How to Choose the Best Tattoo Machine For You

A Brief History of Modern Tattooing

Tattooing has been a spiritual practice that is found in cultures around the globe but not until it was introduced to the Western world did it include electric machines. Both the Egyptians and multiple Polynesian cultures used needles and sometimes chisels to inject the ink into the recipient’s skin. But to render realistic, vibrant, and dimensional designs, a faster and more efficient method was required.

In late 19th century United States, Thomas Edison had long been developing new and exciting inventions that utilized electricity in a variety of ways. One of these inventions, an electric pen, was used by Sam O’Reilly to create what would become a model for modern tattoo machines. In 1891, New York citizen O’Reilly developed the first ink tube and needle system with the aid of Edison’s rotary motor electric pens that effectively injected ink deeply into the layers of the skin. The result was permanent and a broader interest in tattooing began to flourish throughout the UK and America. O’Reilly was even nicknamed the “Tattoo Man” by his neighbors in New York City. The rotary technology used in Edison’s electric pen eventually allowed for the modern machines used to tattoo today.

At the same time in England, Thomas Riley created and patented the first single-coil tattoo machine which differed from O’Reilly’s design derived from Edison’s electric pen. The machine utilized a battery connected to an electric motor secured at the top of the device with a cartridge that held a coil able to carry an electromagnetic current. Riley used concepts developed by 19th century dentists originally used for chipping into teeth much like O’Reilly had developed his rotary technology from Edison’s invention.

The first double-coil tattoo machine was created soon after by another English man and the technology grew and has adapted since. The first coil-powered machines were heavy enough that they necessitated being suspended from the ceiling and were for decades afterwards. Modern guns are lightweight, create less noise, are far gentler, more comfortable for the artist’s use, cleaner and more sanitary. Rotary machines

Rotary Tattoo Machines

The name “rotary” in rotary motors refers to the cylindrical motor that constantly spins, or “rotates”, causing the needle to move up and down, in and out of the skin. A well-functioning motor ensures that the drive of the needle is smooth and fluid resulting in a tattoo that appears smooth and fluid as well.  Because of the way the motor functions, the rotary tattoo machine does not emit the same buzzing noise that is generally equated to tattooing. The machine is quiet and lightweight which allows for easier and more comfortable tattooing. This is especially important for large and complicated pieces that require many hours of work. When the machine is easier to use, the artist is able to tattoo with skill and efficiency for longer periods of time.

The rotary tattoo machine is also able to create shading and outlines with one machine and a variety of needles and gauges in different sizes. Larger sized needles create thicker lines while thinner or smaller needles are used to create small points of ink that build up shading or fill in with color.

There’s constant power delivered to a rotary motor that keeps it moving in a fluid, clockwise pattern, pushing needles into the skin and pulling them back out more smoothly. Rotary tattoo machines therefore tend to be gentler on the skin, and tattoos created with rotary tattoo machines often heal faster and with less scarring–particularly when inked by novice tattoo artists.

Coil Tattoo Machines

Coil tattoo machines work quite differently, in a much more complicated fashion. They utilize electromagnetic current to create and break a circuit in a cyclical fashion, moving the needles attached to the machine forward into the skin when the circuit is created and retracting them when the circuit breaks.

When power is delivered to a coil tattoo machine, the two coils are charged and turned into an electromagnet (see image below). The electromagnet created by the coils pulls the machine’s armature bar down towards the coils, which subsequently forces the attached tattoo needles down and into the skin. The downward motion of the armature bar pulls the front spring down with it and causes the spring to disconnect from the contact screw above it that a second before had completed a circuit.

That break in the circuit causes the electromagnetic field to collapse momentarily, releasing the armature bar from the coils. The spring attached to the armature bar wants to move back to its natural position, and it pulls the armature bar up with it. When the front spring reconnects with the contact screw, the circuit and electromagnetic field are re-established. That starts the process all over again, pulling the armature bar back down, forcing the attached needles into the skin, pulling the front spring away from the contact screw, and breaking the circuit once more.

The way a coil machine is powered creates a hammer-like effect that drives tattoo needles into the skin more forcefully than they’d be moved by a rotary motor. The buzz of tattoo machines that’s traditionally associated with tattoo shops, then a coil tattoo machine is the option for you–particularly if you’re an experienced artist who can manage a coil machine with finesse. Rotary machines are incredibly quiet by comparison, and there are fewer moving parts involved, which means they’re typically more low-maintenance than traditional coil machines.

Pros & Cons of Rotary and Coil Tattoo Machines:

Every artist differs in their preference of machine for a number of reasons. Most often, the machine type that was used during apprenticeship or the majority of apprenticeship will be favored. Both coil and rotary tattoo machines have their benefits and for the most part, it takes a very experienced artist to identify which type of machine was used on any single tattoo. It is best for a tattoo artist to experiment with both types of machines, and if possible, a few of the styles available within each category in order to discover what works best for themselves.

Coil Machines Pros:

  • Easy to make custom machines, add modifications
  • Can be less expensive

Coil Machines Cons:

  • Weight and consistent vibration may cause cramped, sore hands
  • Can be tough on sensitive skin and areas
  • Need multiple separate machines to create outlines and shading
  • Requires regular tuning

Rotory Machines Pros:

  • Low maintenance
  • Easy to use for artists of all levels
  • No pause in movement of needle, speed remains consistent
  • Able to create both outlines and shading with one machine
  • Light-weight

Rotory Machines Cons:

  • Can be more expensive
  • Not as easy to modify as coil machines
  • Often must be sent away for repair

The majority of tattoo shops and their artists seem to choose coil tattoo machines over the rotary style, despite the advantages of the light weight and versatility of the rotary machine. Double-coil machines are generally the most frequently seen in tattoo shops across the world. Both machines can be used to create pieces that are well-crafted and precise but rotary machines may be easier for a novice or apprentice to practice with. The motor runs consistently and smoothly so that the artist’s hands aren’t sore from the sustained vibration, which is convenient for the inexperienced who require frequent practice. The longer a tattoo artist is able to tattoo without compromising their skill is destined to be a more lucrative artist. The coil-power motor is also subject to short pauses in the speed of the needle and is considered less fluid than a rotary.

Rotary machines can be more expensive than a coil machine if a high quality, well-made machine is chosen. However, only one machine is necessary in most cases. Some tattoo artists purchase both types of machines, asserting that the rotary machine results in better tattoos on smaller or bonier body parts like fingers, ankles, and knees. Many machines, of any style, are mass produced and subject to defects that could lead to poor tattooing and jeopardize an artist’s reputation so it is important to be prudent when making a decision.

How to Choose the Proper Tattoo Machine:

There are dozens of brands and models available for purchase, most of which are available online. It can be difficult to choose based on the information given through website descriptions. Certain styles of tattooing respond better different types of machines or even multiple tattoo guns. For instance, artists who design a lot of portrait and realistic pieces require the ability to create depth and gradient patterns. They will need a liner tattoo machine and a shader tattoo machine to render both lines and shading. Rotary machines are able to create both of these effects while artists who prefer coil-powered machines require multiple guns.

Finding a machine that is easy to tune is also an important factor, along with learning how to tune a machine. Machines with armature bars and stroke adjustments (that change the way the needle moves) that are simple to customize will ensure a better relationship between the gun and artist.

Highly Rated Rotary Machines:

Dan Kubin

Dan Kubin-made tattoo machines are highly sought after because they are hand crafted and very well made. Their reputation leads to the machines selling very quickly, even with their average $700 price tag. While these tattoo guns are some of the most expensive, they are designed for the serious professional. They are reviewed as a well-built, durable machine made with high quality parts and guaranteed free of defects. The machines are built with the aesthetics of a hand gun, playing on the tattoo machine nickname “gun”.

Dan Kubin Swinger– The light-weight Swinger is an all-purpose machine that can be used to create lines and shading with defined results. It is appropriate for apprentices and new artists requiring hours of practice because it is versatile and easy to use. Although it is suitable for almost all types of markings, it is not able to create thicker lines with a large size needle. The Swinger series of tattoo machines offers a dozen varieties all of which are priced around $600.

Dan Kubin Sidewinder v4– The Sidewinder v4 is a popular machine, capable of creating all lines thick and thin as well as shading in greyscale or color. This series of tattoo machines is made slightly heavier than the Swinger series and runs at a higher voltage. It is a higher price than the Swinger series but able to do more. This gun is intended for experienced artists.

Dan Kubin MC15– The MC15 is Kubin’s lightest tattoo machine and most basic design. It is one of the least costly and great for practice and professional work as well.

Stigma

Stigma-Rotary tattoo machines are top of the line guns that are sold by numerous distributors because of their performance and popularity among artists. The products are made in Germany and offer efficiency and the best technology in the tattoo industry. Stigma is one of the tattoo machine manufacturers that offer options for rotary and cartridge devices that replace the traditional tube and tip system. The cartridge fits directly into the gun with ready-to-use needles and ink tubes already in place. The cartridges are secure and cut down on the time it takes to tune a rotary tattoo machine, allowing the artist to work more quickly. Some artists prefer the traditional set-up but more modern artists claim that the cartridges save both time and money.

Stigma Prodigy V2– The Stimga Prodigy V2 is a hybrid of the traditional and modern machines, allowing for use of either pre-configured cartridges or the traditional tube and needle system. The machine is easily customizable and completely adjustable for both lining and shading. It is simple to tune to the preferred speed and stroke length, making it an incredibly versatile machine. The price is dependant on the distributor but on average the cost is around $500, a moderate price for a high-quality and durable machine.

Stigma Hyper V3– The Stigma Hyper V3 is one of the softest and client-friendly machines available. It is made from light weight aluminum in an ergonomic design that allows the artist to tattoo better and for longer. The machine runs smoothly and is guaranteed to run like new for years, when properly lubricated. This tattoo gun is a little more expensive as it is made for a serious professional.

Bishop Rotary

Bishop Rotary is an American tattoo supply manufacturer that has been in the industry since 2009. The owner, Franco Vescovi, has been tattooing for more than 20 years and has translated that experience into their famous tattoo machine designs. All of their rotary tattoo machines feature a “double sized needle clip” that ensures the security of the needle and eliminates the need for a rubber band. Bishop’s innovative designs are top of the line and a best seller in the tattoo machine market.

Bishop Rotary V6 Tattoo Machine– The Bishop Rotary V6 Tattoo Machine is less than 4 ounces, ensuring that the machine is light and easy to control, perfect for any seasoned artist with wrist discomfort. Well-suited to lining, shading, or color packing, the machine can be run at 7 to 9 volts for the best performance.  Bishop tattoo machines are always hand assembled and manufactured precisely to ensure the best quality and durability for the artist. Tattoos an be completed more quickly and heal faster thanks to the adjustable give and customization for each artist.

Spektra by FK (Fallen Kings) Irons

FK Irons is a modern tattoo machine manufacturer that looks to the future and is always updating their technology. The Spektra tattoo machine series is one of their most popular lines because of the versatility of the gun and universality of the parts. Any type of needle system, including cartridges, can be used with both their Halo and Direkt series of tattoo machines which makes them one of the most compatible brands on the market.

Spektra Halo2 Crossover– The Spektra Halo2 CR is made with a highly adjustable stroke and give setting which allows for each artist to customize the machine to their own preferences. It is made in the USA, quiet, and easy to clean as it is almost completely autoclavable. The machine delivers innovative performance with the new MotorBolt System which allows for the easiest stroke adjustment and a stroke module with multiple settings. It has become a favorite with professionals all around the world.

Cheyenne

Cheyenne Tattoo Equipment is a German tattoo machine manufacturer that uses only high quality materials to produce top of the line products. Their company prides themselves on creating tattoo machines, parts, and accessories with the artist as their first priority.

Cheyenne Hawk Spirit– The Cheyenne Hawk Spirit is an incredibly light weight machine, weighing only 78 grams, and is also one of the most affordable which is perfect for the novice tattoo artist. The machine is made with innovative technology and a powerful motor that can run on anywhere from 5 to 12 volts. Made in Germany, the machine is high quality but only compatible with Cheyenne Hawk needle cartridges, although there are 40 styles of cartridges to experiment with. A 4mm stroke allows for universal tattooing that is suitable for any artist.

Ego Tattoo

Ego Tattoo Machines were first created by celebrated tattoo artist Bez, an award winning artist. The designs came after he was unable to find other machines on the market that provided the weight distribution and stability he required for long hours of tattooing. Ego tattoo machines are durable, scratch resistant, and designed for any tattoo artist, regardless of experience. Each tattoo gun is shipped with Ego’s revolutionary power triangle system. The set of triangles are made from rubber of various densities that fit behind the needle in order to alter the give and throw of the machine. This allows for the artist to utilize the rotary machine in more ways than traditional machines.

Little Ego V2 Rotary Tattoo Machine– The Little Ego is light, comfortable, and easy to grip, allowing the artist full control of the machine. The plastic is scratch-free and easy to clean which helps to ensure proper sanitization for the benefit of the artist and their clients. The cost is less than $350 which makes it one of the most affordable yet effective rotary machines on the market.

Ego Apex Overkill Rotary Tattoo Machine– The Ego Apex Overkill is made from high grade but light aluminum with a powerful Swiss-made Maxon Overkill motor. The power triangle system allows the artist to modify the give and throw of these rotary machines to function much like a coil tattoo machine, giving the artist the best of both rotary and coil styles.

Highly Rated Coil Machines:

Danny Fowler Time Machine

Time Machine Tattoo Machines have been involved in the tattoo industry for decades and have gained fame for their well-made products. The guns run smoothly and consistently, resulting in satisfied artists all around the world.

Original Time Machine Tattoo Machine– The Original Time Machine Coil Tattoo Machine is a well-tuned machine available in a left or right-handed shader or liner. Few manufacturers base their designs on the dominant hand of the artist but the minute differences in the left and right-handed machines greatly contribute to the control of the gun. The light weight and high quality of the metal lends to the steadiness of the machine and the range of adjustable features makes it a favorite with experienced artists. The low price point (generally less than $300) is another popular feature that can’t be beat.

FK Irons

FK Irons is not only renowned for their rotary tattoo machines. Their series of coil tattoo machines are also popular among artists because of their durability, reliability, and conveniently pre-tuned settings. Like always, the machines are made from aircraft-grade aluminum and guaranteed to satisfy.

FK Irons AL13 Tattoo Machine Series– FK Irons AL13 Coil Tattoo Machine is a series of coil machines that preform quickly and efficiency. The series features 3 tattoo machines, each with their own advantages. All 3 are available in either conventional, cutback, or power liner tuning, soft or cutback shader, or color packer tuning.

The AL13 Exactor III has been redesigned to create even less vibration to result in a quieter and steadier machine. The newly added steel rear yoke ensures that the machine is secure and not compromised by

The AL13 Galaxie III includes internal radial joints that enhance the machine’s performance and the artist’s comfortability. There are multiple positioning options that make the machine a good choice for those who desire more adjustability. At less than 5 ounces, the Galaxie is lightweight and ergonomically designed.

Eikon

Canadian company Eikon has been a lead tattoo supply distributor and manufacturer for more than 20 years. With decades of experience in the industry, Eikon has long been trusted as a reliable tattoo machine designer.

Eikon Green Monster Tattoo Machine– The Eikon Green Monster Tattoo Machine is a double-coil tattoo gun that has been on the market for 15 years and improved year after year. The newest edition has received modern updates to enhance its performance and provide the same reliance that the company is known for. The coil machine is pre-tuned to preform one task precisely; lining, fine lining, shading, or coloring. The coils are easily adjustable and hand-wrapped to ensure the best long-lasting quality. At $300 per machine and multiple machines necessary for colored and detailed pieces, the cost can add up. However, the machines are durable and made to last, leading artists to invest happily in the coil machines.

Pneumatic Tattoo Machines:

There are few manufacturers that produce pneumatic tattoo machines, a new type of machine that was invented in 2000. It was patented by Los Angeles-based tattoo artist Carson Hill as a pneumatic tattoo machine, a machine that runs on air pressure produced by an air compressor in place of a rotary or coil motor. The new type of motor leaves the machine extremely light weight and completely autoclavable which ensure total sanitization. The air compressor allows the machine to run faster and more efficiently, without having to worry about overworking the motor with high voltage.

The Neuma Hybrid Pneumatic Tattoo Machine– The Neuma Hybrid is newest edition of the Neuma, the first ever pneumatic tattoo machine designed by Carson Hill. It is light but durable with a longer stroke and adjustable give to create a harder or softer-hitting machine, depending on the preference of the artist. The Neuma Hybrid is greatly improved from the first N1 and N2 models and can even be easily converted to an electric machine rather than an air pressure-powered device, if necessary.

Best Tattoo Machines for Beginners:

The sheer volume and variety of tattoo machines available is sure to boggle any novice tattoo artist. Of course, every apprentice needs a master to learn from and the best advice will come from this professional. However, every artist has different preferences and he or she must experiment with multiple machine types and styles before that preference is made. A tattoo machine kit is one of the simplest ways to get started. These kits are low cost and include simple basics made for novice artists ready to learn and make mistakes. They generally include all of the necessary parts and accessories needed to complete an appealing tattoo, eliminating the hassle of placing multiple orders for parts that may or may not comply with one another. This is especially helpful when purchasing coil tattoo machines since multiple machines are almost always required.

Pirate Face

Pirate Face Tattoo is an innovative tattoo supplier that has been distributing and producing tattoo supplies since 2005. Along with a number of other high quality products, they provide a variety of tattoo kits for experienced and inexperienced tattoo artists to help cut down on costs and offer all machines, parts, and accessories in one convenient package.

Pirate Face Coil Tattoo Machine Package– The Pirate Face Tattoo Package includes 4 stainless steel coil tattoo guns to be tuned to the artist’s preference; generally, one liner, one fine liner, one color packer, one shader, or whatever combination of machines the artist requires. The machines are less than 6 ounces which allows the artist comfortability and control while tattooing. The kit includes a power supply as well that is perfect for beginners along with a standard foot pedal and clip cord. It also includes several shades of tattoo ink, tips, needles, grips, gloves, ink cups, instructional DVD and book, plus more. At $100 for all of the necessary supplies, this tattoo kit is designed for artists who prefer coil machines or less experienced artists who are experimenting to discover their preference.

Dragon Hawk

Dragon Hawk is a tattoo supply distributor that also manufacturers their own line of tattoo machines. They have been in the industry for close nearly 20 years and have sold their products in dozens of countries around the world. They aim to sell quality products designed by experienced tattoo artists for reasonable prices.

Dragon Hawk Coil Tattoo Machine Package– The Dragon Hawk Tattoo Package is marketed to beginner tattoo artists and includes everything a new artist will need. There is both a Dragon Hawk pre-tuned liner and shader coil tattoo machine with grips, a set of sterilized needles, disposable and steel tips, practice skin, Immortal ink (a USA-made brand), and more. The power supply ranges from 0 to 18 volts, allowing for a variety of range to experiment with. The price of this kit is around $60 for everything included so there is no risk.

Dragon Hawk Rotary Tattoo Machine Package– The Dragon Hawk Rotary Machine Kit is made for all types of tattoo artists but is popular among novices because of its simplicity. For under $50, the package includes a Dragon Hawk rotary machine for both lining and shading, a mini power supply with a clip cord and foot switch, and a stainless steel grip. This smaller kit works well for an artist who already owns ink and needles but has not yet tried a rotary machine.