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Tattoo Machine Mechanics

One of many tattoo machines I use.

One of many tattoo machines I use.

Let's Get Started!

With this particular tattoo lesson, I will discuss the importance of knowing your tattoo machine and its mechanics so you may better understand its operation.

Maintenance and repair are the two main points of this tattoo lesson. Learning how to disassemble and reassemble your tattoo machine is critical. Not all tattoo machines are the same, so mastering the basics will reduce the likelihood of panicking if your tattoo machine stops working in the middle of a project.

Before you actually begin disassembling your tattoo machine, you will want to examine it and, if necessary, take notes so you have all the correct pieces organized as you begin the disassembly process.

Take a glance at the tattoo machine I have displayed in the photograph above. It is a fully functional tattoo machine; if you need to grab your tattoo machine to see if you find immediate differences between mine and the one you are using, then do that now.

Apart from not being able to see the capacitator, this is a great diagram.

Apart from not being able to see the capacitator, this is a great diagram.

Tattoo Machine Diagram

Above, I have provided a side view of a tattoo machine with the technical terms for each component. The tattoo machine in this image is slightly different from the one I use. The main difference is that there is a yoke on this machine to raise the coils to the appropriate height. I would also refer to the yoke as a shim; that is not considered the technical term, but you get why it is used.

After you have examined your tattoo machine and made any necessary notes or marks (springs mainly), then you are ready to start. Depending on where you purchased your tattoo machine will determine what type of tools you will use to disassemble and reassemble your tattoo machine. The Allen screws used on my tattoo machine are metric, but I have also used machines that used standard measurements; you will need to figure out which screw type was used to assemble your tattoo machine.

Once you have figured out which screw type you have, select the correct tools needed to disassemble your tattoo machine. Then lay out some paper towels so you can place the tattoo machine parts on them as you begin disassembling it; this will help you keep the parts organized and make reassembling it a cinch.

Note: Make sure you are working on a clean surface so that if you drop a part you can easily find it.

Where my thumb is in this pic is where your contact post screws into.

Where my thumb is in this pic is where your contact post screws into.

Remove the O-ring.

Remove the O-ring.

Step 1. Remove Contact Post

After you have laid out your paper towels, go ahead and loosen your contact post and set screw and remove them. Most set screws can be tightened or loosened by hand or with a flat head screwdriver. After you have removed those parts set them off to the side.

Since the contact post is out of the way it is a good time to remove the small black O-ring that slides underneath the front spring and wraps over the screw head that holds in place the armature bar and front and rear spring together. Something good to look out for is cracks or drying of the O-ring; this will diminish the strength of your spring’s punch, so if you see this, take the time to replace it with a new one.

The front binding post has been removed here. Look at the washers and how they are in order. Refer to your tattoo machine or the diagram I provided above.

The front binding post has been removed here. Look at the washers and how they are in order. Refer to your tattoo machine or the diagram I provided above.

Step 2. Remove Front Binding Posts

The next thing we want to do is grab your Allen key set or pliers, keeping in mind that we do not want to damage the tattoo machine or any of its working parts. Select the correct Allen key size and loosen the front binding post.

As you prepare to do this, I want you to take a look at how the metal washers are placed and how they are not placed directly in connection with the tattoo machine frame. If the metal washers come into contact with the frame of the tattoo machine, it grounds itself out, making the tattoo machine useless until that problem is corrected.

Almost every tattoo machine has rubber washers that seat against the frame, greatly reducing any chance of grounding issues you might have as you work. Go ahead and remove the front binding post, and so that you don’t have any issues losing screws, rethread the screw with the rubber and metal washers back on the binding post you just removed from the tattoo frame.

Remove the whole spring assembly by removing the rear screw.

Remove the whole spring assembly by removing the rear screw.

Step 3. Remove Spring Assembly

With the front binding post now removed, we will now remove the spring assembly of the machine. The springs of a tattoo machine dictate several factors in operation; springs come in different thicknesses, and the springs of a tattoo machine can be cut in certain ways that generate a different punch or drive of the needle. Ideally, the springs’ that are attached to your tattoo machine are in ready working order and all you have to do is tune it and you are ready to tattoo, but more often than not you may need to make adjustments to the springs themselves (if possible) or replace them.

Cutting a new spring can be daunting for a beginner because you need to closely replicate the spring and certain tools are needed to make an effective spring. Make sure to remove the rear screw of the spring assembly so you don’t have to mess with reattaching the armature bar and front spring yet. You do this ONLY if you need to replace a spring.

You might need something to hold onto the binding post until you have the screw broke loose.

You might need something to hold onto the binding post until you have the screw broke loose.

Step 4. Remove Rear Binding Post

We are now going to remove the rear binding post it is a simple process but again, take a look at how the rear binding post is assembled. You should have rubber washers that are in direct contact with the machine's frame, then metal washers on either side of the rubber washers, and then finally the copper or metallic wire connector that is held firmly in place by the screw which goes through the frame and then finally threaded onto the binding post itself. The rear binding post is one of the primary spots in which the tattoo machine receives its power.

Remove the screws from the coils.

Remove the screws from the coils.

Capacitator and coils.

Capacitator and coils.

Step 5. Remove the Coils

Both the front and rear binding posts have now been removed, freeing both wires that come from the coils of the tattoo machine. This means that it is time to remove the coils themselves.

Now if you are not familiar with how a coil looks on the inside, imagine taking some thin copper wire and wrapping that around a small cylinder of steel using 200 feet each of that copper. You would not think it possible to fit that much wire on such a small cylinder, but it is very possible and that is also how the magnetic energy is created which ultimately drives the tattoo machine.

Now, removing the coils is a simple process. There are two screws that hold the coils in place, one screw each. Go ahead and remove those screws, keeping in mind not to drop either the frame or the coils of the machine once the final screw has been removed.

Set the tattoo machine frame down and take a look at your now-removed coils. You should notice a wire for each of the coils that are connected to a small capacitor. The capacitor regulates the power so each of the two coils' energy output is equivalent, and if a sudden surge of electricity flows through your P.S., the capacitor will blow or pop like a fuse, causing your tattoo machine to lose power. At that point, you will need to replace either the capacitor or the coils themselves.

The frame.

The frame.

Step 6. Remove Tube Vice Assembly

We are now ready to remove the tube vice of the tattoo machine. On my tattoo machine, there is a simple butterfly screw with a separate tube vice that puts pressure on the tube as the butterfly screw is tightened. This should take just a couple of seconds, and once you are done, take the time and arrange your disassembled tattoo machine in a way that reassembling it will be easier to do.

Now that your tattoo machine is completely disassembled, this is the time to examine everything critically and up close. It is also the time to deep clean your machine and change out any parts that need it. Anytime I have to break my tattoo machine down it is the rule of thumb to do a deep clean, and I take good care to be thorough, and I think you should be, too.

Note: Once you have your machine tuned and running exactly how you like, do not BREAK it down; BREAK it in and use your fabulously tuned tattoo machine.

Machine now organized in sets as I would reassemble it.

Machine now organized in sets as I would reassemble it.

Wrapping Up

I want to add a few things in case someone has questions. Springs are the toughest part of the tattoo machine for most people to understand. So if anyone has a question about adjusting needle depth or lengthening their machine's stroke, just leave a comment. I will do my best to explain it and provide some photographs of how to bend and cut your own springs. There is a ton of information I left out, but the type of information will be more specific and so will your questions. I look forward to the next lesson and will be talking about dealing with difficult clients.

Thanks for reading!

Same type of tattoo machine above as the disassembled one.

Same type of tattoo machine above as the disassembled one.

Interested In Tattooing? Start Here!

Questions & Answers

Question: What size and gauge springs are used for a color packer, shader, and liner?

Answer: The advanced question as all three are different techniques and usually require different machine settings and even different front and back springs.

Question: Can I plug a regular plug to the wall for a real tattoo gun?

Answer: No, you need electrical regulation or the machine will just blow up and perhaps electrocute you.

© 2012 Jason Goodrow


Riche2guns on July 18, 2017:

I am amazed at how much you have put in. I thank you for your time and consideration for the medium of tattoo. I wish I could have been so lucky to have you girth yrs ago. I started pin poking in the park at age fourteen.I had no idea why I was consumed by the art. I was advanced in art for my age and was laughed at and tossed out of shops. To young.. My hats off to you sir for giving back and maybe you are changing some ones life...

Jason Goodrow (author) from Washington State on November 05, 2015:

Branden, thanks for the read, your in for a good ride there so much to learn but it is well worth it at the end of your journey.

branden on November 05, 2015:

i just started tattooing wouldn't even go far enough to say that, but these articles have given me more information and techniques than a weeks worth of non stop web surfing so i just wanna say thank you and keep doing what your doing any personal advice you can reach me at

Allana Nohra from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia on October 04, 2014:

Hey Jason iv tried to search you under your name and state and it's coming up no results found can u flick me thru a friend request Allana Nohra thanks :)

Jason Goodrow (author) from Washington State on October 01, 2014:

Longview Wa, will narrow it all the way down

Allana Nohra from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia on October 01, 2014:

Hey Jason,

There's a few under that name which one is yours. What's ur dp

Jason Goodrow (author) from Washington State on September 28, 2014:

If you have facebook... then friend me... I would like to look at some of your work... Jason goodrow is who you look for if interested.


Allana Nohra from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia on September 28, 2014:

Thanks heaps. Yeah no worries how do I post them?

Jason Goodrow (author) from Washington State on September 27, 2014:

Ya dark to light as far as color shading goes.... rinse with water between... don't let it dry on the tip of your tube... if you are using magnum shader grouping then you will want to use a forward sweep motion for shading... think of it as a brush stroke... good luck and please post some of your tattooed pig skins would like to see them.


Allana Nohra from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia on September 26, 2014:

Ok awesome thanks Jason I'll look into those machines and also play around with mine. Yeah that's what I meant by practice as much as I can my freezer is full of pig skins iv tattooed, and just want to get my shading technique etc as good as I can. And learn as many different techniques as I can because iv read about so many. Iv only worked with greywash and black so far. But want to start some colour pieces when I get a decent set of colours. I've been told to start from darkest to lightest and to just run the needle threw water to clean in between colours is that correct or?

Jason Goodrow (author) from Washington State on September 26, 2014:

Eikon is a great power supply... my suggestion of course because you are still learning is to get one with a digital display so you can see what voltage you are working with as you run your tattoo machines... seriously I feel personally that Paco Rollins tattoo machines are pretty fair... they are your standard no yoke tattoo machine... not too heavy not too light, all of your adjustments are simply done through your springs... 10 wrap coils is what I use very strong to push heavy needle groups... but again you can adjust your spring tension to soften the punch... as far as being able to tell you if a tattoo machine is good based on what I might read... I am old school and self taught, so what I would say is before you buy it... figure out the machines you have by tearing them apart, putting them back together... also not to bust your balls but hit some pig skin first... at least 80 hours... before anymore human tissue.... consistency and building good habits first, the rest just will fall into place... shading is definitely something every tattoo artist struggled with, and that is because you have to have good tattoo habits, and good ethics. Ok hope this helped!

Hit me if you need more info or have more questions

Allana Nohra from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia on September 26, 2014:

Thanks for replying Jason.

The machines iv got cost me $200 for both but they were second hand iv set them up thanks to your tutorials and they work fine but id like to get my own brand new set and learn how to shade a little better and what needles to use for what look. Iv been looking at a machine on protat it's called a AL13 GALAXIE 11 could you possible tell me if that's any good. I don't mind spending the extra money because my long term goal is to open my own shop one day so may as well spend the money on decent equipment that's going to last rather then the cheaps that give you poor quality and break. Also any suggestions on a decent power supply, I was looking at one by eikon but again not to sure as I don't know much. I was working in a shop for two days learning but I did a few small tatts and he said he didn't want an apprentice I later found out it was because he was worried id take his clients off him. Which is super annoying because apprenticeships Arnt easy to come by. My plan is to just practice as much as I can so I can show a shop decent work, and that I have decent equipment and fingers crossed will get an apprenticeship. My friend has a business license so i can order threw her off American suppliers. Thank you so much for all your advice and help it's hard to come by In this industry

Jason Goodrow (author) from Washington State on September 22, 2014:

Hi there! Eternal are one of several brands I use, I have never used their grey wash I just mix mine during the tattoo. Machines are interesting subject material to talk about, and also important as soon as possible to understand them too. I have been using Paco Rollin tattoo machines for several years now, and some of them are more than ten years old, and work great!. Do not buy any machines that are 50 bucks... cheap most of the time don't work without major overhaul on them. I don't know what the laws are like in Australia but you need most of the time a business license to purchase from American distributors. A fair price in tattoo machines is around 150.00 to 200.00 us dollars.... these are generally made by other tattooists as well. Inks to work with... Starbrite, Eternal, and Waverly for your black lining, shading, and tribal fill. Hope tis helps!


Allana Nohra from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia on September 21, 2014:

Hey how are you I'm new to the tattoo world and have been practicing on some pig skin. Iv been getting my tattoo supplies from protat so I have peace of mind that they are decent quality. Iv bought a grey wash eternal ink pack so far and want to buy a colour pack. Is eternal ink a good brand to use or is there another I should be looking out for. Also the two machines I have I bought off a friend of mine who is a tattooist but they Arnt top quality and are pretty old. I was looking at buying a new liner and shader as I know nothing about machines could you point me in the right direction as to what's a good machine to buy? And where from? Thanks in advance

Jason Goodrow (author) from Washington State on July 18, 2013:

You will see obvious differences in the lines using standard rounds versus tighter grouped needles.

Tighter grouping = finer lines

Good Luck!

Krit on July 18, 2013:

I will definitely keep everything in mind, Can you please tell me other factors that cause the problem that i faced? one factor was the way needle was soldered, and any other factors you can think of that cause uneven lines...

and one more question, I'm currently using 7rl , will switching to 7rlt make any difference? which is better for fine lines?

Jason Goodrow (author) from Washington State on May 23, 2013:

No problem, as far as I'm concerned all questions have some pertinence as long as it is subject oriented not scattered haphazardly. I have seen lots of weird shit happen to tattoo equipment, partially from being cheap, but also from random shit happening I remember tattooing a big piece on a client and we were hit with a power surge, completely fried my power supply, and blew the capacitator up on the tattoo machine I was lining with at the time. Keep in mind I always use a surge protector so the amount of electricity that still traveled far enough to blow my machine up was crazy. Lucky for me I am the avid boy scout and have spares of everything, I tattooed without power off of the dudes battery I was tattooing in fact. But that is a lesson later to discuss. You wont be a rookie long just try to screw up on people you don't know, keep it in the family, and friends. Later guy Good luck!

krk on May 21, 2013:

well I really need to thank you, because i asked this question to a lotta people...but almost everyone bashed me for being a rookie, thank you for the advice really helped me a lot.

Jason Goodrow (author) from Washington State on May 21, 2013:

Yeah you will find those rom time to time, I have bought boxes where they were all like that. Always best to check even the little things. Good catch!

krk on May 21, 2013:

i checked it out and i think i finally got the problem...i think the needle has issues with soldering, i mean when i insert the needle with the loop on the left side....the needle is on top while the bar is down ...i think the bar should be on top and the needle soldered to the bottom ...

Jason Goodrow (author) from Washington State on May 11, 2013:

Ok so the next deal I can think of is check how you are inserting your needle into the tube, the loop of the needle should be on the left side, refer to the images I have on setting up your equipment. I bet you money that it is probably the issue. If your needle is inserted correctly check the solder on the needle, if the solder is riding the back of your tube this will also cause lining issues. Check that out too, a simple error, but one that can cause all types f frustration. Good luck!

krk on May 11, 2013:

thank you for the suggestion i would definitely try to let you know, but i forgot to mention one thing, I currently use 7rl,, and the linesi do don't look like they're done using a 7rl...they look like they're done using a 3rl or it really gets me annoyed you know...i asked a lotta experienced artist..some say i was going to shallow, but that's not the case...the lines get bold then they get thin and sometimes like i said just a bloodline...

Jason Goodrow (author) from Washington State on May 09, 2013:

Seems to me it might your inkwell is getting a little clogged up and the flow ink is impeded from flowing correctly... you need to wipe the tip of your tube to help pull any overloaded ink that is in the well... this may cure the problem right away. Let me know!!!

krk on May 08, 2013:

HI there, this was really helpful, but i'm having a problem, which even my mentor is not able to fix....i've been tattooing for 2 years now and have a steady hand...but recenlty i've got a problem...when i do first my linings are fine and bold...but then it goes bad...not because of my hand but...the lines sometimes are to light or sometimes just a blood line...nomatter how deep i go,...can you it because of the springs???

Jason Goodrow (author) from Washington State on February 25, 2013:

Good deal, keep me posted, and if you can post pics too... this will be a great way to address any issues similar to yours.

Forest on February 25, 2013:

You're awesome man! Thanks! I got my kit today and spent hours getting the tuning down pat. Looking forward to continuing my practice. :)

Jason Goodrow (author) from Washington State on February 25, 2013:

Yes beware, some inks are only for outlining, but listen and this will save you time and frustration. ONE black ink is the only black ink you will use for lining and black fill, and grey wash. If you use starbright ink you will not need to dilute anything. As far as grey wash goes, you can break that down using black ink and water. I usually break it down as such.

3 parts black ink / fill the ink cap the rest of the way with water (this is your light shade)

5 parts water / fill ink cap the rest of the way with water ( this is your medium shade)

all black for your darkest shading.

Hope this helped and thanks for reading!

Forest on February 24, 2013:

I've just spent the last few hours reading and watching more tutorials and had another question regarding shading I was hoping you could answer. I see black outlining ink. I read that this ink is not what you use for shading. I can only find "greywash" ink. What is greywash? is that the standard black shading ink you use for shading?

Do you need to water delute color ink to get it usable for shading?

I'm sorry for the questions, You are the first artist I have come across willing to share their knowledge. It is so much appreciated. I am really serious about getting into this and doing it right.

Forest on February 24, 2013:

Thanks for the info. I just ordered a set of Starbrit Ink, it seems that is what people prefer. Do you have any links to some recommended machines that you think are a good value without being super expensive? What are some good tips to look for when looking for a new gun? Thanks for the quick response. Last thing I wanted to do was get discouraged. I bought a lot of fake skin to practice on so I'm trying to do everything I can to set myself up for success.

Jason Goodrow (author) from Washington State on February 23, 2013:

Unfortunately the quality is not gonna be there. I was telling another fellow here on hubs that those machines tend to be cheap, and only for starter level. I would not suggest tattooing with those machines unless you are using Starbright Ink or Eternal. Lower end brand of inks do not stick and most begginers do not know this and struggle and honestly wind up quitting. So to answer your question you will probably receive 3 liners and 3 shaders and the ink well not a good brand. But with 6 machines you will have plenty of spare parts if somehting goes wrong, LOL which I hope does not and you get great machines for a hell of a good deal. I hope this answered your question, and if you need more info let me know... we can post here for everyone to read.

Thanks again for reading and I appreciate the great commentay.

ripskya on February 15, 2013:

Thanks, I appreciate the input. I was working on a back piece using a 12mag, an dhaving a hard time getting the pink in without over working the skin. I will work further on tuning/adjusting the machine. If I can figure ouy how to attach photos, I will as soon as I can! Thanks!

Jason Goodrow (author) from Washington State on February 14, 2013:

Absolutely, yes a lot does depend on preference, and I know guys that build their own needles which allows them to frame their needle to their specific shading style. Here as a general rule though this is how I learned 7 magnum is about as small as you want to go (you can use curved mags if you like, but I feel there is a little more work involved if you are trying to pack a solid fill.) 9 magnums are great for medium sized pieces and you will still find yourself using your 7 mag to get in the tight hard to reach places of the tattoo. If you are doing a solid piece that has large spaces of solid fill use a 15 magnum. If you find your mahcine dragging and the 15 magnum is not packing the ink your machine will probably need to be upgraded. There are a ton of tricks and your question was broad so I hope this helps.

Thanks for reading and keep me posted... if you have pics of your work and you have questions I am sure I can help.

ripskya on February 13, 2013:

Hi, you asked for some requests... so here goes: do you have any general recommendations (outside of just telling me it's personal preference) on types of shaders, mags, etc to use in various situations?

Jason Goodrow (author) from Washington State on January 30, 2013:

Well lets see what we can do here... interested readers i hope read on this is getting to be good stuff. Friend request acce[ted

Craig B on January 30, 2013:

Ya brother. I'll definitely do some research on the skin. I friend requested you on Facebook and I'll add some photos right away. Thx.

Jason Goodrow (author) from Washington State on January 29, 2013:

Yeah the nickel thick rule does not just apply to the contact point depth, needles hanging out that far when the spring is in full compression it is safe to work to the tube (if this is comfortable for you) I prefer the needle to hang a little further out I have total control of needle depth and grey wash shading this way without having to use a variety of washes. Do some homework too, the dermis has how many layers? What layers are safe to tattoo? What is staph infection? (tattoo related). Theses are some good questions to turn your mind on in a mechanical way. Don't know if this helps

Craig B on January 28, 2013:

I'll keep working away trying new things. So everyone says that shader needles should be a nickel width out the end of the tube. Is that what you recommend? If I have that much needle hanging do I put my tube against the skin inserting my needle that deep, or work more off the tips like lining? I guess what im asking is when you say I might not be going deep enough, how deep should i go? I'll also get some pics for you to look at on Facebook. Once again, thanks.

Jason Goodrow (author) from Washington State on January 27, 2013:

yeah mags are the way... could be the stretch... also when tattiing yourself you might subconsciously not getting deep enough into the skin, I did it, learned from my mistakes, also when using mags you sweep the machine away from you in a brushing motion.

Let me know man

Craig B on January 27, 2013:

My line work is good. I am using a liner for lining and a shader for shading. They're not high end machines by any means but they're alright. I've had little success using magnums. I've tried bug pin, curved, , 7s, 9s and can't seem to get them to work. I've had more success with flats but even they are not great. When I'm tattooing myself I always try to get a good stretch but maybe I'm not stretching enough?! I will get set up on Facebook and send you some pics. Thanks jason, I really appreciate your time!

Jason Goodrow (author) from Washington State on January 25, 2013:

So... how is your line work? What type of ink are you using? Are you using a liner to line with and are you using a shader to shade with? Also what type of shader are you using (7 magnum, 9 magnum, 15 magnum) or are you using round shader to shade with. Also when you are tattooing yourself, it is much more difficult to get the 3 point stretch that is needed to pack the ink in correctly, lining or shading. Request as friend on FB and post some pics of your equipment and ink for me, and the tattoo you just did... that may help me to help you.

Craig B on January 25, 2013:

Hey Jason. I'm having a hard time getting a good solid black to go into the skin. I've tried different spring tensions like you suggested, different voltages and different speeds. I'm wondering if in your experience, you've come across any tips or things I could try to get that smooth black. I can get it in there but it's blotchy as it heals and I really have to work it in so I end up shredding myself. Anything you can think of that might help as I'm getting quite frustrated. Thanks again.

Craig B on January 19, 2013:

Thanks a lot Jason.

Jason Goodrow (author) from Washington State on January 18, 2013:

The rear suspension is difficult to explain and as far as breaking out a machine scematic to show degrees and pitches is not something I can do either, but here is my speel. The less the pitch on which your rear spring sits on the softer your punch is ... this is one of the things that differentiates shaders and liners... another thing is, the tension in the rear spring helps control the stroke of your machine. A thing to do is get some 18 gauge tin and make a couple springs. You need a set of tin snips straight cut prefered a pair of pliers and a fine file to smooth your cuts out. You have a template already, the spring on your machine... so just match one up cut it out, put it on and see how it works... As far as black shading goes I was always taught speed your shade up a bit for grey wash work, but when packing black your approach is just like color work.

Let me know and good luck thanks for reading good question for everyone to pay attention to.

Craig B on January 17, 2013:

I do have a couple of things. Firstly, do you have any tips on figuring out a good rear spring tension. In what I'm reading it seems quite important in the running of the machine yet there is little information of how to tell if you have the tension correct. Secondly, when packing solid black should I run the machine soft like a shader or harder, more like I would for packing color? Thanks bro.

Jason Goodrow (author) from Washington State on January 17, 2013:

I will but as life has it right now I have been real busy but many things come to mind about what to share so if you have something in particular you would like to address then ask away I will do what I can to provide some answers for you. Thanks for reading and remember to refer bacxk to the lessons if you need to.

Thanks again,


Craig B on January 17, 2013:

Hey Jason. My name is Craig. I am just learning to tattoo and I stumbled upon your lessons. I just wanted to says thanks for taking the time to share your expertise. Will you continue to post lessons or other articles on tattooing? Thanks again.