What are the different types of tattoo machines? Plus 5 tips to buy one.

types of tattoo machines
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If you are at the beginning of your tattoo career, the first decision you come up against is what tattoo machine to buy and use. This leads you into a minefield of information as you ask, what are the different types of tattoo machines?

There are two main categories of tattoo machines: coil and rotary. Rotary machines use a spinning motor to drive the tattoo needle while coil machines uses electrically created magnetism to do the same thing. Rotary machines are great for beginners as they are easier to set up and maintain.


Deciding which type of tattoo machine to buy as your first machine can mean the difference between success and failure when it comes to learning how to tattoo. That’s why it’s so important to understand the different types of tattoo machines before you lay out any money.

A bit of time spent understanding can save you a whole bunch of money and frustration.

What are the different types of tattoo machines?

So what are the different types of tattoo machines?

  • Coil Tattoo Machines
  • Rotary Tattoo Machines

A Pneumatic Tattoo Machine also exists. This runs off an air compressor to provide the power. However, this is rare so we will stick to the two main types for now

Coil machines have traditionally been more popular than rotary machines. However, more recent technological innovations have meant that rotary machines have become increasingly popular in the last 10 years.

In fact, if you go around a tattoo convention now, it seems that rotary machines are the most used.

Rotaries are good for fine and detailed tattooing. However, coil machines are good for heavy traditional lines and solid color packing.

Both types of machines will require tons of practice before you become proficient at using them.

You need to do a huge amount of work on practice skin before touching human skin.

In the end, the skill is in your hand and not the machine. However, choosing a good machine will make your life easier.

While both of these machines are great options, some key differences between them make each machine perfect for certain applications.

Let’s take a closer look at how these two machines differ.

Different types of tattoo machines Micky Sharpz Brass T Dial Tattoo Machine

Micky Sharpz Brass T Dial Tattoo Machine. A solid workhorse of a coil machine

Differences Between Rotary and Coil Tattoo Machines

The first difference between rotary and coil machines is that rotary machines use a spinning motor to drive the needle while coil machines uses electrically created magnetism to do the same thing.

Rotary machines are better suited for fine detail work such as portraits, flowers, and other designs that need to be precise.

On the other hand, coil machines are better suited for heavier line work like tribal art, skulls, and other bolder designs.

Custom Handmade Coil Type Tattoo Machine

Custom Handmade Coil Type Tattoo Machine

The Evolution of Rotary and Coil Tattoo Machines

The evolution of both coil and rotary tattoo machines was inspired by Thomas Edison’s invention of the Stencil-Pen. Tattooist Sam O’Reilly modified Edison’s pen to add ink reservoirs to the ink delivery tubes. This was a completely new device that he patented in 1891.

Samuel O'Reilly's patent for a rotary tattoo machine

Samuel O’Reilly’s patent for a rotary tattoo machine in 1891

O’Reilly’s tattoo machine used a hollow needle full of permanent ink. An electrical current was used to power a motor that moved a steel needle into and out of the skin repeatedly at a rate of up to 50 times per second.

Each time the tattoo needle was inserted into the skin, a tiny droplet of ink would be injected under the skin’s surface. The original machine patent allowed for different size needles delivering different amounts of ink into the skin.

O’Reilly’s machine was basically a rotary tattoo machine. It was powered by a spinning motor.

20 days after O’Reilly filed for a patent, Londoner Tom Riley patented an electromagnetic coil machine.

Riley’s Single Coil Machine, which used doorbell technology placed inside a metal box was the basis for today’s coil machines.

This device evolved into the traditional coil tattoo machine we know today. They haven’t changed a huge amount from the machines back then.

So both rotary and coil machines evolved in parallel historically to become the modern tattoo machines we use now.

Coil Tattoo Machine Diagram

Coil Tattoo Machine Diagram

How do Coil tattoo machines work?

Coil tattoo machines, as the name implies have electrical coils. They may have just one or may be a “dual-coil” with two.

The magnetic coil machine works by using an alternating electromagnetic current that passes through the coils and turns magnetism on and off rapidly.

It uses a spring-loaded armature bar to create an upward and downward movement as it is pulled towards the magnetised coils, resulting in the needle driving the ink into the skin.

As long as the tattoo machine remains connected to an electrical outlet and provides enough current to power the electromagnetic circuit it keeps creating the continuous motion of the needle into the skin.

What is the rubber band on a coil tattoo machine for?

You may have seen rubber bands on a coil machine wrapped over the needle bar and secured around the coils. This is to dampen transverse or sideways movement of the needle bar which would give a less precise puncture and lead to shaky or blurry lines.

Coil Tattoo Machine Pros & Cons:

Pros of Coil Tattoo Machines:

  • Less expensive
  • Creates traditional heavy lines well
  • Works well as a color packer tattoo machine

Cons of Coil Tattoo Machines:

  • Takes time and practice to learn how to use properly
  • Requires knowledge about how to set it up properly to get it running well.
  • Can be temperamental. Will run beautifully one day and then refuse to run the next.
  • Heavy and awkward to hold – can lead to hand damage and carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Vibrates a lot. Can lead to vibration white finger
  • You will need different machines for lining and shading
  • Noisy – Coil machines create the notorious loud buzzing sound of a traditional tattoo shop which some clients find intimidating as it reminds them of the dentist.
Rotary Tattoo Machine Diagram

Rotary Tattoo Machine Diagram

How do Rotary Tattoo Machines work?

The second kind of tattooing machine is the rotary-powered machine, which has a rotating shaft connected to a small electric motor. The machine translates the spinning movement into a back and forth movement using a cam. The needle is pushed rapidly back and forth into the skin to create the tattoo

Rotary machines are pretty quiet in comparison to coil machines.

Rotary Tattoo Machine Subtypes

There are four main types of rotary tattooing machines. They differ in the way the movement is transferred to the needle bar. Each type of machine has its own unique advantages and disadvantages. We’ll discuss each common type here.

Direct drive

The cam wheel is directly placed on the motor shaft. As the cam wheel rotates it drives the needle bar.

Pros: Quiet, due to the fact this is the most efficient transfer of motor movement.

Cons: Less depth adjustment range.

Armature bar guided

The armature bar has a small cam wheel attached to an arm. The spinning of the cam wheel pushes the armature bar and its attached needle bar.

Pros: Extremely accurate motion as the armature bar is held in place by the machine frame

Cons: Noisy. The transfer of motion means that the machine is quite rattly and the loudest rotary machine.

Linear action

The needle bar is attached to a sliding mechanism. The mechanism sits within a channel that holds it in place.

Pros: Should be pretty quiet and smooth.

Cons: Can heat up and is difficult to fix if things go wrong.

Swash drive

This type of rotary uses a swash plate to translate the circular motor motion into an up and down movement.

Pros: Extremely smooth and quiet.

Cons: Can be unstable at high voltages.

Pen or needle cartridge style

This type of rotary tattoo machine has become extremely popular since it was first introduced by Cheyenne to the tattoo world. It is generally a direct drive rotary machine and based on the machines used by cosmetic tattooists.

Instead of using grips, tips and a needle bar, this machine uses disposable needle cartridges.

Needle cartridges are a plastic tip that holds a short needle in a sealed compartment. The needle is driven by a bar within the machine which presses on a rod at the back of the cartridge. This pushes the tattoo needle out and into the skin depositing the tattoo ink.

These types of machines are often configured with the motor in the back in linear alignment. This makes them easy to hold and well balanced. It is the nearest thing to drawing with a pen.

Pros: Easy to swap and change between different types of needles during a tattoo. Easy to set up and great for beginners.

Cons: Needle cartridges are expensive compared to needle bars. However, the price has now come down significantly.

It’s important to note that you can get adaptors with a disposable tube so that you can use needle cartridges on a coil machine too.

Dragonhawk Pen Style Rotary Tattoo Machine

Dragonhawk Pen Style Rotary Tattoo Machine from the Dragonhawk Starter kit

Tattoo Needle Cartridges

Tattoo Needle Cartridges are easy to change whilst you work.

Rotary Tattoo Machine Pros & Cons:

Pros of Rotary Tattoo Machines:

  • Easy to use
  • Good for detail work
  • Give a smoother line
  • Less traumatic on the skin than coils. The tattoo may heal quicker and easier
  • Seem to be less painful for the client from personal experience
  • Great for beginners
  • More ergonomic. Easier to hold causing less damage or injury
  • Doesn’t vibrate much. Less risk of hand damage in the long run.
  • Plug and play. Easy to set up and use.
  • Flexible. Can work as a liner machine and a shader machine.
  • Good for intricate shading
  • Good for soft shading

Cons of Rotary Tattoo Machines:

  • More expensive
  • Can be a little “weak” in packing heavy colours and lines.
  • If low powered it can be difficult to work on problem areas. For example, stretch marks or cellulite.

Which is my favourite tattoo machine?

Looking through my pro and con summaries above realise that I may be a little biased towards rotary tattoo machines. Having used many machines over the years, both coil and rotary, I have settled into using a rotary Cheyenne Hawk for everything.

The Cheyenne Hawk uses needle cartridges which allows you to change needles easily.

This is what I like about it

  1. The ease of set-up – no more having to constantly tweak my machine to get it running smoothly and being at the mercy of its temperamentality.
  2. The fact that I can change needles easily mid tattoo. If I suddenly find need a different size of needle than I expected I don’t have to stop and change machines. This gives you much more flexibility with your tattooing.
  3. It’s easier on my hand and wrist. When I used a heavy brass coil machine I suffered badly with wrist ache and shoulder pain. Once I switched to a lighter smoother rotary these issues went away.
  4. It doesn’t vibrate. Vibration white finger has been a problem for tattooists. It can lead to hand numbness and be career-ending. A rotary vibrates much less than a coil machine so is less likely to cause this problem, meaning a longer tattoo career.
  5. It’s well made. Ive been using it constantly for years and it has never let me down

However, I would say you have to find what works for you. You need to try both coils and rotary machines to find what works for you.

Cheyenne hawk rotary tattoo machine

Cheyenne hawk rotary tattoo machine. My everyday favourite machine

Which is the best tattoo machine for a beginner?

If you are just starting out and have a budget for one tattoo machine which one should you buy? A pen rotary tattoo machine is the best choice for a beginner because it is easy to use, and offers you flexibility. You can concentrate on your tattoo technique without worrying about machine set-up. 

With a coils machine, you have to learn machine maintenance at the same time. This can be detrimental to your progress as you won’t know if problems are coming from the tattoo machine or your technique.

A rotary machine eliminates this issue. It’s just plug and play so will run nicely out of the box. This leaves you free to focus on improving your tattoo technique.

A rotary machine will also allow you to do both lining and shading, so you can get away with just one machine in the beginning. With coil machines, you would need to have a separate liner tattoo machine and a shader tattoo machine.

A pen style rotary machine that uses needle cartridges is the easiest to use as it allows you to change needles easily.

When you are a bit further into your tattoo career you can give a coil machine a go and see if it works for you but a rotary will help you at the beginning.

Sigma Beast Rotary Tattoo Machine

Sigma Beast Rotary Tattoo Machine. A strong machine good for thick traditional lines.

5 Tips for choosing the right tattoo machine for you

  1. Put in the research. It’s worth it to ensure you don’t waste time and money
  2. Stick to a budget. It’s easy to get carried away.
  3. Make sure you buy a machine that will match the tattooing style you want to develop.
  4. Remember to keep some money back for other equipment such as a power supply etc.
  5. If you can, try a few different types of machines to see which ones feel right for you.

What is the best Tattoo starter kit for beginners?

If you are starting on your tattoo learning journey and wondering what kit to buy you may find this helpful.

I did an in-depth review of a reasonably priced best starter tattoo kit here. It’s a pen style rotary tattoo machine with needle cartridges and comes with everything you need to get started.

FAQ’s

Are rotary tattoo machines better than coil machines?

Both rotary and coil machines have their advantages and drawbacks. The decision about which machine to use depends on personal preference and what kind of tattooing you want to do. It’s a good idea to try both. However, rotary machines are easier for beginners to start with.

What is the difference between cheap and expensive tattoo machines?

The difference is in component quality. Cheap machines use cheap components which can result in clunky running and a short life. Expensive machines use much higher craftsmanship and generally run smoother, quieter and last longer. They may also come with a warranty to give you peace of mind.

However, standards have improved massively over the last few years. You can now get a pretty decent starter machine for around $70. However, once you start to work as a professional tattoo artist doing extended tattoo sessions you will need something better and can expect to pay around $900 or more for a Cheyenne Pen or similar.

Stigma Bizarre Rotary Tattoo Machine

Stigma machine. Bizarre Rotary Tattoo Machine.

Conclusion – What are the different types of tattoo machines?

I hope this post has given you a bit more idea about the different types of tattoo machines and the two main types of tattoo machines, rotary and coil. I also hope you have more of an idea of the pros and cons of both machines.

The tattoo industry is often divided as to which type of machine is best. The best thing is to try both and see what works for you. Most tattoo artists have a drawer full of the machines that they have tried and you really can’t replace just giving things a go.

However, if you are just starting out, a pen-style rotary tattoo machine will give you the easiest ride whilst you are still learning.

Good luck in your journey to finding the machine that works for you.

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