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How a Tattoo Machine or Gun Works

How does a tattoo gun work
A modern tattoo machine.

A lot of people who have never got a tattoo, and some who have, wonder how a tattoo gun works. Tattoo artists create a tattoo by injecting ink into the upper dermis layer of the skin. The tool of the tattoo artist is the tattoo machine, which is known as the tattoo gun by non tattoo artists. This tattoo machine punctures the skin from 50 to over 3000 times per minute, and sounds like a dental drill. Read on to learn how a tattoo machine works.

Calling a tattoo machine a gun is actually a misnomer. The tattoo machine is really a doorbell circuit assembly. The technical name for this assembly is a DC coil and spring point machine. Both the doorbell and the tattoo machine were invented before household electricity was widely available to the general public.

The tattoo machine was invented by Samuel O’Reilly in the late 1800’s, and was based on the design of the autographic printer by Thomas Edison. This basic design has really remained unchanged since its invention.

Parts of a Tattoo Machine
The different parts that make up a tattoo machine or gun as some call it.

The assembly is basically made up of three sections: the base, the mechanism, and the tube system which draws the ink through the machine. A fourth component, the needle, is also needed to actually do the piercing of the skin.

The action of a tattoo gun
The action of a tattoo machine.

The base of the tattoo machine is the bulk of the metal of the whole machine. A tattoo machine base is a piece of metal that looks like a rabbit’s ear with a screw in it, bent at a 90 degree angle to hold coils. In the front of the machine there is a rounded hole that is used to hold the sanitary tube.

The reason that the tattoo machine is often called a gun is because people sometimes think the base looks sort of like the handle of a gun. The base actually houses the mechanism. The mechanism consists of two coils of wire wrapped around an iron core. At the very top of the mechanism is a set of silver contact points that look like the end of a wire. One contact point is usually on a spring and the other on the end of a screw. A spring then connects the base to the bar. The bar is then connected to the needles arm that is at a 90 degrees offset. The needle arm is then connected to the needles which are soldered onto the bar which moves up and down inside a sanitary tube.

How a tattoo machine functions
The power supply for a tattoo machine.

The coils then connect to a DC power supply somewhere between 6 – 12 volts DC, from a spring coiled clip cord. The cable is designed to move easily between machines but also stay in place and not fall out and make sparks. The springs hold the cable onto the machine. One side of these coils is connected to the power supply and the other end of the coils to the point on the screw on the rabbit’s ear, and is insulated by the base. Through these points the current flows from the coils and through the base of the machine.

This causes the coils to be magnetized as an electromagnetic. The magnet pulls down on the bar, which then does two things. First, it pulls down the needles, and second it opens the two points. The points being apart turn off the magnet. The spring brings back the bar, and causes the needles to move up and make contact with the two points. This connection causes the process to happen over and over again, making the needles move up and down.

The sanitary tube sucks the ink in and the needles load up as long as there's ink in the small portion of the tube. The tube is called sanitary because of the cut-out at the bottom of the tube, and can be sanitized and washed out. When the needles move in and out of the sanitary tube they get a layer of ink on them and in between them. The needles basically make little holes in the skin that the ink is deposited into.

Needle Configuration for Tattoo Machine
The different needle configurations for a tattoo machine.

There are two types of tattoo machines. Liners and shaders are the two types of tattoo machines. They are basically the same, but the needle gaps are set up just a little different. The gap for a liner machine is around the thickness of a dime, and for a shader is the about the thickness of a nickel to cover more area. Liner machines cane have 1, 3, 4, 5, or 7 needles in use. Shader needles are in a straight row and usually have 4, 6, 7, or 9 needles. The process of soldering needles together in different groups is an art all to itself. The best tattoo artists have mastered this technique.

This is the basic assembly of any tattoo machine you will find in use. The doorbell assembly seems to be one of the best things to hit the tattoo scene ever. New tubes and needles should be used for each person tattooed.

Tattoo Machine Kit
A tattoo machine kit.

Some describe the pain of getting a tattoo as sort of like being pinched or stung by a bee over and over. Others say it feels like a bad sunburn. The truth is, everyone experiences pain differently. Depending on how much outlining and shading are being done, the pain can vary. When it’s over, most people say that it wasn’t really as bad as they thought it would be. When you are ready for your next tattoo, be sure to check out the huge collection of tattoo designs at Chopper Tattoo. They are the best site on the Internet to find tattoo designs. They have award winning designs from artists all over the country, so you are sure to find one you will just have to have.

And if you are looking to actually become a tattoo artist, you definitely need to check out the Aspiring Tattoo Artist’s Guide, as it is the best book out there to teach you what you need to know to become a great tattoo artist.

Good luck with your next tattoo!

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Tattoo Trivia:

The newer laser tattoo removal machines are called the Q-switch. These laser machines produce a pulsed laser used to break up ink pigments.