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How Do Tattoo Machines Work? – Working Mechanism Explained

by  Kin Liu -  Last updated on June 7, 2021

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There are very few things around which are considered as culturally cool and alluring as getting a decent tattoo. Whether designing a life lesson, a reminder of a lost loved one, or simply a beautiful pattern that lands you compliments from most people you meet, a tattoo can be a great cosmetic addition to your person.

Although most people know about tattoos and how they look, many aren’t too learned about the machinery and equipment tattoo artists use to make them.

From design to drawing, these talented folks require efficient and dependable tools that can provide top-notch results for all customers who seek unique body designs from them.

Below is information about tattoo machines that may give you a more in-depth analysis of how tattoos are made.

What Different Kinds of Tattoo Machines Are There?

Most tattoo artists use one of three different types of tattoo machines available. Each equipment variation has a distinct way of operating providing different methods of drawing.

The three types are:

  • Pneumatic tattoo machine.
  • Rotary tattoo machine.
  • Coil tattoo machine.

Here is a description and main function of each one:

1. Pneumatic

Using compression technology to operate the needles on the machine, this comprehensive tattoo technology is a highly desired and more expensive tool than other options.

The chassis itself is lightweight and is easier to manipulate while drawing over complex and detailed body art designs. It also does not need to be completely taken apart to properly clean and sterilize like other types of tattoo machines.

All of these pros render How Do Tattoo Machines Work? pneumatic tattoo technology a pricey yet valuable piece of equipment that can make a busy tattoo artist’s workflow much smoother.

2. Rotary

The rotary tattoo machine is driven by a motor that enables the needles to move vertically and create great designs. This is the most popular option for most tattoo artists for its lightweight efficiency and near-noiseless motor.

The needles are driven into a very even pattern allowing for an easy-to-handle and clean tattoo experience. These machines also cause considerably fewer skin irritations on clients.

3. Coil

With coil tattoo machines, electricity channeled by a solenoid (a device that converts electricity into mechanical power) runs through coils into magnets that are turned off and on.

The needles at the end of this device are kept close to the skin (nearly attached) which limits one’s ability to control it as easily as a rotary or pneumatic machine.

To efficiently wield this type of tool a tattoo artist needs very careful and focused strokes with high-level hand-eye coordination. This type of tattoo machine is mostly used for adjusting and shading and is used mostly by tattoo professionals who desire a real challenge.

Shader Machine or Liner Machine?

No matter if you have a coil, pneumatic, or rotary tattoo machine, there are two different categories they can fall into. You can have a shader or a liner.


Gradient-oriented tasks for certain designs and patterns require a tattoo machine dedicated to this gray work. These tools are also the best for etching out big portions of color and crafting solid lines.

A shader is stronger than a liner because they have more needles. One can’t properly operate without at least four.

Although these machines are used in slower and more focused strokes, they are also less harsh on the skin they ink up. The detail and accurate nature of these tools require time and delicacy while being wielded.

These machines offer less skin trauma.


If a tattoo artist wants to create solid lines with swiftness and fewer breaks, then liners are the way to go. These quick-stroke tools allow designers to sculpt outlines in a short amount of time without creating a mess that could ruin the tattoo.

There are two types of liners:

  • Fine Liners – Fewer needles with thinner diameters.
  • Standard Liners – More needles with larger diameters.

Most liners require 1 to 7 needles at any given time in a circular pattern on the device. These devices are single-purpose as they only are used for creating lines with ease.

How Do They Work?

Tattoo machines are complex devices that require proper maintenance procedures and understanding of mechanical functions to efficiently operate.

Below is a detailed explanation of how tattoo machines generally work amongst all categories and types.

The Back End

Each machine runs on alternating currents produced by a capacitor and subsequent coils which make up the motor. The coils generate the first stage of this current and send it to the capacitor which manifests a subsequent current and sends it to two metal springs that allow the machine to work. The mounted springs utilize the correct amount of electricity to force needles into a person’s skin.

The back of the device is where a tattoo artist holds the machine.

The Front End

The armature setup, or needle-filled bar, is connected directly to the spring base that is in motion. The needles also run through tubes that are arranged in a fixed position and the back-and-forth motion drives ink into the needles and exits it into the skin at high frequencies.

Different sized needles and tubes are required depending on the tattoo job at hand. Bigger designs and complex lines call for different needles than smaller and simpler designs.

The Complexity of These Machines

There are lots of differences between varying tattoo machines. Mostly all available ones possess the same parts, but there are differences in the arrangement. Here’s a brief list of some of the major contrasts between devices:

  • How they are designed.
  • How the internals moves inside the device.
  • What keeps the motor running (compression, electricity, etc.)?

The Different Buying Factors

Tattoo machines can be bought new, used, or certified refurbished by manufacturers and resellers around the world.


If you’re on a budget then you want to make sure the pre-owned machine you purchase is free of damage or worn-down internal components that will cause more harm than good. If a machine’s price is high, remember that you’re most likely paying for the better condition and quality parts, so try to see it more as an investment than a liability.

When purchasing a refurbished machine inspect it in person at the store if possible. Make sure all pieces and parts are in great condition, clean, safe, and usable.

Online Purchases

Because you can’t see the machine in front of you, make sure to do decent research before buying from an online seller. Speak to a person directly over the phone, read reviews and customer testimonials, find detailed information about the machine, find different price quotes, and purchase from a website that has a certified guarantee for returns and refunds.

Fake Machines

The machines that are usually duplicated and phony are rotary devices. This is because these devices can be homemade and are often the machines that are replicated in prisons.

The manufacturing process with these fake machines is performed by people with little knowledge of how tattoo artists work. The motor is low voltage, and the ink output is through a toothbrush or a pen. The needles are replaced with paper clips and contain a sewing needle attached to them.

Be careful when buying a machine and look out for these attributes that usually mean it isn’t authentic.

Tattoo Kits

There is more to being a tattoo artist than just getting a machine. You’ll need maintenance equipment, ink, needles, tubes, power output, and a first aid kit for any accidents.

Develop your kit with all these factors in mind and incorporate them into your overall business overhead.

An important thing to consider is finding a backup power source that can allow you to work if the primary one fails. It can also be used in coordination to ensure consistent full power for longer sessions and detailed designs. The voltage and features should match the type of machine you purchase.

Tattoo Artists Preferences

Different artists wield different machines for varying reasons. Below are some reasons why body artists would opt for a specific machine:

  • Do they want a challenge while making tattoos?
  • Do they prefer lightweight machines that are easier to manipulate?
  • Can their experience grant them the ability to handle more focus-driven and carefully wielded machines?
  • Do they have the money to invest in a higher-end device?

The Bottom Line

Tattoos are a staple of contemporary culture that many would love to participate in. Modern artists require modern tools that help them create the best designs possible.

There exist three different types of machines:

  • Rotary
  • Coil
  • Pneumatic

And there are two different categories they fall into:

  • Liners
  • Shaders

Through a complex mechanism, ink is safely distributed through the device and is embedded in a client’s skin.

When getting a tattoo or making one, it’s good to know the options available and how they work when in the shop. It’s also great to know what method works best for you.

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