Tightwad Hacks Label Printer, Beats Manufacturer At Own Game

Sometimes we hack for the thrill of making something new, and sometimes we hack to push back the dark veil of ignorance to shed fresh light on a problem. And sometimes, like when turning a used label printer into a point-of-sale receipt printer, we hack because we’re cheapskates.

We say that with the utmost respect and affection — there’s nothing to be ashamed of when your motive is strictly pecuniary. In [Dan Herlihy]’s case, hacking a cheap Brother label printer to use thermal paper meant saving $300 on a dedicated receipt printer. But it also meant beating Brother at their “Razor and Blades” business model that keeps you buying their expensive proprietary labels. A pattern of holes in the plastic label roll tells the printer what size labels are loaded, so [Dan] defeated that by breaking off a piece of the plastic and gluing it on the sensor. To convince the printer that plain thermal paper is label stock, he printed up a small strip of paper with the same pattern of black registration stripes that appear on the back of the labels. Pretty clever stuff, and it lets him print high-resolution receipts for his electronics shop on the seriously cheap.

[Dan]’s hack is simple, but may suffer from wear on the paper encoder strip. Perhaps this Brother hack using the gears as encoders will provide some inspiration for long-term fix.

30 thoughts on “Tightwad Hacks Label Printer, Beats Manufacturer At Own Game

  1. The manufacturer isn’t playing a DRM game, they are using technologically primitive ways to keep the printer from self destruction (Via mechanical means)….The hacker here is just bypassing the reliability system to gain an alternative use, one the manufacturer didn’t intend… See as follows for my usual over-explanation:

    The black lines are calibration strips so the wax label carrier paper won’t accidentally melt into the heater and cause damage. Also to detect if paper has ran out so it doesn’t accidentally heat-bond the roller to the heating elements and wreck the head and roller!

    The notched plastic in the roller to detect paper size is to do just that… so the printer should work out what thermal strips to use. This is to save in using a CCD/Photo-diode through a bundle of optics (glass Fiber cabling of usually a few mm away from the ‘-odes)

    The label printers here at work use a sensor on the plastic separator/roll-clamp to detect roll size and detects the slight change from yellow to white for the beginning marker and makes use of spiting out the first blank of the paper to detect the label height. Much more advanced and much more capable

    1. While that’s true, Brother does go to great lengths to ensure you only use their proprietary equipment. I have a $9 label printer from them that eats batteries like they were candy. The optional $20 for a 9v power supply was absurd so I pulled one of the dozen or so I had lying in a box. Of course they’re using a obscure barrel connector size and reversed polarity to boot. After getting all of that sorted out and plugging it in, I was greeted with a message on the screen “Unauthorized Power Supply” before the label printer shut off.

    2. I have to wonder if you ever used one of these label printers. Having worked a store that has, they are anything but reliable. We had to use all sorts of goofy little hacks to fix the nonsense that occurs with those things. Heaven forbid you get so much as a speck of dust on the eject roller, sure fire way to jam it up.

        1. Epson TM-H6000, also try to get hold of the RS232 option card in order to print: The USB card doesn’t simulate a COMx/TTYx port. For the add-on cards: There are also parallel, DB25-RS232 and a network-server card (A NIC+SoC on a card).http://hackaday.com/2017/05/24/what-lies-within-smt-inductor-teardown/#more-258800

          P.S. the prices fluctuate depending on where you can get them, We get them from various E-POS traders for between $15 to $40 (we only pay the higher prices if we need them urgently)

  2. Same hack for the QL-500 here (2014): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GWS4wcKcn7Q
    I bought one for 5€ with some labels. Compatibles labels are not so expensive, and the black mark is also usefull to ensure the print is well centered on the label. I use this printer to print stickable labels.
    For printing “receipts style” I own a basic thermal printer talking serial. A linux CUPS driver exists (ZJ-58) and allow to print from openoffice or any other application (and of course directly from command line with lpd). This last solution is, from my point of view, cheaper that buying a brother labeller plus a Mac ;)

  3. Here’s a small caveat about thermal paper from a crusty itinerant biochemist: some of the receipt papers (likely the cheaper sources?) have rather amazingly high levels of bisphenol-A. Bisphenol-A has been established as an endocrine effector with estrogenic activity. Lay the tin-foil-hats aside, this does not mean that your young son will develop breasts due to occasional contact with your thermal printer’s output; but you might want to limit the dosage where possible (“The dosage makes the poison” –Paracelsus). Long tedious peer reviewed papers abound (having reviewed a few m’self), so here’s just one to support my wild assertions: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00216-010-3936-9 (the wikipedia page on Bisphenol-A has become pretty accurate as well: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bisphenol_A) So… (in conclusion?) if one can make a cheap receipt printer using plain paper, i guess i’d go that direction, (but hey, i like the occasional musical theater too).

  4. $300?! I swear our thermal receipt printers were under $60. Cannot remember the name but they had source available for Linux so we could compile on ARM, unlike many others that used closed-source x86 binaries. Nice hack none the less.

  5. I bought a used Dymo Turbo 400 from a college student who had bought it for a project. He was going home at the end of the school year and didn’t want to take it with him. Works fine with 3rd party compatible labels.

    One caveat, for some #@%@% reason Dymo chose to use the exact same barrel connector as most 12V wall warts. The printer uses 24V. Fortunately the protection diode on the 12V line on a Western Digital MyBook drive shorted properly, saving the drive. The USB to SATA adapter in the MyBook drives runs on 5V and its own DC-DC converter is *very* robust. Accidentally plugging in double the voltage didn’t bother it. But WD didn’t care to interpose such protection between the power input and the 12V line for the hard drive.

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