Tattoo Needles Explained
Choosing which tattoo needle to use when you’re just starting out can be overwhelming. There are countless variations and confusing box labels. As a tattoo artist, you must know how to read the box so that you are able to select the right needle for the job. Different needle configurations produce different effects on the skin and are designed for working on different types of tattoos.
You cannot simply pick a needle at random and hope your artistic skills will guide you through. Using the correct needles for the tattoo you are doing will let you tattoo faster and more efficiently while causing less trauma to the skin. Basically, you’ll be able to do better tattoos with less difficulty because you’ll be using the correct tools for the job.
By the end of this article, you’ll understand everything you need to know about tattoo needles: which ones you should use, when you should use them, why each is important, and how you can apply your newfound knowledge in your next tattoo.
Reading the Box
Tattoo needles come in different shapes, sizes, and counts. Knowing how to read the tattoo needle box and identify these differences between needles is essential for being able to select the needle that is best suited to the tattoo you are about to do. There are typically 4 sets of characters on the box that act as your guide when choosing which needle is the right one for your design. (See the diagram above.)
When selecting your needles for a tattoo, there are four things you need to consider. Each aspect will affect how ink is distributed into the skin. They will be listed on the box in the following order:
- Diameter: The diameter, or gauge, of the needle is the measurement of the thickness of the needle at its widest point (the base where the needle begins to sharpen to a point).
- Needle Count: The needle count is determined by how many individual sharps make up the whole needle. The more sharps included, the bigger the needle will be.
- Configuration: A needle’s configuration describes how the individual needles (sharps) are set up on the needle bar. This will tell you what type of needle it is. For example, whether it is a liner, magnum, or round shader.
- Taper: The taper refers to the length of the part of the needle that is pointed, or how steep the angle of the needle’s point is. The taper determines the precision of the needle as well as how fast it can pack ink into the skin.
What Diameter Should You use?
What is diameter? Diameter is the gauge, or thickness, of each individual needle attached to the bar in the configuration.
Why is diameter important? A needle’s diameter controls how much ink is picked up and distributed into the skin. Changing the diameter of your needles not only affects how much trauma you cause to the skin, but also how quickly and smoothly you can put ink into the skin.
- Thinner needles (with a thinner diameter like a #08 needle) allow you to build up more layers by putting less ink into the skin with each pass. This leads to smoother blends. But, because they distribute less ink, they will slow you down.
- Larger needles (with a larger diameter like a #12 needle) distribute more ink, allowing you to pack ink into the skin faster. However, because each needle in the configuration is larger, they will cause more trauma to the skin with each pass.
Most Common Needle Diameters:
- #12 – 0.35mm: These needles, called “Standard” needles, allow the artist to pick up a good amount of ink during the tattoo.
- #10 – 0.30mm: Also known as “Double Zeroes,” #10 needles are a bit smaller than their #12 counterpart and cause less trauma to the skin while still allowing for more ink than a #8 needle.
- #08 – 0.25mm: These tightly-packed needles produce a finer effect on the skin. They are often called “Bugpins.”
How do I decide which needle to use? Once you decide on a design, you’ll need to figure out what you need to accomplish with the diameter of your needle. If you’re looking to pack in solid colour, you’d pick a standard #12. If you need tiny details or want to get ultra-smooth blends by building up lots of layers (like in a black and grey portrait, for example), go with a bugpin.
Note: Needle sizes will make a difference. Not only are #12 needles larger than #10, the spaces between the needles within their configuration are larger as well. So, while a 12-15-M1 needle will allow you to add colour to a large area quickly, a 10-15-M1 will be slightly smaller even though it has the same needle count because its needles are packed closer together. This will slow you down because the needle won’t be as big and will put less ink in the skin, but it will also provide a smoother colour application on the skin. This applies to all needles: liners, flats, etc.
Knowing what each of these needles does best will help you decide which one to use on a client. Choosing the “right” tattoo needle can be difficult at first and requires lots of practice. Once you get a feel for how each needle performs, you’ll know which one you need without much thought.
It’s always best to think through which needles you’ll need before starting on a tattoo. This will eliminate guesswork and ensure you have everything you need at your station (and that you don’t keep the client waiting while you search for a needle you suddenly realize you need).
What Each Diameter Does Best
#10 (Double Zeroes)
What Needle Count Should You Use?
What is needle count? The needle count refers to the total number of individual needles/sharps that make up the whole needle. The higher the count, the bigger the needle will be. Because most configurations lend themselves to odd numbers, you’ll almost always see the needle count as an odd number: 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, etc.
Needle counts can go up to numbers like 27 or even into the forties. However, these are rare and most machines do not have the power needed to move a needle that size well enough to puncture skin (not to mention the pain that might cause the client). When preparing a needle, ensure your machine can handle the needle count and effectively push the ink into your client’s skin.
Why is needle count important? Needle count determines how big the needle will be. For example, a 12 03 RL (with only three needles) will produce very fine lines that are great for delicate linework or tiny details. Alternatively, a 12 14 RL (with fourteen needles) will produce a much thicker line that will create the strong outline you would want to see in a bold traditional tattoo.
What size liner should you use:
- Needle count determines your line weight. It’s important to vary the line weights in your tattoo to provide contrast. This will make the most impactful parts of the design stand out and make the image readable even from far away. (In other words, line weight is what helps the eye see an image instead of a jumbled cluster of lines.)
- It’s best to use two to three different sized-liners to achieve this contrast. We recommend three for big tattoos and two for smaller tattoos.
Note: Smaller lines are easier to get into the skin, as fewer needles means less resistance from the skin. However, they are harder to keep straight and easier to blow out. Larger lines are harder to get into the skin, but are easier to keep straight.
What size magnum should you use:
- Smaller mags are great for filling in tight areas, shading small details and creating texture.
- As a rule of thumb, you should use the biggest mag the tattoo will allow. If you use a small mag to cover a large area, it will be harder to get a consistent fill or smooth blend.
For example, if you use a 5 mag to fill in a full tribal sleeve, it will take forever to finish and cause unnecessary trauma to the skin. Or, if you have a colour background, your colour application will be uneven and cause the tattoo to heal patchy. (An exaggerated image of this would be using a paintbrush to paint a wall instead of a paint roller.)
If you’re going to be packing large areas of skin, use a larger mag like a 15 or 23. They cover more space, and produce smoother gradients over a large area than a smaller needle. Why? Because larger mags require fewer passes to cover the area. (We’ll cover these “configurations” of liner, shader, and mag in the next section.)
Key points to remember when choosing the size (needle count) of your needles:
- Whenever you can, make sure to use multiple line weights in your tattoo to make parts of it stand out.
- Use the biggest mag possible for the design for easier tattooing and consistent blends.
- Script: Use the thinnest liner that you are comfortable with, as that will give you the most precision without the risk of blowing out your lines.
What the Different Configurations Mean
What is the configuration of a needle? A needle’s configuration consists of how the needles are placed on the needle bar.
Why is configuration important? The configuration of the needle will have a big effect on how the ink will be deposited into the skin. One of the most commonly used needles is a “12 07 RL.” This means seven #12 needles arranged in a Round Liner configuration.
How should each configuration be used? This chart can help you remember which needle configuration to use in each scenario:
What Each Configuration is Used For
Round Liner (RL)
Used for: Clear-cut lines, delicate and thin lines, script, dot work, stippling, small areas of shading (i.e. portraits)
Round Shader (RS)
Used for: Soft-edge lines, shading small areas, colour packing
Used for: Shading
Note: It can be very easy to cut a client with a flat, so be careful how you angle these needles.
Used for: Packing black or colour, tribal designs, colour blends, some black and grey, “All-rounder”
Note: Because a magnum is flat and the skin will dip in response to the needle’s pressure, you need to be careful not to cut a client’s skin with the edge of a magnum.
Curved Magnum (M1C, RM)
Used for: Packing black or colour, softer shading (less traumatic for skin) like in portraits, realism or out-of-focus backgrounds.
Stacked Magnum (M2)
Used for: Packing black or colour
Causes more trauma to the skin than a regular magnum.
Warning: Because an M1 is straight and is puncturing into curved and cushy skin, it can potentially cut the client at the edges of the needle. Many artists prefer a curved magnum needle over a straight, as it bends with the client’s skin.
What Needle Taper Should You Use?
What is needle taper? Needle taper is the measurement from the tip of the needle to the point where the needle reaches its thickest point. The taper applies to each individual needle in the configuration. Needles with longer tapers are sharper because the point of the needle is steeper. (The skin will put up less resistance to a sharper needle, which is why longer-tapered needles cause less trauma per pass.)
Needles come in a variety of tapers, with a short taper (ST), being the standard.
- Short taper (ST or S for “Standard”): 1.5mm
- Long taper (LT): 2.0mm
- Double long taper (DLT): 2.5mm
- Extra-long taper (ELT): 3.5mm
- Super long taper (SLT): 5.5mm
- Extra super long taper (ESLT): 8.0mm
Note: While these measurements are the most common, they are not always a hard-and-fast rule. Some companies will have short, medium, and long tapers at different lengths before getting to extra-long tapers.
Why is needle taper important? The taper of the needle affects the amount of ink that can flow from the needle.
The longer the taper, the less ink can be distributed. This means the tattoo will take longer and require more passes, leaving you with the risk of chewing out the skin. However, when working on delicate details or going for precise lining, a longer tapered needle (and a slower flow of ink) allows an artist to have more control over how the ink is put into the skin. This slower distribution of ink allows you to build up layers and create smoother blends.
While a little less precise, short tapered needles are considered the industry standard because they allow for a steady flow of ink and efficiently pack colour into the skin without the need to constantly go back over an area.
Note: Every tattoo needle type has pros and cons. And while some needles are better at certain jobs than others, there are no real rules to which needle you should use. You can still achieve those same effects with other needles. Much of your choice will come down to your personal preference.
How is each taper used? As a general rule, the longer the taper, the less ink you’ll get into the skin because the holes that long tapered needles put into the skin are smaller. This is great for blending black and grey and executing precise details, but not colour packing. For colour packing, you’d want a short taper.
This Taper Cheat Sheet can help you decide what to use in each specific case.
Taper Cheat Sheet:
Short/Standard Taper (ST, S)
Long Taper (LT)
Double Long Taper (DLT) +
Figuring Out What Works for You
When giving a tattoo, it’s important that you choose the tools and needles that will work for you and your designs. Think of each needle grouping as a different type of paint brush. You use what gets the job done, angling the brush in different ways and using your favorite tools, even if another artist might have a different method. However, just like with any other art form, the skills to use these less conventional techniques come with time and practice.
Experience is the Best Teacher
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