Riding the Tube vs Floating the Needle

The terms “riding the tube” and “floating the needle” have to do with your needle depth. Riding the tube automatically controls your needle depth to keep you from going too deep in the skin. But it makes it harder to see your stencil.

Floating the needle means you manually control your needle depth. This makes it easier to see what you’re doing, but you run the risk of going too deep in the skin.

In this article, we’ll break down:

  • How to ride the tube
  • How to float the needle
  • Which option is best for controlling needle depth

Should You Ride the Tube or Float the Needle?

What Does it Mean to “Ride the Tube”?

In order to understand the difference between riding the tube and floating the needle, it’s important to know how deep into the skin tattoo ink goes. While it will change some depending on which body part you’re tattooing, a good rule of thumb is that you should try to go 2mm deep into the skin.

Knowing this, whether you need to ride the tube or float the needle is determined by how far out your needles go. If your needle is set further back into your machine and it can only extend 2mm out of the cartridge at most, then you will need to ride the tube to hit the right depth in the skin. This means your cartridge will need to physically touch the skin. 

There can’t be a gap between the end of the cartridge and the skin because you need the full 2mm that is sticking out of the cartridge to be in the skin.

How to Ride the Tube

Ride the tube

To ride the tube:

  • Set your needle so it comes out 2mm at the bottom of the machine’s stroke.
  • Push your needle into the skin until the tube is resting against the skin.
  • Let the tube glide across the skin. (Use some Vaseline to help this process.)

There is one major pro and one major con to “riding the tube”:

Pro: You Don’t Have to Worry About Going Too Deep in the Skin

When you ride the tube, it is nearly impossible to go too deep in the skin. This means you’re way less likely to cause blowouts, scarring, or additional trauma to your client’s skin. When you’re first starting out, this is a great way to get comfortable (and avoid messing up a tattoo). If you’re working on fake skin, it makes sure you aren’t ripping up the silicone.

Con: It’s Harder to See What You’re Doing

When you press the cartridge right up against the skin, ink that is pushed out when you’re doing linework will get all over the stencil. This makes it harder to see where the stencil actually is, which means you’ll have more trouble with following the stencil and connecting lines correctly.  


If you use this method, make sure to dab that extra ink off the skin instead of wipe. If you wipe at the stencil, it will rub off the skin. However, if you just dab it, the ink will pull up off the skin without taking the stencil with it.

What Does it Mean to “Float the Needle”?

When you float the needle, you are manually controlling your needle depth. This means you’ll have a small gap between the bottom of your needle cartridge and the skin. 

To make that extra space, you will hang your needle further out of the tube. For example, if you’re lining, we recommend using a 4mm stroke. This way, you can have the needle extending out far enough. Then, you will control the needle to only go into the skin 2mm. 

When you’re moving your needle to hang out further, it’s important to make sure it can still go back all the way inside the tube. First, because it’s a safety hazard. If your machine is turned off but the needle is still out, you are more likely to get a finger stick injury, which puts you at risk of being exposed to bloodborne pathogens.

Secondly, if your needle can’t fully retract into the needle, then it won’t be able to reach the ink reservoir. This will leave your lines looking super faint.

How to Float the Needle

Floating the tattoo needle

To float the needle:

  • Set the needle so that it comes out ~4mm at the bottom of the machine’s stroke.
  • Push the needle into the skin only 2mm. Set your pinky and ring fingers onto the skin and use them as a “guard” to keep your depth consistent. Your middle finger will be under the cartridge, supporting it.
  • Without the tube ever touching the skin, move the needle while sliding the outside of your palm and pinky against the skin. (Putting some Vaseline on your glove will help with this process.)

There is one major pro and one major con to “floating the needle”:

Pro: You Can See Your Stencil More Easily

When you float the tube, there is a small gap between your cartridge and the skin. This gap keeps ink from spurting out onto your stencil. This not only protects your stencil, but it also makes it easier to see where you’re going while lining. 

If you are floating the needle correctly (and holding your machine at a bit of an angle), you’ll see what looks like a small “dot” of ink in the skin. This is where the ink is going in, and it lets you pinpoint where you are working, making it easier to do intricate designs.

Con: It’s Much Easier to Tear Up the Skin

Since you are manually controlling your depth and the cartridge isn’t there to stop you, it’s easy to go too deep in the skin. If you forget to pay attention to how deep your needle is, you could accidentally cause a blowout, scarring, or other trauma that leads to healing issues and a bad tattoo.

Is it Better to Ride the Tube or Float the Needle?

Which method you should be using depends on where you are at in your tattooing journey. 

If you are very new to tattooing, it might make sense to ride the tube for a bit to get a feel for things without the added pressure of manually controlling your needle depth.

However, as you progress, we recommend trying to float the needle, since it does give you better visibility, which you will need as you take on more complicated tattoo designs. It’s best to practice floating the needle on fake skins first so you can feel comfortable with the technique before trying it on real skin.

Prepare for a Tattooing Career with the Artist Accelerator Program

Learning to control your needle depth 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.

Looking for a tattoo apprenticeship?

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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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