It can sometimes be overwhelming to look at all of the options for tattoo needles and try to figure out which ones you need for each situation. If you understand the four defining properties of a tattoo needle, though, it can help you sort through the chaos. Those four defining qualities are needle diameter, needle count (# of points), needle configuration (i.e. grouping), and needle taper. On top of those four defining properties, you then have an array of brands from which to choose... but don't stress over it! We'll sort through each of the defining properties and brands so that by the time you've finished reading this article, you'll know what 0813M1, 1206F, and 1003RLB mean! You'll also be thrilled when you see our new Precision Tattoo Needle Label System, which is a much cleaner, simpler, easy-to-use spin on the traditional method of coding tattoo needles.
Tattoo Needle Definition
When someone refers to "a tattoo needle", they're rarely talking about a single needle; more often than not, they're talking about a group of several small needles, or sharps, attached to a needle bar. Tattoo needle groupings have 4 defining properties: needle diameter, needle count, configuration, and needle taper. Each of these aspects is discussed in detail below.
When we talk about "needle diameter", we're talking about the diameter of each individual needle in a grouping/configuration. There are 5 diameters available, but the most common are 0.25mm (#8), 0.30mm (#10), and 0.35mm (#12). The other less common options are 0.40mm (#13) and 0.20mm (#6). #12 is the most popular diameter for tattoo needles overall, and #10 is the most popular size for lining.
In traditional tattoo codes, the first 2 digits tell you the diameter of the needles. You'll also usually see the diameter at the beginning of the product name. For instance:
- #8 (0.25mm needle diameter) tattoo needle codes start out with “08”, and their product names usually begin with #8.
- #10 (0.30mm needle diameter) needle codes start out with “10”, and their product names begin with #10.
- #12 (0.35mm needle diameter) needle codes start with “12”, and their product names begin with #12.
The next defining property of a Tattoo Needle is the number of needles that are grouped together at the point of the needle bar, which is referred to as the needle count or number of "points". There can be as little as 1 needle at the point of the needle bar and as many as 100. The next two numbers following the needle diameter in a tattoo needle code indicate the needle count. So in the case of 1204RL, you're looking at a group of 4 #12-diameter tattoo needles.
Typical Needle Counts are 01 (one needle), 03 (three needles), 04 (four needles), 05 (five needles), 07 (seven needles), 08 (eight needles), 09 (nine needles), 11 (eleven needles), 14 (fourteen needles), and 18 (eighteen needles), although these are far from the only options.
The needle configuration indicates how the needles are grouped together. The letters that come after the needle diameter # and the needle count # in a traditional tattoo needle code indicate the needle configuration. For instance, "RL" at the end stands for a "Round Liner" needle configuration in which the needles are grouped in a circle. The most common needle configurations are Round Shader (RS), Round Liner (RL), Flat (F), Magnum (M1), Curved Magnum (M1C), and Stacked Magnum (M2).
The needle configuration you choose depends on a variety of factors ranging from your preference to your style to the tattoo you're about to ink to the technique you'll be using in each part of the tattoo to the anatomy of the person you're about to tattoo. Knowing a little more about the formations available may help you choose the right style for different types of tattoo work, at minimum, but you'll have to familiarize yourself with each type to find the groupings that work best for you in different situations.
Round Configuration: You may be asking what the difference is between a Round Liner and a Round Shader. Both are round needle configurations; however Round Liner needles are grouped together in a tight round formation and Round Shader needles are grouped together in a loose round formation. Round Liners are best for lining, since they're usually angled to come to a point, and Round Shaders are best for shading, since they have that looser formation that makes it easier to fill in a shaded area.
Flat Configuration: Flats are simply grouped together in a line formation. They work great for creating geometric tattoos and can serve other purposes based on your preferences.
Magnum Configuration: Magnums are grouped with two rows of needles in a weaved formation; for example, 9M1 needles will have a bottom row of 5 needles and a top row of 4 needles. They're especially good for filling large areas and shading.
Stacked Magnum Configuration: Stacked Magnum tattoo needles are grouped the same way as Magnums (M1), but they are more tightly stacked than the regular Magnum tattoo needles.
The last property of a tattoo needle is the taper. The taper is the length of the point at the very end of each needle. If you think about it logically, a short taper will have a shorter point and a long taper will have a longer point. The standard taper is 1.5mm. Here is a list of typical taper sizes:
- Standard (Short) Taper - 1.5mm
- Long Taper - 2.0mm
- Double Long Taper - 2.5mm
- Extra Long Taper - 3.5mm
- Super Long Taper - 5.5mm
- Super Extra Long Taper - 8.0mm
Breaking Down Tattoo Needle Codes
Now that each defining property is understood, you can put all the pieces together to understand a Tattoo Needle Listing. Let’s review with a couple traditional tattoo needle code examples:
- 1205M1: Breaking it apart, a needle grouping with this code has #12 diameter needles (or 0.35mm), 5 needle points at the end of the bar, and a standard Magnum configuration, meaning it has two rows of needles with 3 on the bottom row and 2 on the top for a total of 5 needles on 1 bar!
- 0814RS: Breaking down this grouping, it has #8 diameter needles (0.25mm), 14 needle points at the end of the bar, and a Round Shader formation, meaning the 14 needles are loosely grouped in a round formation.
When to Use Each Needle
So now that you understand tattoo needle codes and properties, how do you know what needle to use for what? There are 3 basic techniques at the core of every tattoo: lining, solid color application, and shading/blending. The following describes when to use each tattoo needle configuration based on the type of tattoo work you're doing:
- Round Liners are typically used for creating an outline of a tattoo.
- Round Shaders are used for filling in color, blending and shading a tattoo after the outline has been done.
- Flats are used to achieve tonal gradations in tattooing.
- Magnums are used for filling in color, blending and shading a tattoo after the outline has been done, and they can also be used for lining if turned to the side.
- Stacked Magnums are used for color, blending, and shading tighter large areas, and they can also be used for lining if turned to the side.
Now that you have an idea of what tattoo needle you need for specific tattoos, you have to determine what brand to use. The brand you use has a lot to do with experience, your machine and personal preference. It’s important for you to try out different brands and styles in order to choose the needles that work best for your work and your tattoo machine. There are some machines, like Cheyenne Tattoo Machines, which require the use of their needles, while you can use other machines with your preferred brand of tattoo needles. We highly recommend using Precision Tattoo Needles whenever possible. It's our own house brand of top-quality surgical steel tattoo needles offered at a great price. Plus, the numerous combinations of diameter, grouping, taper, texture, and other properties available to you are now easier to navigate than ever before thanks to our new Label System (shown below and explained in detail in our Tattoo Needles & Codes article).