How Does A Thermal Printer Work & What Are The Pros & Cons?


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    Thermal printers have been around for quite some time now, and whether they are used in critical business operations or for home use, they are all around us. Therefore, the interest in how thermal printers work has risen.

    Key Takeaways

    Thermal Transfer Printing

    Thermal transfer printers have a thermal head that’s used to get the ink from the ink ribbon to the paper. This is a permanent type of printing, and it also uses high heat and pressure to be bonded to the label.

    Direct Thermal Printing

    This type of thermal printing technology uses thermal paper, which has the ability to darken once the thermal print head heats it. The main benefit of this type of thermal printer is that you don’t need additional toner, ribbon, or ink.

    Thermal Printing Uses

    Most commonly, thermal printers are used for receipt printing and different types of labels. So whenever you need to make a label, whether it’s shipping labels or some custom labels, thermal-based technology will be what you need.

    Whether you want to know about thermal transfer printers because you need to start using industrial printers for your business or because you want to start creating images directly with desktop printers in your home, I’ve got you covered!

    What Is A Thermal Printer

    There are mainly two types of thermal printers, but the main feature that they have in common is that the technology behind them is that either liquid ink or toner that’s powder-based is applied to the paper.

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      All thermal printers, no matter if it’s basic thermal printers or other direct thermal models, work in a way where nothing is actually transferred to the paper itself, but it’s rather that the thermal head heats the paper, and then the image appears.

      When it comes to all the pieces that you need with thermal printers, it’s ribbon or cartridge, and that’s what’s replaced once the ink runs out.

      Because with inkjet printers, you truly only need to change out the paper, making these very affordable for both home use and dynamic and industrial environments.

      How Do Thermal Printers Work?

      There are two main types of thermal printers, and a different process creates images in each.

      Comparing the differences and similarities between direct thermal & transfer thermal printers

      When it comes down to it, they are similar, but there are some more important distinctions, and that’s why I’ll explain to you how you get high print quality with each one of them.

      Direct Thermal Printers

      In direct thermal printers, there is a metal or plastic head that produces heat.

      This heated printhead transfers that heat on some heat-sensitive media, like thermal paper, and this direct thermal transfer is what creates the image on the printed material.

      The image appears because this heated printhead heats the paper in specific spots, and as the paper is rolled through, the spots get the heat.

      It’s in these specific places that the dye appears once the print jobs are done.

      With these kinds of on-demand printing technologies, you are somewhat limited when it comes to image quality as the paper contains the dye.

      As this type of paper will usually contain only a black dye, it’s no surprise that these kinds of thermal printers are used mostly for printing produce labels.

      There’s just one type of thermal paper that contains solid ink in a variety of colors – yellow, magenta, and cyan.

      They are placed in several layers that are heat sensitive, and these printers are called ZINK printers.

      This stands for Zero Ink.

      Since different colors will melt with the different heat levels coming from the thermal printhead when you are very precise with both the temperature control and the heat pulse lengths, this printer will produce different colors on the paper.

      Finally, one of the main things that affect the print quality is the dot per inch of the thermal printhead.

      Basically, the higher number of these will give you a better resolution.

      Usually, most direct thermal printers will have between 200 and 300 dots per inch, but industrial printers or something like ZINK will have much more.

      Thermal Transfer Printers

      Thermal transfer printers work a bit differently than the previous ones, and the main difference is the fact that these inkjet printers, as the name suggests, require ink.

      They also use a heated printhead, and then that head heats the ink ribbon, melting the ink.

      Then, that ink will be absorbed into the media you’re printing onto.

      The ribbon of this type of printer is made from a variety of materials, it’s mostly wax, but it can also be made from resin or a combination of resin and wax.

      With heat and pressure involved, it bonds with the label supply surface.

      The ink will become a part of it, which means that the overall quality of your image will be better.

      It will also be way more durable since the ink is truly absorbed with this system.

      Another great thing is that because of the way it works, you can use thermal transfer printers for a way a wider variety of media.

      Some of the most common things that are used with a thermal transfer are polyester, paper, and polypropylene materials.

      Watch this video: Difference between direct thermal & thermal transfer printers (04 mins 27 secs)

      To save time, skip to timeline 00:31!

      Thermal Printers For Personal Use

      While thermal printers are very widely used in business environments, they are just as great for higher volume printing at home. Or whatever print volume you need.

      Firstly, these printers are amazing for labels, so if you’re in need of labeling your inventory, this can be a very handy tool.

      Some brands have even developed mobile printers that feature wireless connectivity options and can be connected to tablets and phones, and depending on which ones you get, they range between $50 and $90, and they vary in quality.

      Amazon even has its printer for sticky notes that has a paper that comes out backed with adhesive.

      Finally, you can absolutely use these thermal printers in order to print out your photos in full color.

      Thermal Printer Pros

      Having a thermal printer comes with quite a few advantages, and here are the main ones:

      Minimal maintenance

      These printers require minimal maintenance, as they don’t have many parts and therefore have a lower chance of breaking. And, since they are so easy to maintain, you won’t need to play around with them way too much, again lowering the risks of any breakage occurring. Overall, all of this means that a thermal printer could very well be more reliable and run for longer than an inkjet printer.


      The finished results that you get with a thermal printer tend to be very durable and hard to come off, especially when considering different weather conditions. Since there is no ink to be spilled and worn down, the chances of the print getting ruined are lower.


      The options for printing are very wide when a thermal printer is used, as a lot of materials can be used with it. You can use it for basic documents and labels, but also lots of different signs. Some of the signs can even be the arc flash labels, as well as different graphics that are used for floor marking and extreme conditions, including cold storage.

      Thermal Printer Cons

      While thermal printers really have a lot of advantages and benefits and are mainly very good for having a round, there are some disadvantages that you should be aware of before deciding to purchase one, so let’s get into these, too.

      Color choices

      The main downside when working with this type of printer is that, unlike inkjet printers, the color options are really limited, and you mainly just end up having black. Of course, there is the ZINK printer, but that’s not the most common one among users. Also, the fact that not all materials are temperature resistant, and to activate printing, drastic temperature ranges need to be involved makes the resin and wax choices even more limited. Not only is the color limited, but so are the application options.

      The cost

      Compared to inkjet printers and print engines, these thermal printers tend to have a considerably higher price tag. For example, to get a thermal printer that’s one of the more basic ones, you will need to have at least a hundred dollars ready.


      Do thermal printers run out of ink?

      There are two types of thermal printers, and one of them, the thermal transfer ones, does require ink. Since they require ink to work, they can run out of it, and that’s when you would need to get some new ink. On the other hand, direct thermal printers don’t run out of ink.

      What are the disadvantages of a thermal printer?

      The costs of having a thermal printer can be very high as they are generally on the pricier side compared to basic laserjet printers that people usually have in their homes.

      Also, because of the wax and resin, it’s made of, the color choices tend to be limited.

      Can you print anything on a thermal printer?

      The reason why people love thermal printers is that they are very versatile, especially when it comes to things needed in business.

      To be precise, thermal printing is mostly done on receipt papers, plastic, and composite materials.

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