How Do Tattoo Machines Work?

  • Written By Dan Hunter on December 16, 2019
    Last Updated: November 28, 2020

There were tattoos long before there were machines for them. The premise has always been the same, though — ink, something pointy and a way to stick it into the skin. In ancient times, this was done using a thorn, hammer and ink made of soot. These days, we’re more efficient with machines to do the work for us.

There are a few types of tattoo machines, all with the same end goal — to get the ink into the skin and leave you with a fantastic looking tattoo. This is way easier to achieve now than it was back then, all thanks to the wonder of machinery.

Tattoo machines rapidly move a solid needle up and down, with motors, coils and compressed air all used to power them. The single-use needles are at the end of the armature bar, connected to the moving parts.

What Are the Different Types of Tattoo Machine?

Tattoo machines are often referred to as tattoo guns, but calling them that is a no-no to tattoo artists. There are three main types of tattoo machines, and they all have a unique way of working, with each being an ingenious piece of tech:

  • Rotary tattoo gun
  • Coil tattoo gun
  • Pneumatic tattoo gun

Rotary Tattoo Gun

The rotary gun takes the lead in the tattoo gun popularity contest. This motor-powered machine’s rotary mechanism powers the needle’s vertical motion. The motor in this gun is small and moves the needle up and down rapidly.

This gun has a simple design, is quiet and weighs very little due to there being minimal components. It draws its needles in a cyclic, fluid and even pattern.

Coil Tattoo Gun

Coil guns are louder than their rotary counterpart — they’re the buzzing you probably associate with tattoo parlors — with a choppier needle movement. An electromagnet created by a solenoid powers this gun, passing through coils and rapidly turning magnets on and off.

This gun’s needles are tapped into the skin, like with a hammer. Despite the hammering, it has a soft hit and a lot of give. What this does mean is that it’s harder to control than a rotary gun. You need very precise stroke and hand movements to make it work. For this, it’s best used for shading, especially in gray-ish colors because of the ability to fine-tune things.

The tattoo artist has to take great care with this gun and it remains a favorite in tattoo parlors. It’s great for an artist who really wants a challenge.

Pneumatic Tattoo Gun

The pneumatic gun was revolutionary when it was introduced. This is down to how it operates — the needles are driven by compressed air, which was never before seen on the tattoo machine scene. 

This gun is the most advanced of the three; therefore, it’s the most expensive. Tattoo artists may be hesitant to invest in it because of the price, but there are more pros to this gun that make it desirable.

This tattoo machine is light and is easy to manipulate over intricate designs. Once you’re done, you don’t have to disassemble the gun to sterilize it in an autoclave. This makes it a useful and convenient tool to have.

Tattoo Machines — Liners vs. Shaders

Diving deeper into tattoo machines, there are two categories they fall into. These are equally important in the tattooing process, depending on what tattoo you’re getting:

  • Liners
  • Shaders


Liners create short, fast strokes and let tattoo artists create solid lines with one motion. When drawing lines, tattoo artists don’t stop since this breaks the line’s continuity, which could make it look messy.

Liners need fast strokes and vary considerably. There are standard liners and fine liners with multiple needle configurations. The finer the liner, the fewer the needles in its setup and the thinner the needles are.

A liner will use anywhere from one to seven needles at once. These needles are arranged in a circle, when possible.


Obvious in the name, shaders are frequently used for shading. Their strokes are long for subtle gradients and ink saturation. They’re also used for filling in large blocks of color and sculpting lines.

Shaders have more needles, which makes them stronger than liners, and operate with a minimum of four needles.

These machines are slow, careful, and leave no patch of skin without ink. They need to deliver subtle, detailed gradients in color. This can’t be achieved quickly, at least not if you want it done perfectly.

A big plus of shaders is that they’re kinder to the skin — for machines that cover large areas of skin, they have to be.

Tubes and Needles

The ink has to come from somewhere, so all tattoo machines have tubes and needles. The needles operate from the armature bar — a motor that’s wound by conductors in the form of bars.

This armature bar connects to the moving part of the machine. It passes through the tube with the attached grip, which is held in place by a vice on the machine. 

The tubes are set, so the needle only extends a certain amount beyond the tube’s tip to help with depth. The up and down movement draws tattoo ink into the tube and releases it when the needles go into the skin at great speed.

Tattoo Machines Are Intricate

Tattoo machines may look and work differently, but they’re made up of the same moving parts. The difference is in how they’re made, move and what keeps the motor running, creating machines that are subtly and intricately different.

What machine a tattoo artist chooses to use is down to their preference. Would they like a challenge, or a lightweight, easily-maneuvered machine? What’s their skill level, and can they handle being uber-precise? They’re covered no matter what — as their skillset grows, so does their collection of different tattoo machines.

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