A tattoo artist’s tools can make or break their practice. Needles are the key to creating successful works of art on skin that will last a lifetime. As a new tattooer, understanding the many different sizes, types, and qualities for needles can become overwhelming. It’s for that reason that we’ve put together this handy guide.
Table of Contents (clickable)
Types of Needles
There are three primary types of needles and they are defined by the shape of their tips.
Round needles can be composed of one or many needles that meet at a rounded point. These are the needles you often see in movies or television shows that feature tattooing.
Round Liners are what are used to create clean, crisp outlines, lines, and small details on tattoos. They are represented by a number and the letters RL. The larger the number, the thicker the line will be, and the more needles will make up this rounded point. They’re great for pointilism, line work, lettering, and traditional style tattoos. In general, these needles are thought to be the least painful.
Round Shaders are represented by a number and the letters RS. They still meet at a rounded point but the needles that make up the entire thing are more spaced apart, allowing for a softer application with texture. They’re great for filling, coloring, or adding an extra layer of shading.
In your practice, you may come across Turbo Round Liner needles that are said to hold more ink and do less damage to the skin, due to not having a prominent needle in the center.
The other popular type of needle features a flat head that is composed of multiple needles; the larger the size, the greater the amount of needles in the line. These flat needles are used for coloring and shading and are indicated by a number and the letters F or FS. They’re excellent for geometric work. Sometimes they are used for lining in cosmetic tattoos. Often, angled flats are used for lining in standard tattoo work.
Magnum needles are flat headed needles that have more than one layer or row of needles to them. This extra layer means the needle is able to hold a lot of ink and release a lot of ink very easily. These needles are great for shading and coloring large pieces.
Magnum needles are indicated by a size number and the letter M. The larger the number, the wider the needle. Some Magnum needles come featuring a curved head and those are often used for black and grey pieces. Magnum needles can also be labeled as “Super Magnum '' which are enormous and excellent for back pieces.
Textured vs. Smooth Needles
Some needles are entirely polished while others are unpolished and have tiny little grooves on the tapered tip of the needle. Textured needles hold ink better, sticking to the needle and depositing it in the skin with more efficiency. Smooth needles might experience more ink slipping down and out of the tube, and you will likely have to dip your needle more frequently.
Sizes of Needles
The size of a needle is related to how wide the needle tip is, or rather what it’s diameter or gauge is. The gauge of a tattoo is linked to ink flow; the larger the gauge, the more ink it holds and deposits into skin. A tattoo with a smaller size will hold and deposit less ink.
Though there are many gauges (with some Magnum Shaders going up to 25), there are three sizes that are most popular in tattooing.
#8 Gauge (0.25mm Diameter)
This tiny (but not the smallest) needle size allows for very precise and intricate details in tattooing. These are sometimes referred to as “Bugpin” needles.
#10 Gauge (0.30mm Diameter)
This is a popular standard needle size that can be used for a variety of artistry types and tattoo work. This gauge has a very steady ink flow, and it’s not as restricted as smaller needle sizes. These are sometimes referred to as “Double Zero” needles.
#12 Gauge (0.35 Diameter)
These are popular among a variety of tattoo styles and are often referred to as “Standard” needles. They have a quick ink flow allowing for smooth lines and bold coloring for larger pieces.
How to Identify Needles
Along with the needle size, needle count is often included on packaging to help you identify just how many needle pins make up the head. For example, a #10 9RL would indicate a #10 gauge (or 0.30mm diameter) double zero needle with nine pins in a round liner format. The more pins included in the needle, the more ink it holds and the thicker it deposits this ink.
Other Factors to Consider
The size, type, textured or smooth end, and pin quantity are not all you need to keep in mind when purchasing needles.
- Are the needles pre-sterilized? - You should look for needles that indicate a strict pre-sterilization process that also includes individual blister packs for safety. Packs should be marked with expiration dates to indicate when the needle’s sterilization process ends. Make sure no packs are poked as this makes the sterilization of the needles null and void.
Have a look at our article, Best Tattoo Needles On The Market for our favorite brands.
- Will these needles work with my machine? - If you are using a tattoo pen machine or a rotary gun, you may need to purchase cartridges rather than individual needles. In addition, some needle lengths only work with certain coil gun models. Cartridge needles include disposable tubes and they allow for an easier set up, but they don’t run on all machines. Read carefully to make sure your gun takes any needle types you plan to stock up on.
- Where are the needles made? - Cheap needles means you will produce poor work. Always inspect the needles upon arrival to make sure they’re not bent, broken, or dull. Sometimes, ordering from some makers may seem more expensive upfront but it’s worth it in the long run.
- Are the needles what I need for the work I do? - If your style is line work or pointillism, chances are you won’t need many flats, magnums, or shaders in your toolbelt. If you’re working on a back piece, you’re not going to want small gauges that will cause the session to run on for forever.
Our Final Thoughts
Knowing what needles seem to work best for you is a matter of trial and error, which is why there are so many different types out there, and why every artist you talk to has a favorite needle brand. If you’re ever unsure about size, variety, or quality, simply ask a professional for their recommendation and guidance.