The tattoo machine has evolved by leaps and boundssince O’Reilly, Riley and South invented the first three iterations of the rotarty and coil tattoo machines. Coil tattoo machines are no longer so heavy that they have to be suspended from the ceiling to be operable, like South’s first double-coil tattoo machine was. Rotary tattoo machines are even more advanced and represent some of the quietest, gentlest tattoo machines available today. Let’s take a look at what makes these two types of modern-day tattoo machines tick.
COIL VS. ROTARY TATTOO MACHINES
Rotary and coil tattoo machines operate in two different ways to achieve the same goal of inserting ink beneath the surface of the skin (i.e. epidermis) and depositing it into the secondary layer of skin, called the dermis. On a rotary tattoo machine, the needle bar is attached to a nub on top of a cylindrical motor that spins clockwise, moving the needle bar back and forth in a linear fashion as the motor rotates (see image to right). That motion inserts tattoo needles into the skin and retracts them smoothly, in a series of constant, fluid motions. Coil tattoo machines work quite differently, in a much more complicated fashion. They utilize electromagnetic current to create and break a circuit in a cyclical fashion, moving the needles attached to the machine forward into the skin when the circuit is created and retracting them when the circuit breaks.
When power is delivered to a coil tattoo machine, the two coils are charged and turned into an electromagnet (see image below). The electromagnet created by the coils pulls the machine’s armature bar down towards the coils, which subsequently forces the attached tattoo needles down and into the skin. The downward motion of the armature bar pulls the front spring down with it and causes the spring to disconnect from the contact screw above it that a second before had completed a circuit. That break in the circuit causes the electromagnetic field to collapse momentarily, releasing the armature bar from the coils. The spring attached to the armature bar wants to move back to its natural position, and it pulls the armature bar up with it. When the front spring reconnects with the contact screw, the circuit and electromagnetic field are re-established. That starts the process all over again, pulling the armature bar back down, forcing the attached needles into the skin, pulling the front spring away from the contact screw, and breaking the circuit once more.
The way a coil machine is powered creates a hammer-like effect that drives tattoo needles into the skin more forcefully than they’d be moved by a rotary motor. There’s constant power delivered to a rotary motor that keeps it moving in a fluid, clockwise pattern, pushing needles into the skin and pulling them back out more smoothly. Rotary tattoo machines therefore tend to be gentler on the skin, and tattoos created with rotary tattoo machines often heal faster and with less scarring — particularly when inked by novice tattoo artists. That said, if you love the buzz of tattoo machines that’s traditionally associated with tattoo shops, then a coil tattoo machine is the option for you — particularly if you’re an experienced artist who can manage a coil machine with finesse. Rotary machines are incredibly quiet by comparison, and there are fewer moving parts involved, which means they’re typically more low-maintenance than traditional coil machines.
TATTOO MACHINE BRANDS & MODELS
Once you’ve decided that you want either a coil or a rotary tattoo machine, it’s time to take a closer look at the tattoo machine brands and models available to you. The following list contains some of the top options offered on PainfulPleasures.com. For a comprehensive list of the tattoo machines available to you, please visit our Tattoo Machines section. You can also read our full Coil vs. Rotary Tattoo Machines article for more in-depth details about the brands listed below, rotary and coil tattoo machine diagrams, and additional information about the differences between these two types of tattoo machines.
Baltimore Street Irons Coil Tattoo Machines – This Pennsylvania-based tattoo machine company was established by Charles “Trey” Freeland in 2007, but Trey’s been making tattoo machines since 1996 and he still has an active role in all areas of his business. Every Baltimore Street Irons coil tattoo machine is crafted with great skill and dedication. All the machine parts and tattoo machines they manufacture are thoroughly tested and come tuned so they’re ready to use right out of the box.
Bishop Rotary Tattoo Machines – These 4 oz. rotary tattoo machines are so perfectly balanced that they feel practically weightless in your hands. They alleviate wrist pain and symptoms of carpel tunnel syndrome, and allow artists to work faster and longer. Each Bishop Rotary machine comes with a Swiss Maxon motor encased in billet aircraft-grade aluminum. This machine utilizes a needle clip instead of the traditional rubber band setup, eliminating unwanted needle motion. Each Bishop Rotary tattoo machine is hand-assembled and guaranteed for life.
Borg Coil Tattoo Machines – These traditional coil tattoo machines are handmade with care in the USA. Borg tattoo machines are known for their lightweight, single-piece aluminum frames, which make these machines light overall and incredibly well-balanced. Each component of every machine is hand-crafted in Borg’s workshops, from their 8 wrap coils to their silver contact screws. Both Borg liners and shaders weigh in at just 5.5 oz. each, making them easy to maneuver while you tattoo.
Cheyenne Hawk Rotary Tattoo Machines – The Cheyenne Hawk Thunder and Spirit are two of the lightest tattoo machines on the market, weighing in at roughly 3.9 oz. (110g) each with their grips attached. Cheyenne Hawk tattoo machines provide all the benefits of rotary machines without sacrificing the feedback response inherent in coil tattoo machines, and their fine craftsmanship gives artists the highest level of control. They’re lightweight and flexible, and they have long-life ball-bearing motors. You can use these dynamic rotary machines with nearly any conventional power supply.