How Tattoo Machines Work
There are a lot of important pieces to becoming a successful tattoo artist. One of those things is understanding your machine. While there’s an infinite number of things to understand, this article will service as a succinct overview by explaining:
1. What parts are in every machine
2. How machines turn electricity into your artistic medium
3. How to choose the right machine for you
A note about Artists and their Machines
Finding the right machine takes patience, but overtime, your machines will become your prized possessions.
Take your time:
You’ll want to ensure you’re buying a machine that’s going to work for you before committing the cash. The best option? Try out several different machines first. Your fellow artists will each have their own preference and might let you take their machine out for a test run. Keep a list of what you do and don’t like so that when you’re ready to buy your own, you know what is important to you.
While you might want to get used to the machine at first, you’ll find that being able to modify your machine and make it your own will help you improve your work and grow more comfortable overtime. Then, you need to get good at using it. Additionally, a good artist knows how to disassemble and reassemble in a flash, so it’s time to get comfortable with the parts and pieces.
Note: the tattoo machine is never referred to as a “gun.” This is a rookie mistake and one that will ensure you’re not taken seriously.
The Parts and Pieces:
While all machines have their unique functions and structures, at their base they have similar parts you need to know about.
- Armature Bar: Holds the needle and allows it to move up and down to penetrate the skin repeatedly.
- Band Hook: Holds the rubber bands securely.
- Binding Post: Where the contact screw is attached and adjusted according to your machine’s needs.
- Capacitor: Holds an electric charge to run the machine.
- Contacts: Connected pieces that create a closed circuit for electricity flow.
- Contact Caps: Cover the contacts to protect the connection and improve connectivity.
- Grip: Slides over the needle tube and is held in the hand. Choose a diameter comfortable for you.
- Machine Coil: Controls the amount of power that goes to the machine.
- Machine Frame: The skeleton that stabilizes the other parts.
- Needle Bar: Holds the needles. Size depends on how many needles are in use.
- Needle Tube: Sheath that protects the needle bar.
- Rubber Bands: Add stability and hold pieces in place.
- Screws and Washers: Fasteners that hold the machine’s parts together.
- Soldering Lug: Improves contact by creating a place where the wires can be directly soldered.
- Springs: Allows needle to move up and down with just enough give.
- Tube Cap: Cap over the tip of the needle tube.
Frames can be made out of a variety of materials that each require their own specifications. For example, plastic frames need additional metallic components to work properly.
Choosing the right material for the frame is essential because the weight of your tattoo machines will determine its performance.
Materials Pros and Cons:
Pro: Great for steady line work.
Con: Very heavy = quicker fatigue
Brass and Copper
Pro: Perfect weight.
Con: Require regular cleaning to avoid oxidation (darkening).
Pro: Uber lightweight.
Con: Difficult to steady while tattooing and is very loud.
Pro: Nice weight and no risk of oxidation.
Con: Can be heavy.
Vocab: “Bolt on frames”: Cast Iron frames are made from molten metal that is casted to the frame shape as one solid piece. Frames with the side arm attached by screws are simply called “bolt on frames.”
The key: Balance: Don’t go for a fancy frame just for the style of it. Remember: extra metal = extra weight. You need enough weight to stay steady while the machine is moving, but not so much that you can’t make it through the tattoo without taking multiple breaks.
Pro tip: Cost: If you buy a cheap machine, you’re going to be putting out cheap tattoos, no matter your skill. It might hurt at first, but you can save money long term by investing a few hundred dollars in a machine you can trust.
So, how does a tattoo machine actually work?
Basically, the machine uses electricity to power the needle’s up-and-down motion. This delivers tiny bits of ink into the “wounds” being created, leaving behind the color even after the skin is healed. This process happens very quickly:
1. Electromagnets: Electric current from the power supply enters the machine, causing the magnet to attract the armature bar, which rises up.
2. Electromagnet interrupted: When the armature bar lifts up to touch the magnet, it pulls away from the source of electricity. The electromagnet loses its magnetism, and the armature bar drops down. This can happen 100 times/minute.
3. Needle movement: As this up-and-down is occurring, the armature bar is lifting and dropping a tube that contains needles.
Good to know: “The Noise”
Fun fact: Origins
Thomas Edison’s engraving machine was adapted for skin by Samuel O’Reilly only fifteen years after its creation. The tattoo machine has been improved upon ever since for more detailed work and brighter colors.
You’ll want to consider a power supply for your machines – a simple and cost-effective option.
With a power supply, a battery with posts provides the power. The posts connect to a regulator that controls the electrical charge. As you use the foot pedal, the charge goes through a capacitor, where a small amount of electricity is stored so the machine can run without interruption. Once the electricity passes through the capacitor, it makes its way through the regulator. This is a kind of switch called a potentiometer.
After this process, the electric charge enters the tattoo machine via the clip cord (for coil machines) or RCA cable (for rotary machines). The amount of power you need depends on the type of machine. You need to match the two up accordingly.
Pro tip: Finding your setup
Every professional artist is going to have an opinion on what constitutes “the perfect setup.” Look into their ideas and take the advice you like. However, your setup is unique to your preferences. Choose what works for you.
Choosing your tattoo machine: 8-Coil, 10-Coil, or 12-Coil?
The coil wires wrapped around the machine’s core conduct the electricity, and the amount of power you need depends on the tattoo. For example, larger needle groupings need more power to pierce the larger skin area (as more skin area means more resistance). An 8-coil machine uses less power, and thus, fewer needles.
8-coil machine: Fine lines. Use with 1, 3, 4, and 5 liners.
10-coil machine: Thicker outlining and shading. Use with 8 or 14 liners.12-coil machine: Shading big areas or working on larger tribal work. Use with 11-17 mags
Note: Don't break your machine
Avoid running up your voltage and amperage. (Don’t use an 8-coil machine with a large needle grouping, like a 9 or 14 liner). It will rev up your machine, mess with its timing, cause the coils to burn out, at best it will produce sloppy tattoos and at worst it will break your machine.
Pro tip: What you need
Start with an 8-coil machine and then move up to 10-coil machine when you’re comfortable. Most tattoos can be created with these two machines. While you might add a 12-coil machine to your equipment, they’re generally reserved for large designs.
Fun fact: Machines do not define skill - Remember, the number of coils on the machine relates to the needs of the tattoo, not the skill of the artist.
If you're strapped for cash don’t “save money” by buying an unreliable, cheap machine. You can save money by buying a well-made, used machine. However, you’ll want to make sure it’s in good shape and ask the seller why they’re getting rid of it, as well as the machine’s history. (Many artists will upgrade or need something else in their shop and will decide to sell their old equipment.)
Want to learn more? Our Artist Accelerator Program features an entire module on coil machines. Inside the course you have 24/7 access to tattoo artists all over the world to answer your questions in case you get stuck. Come see how our students are going from complete beginner to professional artist in just 90 days.
Click here to learn more about the artist accelerator program.