The Wonderful World of Tattoo Machines: Types of Tattoo Machines and Usage

If you plan on becoming a tattoo artist, mastering tattoo machine basics is a must. This includes everything from the different types of tattoo machines, to how they work and choosing the right types of tattoo machines.

But, before we go there, let’s take a quick trip down the history of tattoo machines. This will help you to better understand modern types of tattoo machines and appreciate how far the industry has come. 

Tattoo Machine Basics: History and Origins

Back in the day, the first tattoo artist didn’t have the fancy machines we have now that make our work easier. Usually, they were black ink tattoos made of ash or soot mixed with water. They were inserted into the skin using a sharp piece of wood or bone along with some type of hammer in a long and painful process. Tattoos were reserved for the rougher characters in society, like sailors, circus performers, criminals, and military men.

It wasn’t until 1876 when Thomas Edison, an American inventor, introduced a revolutionary new tool. Edison, already famous for inventing the lightbulb and phonograph, created a rotary machine designed to create stencils on flyers.

This machine was modified by a tattooist named Samuel O’Reilly, and by 1891, he was able to create an electronic version of the rotary machine which he later patented. Though this was a revolutionary moment in the tattoo industry, the machine O’Reilly modified was much too bulky. It was too heavy for tattoo artists to use for a long time and only got in the way. 

The standard tattoo machine was tweaked and modified over the years. Finally, in the 1920s, a tattoo artist named Percy Waters developed a fourteen-frame style machine similar to the ones used today. It featured two electromagnetic coils set parallel to the frame of the machine, with a spark shield and an on/off switch. Waters was eventually inducted into the Tattoo Hall of Fame on January 15, 1987, for his contributions to the industry.

With time, other inventors such as Getchell, Bell, and Wagner came up with varying types of tattoo machines models which contributed to modern success. These models were created using iron, steel, and brass, but were then changed to aluminum because it was both lightweight and durable.

When you think of tattoo machine basics, don’t forget to take your hat off to those who made it possible. Without their brilliance and expertise, who knows where the industry would be today.

Modern types of Tattoo Machines

From the inventions of those aforementioned, we have three main types of tattoo machines. 

These include:

  • Rotary machine
  • Coil machine
  • Pneumatic machine

Rotary Machine

The rotary machine was the first official tattooing machine and is now the most popularly used type. 

It’s a relatively quiet type of tattoo machine, so you won’t hear that zzzzz sound that’s stereotypical of tattoo studios. It also uses few components, so it’s relatively lightweight. Rotary machines power their armature bar using an electric motor. It moves the needle quickly up and down in a circular motion which improves the level of control you will have over it. This smooth movement is ideal for working on clients with sensitive skin and makes lining and shading much gentler to prevent damage. Rotary machines are also said to reduce healing time.

The major drawback to using a rotary machine is that the fast movement makes it difficult to draw straight lines. You’ll end up having to switch needles or machines entirely during your session to create sharp or detailed pieces. 

Coil Machine

The coil machine is the cheapest of the three. They are also loud, bulky, and can become cumbersome to work with during long sessions. Coil machines move needles relatively slowly, so you’ll have to use a bit more force which can damage sensitive skin.

The coil machine gets its name from the source of its power. It works when an electromagnetic current passes through the coils and engages and disengages a magnet. This action causes the armature bar to move up and down as if it was being knocked by a hammer. The result is that zzzzz or buzzing sound. 

One good thing about these types of tattoo machines is that they are ideal for intricate pieces. Since they have slower strokes, you can invest more time into details. Coil machines are good for both shading and blending in lines, because of this movement. 

If you’re new to the game, you might not want to take up a coil machine anytime soon. These types of tattoo machines are made of complex components which equates to extra weight. 

Pneumatic Machine

Pneumatic machines are the newest types of tattoo machines on the block. What’s so revolutionary about them is how they work.

Pneumatic machines use compressed air to move the machine up and down. This means that it's the quietest type of machine you can get your hands on. Of course, they’re the most expensive, but for some artists, the investment is worth it.

They are lightweight, making them ideal for long sessions, and work great for both lining and shading. If you’re worried about accessibility, you’ll be surprised to know that these types of tattoo machines are compatible with rotary and coil machine parts and accessories. Pneumatic machines are also easy to clean and maintain.

Choosing the Ideal Types of Tattoo Machines

One common misconception that new and aspiring tattoo artists have is that they’ll only need one tattoo machine. Wrong!

Some machines do certain jobs better than others, and some are completely horrible choices for certain techniques. Others are better suited for an expert tattoo artist, and others are simple and ideal for beginners. These are the things you will have to consider when choosing the ideal types of tattoo machines. 

You should always strive for the best quality tattoo machines. If you can’t afford a high-quality one at the moment, it’s better to wait until you can. Cheap machines are notorious for breaking down mid-session which reflects negatively on your brand and can cause damage to your client’s skin. Get one that is new if possible. If it’s used, ensure there are no damaged components that can affect the way you work. 

Your machines should always fit your hands, and shouldn't feel awkward. You're going to use them for hours at a time, so don’t expose yourself to cramps or worse, mistakes. 

Next, think about liners versus shaders. Using a liner machine to pull off what a shader is supposed to do might prove disappointing. There are machines on the market that claim to be hybrids, but take it from us, there’s a distinction. 

Where possible, purchase your tattoo machine in the store. It may be tempting to get a cheap one online, but you don’t have a chance to examine it. You can also get help from your sales rep if this is your first time buying a machine. 

Custom Tattoo Machines

Many tattoo artists are opting for custom tattoo machines instead of the traditional types of tattoo machines. These are, as the name suggests, done-to-order, to suit your style. They have components that can be mixed and matched, or adjusted depending on the artwork, and help to improve control, speed, and accuracy.

Naturally, these machines are more expensive and are generally used by expert artists. Beginners fare better with rotary machines, and you might want to try the different types of tattoo machines before you go for a custom build. 

 Essential accessories 

Next, we have to talk about the accessories that allow these types of tattoo machines to function.

Needles and tubes

The first is needles. These are the tools used to pierce the skin and deliver the ink to the dermis. Tattoo needles come in a variety of sizes, which allows you to achieve different techniques. Tubes support the needles while they interact with the skin. Both come in sterile, disposal packets. 


Tattooing ink can come pre-mixed, but some artists prefer to mix them on their own, especially to create custom colors. Tattoo ink mixed in-studio has to be combined with a carrier liquid like alcohol or water to pass it from the machine into the skin. 

Power source

You’ll of course need a constant power supply to give your machine the juice it needs to run. Modern power supplies have digital displays that allow you to adjust your speed based on the machine and tattoo design.


Tattoo machines underwent a long history of invention, improvement, and modernization. This process has improved the industry for the better and is reflected in the different types of tattoo machines we have today. 

The first and most popular type of machine is the rotary machine, which is quiet, lightweight, and relatively easy to use. The next is the coil machine, which though noisy, is cheap and ideal for intricate designs. The newest type is the pneumatic machine and is the most expensive and lightweight of the bunch.

When buying any of these types of tattoo machines, remember to always aim for high quality and the perfect fit. Don’t forget to get crucial components that tattoo machines to do their jobs such as your needles and tubes, ink, and power source. Of course, this list is not exhaustive. You can learn more about everything you will need to become a tattoo artist in this once-in-a-lifetime course.

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