Complete Guide On Tattoo Machines

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 tattoos is choosing machines with the settings you need and making proper adjustments (when possible). 

If you can’t use your machine correctly, it’ll be impossible to tattoo to the best of your ability. By the end of this article, you’ll know how to set up your machine, as well as how to get the right stroke and voltage for any tattoo you work on. 

In this article, we’re breaking down:

  • How to set up a tattoo machine
  • How to tune a tattoo machine
  • How to find the best machine for you (plus our recommended machines)

Coil Tattoo Machines

Coil Machines: Key Takeaways

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 a Coil Machine:

  • 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 shading:
  • 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. 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 machine 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

Rotary Machines: Key Takeaways

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 a Rotary Machine:

  • 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 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

Pen Machines: Key Takeaways

How Pen Tattoo Machines Work:

Most pen 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 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.” 

Pen vs Rotary vs Coil Tattoo Machine: Finding the Right Machine for You

Which machine is best for you will come down to preference. For a beginner tattoo artist, we recommend pen machines because they have a simple set up and have minimal vibration. 


Coil Tattoo Machines

Rotary Tattoo Machines

Pen Tattoo Machines

Pros

Coil machines have a bit more “give” to them, so the needles will bounce off the skin if you go too deep. This can prevent you from overworking the skin.

Rotary machines require no tuning and are ready to go as soon as you turn them on.

Often wireless, pen machines have fewer cords, which lets you move freely. Low vibration makes it easier to get straight lines. 

Cons

Tuning coil machines is an extensive process that’s easy to mess up.

Much more upkeep.

Harder to learn with because they constantly need to be re-tuned. 

You sometimes need to buy extra parts for rotary machines (different give bars, cams, etc.)

Rotaries are usually a direct drive system, meaning the needle will not “back off” if you go too deep in the skin. This can lead to blowouts, overworked tattoos, and possible scarring. 

Some pen machines don’t have an adjustable stroke.

Like rotaries, pen machines use a “direct drive” system. This can make it easier to go too deep in the skin and cause blowouts.

How Much is a Tattoo Machine?


Coil Tattoo Machines

Rotary Tattoo Machines

Pen Tattoo Machines

Pros

Coil machines have a bit more “give” to them, so the needles will bounce off the skin if you go too deep. This can prevent you from overworking the skin.

Rotary machines require no tuning and are ready to go as soon as you turn them on.

Often wireless, pen machines have fewer cords, which lets you move freely. Low vibration makes it easier to get straight lines. 

Cons

Tuning coil machines is an extensive process that’s easy to mess up.

Much more upkeep.

Harder to learn with because they constantly need to be re-tuned. 

You sometimes need to buy extra parts for rotary machines (different give bars, cams, etc.)

Rotaries are usually a direct drive system, meaning the needle will not “back off” if you go too deep in the skin. This can lead to blowouts, overworked tattoos, and possible scarring. 

Some pen machines don’t have an adjustable stroke.

Like rotaries, pen machines use a “direct drive” system. This can make it easier to go too deep in the skin and cause blowouts.

When shopping for tattoo machines, you’ll find a huge range in price from as low as $15 to over $1000. Generally speaking, you get what you pay for.

That being said, if you’re a beginner artist, you don’t really need to make a huge up-front investment to learn on a quality machine. 

Our Recommendations:

liner tattoo machine

Price: $64

CNC® Tattoo Coil Machine Liner M311 Stunned Bird

shader tattoo machine

Price: $64

CNC® Tattoo Coil Machine Shader M310 Green Pigeon

rotary machine

Price: $160.90

CNC® T5 Rotary Tattoo Machine Shader & Liner

pen tattoo machine

Price: $199.45

CNC® Tattoo Machines Pen New Program Faulhaber Q2

Get Guidance from Professionals

In this article, we’ve only covered the very basics you need to get started with a tattoo machine. To best use your machine and create incredible tattoos, you need a lot of specialized knowledge. 
In the past, the only way to get that information was through a tattoo apprenticeship. However, most apprenticeships required aspiring tattoo artists to work 50-60 hours a week without pay for 2-4 years, and usually came with hazing and bullying from the artists in the shop.
That’s why we created the Artist Accelerator Program. Our online tattooing course gives you a structured roadmap over 2500 successful students have used to learn how to tattoo, with many of them having gone on to open their own shops all around the world.
If you’d like to see the simple, 9-step framework they used to successfully break into tattooing and get access to the exact same system they used... 

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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