How to Set Up a Tattoo Machine in 9 Steps

Most people think that becoming a professional tattoo artist means creating amazing designs every day. And while that’s an outcome of success, what people don’t see are the characteristics that allowed the artist to get to that point-  the grit behind it all.

In the tattoo industry, simply being a good tattoo artist is not enough to be successful. There are other qualities aspiring tattoo artists need to reach the top.

In this article, you’ll learn: 

  • 5 common traits of successful tattoo artists
  • Ways that you can grow these traits
  • How to ultimately be successful in a competitive niche like tattooing
Note
Remember to wear latex gloves (or nitrile gloves) while setting up your tattoo machine

How to Set Up a Coil Tattoo Machine

Coil tattoo machines are often considered “traditional” machines. They can be tricky to tune, so most artists will use two separate machines - one for lining and one for shading - to avoid re-tuning their machine mid-tattoo.

STEP 1

Set Up the Springs

If the springs are not already in place on your machine, you’ll need to set them up around the screw on the armature bar. Wedge the springs around the screw; the back spring goes under the front spring. Then loop the O-ring around the screw, going under the front spring and over the back spring.

proper location for tattoo gun springs
STEP 2

Put a Slight Bend in the Tattoo Needle

There’s two reasons artists put a bend in the needle before sliding it into the tube. First, it makes it easier not to barb the needle when you slide it through the tube. Second, having a slight bend lets the needle rest against the back of the tip more easily. 

how a tattoo artist puts a bend in the needle bar
STEP 3

Put the Needle Through the Tube

Carefully slide the needle through the tube and attach the rubber grommet. Make sure that the needle does not hit the tip on its way through, this can barb the needle. Barbed needles can mess up your lines, chew out the skin faster, and cause your client to have a painful tattoo experience.

Make sure that you have a tip with a matching needle bar. For example, a tube made for a 7 Round Liner will have a diamond tip (ideal for liners) and only be big enough for a liner with 7 sharps. It’ll be impossible to use a larger liner, a mag, etc. with that tip.
needle tip sliding through the needle tube
STEP 4

Feed the Needle and Tube Through the Clamp

Loosen the clamp at the base of the machine so the needle and tube can easily slide through. Secure the grommet at the end of the armature bar.

how a tattoo artist attaches the needle tube and needle bar to the armature bar on a tattoo gun
STEP 5

Adjust the Tube so Needle is Fully Retracted

If your needle does not go all the way back into the tip while you are tattooing, it won’t be able to pick up ink from the reservoir. Move the tube up or down inside the clamp until the end of the needle is lined up with the tip of the tube.

how a tattoo artists adjusts the tubes and tattoo needles on tattoo machines
STEP 6

Put a Rubber Band Around the Tattoo Machine

Having a rubber band around the machine applies a little bit of pressure to the needle. That pressure pushes the needle to the back of the tip so it doesn’t bounce around and ruin your line work. It also keeps the grommet from popping off. 

You only need one rubber band. Too much pressure on the needle will make it harder for the needle to move, which will wear out your machine and cause issues with the ink “spitting” out.

how a tattoo artist adds rubber bands to a tattoo gun correctly
STEP 7

Attach Your Clip Cord

Attach your clip cord to the back of the machine. Press the foot pedal or the “on” button on your power supply to turn the machine on. The “buzz” you hear while it’s on is the armature bar hitting the coils. Make sure to put a clip cord cover over your clip cord to protect yourself and your clients from potential contact with bloodborne pathogens.

tattoo artist tattoo gun, clip cord, foot pedal, and power supply
STEP 8

Tune Your Tattoo Machine

power supply for tattoo gun

When tuning a coil machine, you’ll need to adjust the following settings:

Voltage

The voltage is essentially how much power is going through your tattoo machine. The more voltage, the more powerful the “hit” of the needle. We recommend keeping your voltage around 4 volts for shading and around 5.5 volts for lining with a traditional coil machine.

Cycles Per Second (CPS)

Sometimes labeled “Hertz” on your power supply, the CPS of a machine is how many times the needle is making a full up-and-down motion per second. We recommend a CPS of 120 for shading and 130 for lining.

You increase the CPS by moving the contact screw in closer to the front spring and you decrease the CPS by moving the contact screw away from the front spring.

Stroke

Your machine stroke is the length of space the needle covers in one up-and-down motion. For coil machines, we recommend a 3mm stroke for lining, a 3.5mm stroke for black and gray, and a 4mm stroke for color packing.

Like the CPS, you adjust the stroke by moving the contact screw. Moving the contact screw in shortens the stroke. Moving the contact screw in also increases the CPS. This works well for lining as you need both a shorter stroke and an increased CPS. (In the same way, moving the contact screw out lengthens the stroke and decreases the CPS, which you would want for packing.)

Duty

The duty of your machine measures how long the needle is in the skin. If the duty is below 50, it means the machine is spending more time off than on during a cycle. This means the needle is spending too much time extended out into the skin, causing extra trauma to the skin. 

If the duty is above 50, the needle is spending too much time in the tube and not putting enough ink in the skin.

To adjust the duty, you need to swing the armature bar out and lightly bend the back spring. Bend the back spring up if the duty is less than 50, and bend the back spring down if the duty is more than 50.

STEP 9

Wrap Your Tattoo Machine

Place a machine bag over your machine. We like to put a small hole in the bottom of the bag to fit the grip through. You can then use grip tape to secure the machine bag.

tattoo equipment wrapped in a tattoo machine bag
Note
If you do not have an autoclave, you must use disposable grips. 

How to Set Up a Rotary Tattoo Machine

Rotary tattoo machines move the tattoo needle with a direct drive motor. Because the cam wheel on the motor is powered directly and doesn’t require all the tuning of a coil machine, rotaries are much easier to set up. 

Check out our instructors’ favorite rotary tattoo machine in our new article: Inkjecta Flite Nano Review.

STEP 1

Use an Allen Key to Attach the Needle Bar and Cam Wheel

Place the plunger bar in the opening of the cam wheel and tighten with an Allen key. Then pop the cam wheel into place and tighten with an Allen key.

tattoo artist wearing latex gloves
STEP 2

Attach the Tube and Needle Cartridge

Most rotary machines will have a clamp that you twist to open. Open it enough for the tube to fit in. Guide the needle bar into the tube. Then, place the needle cartridge into the grip. You’ll feel a “click” as the cartridge locks into place.

how to set up a rotary tattoo gun correctly
STEP 3

Adjust the Depth of the Needle

Before you tighten the clamp all the way, move your needle to set the depth you want to tattoo at. We like to float the needle, which means lining the needle up with the very end of the cartridge. 

If the needle is poking out the end of the cartridge while the machine is off, you’ve gone too far.

tattoo machines with different depths on liner needles
STEP 4

Attach the RCA Cord

To power the machine, plug the RCA cord into the machine and into the power supply.

tattoo gun plugged into a power supply without digital display
STEP 5

Wrap Your Tattoo Machine

Place a machine bag over your machine. You can poke a hole in the bottom of it to fit the grip through. Secure the bag with grip tape around the grip. If you do not have an autoclave you must use a disposable grip.

tattoo gun bag for sterile equipment

Bonus Step: Changing Out Your Cam Wheel

If you want to change the machine stroke of your rotary machine, you’ll need to switch to the cam wheel with that stroke.

Use the Allen key to release the plunger bar from the cam wheel, and then to get the cam off the machine. You can then replace it with a new cam wheel, putting the plunger bar on the new cam.  

We recommend using a 4mm stroke for linework or packing color and a 3mm stroke for black and gray, realism, or smooth shading.

Cam pack

How to Set Up a Pen Tattoo Machine

Pen machines are simple to set up, which is why they’re some of the best tattoo machines for beginners. Many pen machines have a set stroke (usually 3.5mm) so you can line, shade, and pack color with them without having to make many adjustments to the machine.

STEP 1

Put Any Pieces Together

Many pen machines will come in two parts (this is often the case with wireless pen machines, and the rechargeable battery will be the upper half).

machine for tattoo artist
tattoo gun set
machine with tattoo accessories
STEP 2

Put in the Needle Cartridge

Tattoo pens use needle cartridges. All you have to do is put the cartridge in the grip and twist to lock it in. We recommend using needles that have a membrane. This will keep blood, ink, plasma, etc. from getting back into the machine and contaminating it.

STEP 3

Set Your Needle Depth

Most pen machines will have you twist the grip to set the depth. We recommend manually controlling your needle depth by floating the needle. To set up your machine to float the needle, you twist the grip until the end of the needle lines up right with the bottom of the cartridge. If your machine is off and the needles are poking out past the cartridge, you’ve gone too far.

STEP 4

Wrap Your Machine

A lot of pen machines can be wrapped in a clip cord cover. If you do not have an autoclave, you need to buy disposable grips for your machine. Secure the machine bag with grip tape before starting.

tattoo artist tattooing a straight line on fake skin
STEP 5

Turn the Machine On

Most pen machines require little to no setup to get them up and running. Most wireless machines will even come in the mail already charged if you order from the manufacturer. If you have a wireless machine, there will be a power button at the top of the machine. If your machine requires an RCA cord, plug it into the power supply and your machine.

machine used in tattoo shops
tattoo kit
STEP 6

Set Your Voltage

If your pen machine has an RCA cord, you will need to adjust the voltage on your power supply. If you are using a wireless machine, you will adjust the voltage on the machine (most will have a light up display or an LED screen showing you the voltage).

Learn to Master Tattooing

artist applying a tattoo on human skin

Getting comfortable with your tattoo machine is only the first step on your journey to becoming a tattoo artist. Next, you need to learn how to use it to flawlessly apply tattoos.

There’s a ton of information out there that promises to teach you to tattoo, but a lot of it is outdated or incorrect. This is why most tattoo artists trying to learn online pick up bad habits that can take years to unlearn.

If you want to learn how to tattoo the right way, you can still do it online and at your own pace.

We created the Artist Accelerator Program to give aspiring artists all the lessons and techniques they need in an easy-to-follow, 9-step roadmap that can take anyone from complete beginner to professional tattoo artist in as little as 90 days.

Inside the program, you’ll learn the skills tattoo artists use every day, get personalized guidance from professionals, and put together a portfolio that gets you hired. 

Skip the years of trial and error and start building a career you love today.

Click here to check out the Artist Accelerator Program.

Looking for a tattoo apprenticeship?

Tattooing 101's Artist Accelerator 90 day program is the closest thing to a real apprenticeship

  • 500 video modules
  • Professional tattoo artist coaches
  • Private mastermind community
AUTHOR
Nathan Molenaar

Nathan is a licensed professional tattoo artist with over 8 years’ experience working at studios across the globe, including Celebrity Ink, the world's largest tattoo studio chain. When he's not tattooing, he spends his free time sharing his experience and knowledge with aspiring artists who dream of pursuing a career in the tattooing industry.

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