The Anatomy of a Tattoo Machine

The Anatomy of a Tattoo Machine
A handheld device that incorporates ink as it moves along the skin; explore the anatomy of a tattoo machine, the various types, and how this technology works.

Humans were tattooing all over the world long before there were machines around to help them with their work. However, the premise has always been the same. All it involves, at the end of the day, is ink and a way to get it into the skin.

Way back when, this was done using a small hammer, a thorn, and some ink made from soot. Yikes! These days every tattooist will have a tattoo machine to make the work safer, more efficient, and easier.

However, there are a couple of different tattoo guns out there. And, with the same end goal in mind for everyone – a beautiful tattoo – it’s important to understand the difference between them. What works for one person may not work for another. What’s going to work for you?

Let’s dive into it and figure out the differences between the three main tattoo machines, their pros and cons, and which one may be the best fit for your style.

Different Types of Machines

In the world of tattooing, tattoo machines are often called tattoo guns, and there are different types of tattoo guns in the industry. Though, with that in mind, it’s considered improper to refer to them as tattoo guns, so we’re going to stick to tattoo machines! There are three main types of machines, and they each have their own unique way of working. They are a:

  • Rotary tattoo machine
  • Coil tattoo machine
  • Pneumatic tattoo machine

Each tattooist will have a preferred machine, and some work better for certain functions, though again, this will depend on the artist’s training, skill, and preference. That being said, all tattoo machines comprise the same moving parts. 

The difference lies in how they are made and what keeps the motor running. Each machine is intricate and serves different needs. It’s also incredibly likely that as an artist’s skill grows, so will their collection.

Pneumatic Machines

The pneumatic machine was a revolution when it first hit the scene, and this is because of how these tattoo guns work. Compressed air powers the needles inside the machine using a forced air-flow circuit. Because they use an air supply which can be noisy, some people don’t use them much. 

However, they’re the most advanced of the three options, and because of this, more expensive, but their pros outweigh the costs.

The pros:

  • Lightweight
  • Safe to use in an autoclave
  • Usable in remote areas
  • Hygienic
  • Multi-functional
  • Reduces skin damage

The cons:

  • Can be noisy
  • Expensive
  • Not readily available
  • Cost of setup

Rotary Tattoo Machines

In terms of popularity, the rotary machine takes the cake. It has a motor-powered mechanism that powers the needles up and down motion. This motor works by spinning, which moves the attached needle (or set of needles) up and down. The motor is small and moves the needles very quickly. They often have a simple but sleek design, and despite the motor, are quality and lightweight. 

Let’s take a quick look at some pros and cons of a rotary tattoo machine:

The pros:

  • Easy to set up
  • Less damaging to the skin
  • Less maintenance stress
  • Quieter
  • Runs smoothly
  • Lightweight
  • Best for filling and coloring

The cons:

  • Lining is tricky
  • Requires a full stroke to complete a motion
  • Can’t be tuned by ear

Rotary tattoo machines are often a hit with newer artists, as they’re easier to use and maintain. They’re great for liners and adding color, but they don’t handle subtle shading as well because the motor can’t accommodate a large needle cluster like a coil can.

Coil Tattoo Machines

Coil machines essentially use magnets to power the machine, which moves the armature bar and needles towards the coil. This pulls the needle into the skin, which breaks the circuit, causing the needles to go back into the machine. Once they’re back in the machine, the magnet activates again, and the process repeats.

This constant, cyclical repetition is how the machine works. Where rotary machines are quiet, coil machines aren’t. If your association with a tattoo parlor is the buzzing sound, then you’ve probably heard a coil tattoo machine in action.

Much like a hammer, the needles are tapped into the skin. Despite this, they have a soft hit and lots of gives. This means it can be harder to control and you need very precise hands to make it work.

Let’s look at the pros and cons of these machines:

The pros:

  • More robust
  • Easy to customize
  • More control
  • Work faster
  • Easy to adjust speed and power

The cons:

  • Louder
  • Not as versatile
  • You will need two machines (a shader and a liner)

The major con is that because of how powerful these machines can get, the tattooist needs a much greater understanding of how ink and skin react. The parts on a coil machine need to be tuned often. To make sure their work is consistent, an artist must have an exceptional handle on how their machines work. 

Liners vs Shaders 

Each of the above machines will fall into two further categories. These are liners and shaders. They are probably the most important part of the process, and their use depends on the tattoo someone is getting. 

Liners create short, fast strokes, which allows the artist to create solid lines in a single, fluid motion. To avoid messy lines, the artist can’t stop once they’ve started, since this breaks the line’s continuity. A liner helps with this. Within that, there are standard liners and fine liners with various needle setups. The finer the line, the fewer needles the machine needs. 

A liner could use anything from 1 to 7 needles at any given time, and these will be arranged in a circle where possible. 

Regarding shaders, the meaning is in the name. We predominantly use these for shading. They’re great for long strokes and subtle gradients and, with the right touch, can have phenomenal ink saturation. These machines take it slow and steady and need to deliver subtly graded color, which isn’t possible with speed. 

Shaders are also much kinder to the skin, so they’re great for large areas of skin.

The Components of a Tattoo Machine

Now that we’ve had a look at the different types of machines out there, we need to consider the inner workings. Most machines will have the following parts:

  • Needle
  • Tip
  • Grip
  • Tube

Coil machines obviously have coils, along with an armature bar, and a rotary machine has a motor housing, plus a clip cord attachment. What is universal across all the is the tubes, needles, and, of course, the ink.

Tubes and Needles

Tattoo needles come in many shapes and sizes, and a tube may hold several needles or just one. The needles get set into the end of an armature bar, which connects to whatever part of the machine is moving up and down. The bar passes through the tube, which has an attached hand grip. We fit this into a vice, which holds it in place. 

Some artists like to use stainless steel tubes, but these must be cleaned and sterilized after each use. Others use disposable plastic tubes. Steel is preferable for several reasons, including the fact that they’re eco-friendly. However, many artists use disposable plastic because of its safety and convenience.

The tube must be set so that the needles can only come down beyond the tip of the tube. The needles pull pigment up into the tube, which releases once the needle pierces the skin. 

Understanding Needles

We can think of tattoo needles as brushes. Each of the hairs in a brush may be the same, but how they’re combined and shaped is what’s important. Some needles may have a long or short taper or be smooth or textured. Other than this, needles are, by and large, the same across the board. 

Liner needles come together in a round shape and are typically tightened right at the taper, so the points are tightly fitted. Not that shader needles can’t come in round shapes, because they can. However, shading needles can also come in a shape we call magnums, or “Mags,” which fan out.

These needles are not just loose in the machine. Once they’re configured, they’re soldered together to form the actual “needle.” This piece is then soldered to a needle bar, which is the part that gets fitted to the armature bar. 

Additionally, the smaller the gauge (width and size), the finer the needle. Smaller gauges create a flow of ink that is more controllable and larger gauges can pack ink on faster, but they are more traumatic for the skin. 

The Ink 

Tattoo ink is not like artistic ink. It can be mixed with alcohol, water, or metal compounds to improve its feel and applicability. Some tattoo artists mix these solutions themselves or buy premixed tubes. Mixing ink is an inevitable skill an artist must learn, though this must happen in line with public safety standards. 

There are plenty of great ink brands on the market, and it’s always helpful to speak to other artists to find out what ink they’re using.

Choosing a Machine for Your Style

Before we even discuss whether you’re better off using a rotary, coil, or pneumatic machine, you need to consider that not one size fits all. Literally. Even within those three categories, machines will have unique shapes, weights, and designs. For example, you may want to go for something lightweight, especially if you’re working long hours. Here, aluminum will be best. 

You could also opt for something made of bronze, as these are very durable. They’re also the heaviest. Consider how many hours you work per day. A heavy machine will tire your hand out and minimize your ability to apply fine detail and work at different angles. You want to avoid developing carpal tunnel syndrome, which is unfortunately very common in the tattooing world.

Second, you want to consider the grip shape and size. Some machines come with different options, so you want to make sure you aren’t overextending your hand, or you’re working with a shape that you struggle to grip. These will all have negative effects on you and your tattooing ability.

Budgeting Concerns?

Finally, make sure you’re choosing a machine that suits your budget. The price can vary from a few hundred dollars to a thousand or more. How much you can expect to pay will depend on what type you choose and the brand it comes from. Ultimately, it’s important to set a budget and stick to it. 

If you’re just starting out, it isn’t worth spending thousands of dollars, but you don’t want to go cheap either. Consider that a lot of your other accessories, like ink and needles, are consumables, so their recurring costs need to be a part of your calculations. And last but certainly not least, tattoo machines typically aren’t just available to the general public. 

You must be registered as an apprentice or a professional already to be able to buy them. This doesn’t mean you can’t learn to tattoo if you don’t work in a shop. Consider enrolling in a course and get yourself into a space of encouragement, mentorship, and creativity!

A Well-Oiled Machine

Understanding the different types of tattoo guns is about more than just knowing what they do, it’s about figuring out whether it’s going to work for your style and skill. The best thing you can do if you’re ever unsure about what you should choose when it comes to a tattoo machine is to reach out to a mentor, colleague, or school. 

Training is about more than becoming a tattooist, it’s about becoming a well-oiled machine in your own right. Sound good?

Ready to become a world-class tattoo artist? Contact us today and let’s see what we can do together.