High-End versus Low-End Tattoo Machines | Painful Pleasures Community

High-End versus Low-End Tattoo Machines

With so many tattoo machines on the market, it's hard to know which are high-quality and which are not. Check out our guide to find out.
by Danny Tress Last Updated: November 25, 2022

Your tattoo machine is the most important (and sometimes most expensive) tool in your arsenal.

But just to be clear: expensive machines won’t make you a better tattooer. Your own skills, willpower, natural ability, and hours spent in practice make that happen. However, a high-quality tattoo machine can greatly improve your tattooing efficiency. It can also make it much easier to accomplish a specific style. Moreover, a lower end tattoo machine can be an excellent, budget-friendly backup that does the trick when you need it.

In this blog, we’ll take an in-depth look at all the nitty-gritty differences between high-end and low-end tattoo machines. Use this as a guide the next time you’re shopping for a tattoo machine.

Manufacturing Location

Arrangement of rotary tattoo machines on a table by FK Irons and InkJecta

There’s a lot of BS out there about certain parts of the world producing notoriously crappy machines. But the truth is: you can find a high-quality tattoo machine manufactured from any country. On our Web store alone, you’ll find tattoo machines from Russia, like Vlad Blad; Sweden, like Ink Machines; and all-American made tattoo machines by brands like FK Irons and Feldman Mfg.

Consequently, manufacturing location isn’t always directly relevant to the performance of your machine. There are several key things to consider when you think about a manufacturer’s location… and it all comes down to your preference.

Perhaps the first thing to consider is your own location. Your proximity to the manufacturer can save you a lot of time, money, and hassle. That’s because if your machine experiences a problem (and the manufacturer in question has a good warranty), you can easily mail your product to the manufacturer for repairs. You’ll also have much easier access to over-the-phone customer service in case you have any questions. Therefore, a lot of German tattoo artists prefer Cheyenne as their go-to manufacturer. Not only does Cheyenne manufacture durable, high-performing machines… they’re also just in the neighborhood!

You’ll also want to consider the parts of your machine when it comes to manufacturing locations. For instance, some manufacturers (like FK Irons.) 100% source and construct their machines in their home country. So, when you choose a manufacturer who sources very specifically, you can count on a consistent performance, and you’ll be contributing to your local economy if you’re close by.

A Note on Motors

But bear in mind that in most instances…  manufacturers outsource for parts. This is especially true when it comes to motors. Some countries are known for producing high-quality motors that many artists swear by. Swiss Maxon motors and German Faulhaber motors, just to name two, are artist-favorite motors that many tattooers count on for durability, longevity, and power. You’ll find Faulhaber motors in a variety of tattoo machines manufactured from all over the world. For example, HM Tools & Dye, a Spanish manufacturer, employs Faulhaber motors in many of their tattoo machines. Consequently, if you’re looking for a specific motor, know that the manufacturer can sometimes outsource for the high-quality motor you seek.

Even if you don’t have a motor preference, you can identify a low-end motor by A. how much noise it makes and B. how slow it is to start. A low-end, cheaply made motor will perform inconsistently and give you a lot of vibration. So, when shopping for your next machine, you’ll want to identify what kind of motors are being used. Then, you can read up on any available reviews about the motor in question.

But the key to finding a high-quality machine or motor isn’t the location. Instead, it’s a familiarity with a manufacturer’s practices.

Warranty Information

We mentioned a good warranty policy above. Any manufacturer who offers full repairs, attentive service, and a long warranty on your machine is likely a manufacturer you’ll want to keep in mind. Brands like Cheyenne, Peak, and FK Irons all offer excellent warranty plans for any machine you purchase. A lower end manufacturer may offer an extremely limited warranty, or not offer any warranty policy at all.

Ethical Practices

FK Irons Flux Max wireless tattoo machine

But there are other practices you’ll want to keep an eye out for when searching for your next tattoo machine. This goes beyond the performance of the machine overall. For instance, one key practice you’ll want to bear in mind is… how does a manufacturer treat its employees? Knowing that you’re giving your money to an ethical company that treats its employees like real people (and not just machine makers) means you’re only giving your dime to enterprises who deserve it.

For example, manufacturers like FK Irons value all their employees: FK Irons employees receive sick leave, PTO, insurance benefits, and competitive salaries – and they also celebrate holidays and birthdays together! So, occasionally, when ordering from overseas manufacturers, you may want to consider the variances in ethics and how employees are being treated before you commit to a purchase.

On a much more “down-to-business” note: manufacturers like FK Irons are also producing their machines in ISO-certified facilities while adhering to OSHA safety regulations. You can typically find out about a manufacturer’s production practices and regulations by exploring their website. With the right standard procedures and quality assurances, you can typically count on a durable tattoo machine that’ll be worth your investment.

Manufacturing Tolerances

These manufacturers who follow strict regulations usually follow specific tolerances as well. Tolerances refer to how tightly the pieces fit together and how many variances in part sizes a manufacturer permits. This is critically important. If there are large variances in part sizes for a tattoo machine, the product will not perform consistently. Moreover, it’ll be more likely to fall apart and require repairs over a potentially short period of time.

And just as an FYI: acceptable variances in high quality machines are so strict that they are often specified by fractions of millimeters (sometimes half the width of a strand of human hair). That level of specificity is difficult to achieve consistently and requires extremely tight control over the machining process. It also requires thorough quality testing. Consequently, a manufacturer who adheres to these strict tolerances is likely going to give you a machine that will stand the test of time, because the parts will fit together almost perfectly.

Lower end machines will likely not adhere to these strict tolerances. It doesn’t mean the machine will not perform, but it does mean it likely won’t be a durable product. So you probably won’t be able to count on it over a long period of time.

A Note on Coil Tattoo Machines

Coil tattoo machine by Brandyn Feldman on top a wooden table

If you prefer using coil tattoo machines, you’ll find they require a lot more maintenance than rotary, pen, and wireless machines. This is largely because a coil machine consists of many more parts, all of which work together very harmoniously (or not so much) to give you the performance you desire (or don’t desire). Consequently, a poorly made (or maintained) coil machine can experience problems like hysteresis, a spring requiring replacement after just a few performances, or your contact screw welding to the spring… and that’s just to name a few.

So, tolerances are especially important when it comes to shopping for your next coil machine. Brandyn Feldman is sure to CNC-machine all his coils in-house with 100% American-made parts. Check out what he has to say about building quality machines here.

Consider the “Artist Factor”

Tattoo artist Harlan Kantner tattooing a client while a fellow artist gives him tips.

Aside from all the technical considerations above, you’ll also want to think about the manufacturer’s brand image. Ask yourself the following questions when researching:

  1. Does this manufacturer look like one that cares about tattoo artists?
  2. Does their messaging sound like they want you to produce great work?
  3. Do they work alongside tattoo artists while making their machines?

Even if the brand image isn’t 100% there, you’ll at least want a brand that lets artist test their products. Manufacturers like Peak, FK Irons, InkJecta, and Cheyenne are all massively popular and artist-trusted brands whose machines have been tested and approved by artists around the globe.

A lower-end manufacturer will likely be interested in creating cheaper knockoffs of high-performance machines. This will likely be reflected in their brand image. You won’t see much information on their website about the quality of production. Nor will you see information about years of field testing. Lastly, you probably won’t see anything about artistic passion.

Tattoo Artist Testing Is Critical

Passion aside, artist-tested machines (that have also been approved) demonstrate that the manufacturer cares about your work… and what you value in a machine. FK Irons CIO and founder Gaston Siciliano points out in the podcast “Valerie Weber’s INK-Credible Podast” that his best-selling Spektra Xion pen machine took a whole 3.5 years to manufacture… alongside other artists. This is largely because testing a machine isn’t strictly confined to a one-time-use trial. Rather, trusted manufacturers let artists test prototypes of their products over several months to ensure longevity. Long-lasting test trials also work to weed out any undesirable aspects of the product.

It’s also a massive “plus” if your manufacturer of choice is owned or operated by a former tattooer. No one understands the demands of a tattoo artist more than… well, other tattoo artists. So, a tattoo artist who also manufactures machines will have your artistic needs at the forefront of their mind and designs.

Find Your Favorite Tattoo Machine Manufacturer

Explore our selection of tattoo machines for all of the top-selling brands mentioned above. No matter which you choose, you can count on artist-tested and approved products that are made in regulated, standardized facilities. If you need more help shopping, check out our top list of wireless tattoo machines here (if wireless is your thing). On top of everything about machines, you can also check out all the ins and outs of tattoo needles in our blog “Your Complete Guide to Tattoo Cartridge Needles.”

If you already have a favorite manufacturer or product, we’d love to hear from you. Share your favorite tattoo machines (and who made them) on your Instagram and give us a tag. We always love to hear what’s working for artists, and what enables you to produce your best work.

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