Machine frames are made out of cast iron, copper, brass, bronze, stainless steel, and aluminum. Each weighs differently and each has a different level of electrical conductivity which affects the strength of your machine. The weight of your machine will come from the frame so you need to decide what kind of machine you will be running. Cast iron frames are molten metal poured into a cast for the shape. Cast iron machines are made of one piece while machines that the side arm is attached with screws are called bolt on frames. Most machines frames are made from a piece of metal cut into shape then welded together and ground smooth. Cast frames can be made of any type of metal but the most common cast are iron. Cast frames are very heavy. Heavy machines can be good because they make really smooth lines. The weight of the machine help to hold it steady, but your hand will tire out really fast. So they are great for little tattoos or for a lining session, but for the long haul you may want to consider stainless or copper which are much lighter so you will have a longer dexterity. Weight of the machine will affect many things like hand cramps and back pain while tattooing. If your back is constantly hurting during a tattoo then switch to a lighter frame. Brass is right in the center of cast and stainless. Aluminum in my opinion is the worst thing to make a machine out of. It is so light that you can't really hold it steady because you feel every vibration, and they sound like your going to cut off the arm of your client, they are really loud. The less Metal on a machine frame the better. Less weight equals more tattooing. If you can find a barebones cast frame without all the dragons and yin-yang's on it them you might have a good machine. I use a copper machine most of the time due to its light weight and strong conductivity. Why is conductivity important? When you have a stronger electronic signal then you have a stronger stroke (the motion of the needle). This means smooth lines and flawless shading.
Tattoo supply companies make frames with all kinds of designs on them like dragons and skulls but this makes the machine heavy and run not so smoothly. They look cool but are otherwise useless. The extra weight will damage your hand in the long run. What you need to be looking for when you pick out a machine is weight, balance, and quality. If you buy a fifty dollar machine you are going to get a fifty dollar machine. For a good machine average cost is about two to three hundred dollars and average weight is between seven and eight ounces. Lighter machines weigh about six ounces and most cast machines are over ten. This doesn't sound like a lot but after and hour or more, it's a mile. The down side to copper and brass is unlike stainless, besides regular cleaning you have to polish away all of the tarnish about twice a month. They get black pretty quick. Another thing you may have noticed about machine frames is that they all have different tube vices (the part that locks in the tube). All of them are pretty affective so none is really better than another. If it uses a piece of metal that screws down on the tube then it's called a tube vice. If it's a curved part of the frame with a separate piece of metal pulling up then it a guillotine, and a frame cut in two that squeezes is a quick lock.
The Armature Bar and Spring Assembly
The rest of the machine is pretty simple. Above the coils you have the armature bar. This is a rectangular piece of metal that has a screw hole in one side and a small shaft sticking out of the other. The small shaft it called an armature nipple. This is where you put the grommet and then the needle loop attaching the needle to the machine. The armature bar is the piece that the coil heads magnetically attract making the oscillating motion. A cool trick I have used for years it to take the bottom of you're armature bar and apply two layers of masking tape. Trim the masking tape with a razor to the exact size to the armature bar. Never use more than two layers because the machine will loose its magnetic pull and weaken the stroke. The application of the masking tape does three things. It quiets down the machine because it acts like a damper between the armature bar and the coils heads. It protects the armature bar against unnecessary ware, and it also acts like another shock absorber smoothing out the performance of your machine. It's amazing what a difference it makes. Most commonly the armature bars sold on the market are made from cold rolled steel and are nickel plated.
Some have been made of many materials but this seems to have little effect on the performance of a machine. Most commonly, armature bars weight about thirteen grams and are 1 3/8 inches long, 3/8 of an inch wide and 1/16 or an inch thick. The armature nipple or armature pin is around 1/8 of an inch thick and 1/4 to 3/16 of an inch long. Armature bars are also threaded with an 8-32 thread pattern. There are a few different shapes of armature bars out there. The most standard is a rectangle shape. Though many shapes have been experimented with over the years they have all come to one conclusion. A lighter bar if faster and a heavier bar in slower. The addition of weight means that the gap closing time is longer, more weight to move. Faster is better for lining where slower movement is better for shading. Basically, the job of the armature bar is to hold the needle loop and establish the speed of the machine, not to be confused with strength.
Attached to the armature bar and the frame are the springs. The back spring is the spring that attaches the armature bar to the frame. The front spring is attached to the armature bar but on top of the back spring, and is the point of contact for the contact screw. This is the one that sticks upward. The back spring is usually on the armature bar first, then the front spring, washer, and last the screw head. Some artist do prefer to place the front spring on the armature bar first then the back spring. Just keep in mind that placing the front spring on the armature bar first will lower your spring assembly the width of the spring its' self. The front spring combined with the armature bar will establish the speed at which the machine will run. The back spring will determine the strength in which the machine will hit and basically determine the efficiency at which the front spring functions. There are many different gauges of springs, and what you use will determine how your machine works. I can't just say "use this" because it's something you will have to determine by what works best for you. A stiffer or hard front spring will only stay closed (the amount of time it touches the contact screw) for a short time while a lighter of softer front spring will stay closed longer. The softer more flexible front spring has bowing effect when it hits the contacts screw. As it hits it will flex to a certain point, then it has to flex the exact same amount before disengaging from the contact screw. This causes a longer closed time. So you can see that a stiffer spring has less flex therefore less time closed.
The average measurement of the front spring is 1 V inches tall, V inch wide, and is tapered from V inch up the spring to the tip. So the taper will be 1 inch long leaving a spring base of V inch. The taper makes the front spring more flexible allowing for the proper closed time, it also acts like a buffer allowing the smoother operation of the machine. The front spring screw hole should be drilled at 5/16 on an inch from the bottom and centered. Most front springs will come flat from the supplier so you will have to but a bend in it yourself. There are two methods of though on this subject. The first is called rolling. This is where you bend the spring using just your fingers. Rolling leaves no clear line of angle so it is impossible to get the proper angel of bend every time. The second method is creasing. This is strongly recommended. The easiest way of doing this is by taking a pair of pliers and grabbing the back by the fork (where the screw goes). Make sure your grip is a little toward the tip, or in front of the fork. Level the pliers to the back and slightly bend upward. The crease should be exactly V of an inch forward leaving 1 inch bent. You want a bend of 15 degrees for the best performance. You can measure the degree with a simple protractor. The back spring is measured V inch wide, 1 V inch tall, and will have two holes measured at 5/16 and 1 1/16 of an inch from the bottom. The back spring will have no taper. Once the back spring is attached to the armature bar and the spring saddle on the frame, you will have to bend the back spring to give a 4mm air gap from the bottom of the armature bar to the top of the front coil. This must be 4mm without anything touching the front spring; it should stand at 4mm on its own. Sometimes there isn't enough room for the armature bar to move away from the coils heads. This can be fixed by putting a thin washer between the spring saddle and the back spring. This will provide a better backpressure for the stroke of the machine.
The measured distance of the back spring once on the machine is actually the distance from the armature bar to the spring saddle; this is because this is the only section of spring that will be flexible do to the rest being tightened down to the machine. Really, to get the best operation of a tattoo machine, the armature bar, front spring and back spring should be view as one component simple because the three part working together is the basic function of the machine, and all three parts have to work in unison. Some examples of voltage versus spring gauge in my opinion.
Rear Spring Coil .015
Front Spring .013 shading .014 shading .016 shading
.022 (standard) .019
.019 (standard) .019
to A Bar gap 3mm
Darker lining Softer lining
When putting this assembly together, remember that the easiest way to make sure its set right is to look inside the tube hole back at the armature nipple, kind of like a gun sight. The armature nipple should be the full length of the hole. If you see more of the armature bar then you need to move the armature bar closer to the spring saddle or the back spring closer to the spring saddle. Sometimes you need to adjust both to get it just right. Make sure that your armature bar is directly over top of your coils head as well, if it's a little to the right or left the needle bar will rub the side of the tube causing the needle to shake. You can also make an armature adjustment tool by cutting a slot wide enough for the armature nipple in the end of an old or unused tube. Then slide the cut tube into the vice, all the way to the armature bar till the armature nipple fits in the slot.
The circular piece of rubber that is on the armature bar is called an o ring. This is a needed piece although a lot of artist removes it. The o ring pulls back on the front spring making it push up with a little more force. It also works as another shock absorber cutting down on the feed back as the front spring hit's the contact screw. When new from the factory the o ring is under the front spring and stretched back to the screw holding the armature bar, front spring, and back spring together. This is fine, but I find that it works just a little smoother if you go the opposite direction and stretch it to the back of the armature bar. Figure out which works best for you, either of the two will work just fine. After many debates with collogues, I have determined two things. First, many artist don't use o rings. Second, I personally think they are important for the proper tuning and operation of the machine. So, I guess this is a matter of opinion. Find what works best for you.
The Rest of the Machine
The front binding post is the entire assembly that holds your contact screw, and the rear binding post is opposite the spring saddle. One side of your clip cord will go into the little hole in the spring saddle, while the other fits into the rear binding post. The contact screw is the long screw that sticks out the top of the machine. Contact screws are most commonly made from silver, steel, and brass. Silver provides the best solution. Brass and steel are harder metals so they will provide more wear and tear over the term of operation. They will spark a lot more than sliver; this causes the contact screw to eat through the front spring requiring more replacement. Sliver is by far my personal choice. Less spark, less damage, and smoother operation of the machine. What the contact screw does is tune the machine by threading it in or out, closing the distance the armature bar needs to travel. This alters the speed of the machine. The set screw holds the contact screw in place once adjusted. Set screws are made from brass, steel, cooper, and plastic. When threaded tightly it applies pressure to the side of the contact screw locking it in place. I strongly recommend plastic because it will not damage the threads on the contact screw. This is very important if you are using a sliver contact screw because the threads will be softer and easier to damage.
Another thing you will notice is a small capacitor wired between the rear binding post and the front binding post. The job of this capacitor is to absorb loose energy with the intent on making your machine run more smoothly. Basically it's a filter. Most of the time this will be a 35v x 47mf capacitor, but you can change the rating to better fit your machine. This is something you'll just have to play around with to see what fits best for you. What is a capacitor? A capacitor is made from is a ceramic cylinder with a wire coming out at each end or side by side. A smaller capacitor will make the machine run faster because it cannot store as much energy. Think of it like a glass of water, you pour the water in till it overflows, now use a smaller cup. Capacitors are measured in microfiads which is what the "uf" stands for. Most commonly 47uf 35v or 47uf 63v are used for liners and 100uf 35v or 100uf 25v are used for shaders.
Now, the most complicated part of a machine for students to understand is the shoulder washers. Shoulder washers are plastic washers that separate the electrical wiring from the frame. The frame of a tattoo machine is its own ground, so the wire harness should never touch the frame. If you turn on your machine and the armature bar goes down and stays down then you have something touching you're frame. Here is and easy way to remember where they go. The only parts of the machine that should touch the frame are the coil shafts and your back spring at the spring saddle. Everywhere else should have a pair of shoulder washers (both binding posts). There are two places, so that means four plastic washers, one on each side of the frame. The front binding post should be set screw, contact screw housing, washer, solder lug, shoulder washer, frame, shoulder washer, washer, and screw. The rear binding post should be similar with the rear binding post, washer, solder lug bent to hold rubber bands, shoulder washer, frame, shoulder washer, washer, and screw. The grommet is a small piece of rubber that sits between the needle loop and the nipple. Its purpose is to hold the needle in place on the machine and act as a shock absorber to smooth out the way the machine feels.
For machine cleaning the entire machine should be disassembled. You want to rubber band the coils together. If you move them too much you will weaken the coil wires until they break. Lay every part of the machine on a paper towel then spray with your bleach and water mix. Let them soak for about a minute to ensure and viruses are killed. After soaking, clean every part of the machine with a paper towel and rubbing alcohol. Make sure to get all of the bleach off because it will make your machine rust. Remove any rust or rough surfaces with a high grit sandpaper such as 2000 grit. Use the same sand paper to polish your coil heads and tip of your contact screw. I personally prefer a buffing wheel, like you find on a grinder. If any screw or washers have any rust on them, then you need to replace them. Apply new masking tape on the armature bar, if you choose. Then reassemble your machine. Be careful not to force any of the screws, you don't want to strip them or scar up the metal. Always use the proper tools, if you try to force something or rig up something that doesn't belong there, you will damage something.
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