How Do Tattoo Machines Work? Everything You Need To Know

Written by: Pete
Last Updated:

Although there are many varieties of tattoo machines to choose from, they all essentially do the same thing: they deposit ink into your dermis creating a piece of artwork that lasts a lifetime. But whether you’re just getting into tattooing yourself or merely have an interest in how it functions, how tattoo machines work can be overwhelming or confusing.

What Are the Different Types of Tattoo Machines?

The typical tattoo machine you imagine from movies and television shows makes that loud buzzing noise that fills up a shop, but there are in fact five main types of tattoo machines.

Check out our buying guide and reviews for the best tattoo machine

Coil Tattoo Machines

These are the typical machines that come to mind when you think of tattooing. They use electromagnetic waves to power the machine through the coils that move the needle. It’s a loud and heavy machine that takes getting used to, but they’re very affordable.

With coil machines, you need individual machines set to run specific needles for specific design needs, such as lining and coloring. Mastering this machine takes a little bit more patience and practice.

Rotary Machines

Rotary machines need less setup time than a coil machine, and you don’t need to switch guns when you are switching needles. Many rotary machines use cartridges, making the set up even easier. Rotary machines are quiet and lightweight, allowing for an easier grip and usage. They are also known to be smoother and less painful to skin.

For a thorough understanding of the differences between coil and rotary machines, check out our article, Rotary Vs. Coil Tattoo Machines - Which Is The Best Tattoo Machine For You?

Pen Machines

Pen guns are a type of rotary machine that uses cartridges, requires lubrication, and you have no access to interior components to alter or change the machine. These are like oversized pens and give a more comfortable grip. They’re great for beginners but are also a popular choice for professionals.

Pneumatic Machines

These machines used compressed air to function and are easily the most expensive machines on the market. They are easy to clean, quiet, smooth, and great for intricate design work.

Shader Machines

Shader machines are affordable alternatives to create full, filled pieces. They are quite delicate on skin as their purpose is just shading and coloring and making that process smoother for the artist and the client. They’re rather quiet and require minimal setting adjustments.

Tattoo Machines - Liner vs. Shaders

While you may consider a shader machine particularly for your shading work, in general, one machine has the ability to do both lining and shading work.

In most cases, you only need to adjust what needles you are using to achieve different design types. For a coil machine, you need two different machine guns to do both. In addition, in order to achieve either lining or shading, you must adjust the voltage on your machine.

For a complete understanding about which needles are needed for lining and shading, check out our article, Tattoo Needle Sizes and Types.

Tubes and Needles

If a needle doesn’t come in a cartridge, it will be set within a tube. The tube is what holds the reservoir of ink that is distributed to your needles. The tube doesn’t move, but the needle is attached to an armature bar which is what causes the movement of the needle itself. Pen guns and some rotary guns have tubes built into them that do not require installing.

For a complete understanding of these various components and how they’re installed, check out our article, A Beginner's Guide On How To Set Up And Use A Tattoo Gun.

Tattoo Machines Are Intricate

How Do Tattoo Machines Work

Not only do tattoo machines have numerous components that all play a role in helping it run efficiently, they also do a very complex task. Getting a tattoo is essentially a type of surgical procedure. With correct pressure and understanding of the specific machine you are working with, you will learn how to deposit ink in the perfect location in the skin.

Ink must be deposited in the dermis, which is a lower skin layer that sits on top of muscle and fat. If the ink is deposited too low, it will experience something called blowout. This is because the ink cannot hold in muscle or fat and feathers upon healing. If it is deposited too shallowly, such as in the epidermis, it will fade away when it heals.

Our Final Thoughts

One of the best ways to learn how your tattoo machine works is to buy a cheap kit and to take the entire machine apart, check out all the individual components, and then try to put it together again. Eventually, you will find a machine that you like more; it will be easier to clean, more comfortable for you to use, and more efficient for the design work you do. Regardless, it’s important to take some time to understand all varieties of machines if you plan to work in this industry.

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