Complete Guide On Tattoo Machine Stroke

New artists often struggle to get clean lines and smooth shades. Picking the right stroke length is the difference between a busted tattoo that can’t be fixed and a tattoo composed of crisp lines and flawless blending. 

In this article, we'll be breaking down:

  • What machine stroke is
  • Which stroke to use for lining, packing, and shading
  • How to change your tattoo machine stroke

Keep reading to discover which strokes produce ultra-smooth black and grey, perfect one-pass lines, and gorgeously packed color.

Machine Stroke

What is machine stroke?

A tattoo machine’s stroke, or “throw,” is the distance the armature bar travels from its most upright position to its most down position. In rotary tattoo machines, the stroke refers to the amount of travel required for one rotation. The further the bearing is away from the centre of the cam, the longer the stroke. 

This is different from needle depth, which refers to how far the needle hangs out of the tube. Machine stroke is not affected by needle depth. (However, you might decide to change the machine stroke to accommodate a different needle depth.)

You’ll find tattoo machines that have various size strokes or have the ability to adjust the range within a certain amount of stroke size (for example 1.8mm-5mm).

  • Short Stroke Length: 1.8 – 2.5 mm. Short stroke machines move faster because they have less distance to travel in each up-and-down motion.
  • Medium Stroke Length: 3.5mm. This is widely used by tattoo artists. If a tattoo machine is not adjustable, it most likely will come with this stroke length, or one very close.  
  • Long Stroke Length: 4mm+. Long stroke machines hit harder because they have more space to “wind up” before hitting the skin.

Why is machine stroke important?

The machine stroke determines:

  • How hard the machine hits. (A longer stroke gives the needle more momentum because it travels a longer distance in each up and down motion of the needle bar (coil tattoo machine) or cam wheel (rotary tattoo machine). This gives the machine more power, allowing you to use larger needle groupings more easily. However, increased power causes more trauma to the skin.)
  • How fast the needle moves. (How quickly the needle moves in and out of the tip.)
  • Your max needle depth. (A short stroke limits how far your needles can stick out. The needle’s depth must be short enough so that it is able to reach the ink inside the tube’s tip in each up-and-down motion.)

When to use different strokes

A shorter stroke (1.8-2.5mm) is good for applying soft black and grey. This style often requires multiple passes to build up layers of ink. The softer-hitting stroke allows you to create these layered, smooth blends without chewing out the skin. A short stroke cannot be used for lining. It won’t have the power to push the lines properly, and if you set the needle too deep it will not fully retract into the tube each cycle. This prevents the needle being replenished with the tube tip’s ink, which makes getting solid lines in a single pass almost impossible. Additionally, lining requires the needle to hang farther out of the tube (for improved accuracy), which you can’t do with a short stroke. This leads to ink pooling on the skin and covering up the stencil.

A medium stroke (3.5mm) is best for packing color and blending. A medium stroke has enough power for lining with smaller needle groupings, but it will struggle with larger ones. You can also do some black and grey (but not ultra-smooth portraits that require several passes). 

A longer stroke (4.0+mm) is typically only used for lining, as it packs in ink with hard-hitting strokes. It can push large needle groups into the skin with ease, and allows you to hang the needle farther out of the tip, which provides greater accuracy when you’re lining. However, this quality makes it a bad choice for shading, which requires multiple passes. Longer strokes make it nearly impossible to get smooth blends, and the multiple passes shading requires will over work the skin and possibly leave scarring. 

Stroke

Used for

Pros

Cons

Shorter Stroke Machines (3mm)

Soft black and grey, blending colours

  • Allows for more passes over the skin to build up layers of ink
  • Less trauma to the skin
  •  Can be so short that it ends up not allowing the needle to retract into the tip to pick up more ink, resulting in patchy ink distribution
  • Have to dip back into the cap more often

Medium stroke (3.5) “Standard”

Packing colour and shading, performs well for both lining and shading

  •  Best for beginners
  • Can do a bit of everything
  •  Can hit a bit too hard to go over with multiple passes
  • Not ideal for thick lines or for black and grey.

Longer stroke (4.0mm+)

Lining

  •  Packing lots of ink into the skin quickly
  •  More painful for client
  • Easier to chew up the skin

Note

Machine Stroke can be easy to mix up with “tattoo needle depth.” If you use a short stroke but decide to increase needle depththe short stroke will be too short to pull the needle all the way back into the tip. If the needle doesn’t go back into the tip/cartridge, then it wont pick up any ink and it won’t put any in the skin.

The new needle depth needs a longer stroke that will be able to pull that needle all the way back into the tube. The longer stroke will return back into the skin at the same depth of the short stroke machine, except this time, it’ll have ink on the needle. If you do not make this adjustment, your needle will not reach the ink. This will result in weak colors, weak lines, and a patchy distribution of ink (which will only grow more noticeable when the tattoo heals).

My needle is moving in and out of the tip on a short stroke but isn't picking up enough in. Why not? 

While you might just need a simple refill, the problem could be how you're holding the machine. With a very small stroke, the needle is barely retracting back into the tip. If you're holding the machine at a tilted angle, then the ink might be further back in the tip than your needle is able to reach. When using a short stroke, hold the machine vertically when possible. That allows gravity to move the ink closer to the very edge of the tip, where the needle will be retracting. Now the ink is back in reach of the retracting needle, ready for use.

Adjust Stroke Length

What stroke does my machine have? The machine’s stroke or possible stroke range will be listed when you buy your machine. Some tattoo machines can be adjusted and others cannot. You will need to know this about your machine before purchasing.

Why is an adjustable stroke important? As a tattoo artist, you will need to have a short, medium, and long stroke available. If your tattoo machine does not have an adjustable stroke - or you don’t know how to properly change the stroke - you will have to buy three separate machines, which can be costly. 

How to change your stroke:

  • To change the stroke on a coil machine, you will need to turn the front contact screw. By having the screw “back out,” you will make the gap larger, resulting in a bigger stroke. However, this will change the speed of your machine.
  • To change the stroke on rotary machines, you can buy different cams and centers (a different stroke wheel), as this will make the length of each rotation longer (lengthening the stroke of the machine as a result).

Note

Coil machines have “give,” or that “bounce back” feeling when the needle penetrates the skin. This quality can often be adjusted. Rotary machines have a “direct drive” without the extra give.

Longer stroke lengths on a hard-hitting machine with some give will have less impact on the skin. This means a coil machine is more forgiving if you accidentally go too deep in the skin. As a result, coil machines have a small margin of error that rotary machines do not.

Caution: Pulling lines with a longer stroke

If you are using a longer stroke, remember that the needle will be in the client’s skin for a longer amount of time and will be hitting the skin harder (even if your machine has a good amount of ''give''). This causes trauma to the skin. When you're pulling a line while using a very long stroke, you will need to work fairly quickly to prevent the additional trauma caused by overworking a small area.

Become a Tattoo Artist With the Artist Accelerator Program

Understanding different stroke lengths is an important step in your journey, but it can also be pretty eye-opening to how difficult tattooing can be. Without the right knowledge, it’s impossible to level up your skills and become a professional tattoo artist. 

However, finding the straight-forward information you need to progress is difficult. And with so much out there online, it’s hard to avoid picking up bad habits from incorrect and outdated resources.

This is one of the biggest struggles new tattooers face, and too many talented artists have given up their goal of getting into tattooing because of the years it would take to unlearn their bad habits. 

That’s why aspiring artists are learning to tattoo with the Artist Accelerator Program’s structured course. As a student, you learn every step of the tattooing process from professional artists with the experience and advice you need to build your skills and create incredible tattoos. 

With the Artist Accelerator, you can stop wasting time searching through incorrect information. You just get the clear, easy-to-understand lessons you need to start improving fast… along with support and personalized feedback from professional artists in our online Mastermind group.

Over 2500 students have already gone through the course, with many of them opening up their own studios. If you want to join them and learn the skills you need to start tattooing full time faster…

Click here to learn more about the Artist Accelerator Program.

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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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  1. I have nothing more to say but I have learnt a lot from Tattoo 101 I never thought I can lean so much from Tattoo 101. Thanks Nathan I really appreciate you for send tips and encouraging emails. Even though I am a beginner I fill like pro already. Please keep the good work. Once again I wanna say a big thank you to Tattoo 101 especially Nathan.
    Cheers 🙂
    William from Papua New Guinea 🇵🇬

  2. Great article! It is, however, very important to point out that hand speed, stroke, machine speed, angle of attack, etc, are all very individual comfort choices.
    Experimentation and focused learning of differing equipment is paramount!
    21 years in, I use 4.0mm stroke at 12v for everything, including photo realism, portraits, color packing and line work.
    Sometimes, it's not the arrow, but the archer.
    Keep up the great work!

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