How to Tune a Tattoo Machine

  • Written By Dan Hunter on November 10, 2020
    Last Updated: February 6, 2021

If you’re a tattoo artist with any experience level, you should ensure your equipment can function correctly at all times.

Although different tattoo machines exist, there are several protocols that tattoo artists must follow to ensure safety and productivity when operating and tuning a tattoo machine. These machines come in shader and liner varieties, so keeping them in-tune should be crucial for tattoo artists.

It might be difficult for you to tune a tattoo machine at first, but once you do, it helps you save time with your work. By tuning your tattoo machine when required, you’ll increase its longevity and make it easier to produce high-quality art.

Why You Should Tune Your Tattoo Machine

If you’re a skillful tattoo artist, tuning your tattoo machine should allow you to operate it smoothly without any issues. If your device is adjusted, you should create smooth outlines for tattoos. If you specialize in creating straight lines, it’s crucial to tune it to prevent unwanted swerves and curves.

If you’re worried about parts of your tattoo machine wearing out, tuning it will let you identify when parts should be replaced and if they’re compatible with the device’s performance. If you want to provide excellent tattoo art for your clients, keeping your tattoo machine in top-notch condition is crucial.

Identify the Key Parts of Your Tattoo Machine

Each tattoo machine comes equipped with many components that allow proper machine performance if cared for properly. Regardless of whether you own a coil or a rotary tattoo machine, you’ll need to understand all parts of your tattoo machine for a more convenient tuning session.

Machine Coils

Coils act as the pathway for powering a tattoo machine, along with capacitors. The strength and speed of your device’s needle rely heavily on the qualities of its coils.

Generally, if you have more wire layers wrapped around your coils, your machine will perform slower and have more power. If you have fewer wire layers for your coils, the device will run faster and have less energy when used. 

Front and Back Springs

The front spring’s job is to act as the means of converting the coils into an electromagnet. It also acts as a shock absorber for the armature bar when using a tattoo machine. Depending on the model, the size of these springs may vary. 

The back spring adds tension to the front spring to create an electromagnetic movement that lets the back spring produce movement in the tattoo machine’s needles and balances it to keep a consistent and safe stroke.

Contact Screw 

The contact screw allows electromagnetic currents to run through the device and into the machine’s front spring. When continuously used, it keeps the performance flow consistent, depending on the machine’s quality.

Depending on how tight you maintain the contact screw, you can increase your tattoo machine’s speed.

Armature Bar

The armature bar lets you control the speed of your device. If it’s light, your machine will perform fast, but use less power. Larger armature bars give you more force when using tattoo needles, but decrease its speed. By aligning it correctly, your machine’s performance increases.

Through electromagnetism, the armature bar attracts to the electric current running through magnetized coils. The attached springs also dictate the cycle that the machine runs on.

Steps for Tuning

Now that you know what parts you must work with for tuning a tattoo machine, you can now begin adjusting your device. After taking it apart, you should consider following these steps when tweaking your tattoo machine.

Identify the Gap

Before reconfiguring your machine, you should identify gaps between the front spring and contact screw tip. The armature bar will fill this area, so press it down to reveal the gap. For liners, the gap’s width should fit a dime. For shaders, the width should fit a nickel. If the gap is over the coin width, it won’t work and should be adjusted until it does.

Adjusting the Contact Screw

Once you identify the gap between the front spring and contact screw, you should loosen the tattoo machine’s thumb screw to adjust the contact screw. If you’re switching from shader to liner or vice versa, screw the contact screw to the desired width before tightening the thumbscrew.

Attach Your Coils

Before testing out the productivity of your tattoo machine, make sure that you properly secure the attached coils on your device to ensure a stable current when working. They should be secure enough to fit inside the armature bar.

Powering Your Machine

Generally, a tattoo machine should use 7.5 to 8.5 volts to produce line work on a tattoo. When working with shading, a tattoo machine should use 8 to 10 volts. Tattoo artists use these recommended settings to keep their practice safe and convenient for themselves and their clients.

Differences Between Shaders and Liners

Although relatively similar in design, coil shaders and liners share a few differences from each other. If you’re tuning your tattoo machine, understanding the differences between each setting or specialty should make tuning less difficult.

Speed and Power of the Device

Due to the nature of stopping as little as possible when creating a tattoo’s outline, liner tattoo machines use fewer needles on the surface and tend to be less potent than shaders. Although they use less powerful capacitors when powered on, liners make up for it by providing its users more freedom with the needle when creating the line art.

In contrast, shader tattoo machines utilize more power, have more needles, and move at a slower speed to accommodate the detailed coloring of a tattoo. If you need to tune your machine to switch between each operation, you can find the speed that’s right for you.

Size of the Front Spring

The front spring’s size is much bigger for shaders than it is for liners. This gives the front spring strength to deliver high-quality tattoo art services through the electromagnetic forces transferred through the coils.

Typical Problems for Tattoo Machines

Although some tattoo machines come with default tuning for convenience, problems can still occur before you make adjustments.

Even with proper experience, you may encounter problems when working with a tattoo machine that needs tuning. If you’re facing issues when working with a tattoo machine, you can solve common problems with little effort in a short time. 

Issues with the Back Spring Tension

If your machine’s needle isn’t moving, there might be a problem with its back spring. If you bend the back spring down and forward, it should create more tension once reassembled.

If they’re bent too far, it might become overly tight and cause sparking between the front spring and contact screw. Some causes of sparking may result from incompatible capacitors with the wrong uF. The size differs between liners and shaders, so be sure to change them when tuning the machine.

Depending on the tattoo artists’ preferences, the springs can be adjusted when needed to balance each stroke’s power.

Machine Overheating

If your tattoo machine overheats, there might be too much tension on the back springs or armature bar. If there is too much voltage, you may also want to adjust the springs and contact screw to lower the proper usage voltage.

Power Problems

Sometimes, you may experience power failures when using your machine. If it’s acting faulty, try troubleshooting the capacitors or coils. If you test the faulty capacitor with another one that performs correctly, you may need to replace them. A quick cleanup can also fix it up.

If you’re using a more suitable capacitor for a shader, but not for a liner, consider replacing it with the right capacitor to prevent future power issues. 

Final Thoughts

When tuning your tattoo machine, you have to consider what parts you need to keep an eye on for technical malfunctions. Tattoo artists who excel in these protocols know how to adapt to the right situations.