Part 3: Tattoo Machines 101The tattoo machine is the essential tool of the tattoo artist, just as the brush is the tool of a painter, or the chisel the tool of a sculptor. Tattooists have not always been gifted with such elaborate mechanisms as they have today, but tattooing with any sort of precision has […]

Tattoo Artist Mastery: Part Three

Tattoo Artist Mastery

Part 3: Tattoo Machines 101

tattoo machineThe tattoo machine is the essential tool of the tattoo artist, just as the brush is the tool of a painter, or the chisel the tool of a sculptor. Tattooists have not always been gifted with such elaborate mechanisms as they have today, but tattooing with any sort of precision has always required specialized tools.

All tattoo machines work by the same basic principles…

They are designed to allow the comfortable control of the path of the machine, while the machine moves the tattoo needles through a desired stroke length. The stroke length, together with the pressure you use, determines how deeply you tattoo into the skin. Different depths are used for different purposes, although only within a small range. Different machine types will also have somewhat different effects on needle penetration.

Given that all the machines work in much the same way, you might wonder if there’s really much point in going over the individual types…

However, while the practical differences may be subtle, they are definitely there, and experienced tattooists usually have a particular type they prefer. The most common type is the coil machine, which uses an electric current to activate anywhere from one to three coils, pushing the needle assembly forward. They are equipped with springs to push the needles back into starting position. Voltage regulation controls the speed of the needle, which can be varied within a wide range. They have the advantages that, because of the spring and the nature of the pushing force, they can respond to the tension of the skin you’re working on. They are relatively inexpensive, and there is a wide variety to choose from. However, they can only work by electric power, and they can be quite noisy relative to other types.

Rotary machines are a much newer type, with several advantages over the older coil type. They use a rotating drive system to move the needle assembly back and forth. They tend to be much lighter, perhaps causing less strain during long use. They are also much quieter than coil types, which can make the tattooing experience a bit more pleasant for both the tattooist and the client. Better-quality ones let out only a mild hum, compared to the loud buzz of a coil machine.

The other trait, which can be seen as either a benefit or a detriment, depending on your preference, is that a rotary’s way of working produces an absolutely consistent stroke length. They do not respond to the tension in the skin the way coil machines do. This can be a disadvantage for someone new to tattooing, as it can cause the needle to go too deep without good pressure control. However, for someone with great precision, it allows for more control.

Machines are also often differentiated by their purpose

The two major types of machines are liners and shaders, and they are meant to do just as they say. Liners use closer-grouped needles and a faster movement for the purpose of making sharp details and lines with a single pass. It is important to only use a single pass with these machines, because doing more can excessively damage the skin. The other type is a shader, which can be used to shade with black ink, and is usually what is used for colored fills. Shader’s needles are wider-spaced and move slower so multiple passes are less damaging. Coil machines tend to come in one or the other type, but can be made to fulfill both functions. Rotary machines are usually both.

Rotary machines can also use pneumatic power, rather than electric. Pneumatic machines rely on an air compressor to work, but are extremely light. Rotarty, coil, pneumatic, electric, these are all possibilities for the tattoo artist, and you’ll have to find what works best for you. Of course, without ink, the machine isn’t worth much more to the tattoo artist than a paintbrush is without paint. Tattoo inks will be the subject of the next part in this series.

Look for it in the next few days! I hope you are enjoying this series!


Nathan Molenaar

Nathan Molenaar is not only a fine tattoo artist, but is also a huge lover of everything to do with the art and history of tattoos. He is the founder of, and also the creator of the bestselling tattooing course, Tattooing101 Artist Accelerator Program.

In this course, I will cover Tattoo Machines from A to Z. This is the knowledge you will need to get on the right path to become a true, Elite Tattoo Artist. Knowing your machine, from the inside out and more is essential!

You will discover EVERYTHING you will ever need to know including…

*How to choose the absolutely PERFECT tattoo machine specifically for YOU!
*How to tune any tattoo machine in under 3 minutes flat!
Learn not only all about the tattoo machine parts, but complete setup and tear down!
How to get the proper machine speed and it that “sweet spot” for perfect tattoos!
Troubleshoot common tattoo machine problems and save yourself a ton of time!
*Find out which tattoo machines elite tattoo artist approve and recommend!

Of course, there’s a TON more information to be discovered in the Elite Tattoo Pro Online Course.
That’s just a mere fraction of the info you will discover.
Read more about it here

 P.S. Did you miss a part of this series? You can read them here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Looking for a tattoo apprenticeship?

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

  • 500 video modules
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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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