Is your thermal printer underperforming? There’s a good chance that those print inaccuracies directly result from dirty printheads.
Thermal printers use electronic heating elements to transfer pigment onto special paper. These devices are typically print receipts, shipping labels, and barcode tags. There are two types of thermal printers, including direct thermal printers and thermal transfer printers.
Most manufacturers recommend that you clean a thermal printer’s printhead after every use or, at the very least, every time you change media (ribbon or paper). Regular and effective cleanings will prevent the cleaning head from getting clogged. While thermal printheads are considered consumables, cleaning will undoubtedly extend their lives. A well-maintained thermal printhead can last as many as ten years.
The most common thermal printhead contaminants include:
- Paper Chaff
- Oil (often from users’ hands)
What You Need:
- Your thermal printer user’s manual
- Microfiber or lint-free cloth
- Thermal printing cleaning pen
- Thermal printing cleaning card
- High-purity (99.9%) isopropyl alcohol
- High-purity alcohol prep pads
Terms That You Should Know Before Tackling Any Thermal Printer Maintenance
Direct Thermal (Thermal Impact) Printer: Direct thermal printers use chemically treated, heat-sensitive papers and thermal printheads to produce darkened images. They do not require ink, toner, or ribbons.
You can find thermal impact printers in electronic calculators, fax machines, and receipt printers.
Thermal Transfer Printer: This printer uses a wax or resin ribbon and a thermal printhead to transfer images onto traditional media.
Thermal transfer printers produce barcodes, labels, and photo printers.
Thermal Printhead: Thermal printheads generate heat used with either heat-sensitive paper (direct thermal printer) or thermal transfer ribbon (thermal transfer printer).
Signs That Your Printhead is Dirty or Clogged
Faint or streaky print jobs are clear indicators of clogged or contaminated printheads. Fortunately, you can take plenty of quick and easy steps to remedy these kinds of printing issues.
Printhead contamination may be caused by the accumulation of one or more contaminants. The most common type of printhead damage is caused by abrasive wear, and it may be caused by the buildup of paper dust or poorly adjusted toggles. Contaminated printheads may become permanently damaged when corrosive material is allowed to pass through the protective coating outside a printhead. When printheads are exposed to caustic ingredients or unapproved media, damage may also occur. One of the most common mistakes is introducing an improper cleaning chemical. Chemical residues left on printheads may heat up, leaving irreparable damage behind.
Visit MIDCOM Data Technologies Inc’s page on Zebra Thermal Barcode Printer maintenance to see the difference between a well-maintained thermal printhead and one that has been neglected.
Thermal Printing Cleaning Pen Method
Thermal printing cleaning pens are designed to remove ink, dirt, and other contaminants from thermal printheads.
Step 1: Clean Thermal Printheads:
Take your pen and swipe it across the printhead surface. Do not be afraid to apply a little pressure, and this will enable you to remove any burnt-on particles.
Step 2: Repeat
Repeat this process until every last bit of debris has been removed from the printhead. As you can see in this video, the printhead should be noticeably cleaner once you have done swiping it with your thermal printer cleaning pen:
Step 3: Clean the Pen:
Now, wipe the pen tip across a clean piece of paper to remove any stuck-on debris.
Here are some reliable thermal printer cleaning pens:
IPA Pens Printhead Cleaning Pen Three-Pack: This thermal printhead cleaning pen three-pack retails for just under $12. It is used to remove oil, dust, and other contaminants safely.
Zetek Printhead Cleaning Pens: If your managing a large number of thermal printers, then a bulk option might be more appropriate. The Zetek Printhead Cleaning Pen set comes with 12 pieces, and it contains 99.7% IPA.
Why Use Cleaning Pens?
Cleaning pens make printhead cleaning quick and easy. The pen serves as an extension between a cleaner’s hand and the applicator. The narrow tips make it easy for you to get into tight spaces, such as the areas between the paper rollers and the printhead crevices. According to the experts at Online Labels, most thermal printhead cleaning pens are suitable for at least ten uses.
Thermal Printing Cleaning Card Method
Another option for removing buildup from a thermal printhead is to use a thermal printing card. In this video, the author uses an Iconex thermal printing card to remove contaminants:
Step 1: Prepare the Printer:
Turn the printer off, and remove any AC cables or paper from the printer.
Step 2: Insert the Cleaning Card:
Place the cleaning card into the printer’s paper path. You will need to open the printer just as you would if you were inserting a new roll of thermal printing paper. Leave approximately 1/3 of the card sticking out in the front.
Step 3: Close and Remove:
Close the printer with the cleaning card in it. Then, pull the cleaning card up and out of the paper path.
Step 4: Test it Out:
Turn the printer on. Reinstall the paper roll and AC cable. Print a test page to see if the cleaning card was effective. If there are missing characters or streaks on your print sample, repeat steps one through four. This time, be sure to the reverse side of the cleaning card.
Here are some reliable thermal printhead cleaning cards:
- DYMO Cleaning Card for LabelWriter Label Printers
- Wafflet Technology Thermal Printer Cleaning Card 4″ x6″
When to Use Cleaning Cards
You should use cleaning cards sparingly, as they have the potential to scratch thermal printheads. Many manufacturers recommend that you use a lint-free, alcohol-soaked swab or cloth on the printheads while reversing cleaning cards for the rollers.
Isopropyl (Rubbing) Alcohol (IPA) Cleaning Method
What You Need
- Clean lint-free cloth or ear stick
- 99.9% purity IPA
Isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) is a common ingredient in thermal printer cleaning pens and thermal printer cleaning cards. You can apply it directly to your printheads using a lint-free cloth, ear stick, or rubbing alcohol swabs or pads.
We strongly recommend using a solution with a high alcohol percentage (ideally 99.9%). Remember that isopropyl alcohol and water are the only liquids you can apply directly to printheads.
Isopropyl alcohol dissolves the residue left on thermal printheads. Unlike other cleaners, it does not leave any trace chemicals behind, and it also evaporates quickly. As such, it causes little to no interruption.
Step 1: Apply Isopropyl Alcohol to an Applicator
You may wipe or swab isopropyl alcohol onto your printheads. The Eurow Microfiber Cleaning Clothes work well.
You can also purchase lint-free foam cleaning swabs, such as these rectangular ones by Wellgler’s.
Another option is to use 99.9% isopropyl alcohol-soaked technical prep pads. You can purchase a box of 40 for no more than $20 on Amazon.
Soak the applicator of your choice in high-purity rubbing alcohol.
Step 2: Swipe Your Printheads
Open your printer to reveal the printhead and paper rollers.
Using a small amount of pressure, apply your applicator to your printheads. Move the applicator back and forth until you’ve thoroughly cleaned the entire surface of the printhead.
Step 3: Allow the Printhead to Dry
Allow the printhead to dry before you resume printing. It usually only takes rubbing alcohol one to two minutes to evaporate entirely.
Step 4: Check to Make Sure Your Cleaning Was Successful
Turn on your printer. Check to make sure you have resolved any previous printing issues. If this is not the case, you should repeat steps one through four.
Use Canned Air to Clear Paper Dust From the Printhead
You may be able to remove paper dust, lint, and dirt with the help of canned air. This product should distribute a blast of compressed gas, and the included plastic extension tube will help you perfect your aim.
Here are a few tips and tricks that will keep your thermal printhead up and running for even longer.
Adjust the Amount of Time Between Printhead Cleanings
If you’re noticing an exceptional amount of buildup on your rag, pen, or card after cleaning, it might be time to adjust the amount of time you go between cleanings. Remember, you should be cleaning your printhead every time you replace the ribbon or once every two months.
Adjust Your Printer’s Heat and Darkness Settings
Check your printer’s user’s manual to determine the recommended heat and darkness settings. You may be able to extend the life of your printer by simply dialing down the intensity of the settings. You may also be able to adjust the printing density (burn time setting) to improve the quality of your prints.
Adjust the Printhead Pressure Check out this video for step-by-step instructions on how to adjust the printhead pressure on a Zebra thermal printer:
Consider Using Thermal Ribbons with Built-In Cleaners
Some thermal transfer printer ribbons have built-in cleaning strips, and clean Start is one example of this type of technology.
Remove Your Jewelry Before Maintenancing a Thermal Printer
Thermal printheads are highly susceptible to abrasion. As such, you should remove your watches, rings, and bracelets every time before you attempt to clean one.
Don’t Forget The Rollers
Don’t forget to pass over the rollers when you’re cleaning off your printheads. Dust and oil on the rollers are transferred over the printheads whenever paper passes through.
Bundle Your Cleaning Products
Consider bundling your thermal printer cleaning supplies. You’re less likely to skip a scheduled cleaning if you have all the supplies you need on hand. An excellent example of a bundled cleaning kit is the Fargo 86177 Complete Printer Cleaning Kit. It comes with four printhead cleaning swabs and ten printhead cleaning cards.
Important: Always check to ensure the cleaning supplies you purchase are compatible with your thermal printer.
Use High-Quality Media
One of the easiest ways to guarantee the life of your thermal printer is to invest in high-quality printer media.
Check out Anixter’s “Guide to Thermal Paper” to learn more about the difference between standard and premium varieties. Premium thermal paper usually has a top coating that makes it more durable and resistant.
Visit Online Labels to see if you are using the right thermal transfer ribbon.
Always Keep Your Printer Covered
As the experts at Great Lakes Computers point out, thermal printers should always be covered when they are not in use. Printers should also be kept out of high-traffic areas whenever possible. These small steps will help prevent dust and debris from building up inside the printer.
Never Work on a Thermal Printer When It’s Powered On
Always turn off your printer and remove the AC power cord before cleaning the thermal printhead or performing other maintenance tasks.
Respect Your Thermal Printhead’s Protective Coating
Thermal printheads have special protective coatings. Once these coatings are worn, the printheads are no longer serviceable. You can extend the life of a thermal printhead’s protective coating by using high-quality media and balancing the printhead’s pressure and darkness.
How Often Should I Clean My Printheads?
Printhead cleaning takes just a minute or two. Still, many people neglect to make it a part of their printer maintenance routines. It would be best to clean the printheads and rollers on thermal transfer printers every time you replace media. That includes every time you install a thermal transfer ribbon, paper roll, or thermal transfer roll.
Are Your Printheads Dying?
If you’ve neglected to clean your printheads for some time, they may be beyond the point of repair. Signs of a dying printhead include:
- Poor image quality directly following ink cartridge replacement
- Poor image quality even after making proper adjustments to settings and media
- Incomplete or missing lines
- White stripes and “superbubbles” across the page
Experts agree that just five factors could lead to the premature failure of a printhead. These include:
- Electrostatic discharge
- Residue buildup
If your cleaning efforts aren’t successful, it might be time to replace your thermal printheads. Remember that the printhead is usually the most expensive element on a thermal printer. You can save thousands of dollars by simply staying on top of your printer’s maintenance schedule. Check the following before replacing your printhead:
- Check to make sure that you are using the appropriate kind of paper. There are several varieties of thermal printer paper, including various combinations of paper and core sizes. You can check your user’s manual or reach out to the manufacturer to get the suggested credentials.
- Make sure that the paper is loaded correctly and facing the correct direction. If you’re using thermal paper, you can perform a quick scratch text to ensure that the heat-sensitive side faces upward.
- Thermal paper is heat- and light-sensitive. Ensure that you are storing yours in an environment that won’t leave it susceptible to damage.
As you can see, thermal printheads are super easy to clean. There are plenty of cleaning methods to choose from, including ones you can execute with ingredients you probably already have on hand. An adequately maintained thermal printhead can last as many as ten years. In most cases, neglect (not age or quality) leads to the degradation of a thermal printhead.
Do you use a thermal label printer regularly? Have you observed issues in the quality of your prints? If so, we hope you found these cleaning tips and tricks helpful. If you have any remaining questions, feel free to drop them in the section below!
The proud owner and lead writer of OFFICE-EQUIP.COM
Office equipment seller since 2011. Started writing in 2018 and sharing his experience and knowledge with love and respect.