If you’re new to tattooing, you may not yet know the difference between coil and rotary tattoo machines. Since they’re two totally different animals, it’s helpful to understand what sets them apart from each other before you start shopping for a tattoo machine. Learn about the evolution of coil and rotary machines, the history of tattoo machines in general, the differences between liners and shaders, and the best tattoo machine brands to better understand this important tattooing tool and choose the best tattoo machine for you.
Differences Between Coil & Rotary Tattoo Machines
Rotary tattoo machines and coil tattoo machines operate in two different ways to achieve the same outcome: that is, of course, moving tattoo needles in and out of clients’ skin to deposit ink into the dermis (secondary layer of tissue beneath the epidermis) with each insertion. It’s what drives the needles that sets apart rotary and coil tattoo machines.
A traditional coil tattoo machine utilizes electromagnetic current passed through a pair of coils to trigger a draw and release of the machine’s armature bar. It’s a very hammer-like effect, with the release of the springs causing the armature bar to essentially tap the attached tattoo needles into the skin. Coil tattoo machines generate a buzzing sound that many people associate with tattoo shops.
Rotary tattoo machines, on the other hand, are incredibly quiet. There’s a small motor encased in each rotary tattoo machine that moves the attached tattoo needles up and down in a smooth, almost cyclical pattern. Rotary tattoo machines move needles in and out of the skin more fluidly and evenly than coil tattoo machines do.
The two images below illustrate the motions of rotary and coil tattoo machines.* The image on the left is of a rotary tattoo machine. The cylinder with a red arrow around it is the tattoo machine’s rotary motor; it rotates clockwise, moving the needle bar attached to it in a linear fashion, driving it up and down so that the attached tattoo needles will move in and out of the skin smoothly. The image on the right is of a coil tattoo machine, which uses a more complicated setup to drive tattoo needles in and out of the skin. When direct current from the tattoo machine’s power supply reaches the two coils, they’re charged and an electromagnetic field is created. That electromagnetic field pulls the tattoo machine’s armature bar down (i.e. the part the blue arrow points to in the photo), which breaks the circuit created between the contact screw on the top-right and the metal front spring that was touching it, causing the electromagnetic field to collapse. A nanosecond later, the spring draws the armature bar back up again, placing the front spring back against the contact screw and re-establishing the electromagnetic field, which starts the cycle all over again. The breaking and re-establishing of the electromagnetic field is what makes a coil machine choppier than a rotary tattoo machine, which is powered consistently and therefore results in a smoother needle motion.
*Compliments of a Smarter Every Day video showing how tattoo machines work.
You can see all the parts of a coil tattoo machine in more detail in the graphic on the left below. The graphic on the right shows the components of a Cheyenne rotary tattoo machine; not all rotary tattoo machines have this same layout, but they include many of the same components and function in generally the same way.
The Evolution of Coil & Rotary Tattoo Machines
Both old school coil tattoo machines like the FK Irons machine shown to the left and rotary tattoo machines like the Spektra Halo machine shown below evolved from Thomas Edison’s electric pen, a duplicating device that used rotary technology to make copies of content more quickly. In 1891, 15 years after Edison patented his Stencil-Pens, Sam O’Reilly realized that he could modify Edison’s electric pen and use it to introduce ink into the skin. He later patented a tattoo tube and needle system that added an ink reservoir to the electric pen.
Although the first tattoo machine utilized rotary technology, the more modern tattoo machines that followed used electromagnetic current to function just as coil tattoo machines do today. The first coil tattoo machine was a single-coil machine that was patented by Thomas Riley of London, England, a mere 20 days after O’Reilly filed the patent for his rotary tattoo machine. Riley actually used a modified doorbell assembly placed in a brass box to make his single-coil tattoo machine work. The dual-coil configuration used today was patented soon after by another Londoner named Alfred Charles South. That first iteration of the modern coil tattoo machine was so heavy that South’s machines were often suspended from ceilings via springs to reduce the load on operators’ hands.
A third type of tattoo machine was invented by tattooist Carson Hill in 2000, more than 100 years after the rotary and coil tattoo machines were invented. Carson’s pneumatic tattoo machines were powered by air compressors that use pressurized air to drive tattoo needles up and down. Pneumatic tattoo machines are extremely lightweight and entirely autoclavable. Despite these two major advantages, pneumatic tattoo machines are not nearly as popular as rotary and coil tattoo machines are among tattoo artists today.
Tattoo Machine Subtypes
In addition to choosing between coil and rotary tattoo machines, you can also choose between long-stroke and short-stroke machines. Most liner tattoo machines are short-stroke machines that allow artists to create solid lines in a single pass. Some shader tattoo machines also utilize short strokes to create subtler gradients, like those found in portrait tattoo work. However, most shaders are long-stroke tattoo machines that do less damage to clients’ skin and are best suited for coloring, shading and sculpting lines.
Although many liners and shaders are coil tattoo machines, rotary tattoo machines can also be used for these specific purposes. Some rotary machines, like Stigma-Rotary’s Amen Tattoo Machines, have interchangeable strokers that allow them to be used for both lining and shading work with a few minor adjustments.
Tattoo Machine Brands
Once you decide whether to go old school with a coil tattoo machine for a more traditional sound and feel or new school with a quiet rotary tattoo machine that’s gentler on the skin, you have to decide what brand and model tattoo machine to get. There are hundreds of tattoo machine options to choose from. Trying to narrow down your selection to a single brand and model can be daunting. To simplify the selection process, we’ve highlighted some of the top tattoo machine brands and models below.
Ahmed Tattoo Machines
Our Ahmed shaders are hand-made coil tattoo machines that each have 8 wrap coils, 47/63 capacitors, copper front and rear binding posts, and copper contact screws. They weigh between 199 and 231 grams, depending on the style Ahmed tattoo machine you get. The brass frames on these shaders are artistically hand-crafted in Argentina, giving Ahmed machines an unparalleled, artistic look.
Charles “Trey” Freeland has been tattooing since 1992 and hand-crafting quality coil tattoo machines since 1996. He started Pennsylvania-based Baltimore Street Irons in 2007, alongside his studio Baltimore Street Tattoo. Trey is hands-on with all aspects of his business to this day, and he’s continuously honing his unique style of machine building. Trey’s skill and dedication are apparent in every Baltimore Street Irons tattoo machine he crafts. Whether you’re just looking for tested and true component parts to build your own machine or a quality, handmade tattoo machine to add to your collection, you’ll be pleased with what Baltimore Street Irons has to offer.
The Bishop Rotary tattoo machine is the pinnacle of perfection when it comes to balance, materials and its motor. This 4 oz. machine’s balanced design flows with the weight of the tube, making it feel virtually weightless. It eliminates wrist pain and can alleviate carpel tunnel symptoms, in addition to allowing artists to work hours longer than they could comfortably with other machines. The Bishop Rotary’s Swiss Maxon Motor is ensconced in billet aircraft-grade aluminum that’s hand-polished and anodized to aircraft industry standards to ensure an excellent finish. Bishop Rotary tattoo machines utilize a needle clip instead of the old standard rubber band to put downward force on the needle, which eliminates any lateral needle motion.These tattoo machines are also hand-assembled to ensure precise fit and functionality.
If you want a quality tattoo machine with a fine Swiss motor that’s guaranteed for life, that will allow you to work up to 30% faster, and that’s so gentle on the skin that your clients will heal an average of 30% faster, then Bishop Rotary makes the tattoo machine for you.
All Borg coil tattoo machines are handmade with extreme care at the Borg Design workshops in Hudson, Massachusetts. The hallmark of Borg tattoo machines are their unique, lightweight, single-piece frames, which are made from quality aluminum. No other coil tattoo machines have frames as light, strong and balanced as Borg’s. Every component from the 8 wrap coils to the sterling silver contact screws are hand-crafted in Borg’s workshops. Borg liners are setup with .018 cutback front springs, .018 rear springs, and 33uf capacitors, and Borg shaders come equipped with .020 front and rear springs and 47uf capacitors. Each Borg tattoo machine weighs 5.5 oz., making it lightweight and easy to maneuver while you tattoo.
The Cheyenne Hawk tattoo machine was designed and tested to meet very exacting specifications. Its fine craftsmanship allows artists to work with greater control and response than they could with other tattoo machines. Cheyenne Hawk machines provide all the benefits of rotary tattoo machines without sacrificing the feedback response found in coil tattoo machines. These machines will adjust to any artistic movement and allow you to excel at your craft in any working environment.
Weighing in at 110 grams with the grips attached, both the Cheyenne Hawk Thunder and Spirit models are lightweight, flexible, and have long-life ball-bearing motors. They work well with a variety of skin types, their cartridges can be changed rapidly, and the puncture depth can be adjusted easily. Ergonomic adjustment of the handle bar is also possible. Use your Cheyenne tattoo machine with any conventional power supply and a control unit PU II, if desired.
CTPS Saveria Tattoo Machines, the original creator of the side-by-side machine known as the Toro-Loco, has been hand-crafting beautiful coil and rotary tattoo machines in Argentina for more than 37 years. They’re the premier tattoo machine builder in all of South America, not just Argentina. Each tattoo machine CTPS Saveria makes is carefully assembled by hand over an 8-hour period using only the best materials available. CTPS Saveria tattoo machines run strong even at low voltages, and every one runs great out of the box. CTPS Saveria offers several rotary tattoo machines and 5 styles of coil tattoo machines, including micro liners, regular liners, shaders, painters, and micro painters. Read the specifications for each type, including what needle groupings work best with each, in our CTPS Saveria Tattoo Machines section.
Dead Nuts Ink Tattoo Machines
At Southern California-based Dead Nuts Ink, each coil tattoo machine is hand-crafted from raw materials by a 13+-year machining and engineering industry veteran. Dead Nuts Ink makes all of its own hardware, from coil cores to springs and everything in between. Any machine they create can be customized to meet specific artists’ needs.
Each Dead Nuts Ink production machine is made from a single-piece Cast Ductile Iron Frame blank that’s been engineered by Dead Nuts Ink and made in Northern California exclusively for their machines. The CNC machining of the frames is finished in-house, where Dead Nuts Ink machinists also oil blacken and seal the frames. Each machine is hand-signed and numbered, and it comes with a lifetime warranty provided by Dead Nuts Ink. These professionally-tuned machines are always ready to run right out of the box.
Swedish tattoo machine manufacturer Ink Machines isn’t your typical tattoo supply company. They work closely with tattoo artists to develop and test each product they manufacture. Ink Machines uses their top-notch manufacturing facility and broad industry knowledge to create unique rotary tattoo machines at the most competitive prices for tattoo artists all over the world. Their goal is to continuously make tattooing easier with carefully-developed new products.
The Dragonfly rotary tattoo machine by Ink Machines is a state-of-the-art, ergonomic tattoo machine made from the highest-quality materials and component parts available. It has an adjustable suspension system that allows you to easily adjust the hitting force of your tattoo needles. Dragonfly machines are also quiet and lightweight, they have a needle bar retainer, and they accept standard grips, tubes, needles, and power supplies with RCA or clip cords. The Dragonfly is one of the most complete professional tattoo machines every made!
The Ego tattoo machine was designed by award-winning, world-renowned tattoo artist Bez of Triplesix Studios in Sunderland, England. The Ego is a super-lightweight rotary tattoo machine with an incredibly wrist-friendly design. It shifts all of the weight forward to give Ego tattoo machines an almost pen-like feel that eliminates wrist pain while allowing for maximum needle control. Bez’s Little Ego is made from high-grade, scratch-free plastics and has a special UV coating that makes this robust little machine easy to clean, whereas the newer Ego Apex Overkill–which comes with a Swiss-made Maxon “Overkill” motor–is crafted from a solid block of aircraft aluminum that weighs in at less than half a pound.
Both the Little Ego and the Ego Apex Overkill come with a variety of Bez’s specially-designed “power triangles” in different colors; each color represents a different rubber density. The power triangles simulate the conventional spring effect of coil tattoo machines, and they allow artists to get the perfect give and throw they need from their Ego tattoo machines. You can alter the give of your Ego tattoo machine and turn it into the perfect machine for lining, shading, coloring, super-soft shading, and blending using different combinations of power triangles.
Fallen King Irons, better known as FK Irons, was started by a couple of unknown tattoo artists making tattoo machines for friends and grew into an iconic tattoo machine manufacturing company. In their strive for perfection and reliability, the company completely rethought the process for making tattoo machines. Today, all FK Irons AL13 coil tattoo machines are carefully-crafted from 7075 T6 aircraft aluminum, which is the hardest grade of aluminum available on the market. Weighing in at just 4.5 oz., these tattoo machines are lightweight yet indestructible.
FK Irons makes both conventional and cutback lining and shading coil tattoo machines, with the main difference being that cutback liners and shaders have a shorter front spring that allows them to run faster even when used at the same voltage as the conventional liners and shaders. FK Irons soft shaders have a lighter armature bar that allows them to run faster than the color packers, plus they don’t hit quite as hard, allowing for smooth color blending and black and gray washes.
Godoy is a company that specializes on innovation through experimentation. They hold 2 international patents for tattoo machine technology, they teach seminars on tattoo machines, and they tattoo everyday using the machines they build to create lasting art, just like the artists they serve.
Godoy Machines strives to educate tattoo artists of all skill levels and provide them with the most accurate and up-to-date tattooing information available anywhere. Their book, Tattoo Machines and Their Secrets, is the industry text book, and it’s available in both Spanish and English and in a variety of formats ranging from physical books to CDs to downloads. Once you fully understand how your tattoo machine functions, you’ll be better equipped to apply any tattoo, which is why Godoy puts such a high emphasis on tattoo machine education. Embrace the simplicity of science with a Godoy tattoo machine and their complementary book, Tattoo Machines and Their Secrets.
The InkJecta Flite v2.1 is one of the most eagerly-anticipated tattoo machines in history. InkJecta tattoo machines are built in Australia by tattoo artists for tattoo artists. The Combo model allows for adjustable grips, while the Vice model is used with flex and fixed grips. Both models come with brushless 5 watt Maxon motors that make the Flite v2.1 the only tattoo machine of its kind on the market that has the ability to run at lower speeds without sacrificing power or doing damage. Flite machines are lightweight and long-lasting, and they allow artists to create superior-quality tattoos.
The Flite v2.1 tattoo machine by InkJecta comes with a 3.0mm, 3.5mm and 4.0mm interchangeable cam system, and it has a hard, medium and soft interchangeable flex system. These InkJecta tattoo machines also have a strong, long-grain “fiber” construction, and they’re supplied with and lubricated by INOX food-grade lubrication. Choose from combo and vice versions to ensure that your InkJecta Flite v2.1 tattoo machine works with the type of grips you prefer to use.
Mickey Bee tattoo machines are high-end tattoo machines manufactured in England. Mickey Bee Liners are based on the Paul Rogers design, and their Classic Telephone Dial Shaders are the Rolls Royce of tattoo machines. Two of our Mickey Bee machines have black powder coated steel frames and copper contact and clip cord posts, while the Original Mickey Bee Copper Sting Tattoo Machine is finished in brass.
Pirat Tattoo Machines
Czech Republic-based Pirat tattoo machines are precise, handmade coil tattoo machines constructed of either durable iron or aluminum, depending on the model you choose. Pirat currently offers 16 standardized models and a special series of “one-piece only” machines, and they’ll be releasing a new rotary tattoo machine option soon. These are lightweight, smooth-running coil tattoo machines offered as both liners and shaders. No matter what your needs as a professional tattoo artist, Pirat makes the perfect tattoo machine for you–a machine you’ll thoroughly enjoy using day in and day out.
Precision tattoo machines are developed by Argentina-based tattoo machine manufacturing veteran CTPS exclusively for Painful Pleasures, Inc. These are high-performance, hand-made coil tattoo machines at affordable prices that combine a high quality standard with a simple design aesthetic. We offer a Precision tattoo machine for each tattooing function. Choose from our micro liners, regular liners, shaders, and painters. No matter which options you choose, you’re sure to find that Precision tattoo machines by CTPS are some of the most precise, easy-to-use, and affordable tattoo machines on the market.
The Skin 2 is a new conception rotary tattoo machine with an adjustable give that allows you to control needle-hitting intensity. This versatility allows you to set the machine “harder” for lining and “softer” for coloring, filling and shading. There are adjustment notches on the cap of the give that allow for intermediate setups, too.
The Italian-made Skin 2 rotary tattoo machine has many other benefits besides its adjustable needle intensity. It’s lightweight, silent, and produces minimal vibrations. It comes with a Swiss-made motor, weighs a mere 90 grams, and supports up to 55 magnum tattoo needles. When you use this tattoo machine, you’ll no longer need rubber bands to tighten the needle bar. It comes with a classic clip cord connection as well as an RCA connection that guarantees a constant current flow. Replacement excenters for needle excursion adjustment are available (sold separately). This machine goes from 0 to 155 stitches per second almost instantly. The Skin 2 rotary tattoo machine is an all-around excellent imported tattoo machine that will allow you to ink superior tattoos every time.
Spektra Rotary Tattoo Machines by FK Irons (Fallen King Irons) are available in both the Halo and Direkt rotary designs. In spite of their humble origins (detailed in the FK Irons Tattoo Machines section above), FK Irons has grown to be a major player in the tattoo machine manufacturing industry. Their goal is to deliver tattoo machines that will change the way artists tattoo forever, which is why they didn’t stop with their line of coil tattoo machines, but instead moved on to create the Spektra line of rotary tattoo machines.
The Spektra Halo Rotary Tattoo Machine has an array of advanced features, and it delivers ultimate performance. Its body is autoclavable, and it comes with an innovative MotorBolt System (not autoclavable). The Halo’s interchangeable MotorBolts will power any Halo tattoo machine body. Having different MotorBolts gives you the flexibility of changing stroke on the fly simply by changing motors via the Halo’s easy 1/4-turn mechanism. The MotorBolt is also a good back-up source in case of motor failure.
The Spektra Direkt Rotary Tattoo Machine is the first machine of its kind, with body-mounted strokes that stay inside the machine body, making the Direkt an ideal dedicated-task machine. Each Spektra Direkt is precision-machined from solid 7075 Aircraft Grade Aluminum, anodized in 7 different colors, and hand-polished to a mirrored shine. This rotary tattoo machine weighs a mere 2.8 ounces and is easy to maneuver. It comes with an adjustable stroke module that has 3 setting options. The Spektra Direkt is a virtually maintenance-free tattoo machine with a patent-pending Hex Drive motor system that reduces the axial load on the motor shaft, extending motor life and reducing vibrations.
Stigma-Rotary is a world leader in tattoo machine manufacturing, and you can rely on their top-of-the-line rotary tattoo machines for many years after purchasing one. Stigma machines are incredibly durable, and their ergonomic, comfortable designs make them easy to maneuver even when you’re using magnum tattoo needles. Stigma-Rotary tattoo machines come with the most powerful motors on the market; they’re Swiss-made motors crafted by world-renowned Maxon and Faulhaber exclusively for use with Stigma tattoo machines. On top of their solid construction and quality components, Stigma-Rotary tattoo machines look sleek. Each one is finished with a lasting, lustrous sheen that keeps these machines looking classy for years to come.
Buy a Stigma-Rotary tattoo machine, and you’ll be getting a reliable, durable, powerful, and stylish tattoo machine that comes with an unbeatable warranty. Choose from 4 styles, including the Amen, the Beast, the Hyper V3, and the Prodigy. We also carry a variety of Stigma-Rotary parts to ensure that you have access to everything you need to keep your Stigma tattoo machine running smoothly.
Surreal Customs Tattoo Machines
If you’re looking for a quality electromagnetic coil tattoo machine, turn to industry leader Surreal Customs Tattoo Machines. They strive to build “A Tool of the Arts” that’s durable enough to last even with regular daily use and that has a custom look that fits the colorful lifestyle of professional tattoo artists. You’re only as good as the tools you use, so don’t settle for a lesser coil tattoo machine. Let Surreal Custom Tattoo Machines build a one-of-a-kind tattoo machine for you using the best materials available. Your dream machine will be handmade and arrive perfectly tuned, so you can start tattooing with it as soon as you receive it. Choose from options like the Minion, Exodus, and Fang liners and shaders, each of which is hand-crafted by the skilled tattoo machinists of Surreal Customs.
Tatmatic Manufacturing Tattoo Machines
Tatmatic Mfg. encompasses a line of coil tattoo machines created by Dave Ritchie. Ritchie builds high-quality machines exclusively for professional tattoo artists, and the quality shows in every one of these beautiful, hard-hitting, precise coil tattoo machines. Each of these steel liners and shaders comes with 6 wrap coils. Choose from options like the Hanni Heavy Liner, the Mini Jenny Liner, the Tatmatic Square Shader, and the Ellis Shader.
Valor Tattoo Machines by TatSoul
Valor Tattoo Machines by TatSoul are rotary tattoo machines built with impeccable craftsmanship. These rotary tattoo machines are intended to outperform other tattoo machines in every area imaginable. Each of TatSoul’s Valor machines has a practical body with a sleek look that conveys the machine’s power and strength. TatSoul spent more than two years developing these machines with some of the finest tattoo artists in the industry to create a rotary tattoo machine that’s unparalleled in design and functionality. Every machine is assembled by hand and tested by TatSoul’s in-house team to ensure that each part is carefully matched for a perfect fit. Valor tattoo machines are extremely strong and lightweight, perfectly balancing weight distribution and performance.
Vital Machines Tattoo Machines
Vital Machines started in 2011 with the core goals of creating high-performance, quality tattoo machines that are aesthetically beautiful. Today the company is known for manufacturing the lightest, most versatile coil tattoo machines on the market. Vital Machines maintains one of the highest build qualities in the industry, too. They’re continuously developing their machines, they don’t cut corners, their staff members each have more than 15 years of training and experience in the fields of tool and die making, design and engineering, and they employ tattoo artists with more than 20 years of experience who help them make tattoo machines that best meet artists’ needs. Choose from a variety of Vital Machines coil tattoo machines intended for lining, black and gray work, and coloring.
Vital Machines tattoo machines have a host of benefits. They’re lightweight and agile, and each one features an adjustable throw that allows you to easily configure your machine to suit your needs. Vital Machines are powerful, durable and able to work with you all day. They’re made in the USA from 7075 Aircraft Grade Aluminum, and they’re professionally anodized with an easy-to-clean finish that will never chip or fade. The magnetic steel parts are made with the highest grade magnetic steel available, the insulators are made with a durable aircraft composite that will never crack or distort, the electrical components are all made of brass or copper for ultimate conductivity, and the mechanical steel parts are composed of tempered tool steel so they’ll never bend, dent or break. With a minor adjustment, these machines can be use with any needle size/grouping and any tattoo tubes on the market.
Welker tattoo machines are clean, precision tattoo machines crafted in Welker’s state-of-the-art machine shop. Each coil tattoo machine frame is CNC machined from a single piece of 1018 Cold-Rolled Steel. Choose between a blue “antique” and black oxide frame finish. Both styles come with finished brass binding posts and contact screws. A uniquely-designed grip comes standard with Welker machines, and you can use nearly any size and style stem/tube with them, including disposable tubes. Every machine is hand-tuned and comes with a lifetime warranty. Contact Welker if your machine breaks or you want to send it in for a free tune-up.
Welker also now offers two rotary tattoo machines through Painful Pleasures, which include both a standard rotary and an adjustable rotary option. The standard non-adjustable Welker rotary tattoo machine includes a medium throw where the hit can be adjusted off of the power supply. The adjustable machine features a spring tension that screws to adjust the hit for each artist’s preference. Both Welker rotary tattoo machines work well for lining and shading, and the adjustable machine is also particularly good for packing color with large magnums in addition to lining, creating soft colors, and working in black and gray.
Xtro Tattoo Machines
These premium coil tattoo machines are hand-made in Argentina and sold exclusively through Painfulpleasures.com. They’re affordable, reliable liner and shader machines with quality construction that artists can count on tattoo after tattoo. Each Xtro tattoo machine has 8 wrap coils, a 47/63 capacitor, brass front and rear binding posts, and a brass contact screw. Depending on the style you choose, Xtro tattoo machines weigh between 224 and 226 grams. The unique frames are handmade from iron with brass finishing, making these machines as much art as practical tattoo instruments.