How Does a Thermal Printer Work

A thermal printer uses heat to make labels and signage on paper, ribbon, tape, or other materials. The print head is heated, then applies heat on a ribbon, melting ink onto your print media. Then the material absorbs the ink to form an image. It’s not easy to see the sequence of your printer working, thus raising curiosity. To understand more, we have taken the time to systematically analyze the process and develop a detailed guide on how does a thermal label printer work.

What is a Thermal Printer? 

What is a Thermal Printer

Thermal printers are a type of receipt printer that can generate receipts without ink or ribbons. Instead, these devices use the heat generated by an electrical current. 

The electric current runs through a thermal print head to activate the particular heat-sensitive paper areas. The heat causes print heads to turn black wherever the head comes into contact with the paper.

Thermal printers have special use because

  1. They use heat to produce high-quality prints at an incredible 220mm/sec speed.
  2. The printer produces prints that dry instantly.
  3. They are available in different sizes. 
  4. Can multi-task. You can print labels and receipts using one printer

For these reasons, thermal printers are used at points of sale (POS) to print receipts at ATMs, shops, tax registers, and supermarkets. Also, they are widely used to print labels, among others.

What are Thermal Printers Used for?

Use of Thermal Printers

Thermal printers are widely used for quick and easy printing, especially in:

Making Labels

Thermal transfer printers are known for their long-lasting and fast printing speed. 

In the clothing industry, manufacturers use thermal printers to create clothing tags. And in schools, they are used to print name tags on students’ uniforms.

Thermal printers are also suitable for making barcodes to identify industrial products easily.

Kindly note that making labels requires a special thermal material that is not easily damaged by water. In addition, the prints should not fade while washing the clothes or when exposed to moisture.

So, you can use them to make labels, mainly for clothes tags and barcodes, to prevent water damage. But depending on the type of material to print, you can use numerous types of inks. 

Industrial Use

Many industries prefer thermal printers for their speed and efficiency. Also, the only consumable the printer needs is thermal paper. You can find these printers in industries like;

  • Picking and packing
  • Shipping and receiving
  • Proof of delivery
  • Inventory management
  • cross-docking and stocking
  • Manufacturing
  • Rental car return
  • Equipment maintenance 
  • Traceability
  • Quality assurance
  • Health care 
  • Laboratory and pharmacy
  • Asset management
  • Specimen labeling

Machine Receipt

Direct thermal printing machines often print receipts from different devices, like cash registers and credit card machines. 

Photo Printing

Some desktop office printers utilize the dry sublimation technique to give quality photo prints faster. Again unlike some inkjet printers, these printers will give you dry prints, ready for use. 

Creative Design

This printer can create graphic designs and custom photos on surfaces, mugs, t-shirts, and other materials. The printing materials have a special coating that attracts the ink from dry sublimation thermal printer. 

A thermal printer is your best tool for making labels, receipts, etc. With no ink to replace, you can print whenever you need to–and it’s easy.

What Are Categories of Thermal Printers?

Thermal printing is divided into two categories. Thermal transfer printer and direct thermal transfer printer. But both use heat to print.

Thermal Transfer Printer

A thermal transfer printer is a versatile printer that can print on various materials, including polyester, paper, and polypropylene.

The thermal transfer printer print head is heated, which applies the heat to the ribbon.  And the heated ribbon melts the ink on the print media, which absorbs the ink to form an image or text. 

The thermal transfer printing technique gives high-quality and long-lasting prints, incomparable to other printing technologies. 

Direct Thermal Printing

This method creates images and texts directly on the material without an intermediary such as toner, ink, or ribbon. In this process, the print head heats the paper selectively as it passes. The thermal heat-sensitive paper turns black in the heated areas to produce your required image. 

As a result, these printers have become standard for printing long-lasting and smear-resistant prints. They are used to produce receipts at retail shops, print tickets, and labels.

How Does a Thermal Printer Work Without Ink?

To know how thermal printers work, you need to differentiate the two types of printers: direct thermal printing and thermal transfer printers. 

How Does a Direct Thermal Printer Work?

This printing technique doesn’t use ink, toner, or ribbon to print. The print head applies heat and pressure directly onto the surface of the thermal heat-sensitive paper. The thermal paper reacts to the print head heat and blackens to produce an image or text in selected places. 

Several people prefer thermal printers due to their low maintenance cost. You only need thermal papers; no ink or toner. 

However, your printed items may fade with time since thermal paper is prone to heat and light. Have you noticed your receipts fading with time?  Most probably, they were printed using a direct thermal printer. 

Another disadvantage of using this printer is that you can only print in one color at a time since the paper material is the determining factor of the output. Unlike thermal transfer, you can use different color ribbons to get different colors on your printouts.

Thermal Transfer Printing

Unlike direct thermal printing, where the print head prints onto the material’s surface. The thermal transfer printer print head presses a wax or resin-coated ribbon onto the surface of the printing material. 

The wax melts to expose the ink, then transfers to the printing material to dry and form your image or texts. 

The main advantage of this printing technique over direct thermal printing is. Your prints are likely to last longer. Second, you can print in multiple colors simultaneously (if your printer has various ribbon colors). 

While the disadvantage is that the maintenance cost might be higher since you need to replace the ribbons from time to time. Also, although the printer is durable and reliable, it has moving parts that are prone to operational issues. 

Advantages and Disadvantages of Thermal Printers

In case you are undecided about getting a thermal printer. Here are some advantages and disadvantages of thermal printers you can consider while choosing.


Thermal printers are an excellent way to print large labels and durable bar codes. Some of the advantages of these printers include;

  • Thermal labels are more long-lasting compared to regular ink labels. Your labels will not fade when exposed to extreme temperatures, smears, direct sun, or oils. 
  • Unlike laser and inkjet printers, thermal printers are fast and can print many labels within milliseconds, not seconds. 
  • Thermal printers give rich and high-resolution color or monochrome on various substrates. They are offering you excellent quality barcodes, texts, and graphics. 
  • The printers have a fast printing speed with fewer maintenance costs.
  • You can customize your labels with thermal transfer printing without worrying about fading over time.
  • The printers are noiseless.
  • Unlike inkjet printers, thermal printers are resistant to smudges
  • Thermal printers are cost-effective


Thermal printers also, just like any other printer, have a few difficulties like; jamming. Other disadvantages include;

  • Each ribbon is used once. Luckily the ribbons are easy to dispose of and are less harmful to the environment. 
  • It would be best if you bought labels and ribbons
  • Loading ribbons can be challenging sometimes
  • The ribbon should be the same color as the face stock
  • Thermal printers don’t print colors well, unlike standard printers
  • The high heat used to print might harm the print heads

How to Use a Thermal Printer: 3 Easy Steps

Use a Thermal Printer

A thermal printer is a printer that prints using the technology of heat. It is a straightforward printer, and it may be found in many everyday items such as cash registers or gas pumps. Here are three easy steps to get you started with your new thermal printer:

Step 1: Get Your Printable Products

The first step in using your thermal printer is making sure you have plenty of thermal paper. You can purchase large rolls of this paper at stores where office products are sold or through online retailers such as eBay, Amazon, or Once you have your paper, make sure it’s compatible with your specific machine.

What you Need to Print on a Thermal Printer

  • Printing supplies: you don’t need complex supplies for thermal printing. You only need thermal printing papers if you use a direct thermal printer. But if you have a thermal transfer printer, you need thermal paper rolls and thermal ribbons.  
  • Thermal papers: ensure you are getting appropriate thermal papers. Check for compatibility and size. Buy the right paper size for your printer and application. 

Also, note that direct thermal printers work only with direct thermal papers. 

In contrast, thermal transfer printers can work with print media, including paper, and synthetic media, including plastic labels and vinyl. 

  • Thermal ribbons: you will need ribbons to print on a thermal transfer printer. You can choose wax ribbons to get the lowest quality prints. Or resin ribbons for the highest quality prints. 

In addition, resin ribbons will work well if you need permanent or long-term applications. They can withstand moisture, sunline exposure, and harsh chemicals. 

  • Computer and software: you can use any device to host the required software as long as it is compatible with your printer. You can use smartphones, laptops, tablets, or desktops. 

In addition, you need software to send commands to the printer. For instance, you need a design software program to design products labels. Similarly, it would be best to have special programs for barcodes, receipts, and other special applications.

Step 2: Load Your Printer with Paper

Once you have the correct type of paper for your thermal printer, load the paper according to the manufacturer’s instructions for your specific machine model. 

Typically, there will be a drawer where you place the roll of paper and pull out the leading end of the paper, feeding it through a slot that guides it into position under the machine’s print head. No wrinkles form in the paper, or they could jam in your printer.

Step 3: Print

Once you’ve loaded your paper, use your computer, calculator, or other devices.

Setup Hardware Connections

You need to set up your printer and computer to have a communication system to print. You can do this in two simple steps.

  • Cable connection: start with the power cable. Connect one end of your power cable to your printer and the other to an electric socket. But don’t switch on the printer. Ensure your printer is off to connect to your computer for a safer connection.
  • Network or direct connection: direct connection is applicable when using one computer. This is simple: one side of a cord plug into your printer and the other side to your computer. 

While network connection applies when using multiple computers. Plugin one end of the cord; CAT-5 cable to your printer and the other end to your network router. Any device connected to the network can send printing commands to the printer. 

Install the Printer Driver

If required, install the printer driver on your computer. You can either have the drivers inform of a disc or download it online. 

After installation, run the setup as you follow all the prompting until the driver is installed. Please note, don’t switch off your computer until you are done. 

In this process, you will need to customize specific settings. To set what’s appropriate for your printer and needs. But generally, it’s about speed and output quality. 

However, you should note that; high speed and printout quality will strain your printer, causing fast tear and wear. 

After you are done with settings, click “save” before exiting the window. Then print a test sample. Then continue with your printing tasks. 

Thermal Printers Vs. Inkjets

Thermal printers don’t spray ink on a substrate as inkjets do to create an image. But they use subtle heating elements to activate or transfer pigments. 

Also, for some reason, thermal printers are superior to inkjets. Like in terms of,


Commonly, thermal printers are more reliable due to fewer moving parts. To print, a paper is pulled across a stationary heating mechanism. The heat activates the dye selectively to create images and texts as it passes. 

While inkjets are more prone to failure, like clogging their print heads, especially when the printer is not frequently used. 


You only need a thermal paper roll in a thermal printer. And it can print up to 100KM of receipts before you need to replace them. On the other hand, inkjets printers need more upkeep and still use more consumables like ink, print heads, and papers, which need replacing from time to time. 


In comparison to inkjet, thermal printers are faster. An inkjet printer print head needs to move across the paper, while in a thermal printer, the paper passes through the print head to print.

Ownership Costs

As thermal printers become more common, their cost of ownership has also dropped. So, it’s now cheaper to get a thermal printer than an inkjet printer. 


How does a thermal printer work? Thermal printers use heat to print texts and images, unlike inkjets. It produces quality prints within milliseconds at a fractional cost of the common printers.

This versatile printer comes in two categories: direct thermal and thermal transfer. The direct thermal printer heats the print head to activate dye pigment on a thermal paper. At the same time, a thermal transfer printer requires an intermediary material in the form of a ribbon to print images and texts.

The two categories of thermal printers also differ in their applications. Direct thermal printers are suitable for printing instant receipts at POS like retail shops and printing tickets and labels. On the other hand, thermal transfer printers are mostly used to print cloth tags and barcodes.

You would like thermal printers because they are fast while producing high-quality and long-lasting prints at lower costs.

Thermal printers have advantages over other printing technologies. Their prints are smudge and water-resistant, and ready for use immediately. While consuming low power, thermal printers have a noiseless operation and are easy to operate.

Thermal printers have few limitations, though. They have color limitations and require costly thermal papers. And its printing papers need proper storage.

In comparison, thermal printers are superior to inkjet printers. They are more reliable and less prone to failure, have fast printing speed, and need fewer consumables, only paper and ribbons. 

That’s not all.  Thermal printers are cheaper, cost-effective, and low-maintenance than inkjet printers.

So, why not pick a thermal printer for your business?

Leave a Comment