Normally when you think of a spring, your mind conjures up an image of a spiraled coil that you can compress, release and literally see spring back upward. When it comes to tattoo machines, though, springs aren't coils, and coils aren't springs! If you read our Tattoo Machine Coil Basics article, you can learn all about how a tattoo machine's coils work to create an electromagnetic field that makes the attached tattoo needles move up and down. If you want to learn more about the spring that contributes to the consistent movement of tattoo needles instead, then you're in the right place.
What Coil Tattoo Machine Springs Look Like & What They Do
Coil tattoo machine springs start out as flat pieces of metal that come in a handful of different shapes and sizes. Here are a few examples of front and back coil tattoo machine springs to reset your mental image of what normally constitutes a spring:
|Baltimore Street Irons Front & Back Shading Springs for Coil Tattoo Machines||Painful Pleasures Skinny or Fat Back Springs for Coil Tattoo Machines||Precision Blue Carbon Steel .016g Front Springs for Coil Tattoo Machines|
Springs serve several purposes. A front spring is a necessary part of the circuit that turns a tattoo machine's coils into an electromagnet. It also acts as a shock absorber for the armature bar. The back or main spring is what regulates the movement of your tattoo needles, ensuring that they move up and down at a consistent rate and doing the brunt of the heavy lifting when it's time to pull tattoo needles up out of the skin. The back spring also puts tension on the front spring, holding it down securely so that it can do its job. If the tension of either spring is too great, it may lead you to move your hand more quickly than is desirable to avoid over-saturation, which can cause you to skimp on the fine details or even damage a client's skin. It's important to strike a good balance between stroke length and spring thickness to get the best results when tattooing.
How Springs Attach to an Armature Bar
A back spring and front spring are paired together and tightened down against an armature bar with a socket cap screw and a washer to create what may look to the naked eye like a single spring. To line everything up right, you need a spring flake adjuster (preferably one that comes with a spring bender), which is basically just a vice that holds all the parts where you want them while you put together the armature assembly for your coil tattoo machine. You'll also need an Allen key in the same size as the hole on the socket cap screw you use, so you can tighten the screw once all the component parts are lined up where you want them. You can see examples of all the parts and tools you'll need for this exercise below; click on any image or title to see more products like the one shown.
|Front Spring||Back Spring||Spring Flake Adjuster|
|Socket Cap Screw|
|Allen Keys||Spring Bender|
When you're ready to put together the armature assembly, you have to first put the desired angle on your front spring. When you make the crease, roughly 1/3 of the back of the front spring should remain flat and approximately 2/3 should be bent upwards at roughly a 20⁰ to 40⁰ angle. You can bend it more as needed once the armature assembly is mounted on your tattoo machine frame, so don't stress too much about creating the perfect angle initially. To create the bend in your front spring, you can place it on the edge of a counter or table top with 2/3 of the pointed tip hanging off the edge, hold the base down firmly, and bend the tip down gently by hand, or you can use a tool like our Brass Spring Flake Adjuster and Spring Bender (shown above), which gives you two tools in one and allows you to bend your front spring to the exact angle you desire.
Once your front spring is angled properly, it's time to line up the parts of your armature assembly. First, lay the armature bar in the spring flake adjuster. Set the washer over the hole in the top of the armature bar and insert the socket cap screw, giving it just a single turn or two by hand so that it stays in the hole. Slide the front spring under the washer so that the pronged back cradles the screw, and then slide the back spring in from the opposite side so that its pronged arms lay over top of the front spring's arms while cradling the screw. You can use an Allen key to tighten the screw a little at this point, but don't lock it all the way down yet. You may need to shift the two springs around a bit to make sure they're lined up straight and hugging the screw closely on each side, or you may need to move the front spring forward a little so that its crease doesn't get trapped under the washer. Make adjustments as necessary, and then tighten down the socket cap screw. When you're done, remove the armature bar from the spring flake adjuster, flip it over, and make sure the bottom of the screw is relatively flush with the bottom of the armature bar; good alignment will reduce unwanted vibration when running your machine. The completed armature assembly should look something like this:
You're now ready to mount the armature assembly onto your coil tattoo machine frame by screwing the back side of the back spring down against the frame behind the coils. The goal is to have the armature assembly sit perpendicular to the coils when you're finished. You'll need another hex screw and washer to attach the armature assembly to the frame. You can tighten the screw partway with the armature bar sticking out behind the frame, then swing it around and line it up just where you want it over top of the coils before tightening down the screw.
When the armature assembly is in place, you can pull up on the front of the assembly to bend the back/main spring slightly, as needed. If you bend it too much, loosen the screw holding the armature assembly to the frame, swing the assembly around so it's sticking out behind the frame again, and pull down on the front of the assembly to reduce the bend. When you have it where you want it, swing it back over top of the coils, and tighten it down again.
Once your coil tattoo machine is completely assembled, you can increase or decrease the bend on the front spring and/or adjust the height of the front contact screw so that the contact screw touches the tip of the front spring. If your contact screw has a pointed tip on it, you may want to sand it down flat so that the screw sits flush against the tip of the front spring.
Your assembled coil tattoo machine should look somewhat like the sample image on the left above. You can see how the slightly-angled front spring touches the tip of the machine's contact screw. This is the type of alignment you should work to achieve.
How Front Springs Help Create a Circuit
Although a front spring's primary purpose is to act as a shock absorber for a coil tattoo machine's armature bar, it's also a critical component in creating the circuit that powers your tattoo machine. Here's how it works: When you attach a clip cord to your coil tattoo machine and deliver power to the coils, an electromagnetic field is created. That field draws down the metal armature bar hovering above the coils, subsequently forcing your tattoo needles down, out of your tattoo tube, and into your client's skin. As the armature bar is pulled down towards the coils, it pulls the attached springs down with it. The front spring is subsequently separated from the contact screw above it, which breaks the circuit that initially turned the coils into an electromagnet. The electromagnetic field momentarily collapses, and the spring wants to move back to its natural position. The rear spring draws the armature bar up with it until the front spring again touches the contact screw and the armature bar hovers above the coils without touching them. When the contact screw once again touches the front spring, the electromagnetic field is re-established and the cycle starts all over again. All of this happens so fast that the motion is a blur that's hard to see without recording it and playing it back in super-slow motion.
Why Springs Come in Different Thicknesses & Shapes
Since the main purpose of springs is to regulate the motion of your tattoo needles, you may need different thicknesses for different types of work on various parts of the body. The thicker your springs are, the heavier the tension will be and the more forcefully your tattoo needles will move up and down. You can adjust the tension and stroke length to achieve different effects. For instance, if you want to do smooth shading, use a lighter spring tension (.016" - .020") along with long strokes. A .016" front spring paired with a .020" back spring is ideal for most tattoo artists, because that combination allows tattoo needles to change direction more smoothly. When you do lining work, you'll need a shorter stroke, medium spring tension and more power so your machine will run faster. Consider pairing a .020" front spring with a .018" back spring to ensure that the front spring is strong and the rear spring provides sufficient tension. You can always turn up the power gradually to make your machine hit harder as necessary; that tends to be a better option than using springs that are overly thick.
Our Tips on Coil Tattoo Machine Spring Set-up graphic below shows a few different front and back spring size pairings that you can try for achieving optimal lining and shading results. It also provides information about why certain rear and main spring thickness pairings work best for different types of tattoo work. If you click on the tip sheet image, you'll see a larger, more easily-readable version of it in downloadable PDF form, which you can print and use as a reference when modifying your coil tattoo machine springs for lining vs. shading.
Some manufacturers offer different-shaped springs for different types of tattoo work. For instance, Baltimore Street Irons makes springs that are slightly tapered in the middle for lining work and a slightly straighter version for shading. The shape of your springs isn't nearly as important as their thickness and the stroke length, though, if you're trying to manipulate your machine to get the best results for specific types of work.
Unfortunately, there's no exact formula for which spring size and stroke length combinations to use to achieve different results, but it's typically safer to use thinner springs and play around with your stroke length. Try starting with the spring and stroke length suggestions for liners and shaders above, and make adjustments as necessary to suit your tattooing style and machine. Over time , as you experiment with different settings and springs, you'll become more in tune with the combinations that work best for you when you're lining, shading, filling, and so on.
Additional Information About Coil Machines
You'll find several blog posts and articles about coil tattoo machines and how they work in our Information Center. Here are a few that may be good resources for you: