Types of Tattoo Machines: Your Complete Tattoo Machine Guide

Your tattoo machine is the most important part of your setup. Without it, you have no way to actually put ink in the skin. 

As a beginner tattoo artist, a big part of improving your art is finding tattoo machines that work for you.

By the end of this article, you’ll know the different types of tattoo machines, as well as how to set up your stroke and voltage.

In this article, we’re breaking down:

  • The 4 types of tattoo machines
  • How to tune a tattoo machine
  • Our recommended tattoo machines

Coil Tattoo Machines

tattoo machine with electromagnetic coils and needle bar

How Coil Machines Work:

Coil machines operate by completing and breaking an electrical circuit over and over.

  • Electromagnet ON: When the coils are not charged, the armature bar is up, pulling the needle up.
  • Electromagnet OFF: When the coils are charged, it pulls the armature bar down, pulling the needle down. 

Tuning Coil Tattoo Machines:

  • Voltage: 7-8 for beginners or shading and 9-10 for lining. We recommend never going over 11 volts.
  • CPS/Hertz: Approximately 130 for lining, 120 for shading. Adjust by moving the contact screw. 
  • Stroke*: Coil machines require a shorter stroke for lining and a longer stroke for shader machines:
  • If you are lining, use a shorter stroke (3mm).
  • If you’re shading with greywash, use a medium stroke (3.5mm).
  • If you’re packing colors, use a longer stroke (4mm)
  • Duty: Get as close to 50% as possible. Adjust by lightly bending the back spring.

*Coil and rotary machines use different mechanisms. The recommended stroke length is different for a rotary machine.

Note:

Which voltage is right for you partially depends on your hand speed.

8-Coil, 10-Coil, or 12-Coil Machine?

Coils are usually pieces of iron with copper wire wrapped around them. The amount of wire wrapped around a coil changes how much power it has. More wire means more electricity is being conducted from the power source. Coil machines with more wire have the power to hit harder. 

Less wire means less power. This means the needle will hit the skin with less force.

The number associated with a coil tattoo machines tells you how many times the coil has been wrapped with the wire. The more times it has been wrapped, the more wire the coil has. For example, a 12-coil machine has more wire than an 8-coil machine. 

Which machine you should use depends on what type of needles you plan to work with: 

  • 8-coil: fine lines and smaller needle groupings. We recommend 8-coils for beginners.
  • 10-coil: thicker outlining and shading. Use with 8-14 liners.
  • 12-coil: shading big areas (like larger tribal work). Use with 11-17 mags. 

Rotary Tattoo Machines

How Rotary Tattoo Machines Work:

Rotary machines use a “direct drive” motor to drive the cam wheel, which moves the needle up and down as it rotates.

  • Cam Wheel is UP: When the grommet on the cam wheel reaches its highest point, the needle is inside the tube.
  • Cam Wheel is DOWN: When the grommet on the cam wheel is at the bottom of its rotation, the needle is “down,” putting ink into the skin.

Adjusting Rotary Tattoo Machines:

  • Voltage: Use a higher voltage for lining and a lower voltage for shading. You’ll usually want to stay between 7 and 10 volts.
  • Stroke*: Some rotary machines let you adjust the stroke length by changing the stroke wheel that fits on the motor.
  • If you are lining or packing solid color, use a longer stroke (4mm).
  • If you’re shading, use a shorter stroke (3mm).
  • If you’re packing colors, use a medium stroke (3.5mm)
  • Needle DepthNeedle depth isn’t necessarily controlled by your machine, but how far you hang your needles out of the tube will help you control your depth.
  • Most pen machines will have a “click” grip that moves the needle further in or out of the tube. Some rotary machines (like the Spectra Edge X) also use click grips.

Note:

3.5mm stroke is usually used for packing color, but it’s also considered a good “all-rounder” stroke for a rotary tattoo machine*. You can still do some lining and shading, which is why rotaries or pen machines with a set stroke usually have a 3.5mm stroke.

*Coil and rotary machines use different mechanisms. The recommended stroke length is different for a coil machine.

Pen Machines

fk irons tattoo guns

How Pen Tattoo Machines Work:

Most pen tattoo machines operate with the same “direct drive” motion of a rotary machine. However, instead of having the motor sit horizontally on top of the tattoo artist’s hand, it’s held inside the pen casing.

Note:

Pen machines cause minimal vibration and tend to be quieter than coil and rotary machines.

Adjusting a Pen Machine:

  • Voltage: Most wireless tattoo machines let you adjust the volts directly on the machine instead of on a power supply.
  • The voltage you need partially depends on your hand speed. In general, you’ll use a higher voltage for lining, and a lower voltage for shading.
  • Stroke: If your pen tattoo machine allows you to adjust your stroke, a good rule of thumb is 4mm for lining, 3.5mm for packing, and 3mm for shading and making smooth blends.
  • Machines with a set stroke length will usually have a 3.5mm stroke, which is suitable for both lining and shading. 
  • Needle DepthMost pen machines will have a grip that “twists,” letting you move the needle further in or out of the tube. We recommend hanging the needle further out of the tube and manually controlling your needle depth by “floating the needle.” 

Pneumatic Machines

How Pneumatic Tattoo Machines Work:

Instead of using a motor that pushes the needle down, pneumatic tattoo machines have a small air compressor. When you push down on the foot pedal, compressed air moves the needle.

Note:

Because they don’t have an electric motor, pneumatic machines tend to be lighter and quieter than other machines. They cause very little vibration and can use the same battery packs and clip cord/power source as “normal” tattoo machines. However, pneumatic tattoo machines are new to the tattoo industry and are not used as often as coil, rotary, or pen machines.

Adjusting a Pneumatic Machine:

Enter your text here...You can adjust pneumatic machines similarly to pen or rotary tattoo machines that have interchangeable cams.

Prepare for a Tattooing Career with the Artist Accelerator Program

Having a career in tattooing is not only fulfilling, but it’s also the most stable way to make a living as an artist. However, for decades, the process to become a tattoo artist has been notoriously difficult. 

The apprenticeship process requires aspiring artists to work 50-60 hours a week without pay for 2-4 years. That, combined with the toxic culture of abusing apprentices, makes getting into the industry almost impossible for newcomers.

That’s why we created the Artist Accelerator Program. Our online course provides a simple, structured way of learning to tattoo that has been proven to work by over 2500 successful students, with many of them having gone on to open their own shops all around the world.

Inside the program, we’ll take you through every step of the tattooing process in 9 clear, easy-to-follow modules and support you along the way within the Tattooing 101 Mastermind online community.

In the Mastermind group, you’ll collaborate with other students, get answers to your questions, and receive personalized video feedback on your artwork and tattoos from professional tattoo artists. With this friendly community of both new and experienced tattoo artists, you’ll never be stuck again.
 
When you join the Artist Accelerator Program, you’ll have instant access to the full course and the Mastermind community, as well as our 30-Day Flash Challenge and recorded interviews with tattoo artists from all over the world. 

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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