Tattoo Tubes

tattoo machine and tube

The tattoo machine would be useless without the tubes that hold the ink. By understanding the different types of tattoo tubes, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of each, you can decide what works best for you.

Tattoo tubes have two main functions:

  1. Regulate and hold the ink
  2. Give the artist something to hold onto

Artists attach a “grip” to their tubes to keep their hand from slipping while working. These are made of metal or a softer silicone material, and both are usually textured to allow for a better grip. Additionally, artists can choose one, two, or three-piece tubes.

One-piece tubes: The more expensive option, one-piece tubes are made from one seamless piece of metal and contain no joints or parts. Because of this, there are fewer places for ink and debris to collect. However, you can’t change out the tip, and one-piece tubes have few grip and tip options.

Two-piece tubes: These tubes contain two parts: the stem (with an attached tip) and grip, which can be purchased separately to match your style and comfort. When the tips wear out, they can easily be replaced. Like one-piece tubes, there are no internal seams to collect residue like fluids or inks. Because you can replace the tube stem, you can reduce the chances of the tubes becoming flat or damaged by any type of tube vise. However, the choice of tube tips is still quite limited.

Three-piece tubes: These are the cheapest and most commonly used. Having three pieces lets a tattoo artist open the tube in different ways and swap out the parts. This allows them to create different varieties quickly, especially when using disposable tips. However, with more parts, there are more seams that can collect old ink and debris. The best way to avoid buildup within the tube is to scrub the tube and autoclave it. Note: some manufacturers will call these four or five-piece tubes. They will count the Allen set of screws holding it together as individual pieces.

Metal or Plastic?

Tattoo tubes come in both metal and plastic. If you’re in a shop that does not have an autoclave, then disposable plastic tubes are the best way to keep things safe. Additionally, they’re lighter, making it easier on the artist’s hand. On the downside, plastic tubes lack variety, limiting the needle groupings you can create.

Metal tubes are more stable and reliable. You can create any needle grouping you need to nail even the most difficult design. Generally, metal allows more flexibility for you as an artist.

Our take: Try them both and decide which one is best for you. Finding what you’re comfortable with as an artist is important, and it will require some experimentation.

Setting Up the Needle Bar

Setting up the needle bar is a process that requires precision. You need a deep understanding of what to look for when double-checking your work. Even after this process becomes second nature, you’ll still want to make sure you’re following every sanitation precaution to the letter. 

Here’s our 5-Step Process:

1. Needle Selection: Choose a liner, shader, or mag, depending on the part of the design you’ll be working on.

2. Insert then needle: Slide the grouping into the needle tube. You do not want the needle tips to touch the sides of the tube at all. Even the slightest contact can cause the needles to bend or pit, affecting the quality of your work.

3. Attach the Tube: There is a hole in the frame of the machine for the tube. The opening on the tube should be facing forward, and the hook on the top of the bar should be facing left. This will ensure everything is in the right place. Then you can connect it to the armature bar and secure with rubber bands. 

4. Adjust: Make sure the sharps retract into the tube at the right time and extend out the correct amount to puncture the skin. The sharps should extend when the armature bar is in the "down" position. To test, press the armature bar down with your finger. Check that the needles reach out between 1/6 and 1/8 of an inch and then tighten the set screw. When you release the armature bar, the needles should retract into the tube to the point that they cannot come in contact with the skin.

5. Eye Loupe: Use an eye loupe to watch the needles while in motion and at rest. Make sure none of your needles are bent and check for any wobbling or quivering. When in motion, there should only be an up-and-down motion – no sideways movement whatsoever.


Attaching and using a tattoo tube correctly is a delicate process, and one that takes practice to master. Looking to learn more? Our Tattooing101 Online Training Course breaks down what you need to know to be successful in the tattoo industry – from proper sanitation to crafting stylized client designs. Come see how our students are going from complete beginner to professional tattoo artist in just 90 days.

Click here to learn more about our Artist Accelerator Program.

Nathan Molenaar