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.
Rotaries are known to be more consistent than coils, because they do not require “tuning,” a process where a tattooer adjusts their needle depth, give, and power supply voltage. 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.
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