Thermal print heads on barcode and receipt printers should be viewed as just another consumable. For a thermal transfer setup, the consumables include the labels, the barcode ribbon and the print head. On a direct thermal setup, you have just the labels and the print head. Print heads range from $300 to $1000’s of dollars, so it is critical if you want to keep costs down to take care of your print head.Barcode Labels

How do you take care of the print head? Well it all comes down to how to clean a print head. Most users do not know when or how to clean these. The rule of thumb is to clean the print head every time you change the ribbon on the printer and with a direct thermal setup, every time you change a roll of labels.

The issue is that with ribbon and preprinted custom labels, residue builds up and clogs the print head. The build up of residue over time requires the print head to work harder to create the image. The harder the elements in the head have to work, the quicker they burn out. A print head that is designed to print up to ten million labels can burn out after only a million if it is not taken care of. That creates a huge consumable expense.barcode ribbon

So, how do we clean a print head? Most printers have a release that allows the print head to open. Once the head is open, the easiest way to clean it is with a rag and alcohol. Just put a little alcohol on a rag and wipe the print head clean. It is also wise to wipe the platen roller also. Reload all the label material and ribbon and away you go.

An alternative to alcohol and a rag would be cleaning kits that have pads and swabs pre-loaded with alcohol and in these cases, just remove the pad, insert the pad into the open print head, close the print head and then pull the pad through. This cleans both the head and the platen roller at the same time.Printhead Cleaning Kit

A third option is to use a barcode ribbon that has a print head cleaner built into the leader. Only one brand is available with this option and it is barcode ribbon. The cleaning pad is called “Clean Start”. The reason it is on the leader of every ribbon is because it is recommended that you clean the head every time you change the ribbon. Now this will only work with a thermal transfer setup, but it is a great reminder and design to prompt the cleaning every time you load the barcode ribbon. Here is the step by step process for cleaning:

Step 1
Rewind tag or label stock and install replacement ribbon featuring the Clean Start print head cleaner on spindle.

Step 2

Feed the leader under the print head and stop when approximately 2cm of Clean Start is pulled through (marked on Clean Start with a dotted line).

Step 3
Lock the print head.

Step 4

Firmly grip Clean Start film on both edges. Gently pull Clean Start film using smooth, steady force. Stop when the next dotted line appears under the print head. Print head cleaning is now complete.

Step 5
Unlock the print head. Continue ribbon and stock installation as usual.

barcode software

One mistake made by many when cleaning the printer is using a sharp instrument to scrape either the head or the platen roller that the head rests on. If the soft platen roller gets nicked or cut, then the print quality is destroyed. Every label printed will have a line or nick as the platen roller rotates. This is because this roller acts as the surface for the labels and the print head to “write” on. Similar to a desk as you write on paper with a pen, the platen roller is the desk surface and if flawed in any way, will transfer that flaw to the labels it is printing.

So in conclusion, as you clean the print head, take great care not to scratch the surface and to get all of the residue off with alcohol. Make sure you wipe down the platen roller, and never use a sharp instrument to clean. It can destroy the roller or print head surface requiring it to be replaced.

Keep print head cleaner kits on hand to perform regular print head maintenance and ensure optimum printer performance.

Maintaining a clean print head reduces replacement costs by extending the life of your print head and improving the performance of your printer. With proper care and maintenance, print head life can be extended without sacrificing print quality.

For more information on this topic, you can visit your owner’s manual for your printer or just give us a call. Our technical experts are ready and willing to assist in your printer maintenance.

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Our Other Products: Direct Transfer Labels, Preprinted Barcode Labels, Thermal Transfer Labels, Barcode printer, Zebra barcode printer, Barcode ribbon, printer ribbonLabel Rewinder, Barcode Ribbon, Thermal Transfer Ribbon, Flexible Packaging Ribbon, Near Edge Ribbon


  1. Hector

    I think it would be a great idea to incorporate barcode labels in to more everyday life. Having seen that the iphone has app’s that you can download to scan and compare prices of food online, as well as an app that tells you the content of the food. Would look in to it myself, get a bit of use out of my barcode label printer. Great start, just hope they keep developing the idea!

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