Tattoo Line Work Techniques

For beginner tattoo artists, line work is one of the most important skills to master. However, it’s also one of the most difficult.

Understanding the correct techniques makes line work much easier. And after reading this technique guide, you’ll be ready to tattoo lines like a professional.

In this article, we’re breaking down:

  • How to pick your needles and voltage
  • Common lining problems...and how to fix them
  • How to correctly hold the machine and position your hands
  • How to pull long, clean lines anywhere on the client’s body

6 Mistakes New Artists Make While Tattooing Lines

Before we dive in, there’s a few lining mistakes we need to cover. Fixing these errors first will give you the foundation you need to build correct technique later on. Click on each mistake to understand the cause and learn how to fix it.

Mistake #1: Moving Your Hands Too Fast or Slow

In a tattoo machine, the needle moves up and down, so it’s not necessarily “drawing” a line across the skin. It’s actually leaving behind a bunch of tiny dots packed so close together that they seem to make a line. This is why moving too slowly will chew out the skin; the needles are moving fast and hitting the skin more times, which causes more damage. 

Additionally, it’s hard to keep your hands steady when you go slow. When your hands aren’t steady, the dots of ink won’t be in a straight line, which will exaggerate any wobbling movement you make. You want to move quickly enough that your motions are more fluid, but not so fast that your lines aren’t solid. It’s like drawing a line across a sheet of paper - drawing the line quickly will make it look cleaner and crisper than drawing it slowly.

How fast you move your hand while lining needs to match with your machine speed. For example, if you are moving your hands too slowly for the voltage on your machine, the needle will overwork the skin, which can lead to scarring. This can also cause a blowout because there’s too much ink being deposited in one space.

However, if you move your hands very quickly and the voltage is too low, you’ll end up with a “stippling” effect with visible dots in your line.

The best way to adjust the voltage while you’re lining is to decide how fast you are comfortable moving your hands and adjust the machine speed to fit. If you’re chewing out the skin, lower the voltage to slow the machine down. If your line is faint, not enough ink is getting into the skin. Raise the voltage so the machine’s speed matches your own hand speed.

Mistake #2: Holding the Machine the Wrong Way

While lining, you want to keep the tattoo machine as stable as possible. This means holding the tattoo machine securely, and establishing 3 points of contact (see image below).

You can create 3 points of contact by:
  • Connecting the pinky of your tattooing hand to the thumb of your stretching hand
  • Resting your wrist on the massage table or client’s body
  • Anchoring your elbow to the massage table or against your ribs (if the person is sitting up during the tattoo)

Placing your middle finger beneath the grip on the cartridge gives you more stability. If you hold the machine further up, you’ll have less control and less accuracy while you’re tattooing.

Note

Every tattoo artist holds their tattoo machine a little differently. However, holding your machine this way will get you off to a good start.

Pro Tip

Some tattoo machines are heavier than others. For new tattoo artists, we recommend a tattoo pen machine or a rotary machine. They are lighter than coil machines and they vibrate less, which makes it a little easier to tattoo outlines.

Mistake #3: Rubbing the Stencil Off Mid-Tattoo

tattoo stencil

If you move your hand back and forth over the stencil or wipe part of the stencil you have not tattooed yet, you’ll lose the stencil. To avoid this, start working at the bottom corner of the stencil. That way, when you wipe down, you won’t be wiping away part of the stencil you haven’t tattooed yet. 

Start at the lower right hand corner if you are right-handed, and start at the lower left corner if you are left-handed to keep from smudging the stencil with your hand.

Mistake #4: Tattooing “Shaky Lines”

If you’re using the right machine and hand speed but your lines are still wobbly, either your hand is shaking or you’re stretching the skin incorrectly. 

Problem #1: The Machine’s Vibration is Causing You to Shake

If your hand is shaking, you can wrap your grip to take away some of the vibration of the machine. Overtime, you will build up strength in your hands, which will help stop the shaking.

Problem #2: You’re Stretching the Skin in the Wrong Direction

proper skin stretching

When you’re lining, you should be stretching the skin in the direction of the line. If you’re stretching in the opposite direction, the skin will stretch unevenly and leave you with a wobbly line. 

Note: 

Even though you don’t need to stretch the skin to get a clean line on flat practice skin, we recommend still practicing the technique, since you will need to use it on human skin.

Problem #3: The Needles Seem to be “Bouncing” off the Skin

how to get a very tight stretch on the skin surface

If it seems like the ink isn’t going into the skin or the needles are “bouncing” off the skin, you might need to stretch the skin a little more. On looser areas, stretch the skin with your thumb and index finger like normal. Then, use the side of your hands to stretch away from the tattoo for a “three point stretch.”

Note:

If the skin is very stretchy, you can use both sides of your hands to stretch away from the tattoo to make a “four point stretch.” However, it is possible to stretch the skin too hard. Be careful that the skin isn’t stretched so much that the needle cuts the skin.

Problem #4: The Needle is Wobbling in the Cartridge

If you are using low-quality tattooing supplies, there’s a chance the needle does not fit perfectly inside the cartridge. There might be extra space between the needle grouping and the cartridge, which can cause the needle to shake back and forth and make wobbly lines.

Note:

There are a lot of low-quality and knockoff tattooing supplies on Amazon. We recommend buying from a trusted tattoo supply company. If you’re looking for a recommendation, we love CNC’s Police Needle Cartridges

Problem #5: The Stencil of Your Tattoo Design is too Thick

use very fine lines on your stencils

Your stencil is your guideline while you outline a tattoo. But if those guidelines are much thicker than the line you’re tattooing, your line might be shaking inside the stencil’s lines, and you won’t know that it’s not a straight line until you wipe the stencil away with your paper towel.

Problem #6: You’re “Riding the Tube”

When you’re lining, if there’s not a small space between your needle tip and the skin, ink will dump out of the cartridge onto the skin and hide your stencil, making it hard to get straight lines. To learn more, click here.

Mistake #5: Tattooing “Faint” Lines

If your lines are too light, one of these problems is probably stopping you from getting enough ink into the skin: 

Problem #1: You’re Not Stretching the Skin

If you’re not stretching the skin well enough, the needle will “bounce” off the skin and won’t leave enough ink behind.

Problem #2: Needles are Clogged

Putting Vaseline on the stencil helps protect it while you’re tattooing. However, if you put too much, it can clog the needles and stop ink from flowing out.

Problem #3: You’re Not Dipping into the Ink Enough

While you’re tattooing, blood gets into the tube and looks like ink. If your lines are looking faint, it might be because you’re running out of ink and just putting blood back into the skin.

Mistake #6: Causing Blowouts (Ink “Spreads” Beneath the Skin)

If it looks like the ink spreading out beneath the skin, you might be “blowing out” your lines. In this case, your machine is either facing the wrong direction, your needle is going too deep into the skin, or you are moving too slow for the voltage you set. 

Problem #1: Tattoo Machine Angled in the Wrong Direction

tube tip pushing excess ink in the wrong direction

You should always keep your machine facing the direction of the line (whether you’re pushing or pulling the line). If you move the needle across the skin, the ink getting pushed under the skin will “blow out” the side of the line, leaving you with one sharp side and one blown out side on your line.

Problem #2: Needle is Too Deep in the Skin

The skin has three layers, and ink looks different in each of them. Tattoo ink looks and holds best in the middle layer of the skin, the dermis. If the needles go too deep into the bottom layer, the fat there will spread the ink around, causing a blowout. 

This will make the line you just pulled drastically expand when it heals because the ink spreads under the skin and makes it look much thicker. To learn more about needle depth (and the two methods you can use to control it), click here.

Problem #3: Your Voltage is Too High

If you aren’t moving your hand fast enough for the voltage, the needle will chew out the skin and pack too much ink into one area. The ink will start to pool and spread, causing a blowout. If you prefer to line slowly, simply lower the voltage.

Line Work Techniques: What You Need to Know to Tattoo Clean Lines

Now that we’ve talked about how to fix any mistakes, it’s time to build correct tattooing techniques.

When you’re doing line work, you will want to use a round liner needle. The individual sharps in a round liner pinch together so they make a nice, clear line. 

Lining with a round shader leaves fuzzy edges on your lines because the individual sharps are more spread out. This is why most artists find it easier to use a liner.

Note:

We recommend 12-gauge Police Round Liners for lining.

Choose the Right Voltage for Your Tattoo Needle When Tattooing Thicker Lines

different sized tattoo needles reaching the right needle depth

The larger the needle grouping, the thicker your line will be. Bold lines are more difficult to tattoo because they are breaking a bigger area of the skin with every hit of the needle. In order to get the ink into the middle layer of the skin with a bigger needle, you will need more power from your machine

There is no “one perfect power setting” that every tattoo artist can use. Every machine is different and each person’s skin is different, so you will need to find the voltage for you. However, the following* can help get you off to a good start:

  • 3 Round Liner: 7-8 volts
  • 7 Round Liner: 8-9 volts
  • 14 Round Liner: 10-11 volts

*These estimates are based off our Lead Instructor’s machine, the Inkjecta Flite Nano lite

Remember, your hand speed will also affect which voltage you choose. However, we recommend never going above 11 volts to avoid causing too much trauma to the skin.

Line at the Correct Angle (And Why Needle Size Changes the Angle)

needle angle
tattooing at a mildly shallow angle
steep angle technique

When lining, you’ll usually want to hold the machine around a 65° angle. However, as you use bigger needle groupings, you’ll have to make the angle bigger to make sure all the sharps are getting into the skin without the whole needle going in too deep.

Note:

It’s easier to rip the skin and cause blowouts at a smaller angle because the needle is pushing out across the skin instead of down into the skin. Additionally, the line will be thinner than you want because not all the needle sharps are going into the skin. (See image below.)

steep and normal angles for tattoo needles

Hinge at the Elbow to Create Long Lines

tattoo artist pulling long straight lines

When pulling a long line, you don’t want to bend at your wrist. You’ll get more range of motion (and tattoo perfect lines) if you move at the elbow. Keep your wrist straight and let your elbow act as a hinge. Putting a thin layer of Vaseline on the skin will help the hand glide and keep your lines straight.

Taper Your Lines to Join Them Together

tattoo needle flicks out to make straight lines

If you do have to pick the needle up in the middle of the line, the best way to hide it is to “flick” your needles out at the end of the line to create a tapered look. The tapered end is then smaller than the rest of the line and easier to cover up when you go back to finish the line. This creates the illusion of solid lines.

Handle Corners as Separate Lines

tattoo needle technique for corners

For beginners, it’s easier to break down a corner into two separate lines. If your design comes to a point or corner, you will want to tattoo the individual lines and have them meet, as opposed to moving the machine to make a corner.

If you make this sudden change of direction with the needle too deep in the skin, it can snag the skin and cause extra trauma. Having the lines meet instead will also give you a sharper edge (see next image).

Taper Your Lines to Make Sharp Points

flick the tattoo needle to make a sharp point

Improve Your Tattoo Line Work: Linework Drills

Practice makes perfect. Doing line work drills and line work tattoo designs on practice skin can help you focus on individual skills that you’ll need in later designs.

BONUS: How to Practice Tattooing with a Pen and Tattoo Machine

pen held in a tattoo gunpen held in a tattoo gun

If you want to practice on human skin and you have a coil machine, you can put a pen in your tattoo machine and follow a stencil on a friend or family member. You will be able to get used to the machine’s weight without leaving an actual tattoo behind. 

Discover other ways to sharpen your skills with our new article, “How to Practice Tattooing.”

Become a Tattoo Artist With the Artist Accelerator Program

student work from the Artist Accelerator tattoo artist training programs
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 tattoo 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.

Click here to learn more about 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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