Tattooing 101: Which Tattoo Machine is the Best?

Tattoo Machines and Materials: The Basics

When getting a tattoo, most people might not think it’s important to know much about the equipment used in the process. After all, it’s difficult to understand how the machines work and what materials are required without the years of study a tattoo artist puts in. So why bother, right?

Well, here’s why – the equipment affects your tattoo. Which machine is being used, the number of needles, aftercare materials – the right equipment combined with the right artist will result in the best tattoo you could get. Which is why it is important to understand the basics!

Tattoo Machines: Which one is best?

Determining which tattoo machines are the best first requires understanding what makes a good tattoo machine, to begin with.

Tattoo machines are usually either a coil machine or a rotary machine.

Coil Tattoo Machines

Coil machines use power to move the armature bar and tattoo needle towards the coil, which then pulls the needle into the skin. This breaks the circuit, which causes the needle to pull back into the machine. The constant repetition of this process is how a coil machine works.

Did those words just fly over your head? Well, here’s a visual to help you out:

Put simply, coils work like a hammer and drive the needle into the skin. These machines are quite powerful, which is why they are usually used for larger groupings of needles. Larger needles clusters are used when an artist has a larger area to cover, such as with shading. While these machines can be used for lining and detailing, it requires precision and this means it works best in the hands of an experienced tattooist.

Additionally, because of how forceful these machines can be, it requires a greater understanding of ink and skin on the tattoo artist’s part since these machines need to be tuned frequently and are quite heavy. The artist needs to really know how their machine works to make sure it inks consistently. Besides this, the power of these machines means any errors might lead to more skin damage and thus a longer healing period. So if an artist is using a coil – they need the skill to match!

Rotary Tattoo Machine

Rotary machines work on a spinning motor that moves the attached needle up and down, meaning the needle enters your skin in a much more smooth motion as opposed to the forcefulness of a coil. Because of this, rotaries tend to reduce the amount of time needed for healing once the tattoo is done.

Because of how much easier these machines are to use and maintain, they’re a big hit with newer artists. These machines work well for lining and adding colour, but are less desirable for shading and precision because they do not accommodate large needle clusters quite as well as a coil. Additionally, rotaries do not need to be re-tuned as much and are less noisy, making them ideal for the modern tattoo artist.

Check out this video that shows you the various parts of the Vlad Blad Pro Liner rotary machine, including a short demo of how the parts work.

Rotary of Coil?

There is no clear answer as to which kind of machine is better – they both have their benefits! Traditional artists often prefer the coil due to its power and precision, while newer artists find the rotary to be a better choice since it is easy to use and works with many different styles of inking. Some artists might use both, depending on what the job requires.

As a client, knowing how the machines works will give you an understanding of what kind of tattoo you’ll get out of it. While the artist’s skill determines how well the machine will work when used, knowing the difference helps you understand why the artist is using a certain machine and whether it matches the design you’ve chosen to get.

So how do you tell a coil from a rotary? Coil machines are loud, meaning the buzzing of a machine usually associated with tattoo shops is an indication that they’re using coil machines. You can also look at the mechanism on the machine and work out whether it’s a coil or rotary.

But besides that, you can always just ask! Tattoo artists are usually comfortable talking about their equipment and welcome queries from clients.

Top Tattoo Machines in 2019

Whether your artist prefers a coil or a rotary, there are some machines that are considered top of the line across the world.

Top Coil Machines

Bishop Big Sleeps X

The name says it! Developed by top artist Big Sleeps, who has been in the industry since 1980, in collaboration with Bishop, this machine is also built for heavier work and larger needle groupings. It is particularly good for colour blocking and shading, but an artist could reduce the voltage to make it an all-purpose liner. Pretty neat! But there’s a catch – you can only purchase this machine exclusively from Bishop as it is not available anywhere else!

The Bishop Coil tattoo machine from Big Sleepz X
Big Sleeps X Bishop Coil Machine

Workhorse Irons Ghost Dog Shader Hybrid

As one of the top suppliers in the world, this machine’s popularity speaks for itself. Developed by Adam Ciferri, who has over 20 years of experience in the industry, this machine is as light as a rotary machine. But just like with the Bishop machine, there’s a catch – you can only purchase this machine if you can prove you work for a legitimate tattoo shop!

A coil tattoo machine called the Ghost Dog Shader Hybrid from Adam Ciferri
Adam Ciferri Ghost Dog Shader Hybrid

HM Tattoo Machines Mini Dietzel Powerliner

This machine is best for heavy duty shading since it is ideal for size 7 needles and above, which makes it perfect for longer tattooing sessions. Another top supplier in the industry, this machine was developed by Roman of Magic Tattoos who also boasts over 20 years in the industry.

The Mini Dietzel Powerliner tattoo machine
Mini Dietzel Powerliner

Micky Sharpz Brass Hybrid Tattoo Machine

This machine was designed to include the best features from a wide range of machines. It runs extremely smoothly, making inking much easier. It is also known for being low, easy maintenance. It works particularly well for block inking and colouring, and is great for shading and lining.

The Micky Sharpz Brass Hybrid tattoo machine
Micky Sharpz Tattoo Machine Brass Hybrid

Top Rotary Machines

FK Irons Spektra Edge X

A top-level rotary, this machine has an ‘adjustable stroke’ which, to put very simply’ allows for greater flexibility in how the machine can be used. As previously mentioned, this would require an extremely skilled artist that fully understands how their machine works and how to modify it to suit the tattoo they’re working on. Add in low maintenance and ease of use and this is easily one of the best rotaries out there.

The FK Irons Spektra Edge X tattoo machine in black
Spektra Edge X (Black)

Vlad Blad Irons

Built for the masters, Vlad Blad machines are extremely powerful and fast rotary machines. In the hands of an expert tattooist these machines can be used for a wide variety of styles and designs – traditional, realism, dotwork, linework, block colour, shading, you name it and they’ll ink it! These machines can also handle all kinds of needle groupings right up to a magnum 35, making them some of the most flexible and adaptable machines on the market.

The Seawolf Rotary Direct Drive 3.0 tattoo machine from Vlad Blad Irons
Vlad Blad’s Seawolf Rotary Direct Drive 3.0

Infinite Irons Roller Rotary

A classic rotary, this machine works beautifully for shading and precision lining and outlining. For the traditionalists, this machine is an old-school dream!

The Infinite Irons Roller Rotary tattoo machine line
Infinite Irons Roller Rotary Tattoo Machine Line

Cheyenne Hawk Pen

Ah, the Cheyenne! This is one of the top brands across the world and one of the most popular machines among tattoo artists. And it’s easy to see why! As a rotary, this machine gives the artist power and works beautifully for shading and colour blocking, but its high precision makes it perfect for fine lines, filling, dotwork, linework, shading and much, much more! This machine is also popular for being easy to use and maintain. Cheyenne machines are the choice of most artists in India.

The Hawk Pen tattoo machine from Cheyenne
Cheyenne’s Hawk Pen

Tattoo Needles

It’s a common misconception that tattoo needles are similar to the ones used for vaccinations. The needles used for inking are made specifically for tattoos. They are quite long, but most of this needle sits within the tattoo machine itself – only 1-2 mm of the tip of the needle extends out of the machine while tattooing, which is exactly how deep into the skin a tattoo needle is meant to go.

Single needles are generally used for precision work, such as lining, while clusters are used for larger pieces, such as those requiring shading. The larger the cluster, the greater area the artist can cover while inking. Needles groupings can go all the way up to 41 in a cluster, and can be of many types such as liners and shaders and come in a variety of shapes and types such as curved or flat, magnum, round magnum, etc. – quite like paintbrushes that shaped differently and used for different kinds of painting.

Liners are a basic kind of needle used, as the name suggests, for lining. They come in many configurations and shapes, such as these round liners that range from single needles up to a cluster of 11.

A single tattoo needle called a round liner, used for lining
An RL1, or a round liner with a single needle

And here’s a 3RL (3 round liner needles) from Cheyenne in action!

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If the number of needles scares you, don’t worry – the right needles actually reduce the level of discomfort you feel when getting inked. A good artist will know exactly what needles and groupings to use for your tattoo.

Tattooing Materials

Of course, one of the most important materials to understand is tattoo ink – which is why we have a blog dedicated to it!

Read: Tattooing 101: What’s in my Ink?

In simple terms, inks determine the quality and longevity of the tattoo. The ink an artist uses will usually be based on their preference, but most artists will use inks from reputed brands. They also make sure to source their materials from the right places, so you won’t have to worry about your artist using a fake product!

There are many ways to identify a good ink, ranging from manufacturing practices and compliance with local regulations to the country of origin and ingredients. Which is why most artists go for reputed brands – they’re guaranteed to meet all the necessary requirements and be approved for commercial and cosmetic use.

Tattoo Aftercare: Recommended products and tips

Most people would not consider aftercare as being a part of ‘tattoo equipment and materials’, but this would be an inaccurate assumption! The materials used in aftercare are as important to a good tattoo as the equipment used to ink it.

A tattoo artist will usually clean and shave the area before tattooing it. There are some recommended soaps to be used on a fresh tattoo, and these are usually mild, unscented, and anti-bacterial. This ensures your tattoo stays clean and free from infection. Tattoo artists will usually recommend a soap for you to use, but if they don’t be sure to ask for recommended products!

After cleansing, your artist will sterilize the area with isopropyl alcohol or a similar product. Following this, the tattoo stencil is applied, or in some cases, the artist may sketch the tattoo outline directly onto your skin.

And following all this, the artist preps for the session by putting on gloves and a mask if necessary, making sure their equipment is sterilized, and removing materials like needles fresh from their packaging. They’ll set up their machine, examine the needles, and pour out their ink.

Next comes the outline. Your artist will use a paper towel to keep the area clean while they work. If your tattoo is more than lines, your artist will switch needles or even the machine and continue inking. While anaesthetics and painkillers are not recommended because they can alter how you bleed and heal, some tattoo artists do use numbing gels before or during inking. These products are specifically recommended for tattooing, so this does not mean you can use any kind of anaesthetic or painkiller before or during inking! If you are considering using such products to get through your appointment be sure to ask your artist before your session if they use such products, and if they do not ask them for a product they would recommend you use.

And finally comes the aftercare! As soon as your tattoo is done, your artist will clean the area, allow it to sit for a minute, and then wrap it up. The Dermalizer is currently the most popular wrap used by tattoo artists. It is a breathable, waterproof, anti-bacterial, flexible film that acts almost like a second layer of skin over a healing tattoo. A healing tattoo must not be exposed to water, sun, or any other elements that might hinder its healing process but the Dermalizer prevents all of that, allowing you to go on with your day and making the aftercare process much easier.

Post-tattooing, there’s a 2-4 week period during which you are required to take proper care of your tattoo so it heals correctly and your tattoo looks crisp and not faded. Check out our blog on tattoo care for a detailed breakdown of the whole process – from tattoo care prior to your appointment, to care during it, to aftercare and beyond!

Read: The Jhaiho Tattoo Care Guide

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