Tattoo machine choice is a personal one. Some artists swear by their coil machines and some will only use a rotary machine. Let’s look at both types of machines. If your a person thinking about getting a tattoo this will help you understand what you see and hear when you go check out the tattoo studio. If you are a tattoo artist who knows there are both types of machines but have never really understood the difference, read on. This article is for you too!
But first, let’s take a look at where tattoo machines originated. I am sure you will be surprised who invented the modern machine. Then we’ll get to the different types available today so you can make the best choice for your tattoo or studio.
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The Original Tattoo Machine
Believe it or not the original tattoo machines came from Thomas Edison’s laboratory. Edison patented a technology called stencil-pens. Developed in 1875, Edison’s stencil-pen made fifty punctures per second. This pen was meant to, “create a stencil that would allow multiple copies to be made by making a pass over the stencil with an inked roller, thereby transferring the text to a sheet of paper below.”
While this technology did not catch on as a writing implement it was picked up in 1891 by a New York tattoo artist named Samuel F. O’Reilly who produced an early tattoo needle based on Edison’s pen. This revolutionized tattooing.
Samuel O’Reilly, after an early life of crime and incarceration, appears in New York City and launches a tattoo studio at 11 Chatham Square, in the Chinatown section of Manhattan’s Bowery. His early tattoo instruments were nothing more than a set of needles affixed to a wooden handle but soon evolved into patent No. 464,801 connecting Thomas Edison’s motorized pen with his invention of the electric rotary tattoo machine.
According to Steve Gilbert’s Tattoo History: A Source Book, O’Reilly transformed the tattoo industry overnight. His electric machine could make more punctures and more precise punctures. The outcome was better images on the skin and a safer experience for the recipient too. Tattoo’s were popular from sailors to blue bloods so the improvements were much appreciated.
We’ve Come a Long Way
Since the original tattoo machines there has been tons of innovation. Today’s broad category choices are rotary versus coil. They sound, work, and look completely different. Check it out.
Rotary Versus Coil
The Rotary Machine
Rotary tattoo machines are the original tattoo machines. Rotary tattoo machines move the needle up and down using a small motor. Rotary tattoo machines are quiet and rotary tattoo machines move needles in and out of the skin more fluidly and evenly than coil tattoo machines do. The rotary tattoo machines fluid needle movement is especially effective with smaller needles.
Here’s another benefit to the rotary tattoo machine. It is low maintenance. So an artist can spend their time inking and not fixing a broken machine.
Rotary machines are also significantly lighter than the alternative machines. Because they are lighter, an artist can worker longer and more comfortably with this machine. A lot of tattoo artists suffer from muscle fatigue of the hand and arm and this lightness is one of the components that cause the fatigue.
Rotary machines are quiet. For a person getting their first tattoo this quietness may provide a more calm and peaceful environment and make it less likely that the person will twitch or move and cause the artist to make a mistake in the tattoo.
The rotary tattoo machine can create lines and shades by simply changing the needle. The artist can create sharp lines and shading that has beautiful depth and detail all in one machine.
Finally, rotary tattoo machines work with an electric motor. There is a lot of variety in motor and this creates a wide range of available machine in quality and price.
The Coil Machine
Coil machines are the most common types of tattoo machines. These are the machines that give the characteristic buzzing sound associated with the tattoo shop. The coils create resistance and are used to regulate the speed of the machine. This causes less trauma to the skin. There are three types of coil machines: Liners, shaders, and color packers. And this isn’t always a convenient choice for the artist to have to change machines depending on the type of line they are working on.
The coil machine is preferred by many tattoo artists for its intricate line work. Keep in mind though, this intricacy isn’t available to just anyone. It takes a skilled artist to cajole the patterns out of the machine. The liner machine hits the skin faster and is used to “pull a line” or outline a tattoo design in a single pass.
The shader hits the skin, you guessed it, slower than the liner and is used for creating the nuances of the design. The shader creates those fading lines that show depth and dimension. Shader machines are also used for sculpting lines or those lines used in scrolling letters.
The color packer hits the skin fast and deep and hard. The purpose of this machine is to put a line down so color ink can be added as quickly as possible. It is used to fill in color and blacks. These machines are not used for black and grey shading because they aggressively pack ink into the skin and are not suited for the slow layering required. This work is better suited to the shader machine.
How Coil Machines Work
Coil machines work with a hammer-like motion. That is a current passes through a set of coils to trigger and release the tattoo needle into the skin. The needle moves in and out of the skin through an armature bar.
There are many benefits to coil tattoo machines. They are easy to regulate in terms of speed and power. The machine itself is easy to customize and the heavier weight of the handheld devices allow for better control.
Your Choice: Rotary
Let’s assume you are choosing a rotary machine. Great! They are quiet, light and low-maintenance. But there are so many to choose from. Which one to buy? It’s a personal choice so let’s explore.
Stealth Rotary By Worldwide Tattoo
- Stealth Rotary Tattoo Machine (3mm Swing)
- Qty-1 4mm Stealth Replacement Bearing
- Qty-1 2mm Stealth Replacement Bearing
Liner and shader, Stealth Rotary is a multi-purpose, inexpensive machine made of composite plastic with a Japanese motor. The Stealth, now in its third generation weighs in at 4.2 oz and is quiet as all rotary machines should be. Without a lot of vibration this is an excellent choice for the beginning artist looking for an affordable, dependable machine to get started with.
Yilong Tattoo Machine
- YILONG tattoo pen style rotary tattoo machine made of Space Aluminum frame and...
- Tattoo Kit contains 1 Kingkong motor Pen, 1 power cord, 1 DC Cord, 1 digital power...
- DC cord connection and included with purchase. This machine could be used both...
Voted best inexpensive rotary tattoo machine by the Tattoo Machine Critic, the Yilong rotary is a small and affordable machine and is also ultra-lightweight. Yilong was founded in 2005 and is a Chinese company based in, you guessed it, China. Started by Chen Chunrong after working as a tattoo artist for years he has built the company to have, in addition to its China base, a presence in the United States and around the globe.
The Yilong rotary’s are shader and liner machines with enough control for the beginner.
Bishop Rotary Machines
Bishop considers their machines masterpieces. Started by Franco Vescovi, a tattoo artist with 25 years experience in the industry, “is obsessed with creating advanced products that truly help tattoo artists perform at their highest potential.” Vescovi, and by extension, Bishop, believe that tattoo is a form of “intimate art” and the quality of their machines reflect this emphasis on art, craftsmanship and customer service. Bishop understands how hard the tattoo artist works to develop his/her skill and wants to support the artist.
Bishop offers Wand (sometimes known as pen) and direct drive machines.
Inkjecta Tattoo Machine
- Interchangeable & Adjustable Flex Pin for adjusting give, allowing for almost endless...
- Bar stabiliser with its own adjustable give mechanism
- Interchangeable Cams for adjusting stroke length
Inkjecta, an Australian company, started as a hobby by two friends and tattoo artists Byron Drechsler and Chris Cashmore. Inkjecta machines are hand-built and widely available through online tattoo retailers. Inkjecta machines are available from 4.5v to 18v, in various colors and in weights 46 grams to 98 grams. Inkjecta machines are made with alloy constructed frames and nano-technology motors. Inkjecta machines aren’t cheap so make sure you’re ready.
Cheyenne Rotary Tattoo
Cheyenne, located in Berlin, manufactures innovative tattoo machines, pens, cartridges, and accessories. They are a family company priding themselves on their dedication to quality.
Many of their products are made of aluminum suitable for anodizing and all of their products are made with a focus on quality.
Their rotary machines range in voltage from 5.0V to 12.6V and 85g to 150g weight. They are all quiet and low-vibration, responsive and protected by company guarantee.
A product this well-made comes at a high price tag but based on the abundance of positive feedback and effusive online accolades, for the professional tattoo artist this would be the go-to product. These machines can be found at various online retailers.
Ego Tattoo Machines
- Ego Inbuilt on / off switch tattoo machine. Made for tattoo artists use like a real...
- This rotary tattoo machine need continuous mode power supply, tattooing without the...
- RCA Connection, 28mm diameter, 118MM Length from tip to tip, Anti-Roll design,...
Ego Tattoo was started when computer game designer Bez found existing tattoo machinery hard to use. Bez has rheumatoid conditions and sought a machine balanced in weight, natural to hold, and sophisticated in design and efficiency. When he couldn’t find a machine on the market that fit these specifications, he made one himself: the Ego.
There are different machines offered by Ego. Some made of recycled plastic are lightweight and affordable while a more premium, workhorse machine like the Vertex is made of a metal body and more expensive. The Switch, one of the more affordable machines, is lightweight and has a Japanese motor. The Vertex, a higher end model, is also lightweight and has a German precision engineered Faulhaber motor.