If you're just getting into tattooing, you might be a bit confounded by all the different types of tattoo needles available. What do all the codes mean? How is a round liner tattoo needle different from a magnum or a bugpin tattoo needle? How do you know when you should be using which type of needle?
Understanding tattoo needles isn't as complicated as it might seem when you're staring at a list like this--a list with more than 100 different types of tattoo needles in it, 2/3 of which are variations on the same size needle!
As overwhelming as all those different options may seem, they actually boil down to a few types of needles, just in different sizes, quantities and groupings. Let's break it down by first taking a look at tattoo needle codes and what they mean.
Tattoo Needle Codes
Tattoo needles are typically identified with codes--like the 1204RL one highlighted in the screenshot above--and/or with names that include specific pieces of information. For instance, tattoo needle 1204RL could also be called "#12 4-Round Liner Needles". Either way a tattoo needle is described, each piece of the code or name refers to a different aspect of the needle: tattoo needle diameter, needle count and grouping format.
Tattoo Needle Diameters
Whether a tattoo supplier uses a format like 1204RL or just a 2-digit number at the beginning of a tattoo needle product name (ex. #12 Standard Round Liner Premade Sterilized Tattoo Needles on Bar - Box of 50), the leading number always refers to the diameter of the needle. That means that 1204RL tattoo needles have a #12, or .35mm, diameter. #12 is one of the larger-diameter needle sizes available and the most commonly used size. By comparison, #10, or 0.30mm, is the size tattoo artists most often like to use when doing lining work. You can also purchase larger #13 needles that have a 0.40mm diameter, smaller #8 needles, which have a 0.25mm diameter, or really fine-diameter #6 tattoo needles, which are 0.20mm in size.
A tattoo needle's diameter affects ink flow. The narrower the diameter of the needle, the finer and more controlled the stream of ink that flows out of it. That's why #10 needles are so popular for line work; the ink flow is finer and more controlled than with a #12 or #13, but not quite as constricted as with a #8 or #6 tattoo needle.
Tattoo Needle Counts & Groupings
The next two digits in a code like 1204RL refer to the number of needles in the grouping. So in our example, 04 means there are 4 #12-diameter needles grouped together. The way they're grouped is defined by the letters at the end of the code. RL = Round Liner, which means they're tattoo needles meant for lining work that are grouped in a circle.
The images below represent the most common tattoo needle groupings. There are typically a variety of needle quantities available within each grouping--for instance, you'd get 4 #12 needles in a round liner format like in the first image shown below if you purchased 1204RL tattoo needles, or you could opt for a 7-needle grouping by purchasing 1207RL tattoo needles.
Although the type of taper a needle has isn't typically included in tattoo needle codes and is only sometimes included in the product names, it's another aspect of tattoo needles that artists typically take into consideration. There are short taper, long taper, extra long taper, and even super long taper tattoo needles from which to choose. The longer a needle's point is, the higher up on the shaft of the needle the taper down to the point begins. A longer, finer taper can give you better control over ink flow than a short taper, but that may mean sacrificing ink flow speed--a trade-off that works well for filling, but not necessarily for line work. In other words, long tapers are often better for precision work that you want to take your time doing for an optimal end result
What Needle Groupings Are Used for Which Tattooing Techniques?
So now that you know how to identify tattoo needle diameters, counts and groupings, what should you do with this new-found knowledge? Which groupings are used for which tattooing techniques, and which combinations are best for you? The latter is often a matter of trial and error, practice and experience, but the former is something we can give you guidance about.
Round liner tattoo needles and round shader tattoo needles are names that explain their uses clearly: round liners are for lining, and round shaders are for shading. Super tight liners are used for lining super-fine lines. But what about the other tattoo needle configurations? What do you do with flats, magnums and bugpins? Many tattoo artists like using bugpin tattoo needles for creating smooth gradients; they can come in especially handy when you're doing portrait work. Flat tattoo needles are useful when you're shading in geometric areas or even something avant-garde like a Trash Polka-style tattoo. Magnums are often used for filling in large areas, blending and shading. If you're looking for a gentler way to get the same effect that a magnum provides without as much trauma to the skin, try a curved magnum.
Some artists would probably argue about the suggested tattoo needle uses above, and rightly so. Finding the perfect grouping of tattoo needles isn't much different than finding the perfect paintbrush for outlining vs. filling vs. shading, and sometimes the perfect paintbrush for one person is a terrible fit for another person who's painting the same picture. You'll have to go through a degree of experimentation to find out which needles yield the best results in your hands. All we ask is that you do your testing on practice skin, fruit, yourself, or willing friends/family who clearly understand that they're serving as guinea pigs for your artistic development. Test away and figure out what works best for you, but adopt the Hippocratic Oath as you do so, and do no harm.
Precision Needles: Precisely the Right Tattoo Needles for You
Precision is a Painful Pleasures brand of medical, piercing and tattoo supplies that gives tattoo and piercing artists the tools they need to succeed at great prices without sacrificing quality. We've also just improved our Precision Tattoo Needles labeling to make it easier for tattoo artists to identify the qualities that matter most to them. If you look at the example below, you can easily see that this box of Precision Tattoo Needles includes 5 #12-diameter extra tight round liner (RLXT) needles with a super long taper (SLT). It also shows you which types of tubes/tips to use with this grouping of needles. Basically, Precision now includes precise information in addition to precisely the right tools for tattoo and piercing artists to practice their crafts.
Still Have Questions?
If you want to further your tattoo needle education, we have some additional resources for you. You'll find information in our Tattoo Needles Wholesale Store section that will guide you as you shop, like this guide to which tubes/tips to use with which needles. We also have a Tattoo Needles article in our Info Center that you may find helpful. Additionally, this tattoo needle PDF talks a bit about each different type of tattoo needle available to you. And, as always, you can email us at [email protected] or call us at 410-712-0145 to ask questions about any of our products.