Different Types of Tattoo Guns Explained

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Behind every great tattoo artist is a quality tattoo machine that got the job done. If you’re reading this then you’re probably looking for more information about what the different types of tattoo machines are and the difference between them.

In this article, we’ll give an overview of each kind of tattoo machine, as well as how they compare against each other. By the end of the article you should know which one is right for you.

Coil Tattoo Machines Overview

coil tattoo machineCoil tattoo machines were the first type of machine used by early tattoo artists. They were created from the self writing pen of Thomas Edison. In 1891 they were patented by a man named Samuel O’Reilly.

These machines consist of a few different parts:

Coils: The coils are what drive the machine. They are a pair of electromagnets that have a steel core. The number of layers of copper wire varies. There are 8, 10, 12, 14, and 16 wrap coils. The more wraps in a coil, the higher the power of the electromagnet. However the weight of the machine goes up with more wraps. Most tattoo artists settle in the middle and opt for a 10-12 wrap coil. This gives a good balance of power without being too heavy.

Frame: The frame is what holds together all the different parts. It’s made with either steel or non ferrous alloy. These materials allow the machine to be strong, but still lightweight.

Capacitor: The capacitor is an electronic part that stops sparks whenever the electrical circuit closes or opens.

Armature Bar: The armature bar is a magnetic part that’s mounted on top of a spring. It created oscillating movements which drive the machine. The electromagnetic field from the coils eject it and the force of the spring returns it back up.

Springs: There are two springs. One makes sure the armature bar stays in the frame. The other one is attached to the armature bar.

Contact Screw: This screw is made of silver or copper. Along with the second spring, it makes the contact pair, which is what makes the striker move through clamping and unclamping movements. The screw regulates the depth of the needle and frequency of the piercing.

Coil Tattoo Machine Types

There are two different sub-types of coil tattoo guns:

Liners: The purpose of the liner is to inject the ink fast. This prevents it from flowing back out. The frequency of the liner is from 120-150 Hz. High speeds make for sharp, fine lines with good color separation. Liners are lightweight with a rigid contact spring. The distance from the spring to the armature bar is about 4-5mm. Liners are not used for coloring.

Shaders: These are used for filling big areas, as well as creating shadows. The coils in the shaders have a higher number of wraps. This gives them a slower speed and frequency of 60-100 Hz. Because the needle stays inside the skin longer, ink has more time to spread within the skin. The armature bar and the spring have a gap of 9-10mm. Shaders can’t be used for outlines.

Rotary Tattoo Machines Overview

rotary tattoo machineRotary tattoo machines first made their way on the scene in 2010. Technology had advanced to the point of having tiny, yet powerful electric motors. Rotary tattoo machines share some similarities with the crank mechanism in a sewing machine. The motor shaft has an attached eccentric, which turns the rotation from the rotor into the circular action of the needle.

Here’s the parts of the rotary tattoo machine you need to know about:

Frame: The frame supports the entire structure. It’s made with durable hard polymers or aluminum alloy.

Electric Motor: This powers the machine.

Eccentric: This is a bearing that has an offset armature bar.

Design Tweak: The eccentric makes both longitudinal and transverse movements at the same time. The manufacturers stop this in a few different ways: Rubber bands, spring loaded levers, slide rails, strings, a transverse groove on a longitudinal element.

Rotary Tattoo Machine Types

There are a few differences among rotary tattoo guns and the way that the motion is transmitted.

Direct Drive: This means that the force is directly transmitted to the cartridge or needle. The needle is kept in constant oscillation by the rotation of the motor. Rubber bands secure the needle rod and prevent horizontal oscillations. Direct drive machines take time to accelerate or decelerate and need a good quality power supply to perform well.

Slider: With sliders the motion is created by the transferring longitudinal element. This type of machine is not as dependent on the power from the power supply, unlike direct drive.

Pen: These are a rotary tattoo modification from the German brand Cheyenne. They were the first company to make this type of machine. The design uses disposable needles, which are of course disposed of after. Cheyenne also has needle cartridges that can go with induction machines. The motor on pen machines is mounted on the body. The motion is created using a more complex method than with other machines Because of this, pen machines are more expensive to maintain and replace. Tattoo artists like the lightweight ad ease of use that pen machines provide.

Commutatorless Motor: This type uses a magnetic drive. The lightest machine in this type weighs under 50 grams. The speed goes up to 1500 rpm which makes these machines quite expensive.

Rotary vs Coil Tattoo Machines

Both Rotary and Coil tattoo machines can be used to create amazing tattoos but they accomplish this differently. Here are the differences that you need to know about.

Mechanism of Action

The coil tattoo gun uses an electromagnetic current passed through a pair of coils which triggers the machine’s armature bar to draw and release. The effect is almost hammer-like because the release of the springs causes the armature bar to basically tap the attached needle into the skin. This also creates the buzzing sound that people recognize from tattoo shops.

Rotary tattoo machines have a small motor that moves the attached tattoo needle up and down in a smooth motion. This makes for more fluid needle movement than with coil machines. First, the motor rotates clockwise and moves the attached needle bar, driving it up and down so the tattoo needles will move in and out of the skin easily.


Overall, coil tattoo machines are not as versatile as rotary because you can do both shading and lining with rotary.

Noise Output

Noise output is another main difference between the two. Rotary tattoo machines are significantly quieter than coil machines which have a buzzing sound.

The reason for this comes down to the simpler design of the rotary gun. The coil gun gives off a clicking sound because of the armature bar being released.

Needle Range

Needle range is another difference to take into consideration here. Rotary tattoo machines have better needle movement. The coil machines on the other hand have a choppier movement.

Which is Better Rotary or Coil Tattoo Machines?

The general consensus is that rotary tattoo machines are better than coil tattoo machines.

The smaller size of the rotary gun and quieter sound makes it not only easier to use but easier on the ears as well. The quieter sound also serves as a placebo effect in that people associate louder noise with pain, so a quieter machine will be perceived as less painful.

Tattoo artists also claim that a rotary tattoo machine is easier to tattoo for longer because of the lighter weight not causing their hand to get sore.

The setup of the rotary tattoo machine is also easier because the needles can be just plugged in and then you’re ready to go. Cleanup is also easier.

Have your own opinion on which one is better? Let us know in the comments below. You can also check out the best tattoo machines in both types.