These are a bit of a luxury but well worth the expense if you ship more than one or two packages or flats a week. You just click “Print” and out comes a professional-looking label ready to use.
Types of Thermal Label Printers
A bit of terminology clarification is needed: there are two kinds of thermal label printers: direct thermal and thermal transfer. Direct thermal is what you want — the labels fade, but that’s not a problem for short-lived shipping labels, and importantly, direct thermal printers don’t require a ribbon. Thermal transfer printers are more versatile and produce longer-lasting labels, but require a ribbon, and are not needed for our purposes.
There are many sizes of labels that label printers can print. You’ll want to stick with standard 4″ x 6″ labels. These are 4″ wide, and you need to make sure you get a label printer that will handle these labels. Most of the cheaper ones won’t print on labels that wide, and you’ll be asking for trouble if you try to get by with one.
Buying a Thermal Printer
The standard for these printers is the line of Zebra/Eltron printers. They are expensive but you can get deals on used ones on eBay. I bought three of them a couple of years ago for $40 and two of them were good. There are a bunch of models that all function pretty much the same — I go by the appearance of the printer. If it looks like what I want it probably will do.
There are people (including me — see below) who are selling these printers on eBay. Most are junk, often sold in lots. A few are tested and include the necessary adapter cables, power supply, and blank labels, and are ready to plug in and use. Expect to spend $75 – $150.
Many of the used ones only have a parallel (printer) port interface. You probably don’t have one of these on your computer. But you can buy a USB-to-parallel adapter on Amazon or eBay for a few bucks. I’ve written an article about these adapters to help you understand them, select the right kind, and get it working. You can find it here: USB Parallel Port Adapters.
If you don’t want to turn this into a science project but are willing to pay a few hundred dollars for a new printer, here are some options:
- ROLLO Shipping Label Printer – $170 – print quality may not be great – roll feeder not included
- Dymo LabelWriter 4XL – $160 – requires non-standard labels – not such good reviews
- MFLABEL Printer – $110 – fanfold labels only – also has iffy reviews
- Zebra ZP 450 – $244 – expensive but good reviews
- Zebra GC420d – $243 – looks like old-style Zebra printers – decent reviews
Prices of course are constantly changing. If I had to choose one I think I’d try the $110 one, but mostly because I’m cheap, and have a high tolerance for having to fuss with things. If you want one that is likely to be trouble-free, go with one of the Zebra ones, or with a reputable seller on eBay.
The above links, and others scattered around, go to Amazon and earn me a small commission. There are also many other suppliers; Google the printer you’re interested in (or “Zebra LP2844”, the standard workhorse). But be careful; many label printers will work with Stamps.com but many won’t.
Sometimes I have label printers for sale on eBay. If so they will be shown at the bottom of this post.
Buying Thermal Printer Labels
You’ll need a roll of labels. Unless you’re doing a lot of printing, just buy one or two rolls at a time. They typically hold 250 labels which will last you pretty much forever. The labels go bad if they sit around too long, more than a few months.
Here are links to labels on Amazon, both single rolls and multiple rolls (which are a bit cheaper per roll):
Note that there are several sizes of 4″ x 6″ roll labels. You want the rolls of 250 with a 1″ core. Bigger rolls might fit your printer, but I haven’t tried them, and anyways 250 labels is a lot.
Note the price per label: you have to figure it out, but using today’s prices, the most expensive labels cost 2.6 cents each. Compare that with sheet labels (or Stamps.com labels), and you’ll pay for your label printer from just the savings, before too long.
Drivers for Thermal Printers
You’ll also need a driver. There are a bunch of them floating around, and some work better than others. There are drivers by UPS, Zebra, Seagull Scientific, and others. Google “Zebra Eltron 2844 driver” and pick one. I keep switching from one to another to try to solve minor problems, and there isn’t really much difference.
There are a lot of different printer models, and you may not be able to match your exact printer to an available driver. Don’t worry too much about this. If your printer isn’t listed, start with “LP2844”, and then try others if that one doesn’t work. For me it always does.
Look through the driver properties and set ones that seem like they might be useful, like “Intensity” and “Speed”. Check submenus too — these drivers have a lot of settings.
If labels are printing but aren’t positioned right, go into the driver properties and fuss with the label’s size, orientation, and margins. With some drivers these settings are located on submenus accessed from buttons on the main properties menu.
There are very often ways to define sizes for the various labels you use and give them names. Even if you only use one size of label (like 4″ x 6″) it sometimes helps to define that as a named label size.
If you’re getting the feeling that it may not be super easy to find settings that work, you’re right. But the good news is that once you get it set right it will stay that way. And sometimes you get lucky and it just works the first time.
If all else fails and you can’t find settings that work, try a different driver. There are several of them out there, and while they’re all similar, each differs in some ways.
Zebra/Eltron Test Print
If you have an Eltron (Zebra) label printer, you can get it to print a test page by powering it on while holding down the paper feed button. It will start blinking red; when that happens release the button. A test print cycle will begin.
The test print cycle skips a few labels at first, so don’t think it is running away and stop the test. Eventually it will print a label with some details about the printer firmware. When that completes the printer will be in dump mode. In that mode it will print the raw data it is sent. Press the paper feed button to end dump mode.
The most useful thing on the test print, aside from verifying that the printer isn’t dead, is the gray bar near the top of the test label. It prints every dot over the width of the printer, in a stair-step pattern. If it is a nice even gray with very few gaps, the printer is working well. If there are visible gaps, the printhead is dirty or worn.
You can clean the printhead with an alcohol wipe. Spend a minute or two on it; some deposits don’t come off right away.
Other Uses for Thermal Printers
By the way, these label printers are good for other things as well. You can print to them just like to any printer, and if you create a 4″ x 6″ page it will come out the way you want. I use this method to print labels for file boxes, for instance.
Also, if you are trying to print labels from a website or program other than Stamps.com you may get labels formatted for printing on regular letter-sized sheets. First see if there is a setting for printing to label printers, and if not use the following technique.
Print the label sheet to a pdf file (or scan a printed page), use a pdf-to-jpg converter to make a jpg file (Google it), and finally use an image-editing program like paint.net to make the part you want to print be 4″ x 6″. You can then simply print the image on your label printer. It sounds complicated but it’s faster than cutting out a plain paper label and taping it to the box.
Label Printers I Have for Sale
Here are any label printers I’m selling on eBay. They come with everything you need: the printer, a roll of labels, a USB interface, a power supply, all cables, an installation manual, and drivers. This article can also help you get it working.
I have prepared a package consisting of drivers and a manual that I supply with label printers that I sell. You can download it here.