Since the conception of the rotary tattoo machine, artists have engaged in the following hotly debated topic: are coil or rotary machines superior?
Below, we have included a brief history of tattoo machines as well as what the differences between coils and rotaries are, including pros and cons. We also asked artists of all styles, backgrounds, and experiences for their opinions on this heated debate.
Tattoo Machine History
The first electric tattoo machine was invented in New York City by Samuel F. O’Reilly, and patented December 8, 1891 (US Patent 464, 801). It was adapted from Thomas Edison’s 1876 rotary-operated stencil pen (US Patent 180,857).
Electric tattoo machines are most commonly represented in mainstream media as “coil machines” or “EM Machines.” Coils use electromagnetic coils to move an armature bar up and down. The armature bar is connected to a needle bar, which has a tight grouping of small needles attached to it. The needle bar pushes the tight grouping of small needles, which, in turn, pushes ink into the skin.
With the advancement of technology, tattooing is more configurable. More options are available to artists when it comes to machines, power supplies, foot pedals, and other tattoo equipment. Artists can now control needle depth, how hard their machine hits, and the speed of their machine. Because of these configurations, tattooing as an art form has become very precise.
The coils in an EM machine generally range from 8 to 10 wrap. The coils create the impedance, or resistance, used to properly regulate the machine's speed and power. This causes less trauma to the skin. Coil machines are commonly broken into three groups: liners, shaders, and colour packers.
A liner coil machine is typically designed to hit the skin faster and is used to “pull a line” or outline a tattoo design in a single pass. It uses a short contact circuit (about 1.5mm–2mm), which causes the machine to cycle faster.
A shader is usually slower and hits the skin softer than a liner. As suggested by its name, the shader machine is used for shading procedures. The saturation level of this machine is low. It uses a bigger contact gap than a liner (about 2mm–3.5mm) to make it cycle more slowly. Shader machines can also be used for sculpting lines. Some artists will use this type of machine for all lines, as it allows the lines to be retraced with less trauma to the skin.
A colour packer is designed to hit the skin fast, deep, and hard, so that solid colour ink can be put into the skin as quickly and evenly as possible. It is set up very similarly to a shader because it is used to fill in colour and blacks. However, colour packer machines are not recommended for black and grey shading, because they are designed to aggressively pack ink into the skin; they are therefore not suited for layering ink into the skin slowly, like a shader machine does.
Coil machines are NOT autoclavable. These machines are bagged and covered to protect artists and clients from cross-contamination. The tubes attached to the machine are either autoclavable or, more recently, fully disposable. The coils themselves cannot come in contact with the high-level surface disinfectant, so cleaning these machines is harder due to how easily they can be damaged.
Calling a tattoo machine a “tattoo gun” is considered derogatory. “Tattoo gun” is slang that most artists find offensive. Other commonly used terms that are actually considered insulting are “tatts” and “slinging.” “Inked” was also considered insulting in the past, but it is now becoming more acceptable. More and more artists are preferring this phrase to the more traditional term, “tattooed."
Rotary machines are less commonly known in mainstream media. Invented in 1978 by Manfred Kohrs of Germany, rotary machines are only recently becoming more popular in the industry.
Rotary machines are powered by a motor that spins in a vertical circle. The needle bar is attached to the motor to move the needle up and down.
Rotary machines are less customizable and require substantially less knowledge and finesse to be used effectively. Rotaries are sometimes autoclavable, but are more often bagged and then wiped down with a high-level surface disinfectant.
Pneumatic Tattoo Machines
Pneumatic tattoo machines are another variety of machine, invented in 2000 by a tattoo artist named Carson Hill. They are powered by an air compressor and are extremely lightweight. Pneumatic tattoo machines use pressurized air to power the machine and drive the needles up and down. These tattoo machines are entirely autoclavable, meaning the entire machine can be placed in an autoclave and sterilized fully without any major disassembly.
Pen machines are a variant of rotary style machines. The pen-style tattoo machine has a motor that is contained in a tubular machine body that resembles a thick pen. These machines utilize a cartridge system where the needles come in interchangeable cartridges that you can pop in and out multiple times during tattoo procedures.
Good, quality cartridge needles contain a membrane to prevent the ink from passing through the tube and into the internal parts of the pen machine. New variations of the pen have been designed to be completely autoclavable, enabling artists to place the entire machine into an autoclave and fully sterilize it. The machines are also completely wipeable with a high-level surface disinfectant, meaning that artists can disinfect the machine easily between clients.
The predecessor to the tattoo machine was the electric pen invented by Thomas Alva Edison and patented under the title Stencil-Pens in Newark, New Jersey in 1876. The machine was originally intended to be used as a duplicating device. Then, in 1891, Samuel O'Reilly discovered that Edison's machine could be modified and used to introduce ink into the skin. O’Reilly later patented a tube and needle system to provide an ink reservoir.
The Edison pen probably wasn’t the first or only go-to device. O’Reilly’s first pre-patented machine was not an Edison pen. It was a modified dental plugger (also referred to as a mallet or hammer) — a handheld tool with reciprocating motion used to impact gold in cavities.
William Gibson Arlington Bonwill (1833-1899) invented the first electromagnetically operated dental plugger. Bonwill’s idea was born in the late 1860s after observing the electromagnetic coils of a telegraph machine in operation. His first two patents were filed in 1871 (issued October 15, 1878 - US Patent 209,006) and in 1873 (issued November 16, 1875 - US Patent 170,045). Like today’s tattoo machines, Bonwill’s devices operated by way of two vertically-positioned electromagnetic coils.
Dentist’s Electromagnetic mallet. Ingram, J.S. The Centennial Exposition. Hubbard Bros., 1876. pg. 300. Print. Collection of Carmen Nyssen.
EM/Coil Machines: The Pros & Cons
A good coil machine typically costs about $500. However, most artists need at least three machines. Depending on your setup, you may need over ten machines, which adds up quickly.
Each needle you use needs an entire machine to run it, so if you need to use ten needles in a tattoo, you need ten machines. The alternative to using that many machines is to stop, tear down your machine, change the needle and configuration, potentially re-tune your machine, and start tattooing again. Needless to say, this adds a lot of time to a tattoo procedure.
The appearance of a coil machine is more iconic and traditional. You also typically have more choices and customizations and can build your own coil machines.
The sound is a double-edged sword. Some artists love the buzz from a traditional machine, while others prefer the lack of sound from a pen or rotary.
Many artists find the vibration causes pain in their fingers, hands, and wrists during long sessions. Others complain that it can cause them to lose feeling in their hands after sessions.
The weight is another double-edged sword. Some artists prefer the weight of the machine, while many others find it causes pain in their fingers, hands, and wrists when doing longer tattoos.
Ease of Use
These machines are easy to regulate speed and power, but a tattooer needs to be familiar with the machine and how a machine works to effectively and correctly tune and operate it.
Parts are inexpensive, and machines are easy to customize and change
Some artists find they can complete tattoos faster using coils.
This is one of the biggest issues that comes with an EM machine, since the only way to autoclave the machine is to completely disassemble it and then autoclave the frame. Autoclaving these machines isn’t a logical choice. Tattooers also can’t spray the entire machine with a high-level disinfectant, because the disinfectants will erode the coils and damage the machine parts. This leaves the option to cover the machine in plastic and spray disinfectant onto a single use towel to wipe the machine (high-level disinfectants are recommended to be sprayed directly onto the surface and left on for 30 seconds).
Rotary Machines: The Pros & Cons
Since rotary machines accept tubes that use a cartridge system, you don’t necessarily need more than one machine. However, the cost of one machine is typically higher than that of a coil (usually around $800). If you are not using the cartridge system, you run into the same issue as coils where you need multiple machines.
Rotary machines are less recognizable as a style of tattoo machine and typically have far less options and customizations.
Rotary machines make almost no sound, which is often viewed as a positive feature; the buzzing that is associated with a coil machine is loud and bothersome to many artists and clients. However, some artists love the distinct sound that comes from an EM machine.
Rotary machines don’t move the same way a coil does using springs, so they are much smoother to hold and don’t cause vibration, affecting the hand or skin.
Most artists prefer the lightweight feel of a rotary over a heavy coil machine. Others find the weight of a coil helps to control the machine for more precise work.
Ease of Use
While rotary machines require much less knowledge to operate, their settings aren’t as easy to control or configure. This is because they are made to be consistent across all the machines.
Due to the way rotary machines are made and designed, if something breaks or isn’t working the way the artist wants, the artist must either send the machine back for a servicing/repair or purchase another one.
Some artists find they are much faster with a rotary machine.
Most rotaries are either completely wipeable or autoclavable, which makes them a much safer machine to use to prevent cross contamination. Good tattooers will still wrap their machines in a barrier before tattooing.
Tattoo Machine Brands
Once you decide whether to go with a coil tattoo machine or a rotary tattoo machine, it's time 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What are some artists saying?
I learned on coils and used them for my first couple years, then ended up switching to rotary machines after a builder I know gave me one of his custom-made ones. It was a bit of a learning curve, but I find rotaries definitely easier to work with, especially in the cartridge age. To me, cartridges are vastly superior to classic needles and you really need a rotary to push big cartridge configurations. I don't think I could ever go back to coils, and for most artists I encounter, the road to rotaries is a one-way street.
Even before getting into what each one is better for, I'm drawn to rotaries because the machines are much more standardized and less prone to needing maintenance. Nothing was worse than having your coil that you grew used to crap out and it was like relearning to tattoo again on another one. Nightmares. I have several copies of the same rotary machine and can switch between them without the slightest change in technique, and I can objectively compare my user experience with any other artist using the same machine.
Hard to say which is ultimately superior. I will say that modern rotary machines are much more adaptable and able to be used for a wider range of tattooing. A lot of black and grey artists seem to still be using coils, but more and more I see them switching over to the new pen designs. As a colour artist, rotary is much more efficient at colouring and is a clear winner. Rotaries tend to be expensive these days, which is a downside, and are much less fun to look at I admit, but they seem to be getting better designs overall as bigger companies invest more into engineering them.
- Saga Anderson, @inkbysaga
I started with coils and moved to rotary. Rotary for me hits more consistently and clean, and in turn adds to a quicker, less painful process with better healing. A direct drive rotary will hit straighter into the skin as a coil will have more ‘wobble.’ As for the give factor, people use coils over rotary; I adapt by just being softer with the hands. In my humble opinion, I used a few coils before I fell in love with the Bishop Rotary and now I use the FYT exclusively.
- Sean Martell, @ninjewtattoo
I use rotary, 'cause of the weight of the machines. I like a very light machine and rotaries are the lightest around. I learnt with coils 23 years ago and used coils for almost 13 years. I switched to rotary about 10 years ago due to my hands cramping up after five hour tattoos. Both styles of machines are great; it depends on who is using them and what they prefer to use while they tattoo.
- Boston Nick Reid, @nread23
I started with coils, went to rotary, then back to coil. I think what makes a good tattoo at the end of the day is the tattooer; the machines are all preference.
- Anthony James, @anthonyjamesink
At the end of the day, there is no “right” answer, so we recommend trying the machines for yourself and finding out what works for you as an artist. There is nothing wrong with using all types of machines for different reasons or finding one that works for you. We recommend keeping an open mind and to never think you know everything. In the end, you should always be learning and trying to push yourself to become a better tattooer.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the official position of PainfulPleasures.
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Edited by PainfulPleasures Content Dept: Meeseun Kwoun & Danny Tress