The key to being a successful tattoo artist starts with ensuring that the tools of your trade, your tattoo gun, are properly set up. Whether it’s your first time tattooing or you simply need a refresher, have a look at our thorough guide on setting up and using your tattoo gun.
Table of Contents (clickable)
How to Set Up a Tattoo Gun Correctly
Making sure your gun/machine is properly set up guarantees you won’t have to deal with needle jumping, heavy-handedness, and a machine that overheats and shuts down halfway through a session. It begins with ensuring you have all the basic and essential components ready for your configuration. This includes:
- Multiple needles and needle nipples
- Armature bars (these control the needles)
- The coil parts (for coil guns) and elastic bands (these control the armature bars)
- Your gun, or multiple guns depending on whether you’re using rotary or coil
- Your power source
- The ink necessary for your piece
- Additional items such as ink pots, cleaning materials, and plastic wrap
Check out our guide for the best tattoo machines
Step One - Arrange the Components
Using the list above along with your own knowledge of essentials for your practice, lay out all the components of your tattoo gun set up and session in front of you. This will look differently depending on whether you are tattooing with a coil or a rotary machine. In addition, always make sure you have sanitizing materials available during your tattooing practice.
Have a close look at your tattoo gun. If you are using a coil machine, there is a contact screw beneath the spring of your gun. The space between these two components should be approximately the thickness of a dime. If it is any more or less, this could disturb the precision of your line work; adjust the space by turning the screw. It’s okay to insert a dime into the space to ensure you get the adjustment correctly! Eventually, you’ll learn to adjust this from sight alone.
On a rotary machine, the components are already aligned for you but you’ll need to adjust voltage depending on the line work or shading you are doing with your gun. Voltage for lining is generally at 7.5 to 8.5, while for shading and coloring, it sits higher at eight to 10 volts.
Step Two - Prepare the Needles
All your needles should have been pre-sterilized by the company you purchased them from, and packaged individually. Never use a needle that has an open or punctured packaging, as this indicates that the sterilization was compromised. In addition, check to make sure needles were not bent or ruined in transit.
If you need help selecting the best needles for your practice, check out our article of our favorite tattoo needles.
Some needles come pre-assembled in tubes with nipples, others simply come with just the needle. The needle you need will depend on what work you intend to do with it. For lining, you’ll require needles that have a pointed end and are usually singular in count or thicker depending on the line. For shading and coloring, you’ll require needles that are more square-ended and come with multiple small needles making up one big needle.
Examples of needle types.
Step Three - Assemble Your Gun
There are multiple steps to the assembly, and should you feel you messed up along the way, take apart all your components and begin again. There is a learning curve to setting up your gun, and it’s better to do it safely. Assembly should always begin with sanitization of your hands and workspace.
- Assemble the Tube - There are three parts to the tube of the coil gun - stem, barrel, and tip. You need to insert the stem into the opening of the barrel and then fasten the screw. Then you insert the tip into the bottom of the barrel and tighten it into place with an Allen key. If you are using a rotary gun, the tube is already installed for you.
- Install the Nipple - If your needle doesn’t already come with a preinstalled nipple, you’ll need to assemble these pieces next. The nipple is what holds the needle in place and it connects to the armature bar of your gun using a pin.
- Insert the Needle - Before you insert the needle, make sure to inspect it. Bent or dull needles or pre-opened packages could lead to scarring and infection. When you pull out a needle from a package, always hold it from the eye of the needle and not at the tip to prevent cross-contamination. Select a needle according to the work you plan to do.
- Slide the Tube Into the Machine - The needle is then inserted into the tube. This is done by holding the barrel away from you and dropping the needle through the center opening. In order to do this correctly, the eye loop of the needle needs to attach to the armature bar correctly. Afterwards, you press on the armature bar to help guide the tip of the needle out of the tube and adjust the length.
- Attach the Needle to the Nipple - Attach the nipple onto the armature bar pin.
- Adjust the Depth of the Needle - At this point, you can better adjust the needle length by pressing on the armature bar. It should sit at about 1/16th of an inch. The rest of the needle’s work will be done by the machine itself. Do not tattoo on human skin until you’ve mastered this step as you could cause unnecessary bleeding and scarring to a client if the needle goes too deep.
It’s important to note that on a rotary machine, steps one to five become a more simplified and unified process, and adjusting the depth of the needle is often done automatically by the gun.
- Attach Rubber Bands - This is for coil guns to help stabilize the vibration of the coils to the needle and to prevent needle jumping. Ensure that the rubber bands are placed evenly apart for equal pressure.
Assembling Your Power Supply
A tattoo gun cannot run without a proper and consistent power supply. If you need help selecting the best one for your practice, check out our article on the best tattoo power supplies.
- Inspect Your Power Supply - Ensure that your power supply has adjustable voltages. Check for analog or digital displays. Make sure you know what all the buttons do and that they all work. Check the fuse and check the voltage running into your machine.
- Attach a Footswitch - If you don’t yet have a footswitch, this will change your tattooing practice. Attach the footswitch to your machine. The footswitch will control your gun.
- Connect Your Machine - Use the power clip cord to connect the machine to your gun. The location on your power supply for the clip cord should be clearly indicated. Make sure your tattoo power supply is plugged into the wall and ready to be used.
- Test Your Machine - Step gently onto your footswitch and test out your machine. There’s no need to tattoo anything at this point, just make sure it is running smoothly and adjusts intensity when necessary. Vibrations with a well-run machine should be constant, with no interruption.
How to Use a Tattoo Gun
After you’re done setting up your machine, the best way to practice using it is by tattooing fruit or artificial skin. Set up your ink pots and select the colors for your piece. Remember to use standard sanitation practices even when tattooing fruit or artificial skin in order to ensure you get into the habit.
When holding a tattoo gun, your grip should be firm upon the needle tube. It will feel like a very thick pen or pencil in your hands, but you need to get used to the constant vibrations.
Check out our guide for the best tattoo pen machines
Our Final Thoughts
The best way to learn how to properly set up your tattoo gun is through watching professionals and asking them to either train or apprentice you. If you’re ever stuck at a stage of setting up your machine, ask an artist you know and respect for help. You should never proceed to tattooing clients until you’ve spent years mastering your set up.