Improving Your Tattoo Outlines and Linework: Your Complete Guide

Written by: Pete

Tattooing outlines and doing line work is probably the most important part of creating successful works of art. Shaky or poor line work is the first thing people notice about a tattoo, and learning how to be attentive to outlining is essential. A crisp, clean line will be the thing that helps define your professionalism in the industry.

Tattoo Outlines and Linework

Selecting the Perfect Needle for Outlining a Tattoo

There are specific tattoo needles that help make the lining and outlining part of a session much easier on the artist. The last thing you want to do is grab a shading needle and try to outline with it.

Round Tattoo Needles

These are the needles that people are most familiar with when it comes to line work. They’re one or multiple needles that meet together at a rounded point. The more needles make up the point, the thicker the line will be. The needles are packed very tightly, allowing for very smooth lines and for small details.

Round liners are not only excellent for bold line work, they are also known to be less painful for skin. Round liners are indicated on packaging with RL (Round Liner).

round tattoo needles for linework

Flat Tattoo Needles

Flat needles are not commonly used for lining. Most are used for shading or for coloring pieces. One specific flat tattoo needle can be good for very precise corner work and it is called the Manual/Angle needle. This has a flat but angled head. Most artists will use a rounded needle for lining, but a Manual/Angle needle is an additional option.

Flat Tattoo Needle configuration


Check out our guide and review of the best tattoo needles on the market!

Creating the Stencil: The Foundation for Perfect Outlines

A stencil is the template you use to create a flawless design on either your practice skin or your client’s skin. It allows you to trace the neatest and most crisp lines. There are various ways you can create a stencil to help with your outlining including printers for stencils, transfer papers, or using a tattoo pen to hand-draw stencils.

Thermal Fax vs. Hectograph Carbon Paper

Using a stencil machine is the easiest and most common way to get a stencil completed in most tattoo shops. Similar to a standard printer, the perfectly drawn design is passed onto transfer paper and ready to be pressed against the client’s skin.

There are two types of stencil papers available: hectograph stencil paper is for freehand drawings turned into stencils, and thermal fax printers are the more efficient way to print out your stencil. Thermal fax printers also allow you to resize and reprint your pieces if there are any issues.

If you’re looking for the best stencil printers for your tattoo work, have a look at our article, Best Tattoo Stencil Printers Reviewed.

Transferring the Stencil to Skin

When you are happy with the design and quality of your stencil, you can use a solution such as green soap or a stencil stay product to apply the stencil. This is applied to the fake skin, fruit, or your client’s skin and then the stencil is pressed up gently against it. Peeling the stencil away slowly reveals a clean, crisp design that’s ready to be tattooed.

For more information on how to use tattoo transfer paper, have a look at our article: Tattoo Transfer Paper - What is it and how to use it.

How to Outline a Tattoo

Outlines not only help define a design much better, but they actually help a design last longer, as well. Outlines ensure that the tattoo doesn’t experience as much feathering and blurring as it ages.

Prep the Skin

If you are tattooing on a client, the area that is going to be tattooed needs to be shaved. After this is done, you can apply the stencil using green soap, antiseptic spray, or stencil stay product. Once your stencil is on, you’re ready to begin your outlining process.

Prep the Machine and Fill the Machine Reservoir With Black Ink

Although outlines can be done in any color, black is the best ink to help a design pop and to maintain the longevity of the tattoo. It’s for that reason that it has been used since tattooing first began.

In order to fill the reservoir of your tattoo gun, your machine must be turned off. You simply need to dip the tip of your needle in the ink and it will fill up the tube. Always remember that tattooing requires frequent dips into your ink to maintain the color and consistency, and you should never touch the ink pot if it can be avoided.

Once your gun has ink loaded, run it over a paper towel to release any excess prior to beginning to tattoo.

Hold the Machine Properly

Believe it or not, there is a right way to hold a tattoo gun. In fact, in order to ensure that you are getting crisp and solid line work done, you need to make sure you’re holding your machine correctly.

You need to hold your gun like you would a pencil, resting your pinky and the side of your wrist against your client’s skin, and holding the tattoo gun at a slight angle - 65 degrees is usually recommended for small liners.

The rule of thumb is to ensure you have three points of contact:

  • The pinky touches the thumb of the hand stretching the skin.
  • You are resting your wrist and pinky against the client’s body (or the table).
  • Your elbow is anchored against your ribs or on the table.

Apply the First Lines

It’s always recommended that you start with the bottom of a tattoo design (closer to the feet of a body) and work your way up, so nothing runs down and smudges unfinished pieces of work. When you are applying your first lines, remember that you need to apply some pressure but not too much that it deposits the ink so deep that it causes blowouts. You need to maintain consistent pressure throughout the session.

Holding the skin tight with your free hand will help with the process. It is also not recommended that you move too slowly as this will cause a shaky line. Too fast will cause a patchy line that will cause the needle to jump. Maintaining the right speed and pressure will help create the most steady line. Your line movement should match the speed of your machine.

Check Your Stencil

You should be sure that your stencil lines will match the needle and lines you are drawing. If your stencil’s lines are too thick, it will cause you to have shaky and inconsistent lining. In addition, be aware of where your arms are resting as you tattoo; you want to be sure that your hands are not rubbing off the stencil as you work because it cannot be reapplied mid-tattoo.

Additional Outline Tips

  • There are linework drills that you can download, print, and stencil onto practice skin to help you with lining practice.
  • Choosing the right voltage will help you create better outlines. Generally, the bigger the needle, the more power you will require.
  • For corners and angles, create two separate lines; ensuring you are running the machine in the same direction prevents cutting or snagging the skin.
  • For longer lines, don’t bend your wrist but bend your elbow. Breaking a line makes for shaky outline work.
  • Don’t underestimate the importance of stretching the skin, especially stretching it in the right direction for your lining.

Our Final Thoughts

Nailing down lining and outline work just takes practice - and lots of it! Don’t feel discouraged if you don’t master it in the first or even the tenth attempt. Remember to continue your practice on fake skin or fruits prior to moving onto clients, because you want your work to look as professional as possible before you create permanent works of art on people’s skin. Learning which lining needle helps you achieve your best work will also be a result of trial and error.

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