Maintain Your Thermal Transfer or Direct Thermal Printer

“The beauty of thermal transfer and direct thermal printing is its simplicity and low cost.  But, you have to maintain your investment if you want dark black print and high scan rates.  Do your maintenance regularly for consistent results.”

Sometimes It Is Simple

Thermal Cleaning Pen

Thermal Cleaning Pens Let You Target Tough Areas

Simple may be all you need.  A simple google search will return plenty of articles about cleaning your printhead.  It is still relevant since thermal printhead replacement is very costly.  If needed, the upper level course is further below.  Let’s start with solid thermal printhead maintenance.

 Cleaning Cards and Pens

Do they work?  Sure they do!

The pens are similar to a thick highlighter but instead of ink they are filled with high-percentage isopropyl alcohol.  They are effective since they allow you to isolate the trouble spots on the printhead, tear bar, roller and any other trouble areas.

The printhead cleaning cards are nice since you can trap them between the head and the platen roller and “feed” them through the printer.  The cards Labelmatch likes best are a plastic card with a fabric, front and back.  The fabric will not damage the printhead and at 4 inches wide will cover most of the printhead and the roller (other widths are available). Once they have been used on the print head, they can also be used for a good general wipedown on the rest of the printer.  Since they are coated in isopropyl alcohol, they tend to dry quickly (we pour 91% isopropyl alcohol on the cards when they start to dry out).

Isopropyl Alcohol

The pens, the cards, the swabs. .  they all use an alcohol to break down the wax, resin and other caked on goodies.  A bottle of 91% isopropyl alcohol will run you less than $3.00 at your local drug store.  Pair this with some cotton swab or we prefer to use eyeglass/monitor cleaning clothes.

Bottom line?  We use all three.  They all suit a different purpose and we dont want to torch our printhead before its expected 1 million linear inches of run time.

When Do I Clean My Printer?  My Printhead

We have been at this label gig for over 20 years.  The answer from all the experts remains the same.  You should clean your printhead after every full roll of labels produced.

More Than Just Print Head Cleaning

Yeah, it is.

Close the door on your printer to keep out dust.

We know it’s asking a lot.  Direct thermal and thermal transfer printers were made to run in the harshest environments.  Now, we are going to tell you to be careful.  Here it comes.  This is the upper level course we promised.


We see printer dust come from two places:

  • Your work environment
  • The label manufacturer

Dust in your work environment may be unavoidable.  But you can KEEP THE DOOR CLOSED on your printer.  Load your media (label and/or ribbon) and shut the case.  Also, if you notice white paper dust in the bottom of your label cartons or in the case of your printer, give us a call.  It’s being transported from the label manufacturer to your facility.  Dull tooling is the culprit (poor or lean maintenance).

Media Size

Burnout on a Datamax H-Class 6" Wide Printhead

Burnout on a Datamax H-Class 6″ Wide Printhead

If you are always running the exact same media size through your printer, move on.  If you are commonly swapping material widths, read on.  With high head tension (how hard your printhead presses into the platen roller), you can create a friction at the edge of the label.  It can act like a slow grind in the same spot on your printhead.

Check out the picture on the right.  This printhead is 6 inches wide.  You will see white marks at 4 inches where we (yes us) ran 4 inch wide label media with too much head tensions.  There is a similar mark at 6″ where the same occurred.

Zebra Technologies and the thermal transfer ribbon manufacturers recommend the ribbon you run (does  not apply to direct thermal users) is aligned to the maximum print width of the printer.  For example, the printhead on the right can run a max of 6″ media.  Ideally, even if running a label 2″ wide, I should be running 6″ wide ribbon to protect the entire printhead.

The full coverage of ribbon across the width of the printhead serves as a layer of protection for your printhead.  Yes, the ribbon will cost you a little more but it will extend the life of your printhead which can cost as much as $800.00.

Platen Rollers

The cool part about your platen roller is that it is (generally) field installable.  Why would you want to?  Well, we find that even the most impeccable maintenance freaks will wear out their platen rollers.  This is caused by uneven head tension, multiple media widths, printer cleanings, printer jams, etc.  Now think about it for a second (or six).  If the roller is not flat from end to end, the tension can not be consistent across the head when the head is closed.  So, you experience ribbon wrinkle, media creep (where labels dont want to run straight through your printer) and poor print quality in spots.

How can you tell?  Open the printer and the latch to release the printhead (printers may vary).  Simply run your finger across the roller.  If you feel peaks and valleys, or notches, or really smooth spots, it may be time to replace the platen roller.  Bonus is, this is an inexpensive part.

Replacing Your Thermal Printhead

The reality is your printhead, if run long enough is going to croak.  It’s unavoidable.  Many printers will track how many linear inches of media you have run.  At Labelmatch, we believe you should get between 1 million and 2 million linear inches of run from your printhead.  If you are unsure if your printhead is dead, give us a call at 1-800-726-7334 or hit us up on live chat.  If your missing print areas run vertical through the label, check your printhead for dead spots like the ones shown in the image above.  If it’s time to replace the printhead, we will help match compatibility and your budget.  Today there are OEM and aftermarket options available.

Take good care and your printer will take care of you.