In the tattooing industry, the individual needles are referred to as pins. There are a few different types of pins, and each configuration again, does something different. The needles used in tattoo originated from bug pins, sewing machine needles, and beading needles. Each of these of these types have different tips and sharpness. The most common metal used for tattooing is 304 stainless steel wire with a diameter of .33mm to .36mm and an average length of 30mm, each type can be polished or left course. 304 grade stainless steel is normally preferred due to its stronger resistance to corrosion. The polished pins are a little smoother so they don't over work the skin as bad. The course pins are fairly new; the idea is that leaving the needles a little course will help put the pigment under the skin. I have not used this myself, but I have heard many good reports. You can also fine pins made from carbon, these I do not recommend. The carbon is hard to work with and almost impossible to autoclave without specific carbon friendly autoclaving equipment. Running carbon needles in a standard autoclave will result in tarnishing or even rusting.
The difference in the needle tips play a major roll in what function the needle grouping has to offer. The distance in angle of the cut for each pin varies from company to company, but the average angle length of the point is about .9mm to 1.2mm for shading and 1.7mm to 1.9mm for lining. For the sewing needle, the heel is (assuming it's a .9mm point length) .9mm. this means that it will have a completely tapered point. The taper or heel, is where the angle to a point begins to decline from the shaft diameter. The Bug pin is a half taper, if its point is .9mm then the heel would be about .6mm leaving a somewhat rounded point but still sharp at the tip. The beading needle will have a .3mm heel giving it the steepest slope of the three. All three have many ups and downs. Shorter point lengths will be better suited for color and fill work, while a longer point length will be better suited for lining. A small point will enter the exact diameter of the pin into the skin resulting in more fill. A longer point length will produce a smaller fill because it will only go about half way up the point length into the skin. I personally prefer bug pin for my portrait work. They help to achieve a smoother shade, while I prefer the sewing type for lining. The sewing type, seem to give me a cleaner outline. The major disadvantage to the sewing type is that the point is thinner so it's easier to damage if accidentally struck against the ink cap. This is referred to as hooking because it actually makes the needle tip bend in the shape of a hook. If a needle is hooked then it will cause tremendous damage to the skin. This is why many artists preach to dip into your pigment without the machine running, sort of a safe guard. These are just a few examples of pin sizes; there are many different types available from many different supply companies.
The standard sizes for needle groupings are rounds, flats, stacked mags and standard mags that are also known as weaved mags. With rounds the individual needles are soldered together in a round shape, this makes a smooth line, and is also fair to shade with larger rounds such as a 14 round. Flats are soldered one beside the other in a flat pattern. This is strictly a shading tool. It also requires some practice. If you go to slow or at the wrong angle you may just cut the client like an electric scalpel instead of tattooing them. Mags are some of my favorite configurations. They are oscillating needles. This means that if you stack up four soda cans on a bottom row and then three on the top like your making a pyramid, this is the shape they are in. they only come in two rows but get very large. They are the best for coloring and grey shading in my opinion. The difference between a weaved mag and a stacked mag is that a mag is soldered with all of the needles flat then using a single edge razor, every other one in lifted then re soldered onto place. A stacked mag is where two rows are soldered then the rows are soldered one on top of the other. This means that stacked mags are a little smaller looking because the pins are closer together. They do a great job with solid coverage and they don't tear up the client as long as you show moderation. They require a little practice also before you really see what they can do. I use them exclusively for my portrait work with the exception of a 5round or three round for detail such as an individual hair or the inside of an eye.
The standard sizes rounds come in are singles, threes, fives, eights, and fourteens. Flats go from 4 to 24, usually in even numbers. Mags go from seven to thirteen pin, usually in odd numbers. These are the standard sizes though not the only ones, Different companies make all different sizes, so there will always be larger sizes in the quest for the ultimate cure for penis envy. However it has been my experience that eight rounds are the best for lining. The make the smoothest line with the least effort. You do want to use a five or a three for really small or thin lined tattoos, and singles are only good for things like single strands of hair on a portrait. That's unless you like going over line five times to get them thick enough to see. I personally never use flats, just never liked how they felt. Seven mags are passed down from the gods for color and grey wash. A seven mag is probably the most versatile needle out there. Most of the times I can go two weeks and never need anything but eight rounds and seven mags. Rounds also have another option, loose or tight. Loose means the needles are spread a little more apart, this is good for shading. Tights are a little closer for finer lines. I stick with regular and do both lining and shading with them. The way loose or tight is done during production is with a needle jigging tool. You would solder the needles in the back grouped together to make the standard grouping, then use a single edge razor blade to separate the pins for a loose, and use a tightening tool on the needle jig to get them closer together to get a tight. The taper on the needle point allows for more room, they can be pushed together, then once in position, re-solder to hold the pattern.
An advantage of the plastic tubes is that the grips are poorly glued on, this is good. Every ones hands are different. You can twist the grip on the tube until the glue breaks and move it up or down so you can hold the machine more comfortably. They hold strong enough that they won't go any where once you moved them. Some of the disposable tubes are made with a grip and tube out of one piece, these are not comfortable to use. The hard grips hurt your hand after a while. You should look for the ones with the different color grips per each size. Just like anything, the tubes come in all different sizes and shapes as well as metal or plastic. Make sure to order the corresponding tube for the needles you will be using. Lining tubes come in round and diamond tipped. Diamonds are great because you have no needle play. The bottom of the tube where the needle will ride is a v-shaped hole, allowing the needle to sit right where it needs to be. Another artist a few years ago taught me the right and left side of the diamond tip can be used as a sight when running your needle flush. These points guide you when you can no longer see the needle do to excess pigment. If you order an eight round tube and try to use a three it will jump everywhere and your lines will look like a three year old did them with a crayon. You can order and eight diamond and comfortably use three's, fives, eights and fourteen rounds without them wandering away. Some of the larger mag tubes have an open top all the way back to allow for needle insertion. With larger mags the needle head is bigger that the diameter of the tube so I guess it was a quick fix. The grip is just as important as your tube. There are many shapes and sizes of grips as well. I got use to using the standard size which is 1/2 inch. They make grips up to two inches in diameter. The bigger the grip the less control you have but the more comfortable it is in my opinion, but every one is different. The smaller the grip the more your hand gets tired, but you have more control. So you need to find a balance that works for you. If you're not sure of what size to use then stick with standard till you get use to things.
I do not recommend metal tubes unless you are in a shop environment and have a tested auto-clave available for every day use. Metal tubes are configured in the same way with the tips and sizes. The only difference in the metal tubes other then weight and killing your client is that some of them come in three pieces. The tube shaft, a tip, and a grip are all separate. The screws of the grip hold the tip on the tube shaft. The reason some do this is so you can buy a large stock of shafts and order what tips you need, this does make it easier for cleaning. Did I mention the disposables just throw away? In all fairness to metal tubes, they do seem to be better for grey wash and realism tattoos. Really, I'm kind of torn on the issue and often use both depending on what I am doing for the day.
To properly clean a tube you need to take it apart as much as you can. Then you have to soak it in an ultrasonic machine. This is a machine that uses sound and vibration to loosen any particles of blood and pigment. You don't need this if you use disposable. After an hour of soaking you clean the inside of the tube with a metal set of pipe cleaners that are made just for tattooing. You can buy them from any supply catalog for about five bucks. Make sure to clean the inside of the tip very well. Then you use a plastic nail brush to clean the outside. Make sure to hold the brush so the bristles are down. If you don't then soap will get in your eyes, remember they are not sterilized at this point yet. When you use the pipe cleaners and the brush you need to use undiluted green soap. Get a small cup of it so you don't contaminate the whole jug. As you clean them one at a time, rinse them off well and place them on a paper towel to air dry. By the time you get done, only a few should still be wet.
Place them in a properly sized sterilization pouch and seal it by removing the strip on the adhesive and folding the lip closed like an envelope. After all of your tubes are in the pouches date and initial the pouches then set them aside for autoclaving. Piercing clamps are cleaned the exact same way. I can't stress enough that if the dirty water gets in your gloves you have a seventy five percent chance of getting a disease, and disposables are, you guessed it, thrown away.
The biggest down side of metal tubes is that they are almost impossible to properly clean. The needle head will wear on the end of the tip leaving small scratches and grooves in the metal. These are perfect housings for bacteria. Even after autoclaving you can still have disease if any biological matter is left in the tube. The three piece tubes have a seam in them where the tip attaches to the tube. Both pieces are held together by the metal grip. This seam is not water tight. To properly clean these tubes you have to take them apart all the way which almost no artist does. If you don't then while you tattoo, water or pigment with blood and disease will get in this seam and give I nice healthy coating of nasty under the grip. There is no way a brush can get under the grip to clean it. Even after autoclaving if biological matter exists on under the tube then the client is contaminated as soon as you dip the tube in your water.
Frame and Upper Frame arm
Front Spring ^^
Capacitor y\ >
Tube Vice ftear Spring
. Spring Saddle
I would like to touch on the subject of home made tattoo machines. A home made tattoo machine is a very nasty thing. They are made from a pen shaft and an electric motor. Do not ever let anyone tattoo on you with a home made tattoo machine. You can not properly sterilize a home made tattoo machine. Holding something under a lighter or boiling it does not work. Letting some Scratcher dig on you is suicide. I am strongly opposed to tattooing out of you're house, but if you have to you can buy a tattoo machine online for about fifty bucks. Don't be a jackass, and don't listen to the guys that use to tattoo in jail for smokes.
Another thing I would like to clear up is that a tattoo machine is never or has it ever been a gun. The term tattoo gun is a Scratcher term and shows you know little about the subject. The tattoo machine is amazingly simple. It's nothing more than a switch and as complicated as a door bell. The idea is that electricity flows through the coils causing them to become magnetized. This makes the armature bar pull forward to the coil surfaces breaking contact with the contact screw. This turns off the circuit so there is no longer electricity flowing through the coils. Now there is no magnetism to hold the armature bar and the spring pulls it back into contact with the screw completing the circuit and causing it to start all over again.
This is where the tattoo machine gets its movement and the signature hum that you hear is really just the armature bar hitting the coil heads and contact screw. There are a few different types of machines. Cast iron, copper, brass, stainless steel, and aluminum are what the frames are usually made of and each does something different. There are many different shapes and colors as well as many different companies that make them. Tattoo machines are one of the dirtiest parts of any shop, so handle with gloves and wash your hands.
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