsh chemicals, scratch, liquids, extreme temperatures, smearing, and weather changes. You can use resin ribbons for specialized labels that need high durability.

✅ Video – Thermal Ribbon Types

How would you know the best thermal ribbon for your printing applications? What are the different types available? This video explains all you need to know about thermal ribbons and their applications. Do you know that only a few colored ribbons are full resin? Watch this video to find out more about thermal ribbons. 

Why Do Thermal Printers Print Faded Labels?

Thermal printers can start printing faded labels due to incorrect settings, or when the printhead becomes faulty or dirty. Wrong matching of paper or ribbon can also cause faded printing. It is never because the printer is running out of ink. After all, it doesn’t use inks in the first place.

If your thermal printer suddenly starts printing faded labels, you might think it’s running out of ink. That is what happens in the case of laser, inkjet, and impact printers. But since the thermal printing mechanism does not use ink, low ink is never going to be a problem.

Let’s see some of the reasons why your thermal printer might be printing faded labels

Wrong Matching of Paper or Ribbon

Your thermal printer might be printing faded labels because you’re not using the appropriate ribbon type or label material. You must match and use the appropriate print media and ribbon type for each printing job to get a clear print. If you don’t know the right combination of materials and ribbon, you can get in touch with experts to help you with the setup.

Dirty Printhead

Dirt can easily build-up on thermal printheads if you don’t clean or maintain them properly. When this happens, it clogs the printhead and causes faded printing. Besides, dirt build-up can also damage your printer beyond repair. To prevent dirt build-up, experts say you should make sure to clean your printhead each time you change the roll of labels.

Creased Ribbon

Faded prints with diagonal streaks are due to the use of creased ribbon, which is a result of incorrect loading and uneven spacing from the thermal printhead. You can fix this by tightening the ribbon and reloading it into the printer. If you don’t know how to load print ribbons, contact experts for technical support.

Low Heat Settings

Low heat settings cause faded printing while a high setting will cause smudging. So if your thermal printer is printing faded images, you should check the heat settings. Experts can help if don’t know the appropriate heat setting for your thermal printer. But most printers deliver high standard prints when the heat (darkness) setting is set at level 0.

A Worn-out Printhead

Printheads won’t last forever. They wear out after about 10 years and can cause several issues, including faded printing. The only way to fix worn-out printheads is to replace them with a new one.

✅ Video – How to Clean A Thermal Head Printer

In this short tutorial video, you will learn how to clean your thermal printhead properly. If you follow the tips in this video, you can be assured of clear prints all the time. The step-by-step guide is straight to the point and easy to follow.

Related Questions

How Long Do Thermal Labels Last?

Thermal labels should remain clear and legible for about 7-10 years. But your labels would only last that long if you store and file them properly. Because most people don’t store their labels properly, they often last for only about 6 months.

Thermal labels are not designed to last forever. But you can increase their lifespan by storing them in dark areas with low relative humidity (45-65%). If you don’t store or handle them well, they can start fading as early as within 24 hours. But with proper storage, they can last up to 10 years.

Is A Thermal Printer Worth It?

Thermal printers are expensive but they operate on a low running cost since you wouldn’t have to buy ink cartridges or toners. The low recurring costs make the printer worth your investment. Other printer types might be cheaper to purchase but you will spend much more on maintenance.

If you have a high shipping volume or run a retail store, thermal printers will be worth your investment. The cost of inks or toners can sometimes be overwhelming if you are printing large volumes of labels. By cutting the costs of ink supplies, you can save a lot on running costs when you use a thermal printer.

How Long Does A Thermal Printer Last?

Thermal printers don’t wear out in time but their printheads usually wear out after about ten years. When you change the printhead, you can continue using the thermal printer for many more years. Other parts may wear out too, but you can service the printer or replace the worn-out parts.

Printheads are fragile and can damage easily, especially if you don’t carry out regular servicing and maintenance. To increase their lifespan, service the printer regularly, and clean the printhead each time you replace the paper rolls.


Now, you have all the answers about how thermal printers create imprints. Thermal printers never run out of ink and you don’t need to replace ink cartridges or toners. Once you buy the printer, you only have to replace the paper rolls to continue using the printer.

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