Thursday, October 30, 2014

Changes in Intenze Tattoo Ink Packaging

 I use a mix of tattoo inks from a number of trusted manufacturers.  One of those companies is Intenze, the ink I used while learning to tattoo.  What I like about Intenze is its consistency (a word that will make or break a tattoo artist, as those who read my posts have probably noticed), you can count on Intenze to consistently deliver quality, long-lasting ink.  Their reputation is so well known that counterfeit inks have found their way to the market.  The situation is bad enough that Intenze felt it necessary to respond with a video advisory.

 A legitimate bottle of Intenze Ink has several things that separate it from imitators.  The bottle cap is clear with a black base.  The bottle itself is made of a hard plastic that is difficult to squeeze.  The bottle has a letter "M" (Mario Barth's logo, one of the pioneers of tattoo ink manufacturing) stamped on the bottom.  Most importantly, the bottles have a protective foil seal letting you know the ink has not be tampered with since the bottle was produced.

 The last six bottles of Intenze that I had purchased all came this way, so I was surprised when I received a bottle of Dark Purple Intenze Ink which had none of these earmarks of legitimacy.  The bottle has an all black cap, is far softer than the other bottles of Intenze, has no "M" stamped on it, and (most disconcerting), has no internal foil seal.

 I had received this bottle from a trusted supplier, Element Tattoo Supply, who I had nothing but positive exchanges with in the past.  In fact, they are on the Intenze List of Authorized Dealers, so it was more than odd to receive a product that everything told me was a fake.  When I reached out to them, they informed me that Intenze was changing over to this new bottle.

 I found that hard to believe.  This bottle was everything that Intenze warned us not to trust, or so it seemed.  I immediately reached out to Intenze about the bottle, and had some exchanges with Christine Brown, who informed me that Intenze was in fact switching to a new bottle.  She herself was not certain of all the details, but she promised to have someone to reach out to me.

 The person who finally clarified all of this was James McLaughlin, Marketing Director of Intenze.  James confirmed for me the change to the new type of bottle which is based on feed-back from other artists, and relieved my greatest concern about the bottle lacking an internal seal.

 The new bottles are improved in a couple of significant ways.  They are softer, which makes them easier to squeeze.  This is important when the bottle gets about half-full and you are in the middle of a tattoo trying to squeeze the ink into an ink-cap while wearing cloves.  The other improvement is the cap.  The bottle lacks on internal safety seal, but now has a cap with two built-in seals.  The entire cap comes off after breaking one seal, while the funnel opens after break the second.  The seals are similar to those found on quarts of milk, but made of a far sturdier plastic that cracks open when the cap or funnel is twisted. 

 The roll-out of the new bottle appears to be gradual, meaning that for a time both types of caps will be available on the market.  Along with the new cap, always check the bottle's ingredients (no phosphates are used in Intenze ink), confirm that it has the Intenze address, no bar code, and that you are purchasing the ink from an authorized dealer.  It is always worth the effort to verify the source of your supplies, both to protect your customers and yourself.

Jason Sorrell is a writer, tattoo artist, satirist, artist, and generally nice guy living in Austin, TX.  He loves answering questions about tattoos.  Shoot him a message at

Friday, October 24, 2014

Top Ten Weird Tattoo Requests

 When sitting through a tattoo session that lasts for hours, clients often look for something (ANYTHING) to distract them from the process.  Inevitably, questions are asked about tattooing and the industry; it is a mystery to most people and you have a tattoo artist on hand, so why not?  A question I get asked frequently is "What is the weirdest thing you have been asked to tattoo?"  I create some tattoo designs that are a little out there, which I am certain inspires this particular question.  For the curious, the following are my current top ten things I have been requested to tattoo that I thought were a little weird:

 Number 10: The Inside-Out Tattoo

 This one was not so much weird as challenging.  The client wanted a particular geometric design that had some spiritual significance.  When the design is drawn properly, it is drawn from the center outward.  Tattoos are generally done from one lower corner to the opposite upper corner to maintain the stencil.  The client wanted the tattoo executed in accordance to the traditional ritual.  Thankfully, it was a relatively small tattoo.

 Number 9: The Lesson Not Learned Tattoo

 I had a young lady come in with her significant other.  The plan (or, rather, HER plan, because the guy was less than enthusiastic), was to get tattoos together with one another's name.  The weird part was that she still had her ex-boyfriend's name tattooed on her.  It made me think of the Steve Martin film, "The Jerk", where the girl has so many names tattooed on her that Martin's character compares his name being on her like his name being in the phone book.  Not so much weird as amusing.  If you would like to read why getting that special someone's name tattooed is a bad idea, check out this post.

 Number 8: The Lost Bet

 A couple of college guys; one white and the other black, came into the shop for a tattoo.  The two had made a wager and the white guy lost.  As a result, he now has "100% Cracker" tattooed in Old English script across his abdomen.  I shudder to think what the black guy would have gotten if he lost.

*Update: The owner of this tattoo has reached out to me and advised that I remembered the incident incorrectly.  While I recall that he did get the tattoo with one of his buddies in tow, he had not lost a bet, and apparently the other guy was not black (his term for a gentleman of the African persuasion was far less kind).  While I recall that they both found this tattoo concept hilarious, it appears that there was no wager.  The guy just wanted this tattoo. Stay classy, my friends.

 Number 7: The Sore Loser

 Speaking of lost bets, early in my career a woman came into the shop requesting a tattoo behind her ear.  She was clearly a woman of some means used to having her way, the type of girl who talks-down to nearly everyone she interacts with.  She wanted a letter 'A' tattooed behind her ear, but she didn't seem happy at all about the idea.  When I finally asked her why she didn't seem excited about getting the tattoo, she informed me that she had lost a bet with an "asshole" at work, and it was his initial that she was required to get tattooed.

 She did not leave a tip.

 Number 6:  Clearly I Have Made Poor Choices

 Is the tattoo weird?  Yes, but I love it.  This was another lost bet a friend of mine made with his Kung Fu instructor.  For losing, my friend was required to get a dolphin wearing a sombrero.  I added the mustache and bandoleer to the design, and I think the phrase was his own.

 Number 5:  The Banana Crew

 We had a group of guys, like five guys, all come into the shop at once requesting banana tattoos.  My guy wanted a sculptural looking banana with the words "Top Banana" etched in it.  Among the others were a banana playing a banjo and a banana ejaculating.

 Number 4:  A Rose by Any Other Name

 I don't discriminate, and I generally try to be cool with everyone.  As such, I have a significant number of gay male clients.  I tattooed one guy who appreciated my professionalism, and he told his friends.  One of these friends reached out to me via email, asking about the possibility and price of tattooing a rose around his anus.  He never followed through with the request by setting an appointment.

 Number 3:  The Lover's Kiss Prints

 Early in my career I was working one night with another artist, and a couple of ladies came into the shop.  They were partners, and initially just wanted to see what their idea would cost.  They wanted one another's kiss prints tattooed on their partner's pubic mound, just above the labial split.  The other artist offered them a price they simply couldn't refuse, and I found myself shaving a woman's pubic hair off to apply her girlfriend's lip print tattoo.  I also learned that this mother of two had just left her husband for the woman in the next station.  I guess there is some truth to the idea that lesbians tend to move fast.

 Number 2: The Happy Button Smiley Face

 This may have been more of about making conversation than an actual request, but I was once asked about tattooing a simple smiley face on a woman's clitoris.  It was apparently girls' night out and I was doing a couple of small tattoos on two of a group of girls who were out partying.  One of the friends who was there to offer support just out of the blue said, "Would you tattoo a smiley face on my clit?"  The room full of girls erupted into out bursts of "oh my gawd!" and laughter.  I replied that I would need to see the clitoris to know if it was feasible, but that I would do it.

 Number 1: The Penis Tattoo Cover-Up

 I still have trouble wrapping my head around this one.  A guy contacts me about a cover-up.  He is wanting to propose to his girlfriend.  The problem is that he has his ex-wife's name tattooed on his penis.  Yep, down the center of the top of his shaft.  It had apparently been a point of contention for some time, and I could imagine why.  Before he proposed, he wanted to demonstrate just how committed he was to his lady (and how over he was with the ex).  Executing a penis tattoo is difficult (I initially typed the word "hard", but people might have gotten the wrong idea), a cover-up would be even more so.  I have a feeling I priced myself out of doing the tattoo.

 Jason Sorrell is a writer, tattoo artist, satirist, artist, and generally nice guy living in Austin, TX.  He loves answering questions about tattoos.  Shoot him a message at

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Do You Really Want His or Her Name as a Tattoo?

Love makes people crazy...
 This happens more frequently than I care to admit.  Someone walks into the tattoo studio. They are on Cloud 9.  They have found THE ONE, and they want a way to demonstrate their love and devotion to that person.  They have decided that proof of their unending passion for their lover would best be expressed through having that person's name forever tattooed into their skin.

 We artists happily take the commission.  We may offer some small words of advice; asking if the client is certain this is what they want, but that is all.  Secretly, we are shaking our collective heads.  The name-tattoo is almost always the death-knell of a doomed relationship.  Generally, we can expect to see the client back within six months for a cover-up.  Perhaps it is that passion that burns fiercest dies the fastest, or perhaps their partner questions the validity of being with someone who would make such an irresponsible choice.  Whatever, name-tattoos are probably not the way to express your love.

Hopefully Patricia is okay with you having trouble finding work.
 You should never get a tattoo for another person.  A tattoo is a personal statement, one you hope to take with you to the grave.  Tattoos gotten for someone else, whether going along and getting a tattoo during Girls' Night Out because your friend wants one and doesn't want to be alone or to express you love for another, will almost always be tattoos you will regret.  Before you get that special-someone's moniker inked into your neck, consider the following:

 How long have you been with your lover?  It is shocking the number of people who are willing to do something crazy like get a name-tattoo after being with someone for just one week.  A tattoo is a bit of a commitment, so keep in mind that over half the marriages in the US end in divorce, most marriages only last 8 years, and one third of the people who marry at the age of 20-24 get a divorce.  Maybe you should wait to see how this relationship works out a little while before you get under a needle for the one you love.

 Names and portraits are meant to memorialize and celebrate someone who has had a major impact on your life.  Typically this is your parents or your children.  While this is not so much the case anymore, traditionally these kinds of tattoos were reserved to commemorate the passing of someone you cared for.  The Art of Tattoo is chocked full of weird little superstitions, and one such superstition is against getting a name or portrait tattoo of someone who is still alive.  It is akin to the taboo about laying down in a coffin.  

They deserve each other.  Best of luck!
 If you are coming to get that tattoo as a testimony of your love for another, are they coming along with you?  What does it say that you are willing to make that commitment, and they are not?  Don't buy the "I don't like tattoos" excuse... Or, do, because if they don't like tattoos they are going to LOVE seeing their name etched in your skin everyday until they leave you.  When a relationship is obviously lop-sided with one person being far more invested than the other, the other begins to question whether they should be in that relationship.  First, they may question whether they deserve you, but this quickly turns into whether or not you deserve them.  If you are getting that name-tattoo, don't be the only one.  If your partner is not interested, heed their sound wisdom.

 Again, as you should never get a tattoo for another person, have you considered what you are trying to say by getting that tattoo?  The tattoo is on you, not your lover.  It is akin to saying, "Baby, I love you so much that I bought myself a new watch/necklace to show you, and your picture is on the face/in the locket!"  You may think you did it for them, but clearly this is about you.  Maybe you should embrace that feeling.  If you feel that this relationship is a milestone in your life that is worthy of celebration, then get a tattoo that celebrates that feeling.  Maybe get your birth-flowers intertwined, or have your artist work your Zodiac symbols into a design.  Make the tattoo about that moment in your life, and not the other person.  You will regret the tattoo less if it is about your moment, and not someone else.  If not, have you considered taking that money and maybe getting away for the weekend with that special someone?  The memories made will probably mean more to them than your tattoo.

It is almost guaranteed return business...
 Speaking of other people, ask yourself this question; if your lover had the name of their ex tattooed on them for you to see everyday, how would you feel?  Would you be okay with it, or would you want them to get it removed or covered up?  If it is the latter, this is what you will put anyone who dates you after this relationship through.  Now, I know right now you KNOW this relationship will last forever, but if you think that your lover having his or her ex's name tattooed on them is a bad decision, then YOU MUST question the decision you are making now!

 The bottom line is this: Think before you Ink.  In a tattoo studio, artists are there to give you what you want, no matter how ill-advised what you want may be.  Getting that name tattooed may be the moment in your relationship that seals the deal, but it will more likely be the nail in the coffin.  And, if you go through with it in spite of all that you have read here, remember what your artist tells you as you leave the shop.  I will bet money it is a mention of what he or she charges for cover-ups. 

 Jason Sorrell is a writer, tattoo artist, satirist, artist, and generally nice guy living in Austin, TX.  He loves answering questions about tattoos.  Shoot him a message at

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Top 10 Things I Would Ask Scratchers to Stop Doing

 Scratch-er,  noun

 : An untrained person applying a tattoo, often out of their residence.  "Scratcher" refers to the quality of the tattoo itself, which often appears to be "scratched" into the skin rather than the smooth look of a tattoo.

 Scratchers in the tattoo industry have always present a dilemma.  Having no training, they often engage in unsafe and unsanitary practices while tattooing, endangering themselves and their clients.  The quality they often produce is sub-par and reflects negatively on the industry as a whole.  They also undercut professional shops in price, robbing trained tattooers of potential clients.  As artists, tattooers are often anti-authoritarian and rebellious in nature who frequently celebrate flaunting the rules of society. Normally, a tattooer might support the idea of someone "doing what they had to do" to be a tattooer, but as professionals, tattooers recognize that scratchers are bad for business and the industry as a whole.

 My personal opinion is that scratchers are inevitable and unavoidable in our industry.  Tattooing is largely unregulated.  We have to meet minimum health and safety standards, but the quality of our equipment and training of tattooers is completely in the hands of the industry itself and often driven by market forces.  We would like to keep it that way, but the trade-off is that tattoo equipment can be purchased by anyone and scratchers are rarely considered a priority by local law enforcement. It would be great if tomorrow every scratcher in the world put their machines down and refused to do another tattoo until they completed an apprenticeship, but that is not likely to happen.  

 So, instead, these are the top 10 things I would ask scratchers to stop doing, in descending priority.

10.  Stop trying to sell me your unused tubes, inks, and needles.

 I can appreciate that you are saying you are getting out of the practice of scratching, even as I know that you probably just really need some quick cash and will be back to it as soon as you can.  The junk you bought on eBay or from the headshop down the street is no good to me.  I might be interested in your machines, if only to get them out of your hands.  Don't get mad when I offer you $5 for a machine that I can get new on-line for $15 and you bought at a pawn shop for $50.  Everything else, you can just throw away.

9.  Stop re-using your grommets and o-rings.

 I should include stop re-using your tubes and needles, and "recycling" (eeewwww!) ink you have already poured into caps or whatever it is you use, but in my mind that should be a given.  Don't re-use your needles.  Don't re-use your tubes unless they are steel, you know how to clean them, and you have an autoclave.  DON'T RE-USE INK YOU HAVE POURED!  I can't believe I would have to type that, but then I have heard some things...  

 Grommets are rubber sleeves that help hold the needle-eye to the armature bar pin.  O-rings are rubber pieces that are used to adjust the function of the springs and muffle the sound of the machine.  Both of these items cost next to nothing, and are made of porous rubber.  Even if you are doing everything else right, these parts are contaminated by the tattoo process and should be thrown away when the artist breaks down and cleans between clients. 

 I recently visited a pawn shop, just to see what kind of oddities they had available.  In a display case was a tattoo machine with a gnarled, worn-out grommet still on the armature bar.  It probably had the contaminants of 100 different people soaked into it.  Simply nasty.  Throw that stuff away.

8.  Don't get "butt-hurt" when tattooers in a legitimate shop treat you like dirt.

 When a scratcher walks into a tattoo shop, he or she often thinks for some reason that we are all "brothers", and that they somehow deserve courtesy and respect.  They are often looking for equipment to purchase or pointers on how to tattoo,  Every tattooer in a shop has completed an apprenticeship and struggled for the knowledge they have and the privilege of being tattooers.  A scratcher who assumes they are on the same level not only demonstrates how little they know about tattooing but also has no respect for the tattooers they are speaking to.

7.  If a tattooer in a shop does agree to look at your drawings or your portfolio, be as professional as possible.

 A lined notebook is not a sketchbook.  Photos on your phone are not a tattoo portfolio.  If a tattooer is going to give you some of his or her time, be prepared to make the most of it.  Be prepared to be critiqued, and be willing to accept a critique no matter how negative it may be.  Set and keep an appointment.  Don't waste your time or the time of the tattooer.  

 6. Stop carrying your tattoo machines in your pants pocket.

 Never mind the mechanical things that can go wrong with a machine that is improperly carried.  Never mind that this machine is probably rarely cleaned and nasty in-and-of itself.  Walking around with a tattoo machine in your pocket just adds your sweat and funk to the microbe-culture that is no doubt already growing there.  Pulling a machine out of your pocket impresses no one.

 5.  It is a tattoo machine or device.  Stop calling it a "gun".

 Tattoo machines do not shoot ink.  The tube-and-grip assembly is not a "barrel".  Calling a tattoo machine a "gun" establishes that you do not understand the tattoo process, and should not be allowed anywhere near someone's skin to do a tattoo.

4.  Don't besmirch professional tattoo shop prices.

 We get it.  You are tattooing out of your kitchen, basement, or garage.  You have no overhead.  You did not invest years and thousands of dollars into learning how to tattoo.  You have no clue what the value of good work is, because you are unfamiliar with good work.  Speaking badly about people who tattoo the right way and offer a fair price for seeing to their clients safety and satisfaction is not helping your cause.

 3.  Stop assuming that you can buy supplies at a tattoo shop.

 I know some shops sell supplies to anyone who walks in off the street.  If you don't see supplies displayed for sale or a sign that suggests that supplies are sold, don't ask.  A professional tattooer is not going to "be cool" and sell you a needle when you come-up short.  Selling supplies to local scratchers just encourages potential clients to get work from people who are competing (badly) with them.  Why walk into a shop and see what a tattoo is supposed to look like when "Jimmy Aroundaway" gets his supplies from the professional shop and will scratch you up for $20 and a case of beer?

2.  Don't talk in front of tattoo shop clients.

 If you are in a tattoo shop in the customer area for whatever purpose, whether as a potential customer yourself or your lucky enough to have a tattooer actually giving you the time of day, don't talk to other clients.  You have no valid opinion on anything that has to do with tattooing.  No one wants to see what you have done on yourself or your girlfriend/boyfriend.  No one cares, and you are out of line offering any advice.

 And, especially, do not dare to suggest that you could offer a better price.  Don't do it.  The life you save may be your own.

 1.  Stop tattooing.

 That really is the bottom line.  Draw as much as you can.  Practice on pig-skin, orange peals, fake-skin, or whatever if you must, but stay away from tattooing people until someone who actually knows what they are doing can certify that you are tattooing safely and correctly.  If you love tattooing and love the life, then you will find a way to do it right.

 Jason Sorrell is a writer, tattooer, satirist, artist, and generally nice guy living in Austin, TX.  He loves answering questions about tattoos.  Shoot him a message at

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Coil Tattoo Machines 101

A Workhorse Irons Bulldog frame.

 I've been working on this blog for a little while now, mainly because I am about to share a very unpopular opinion in the tattoo community.  If you know what to look for, you can get quality a tattoo machine from a no-name, off-brand, or foreign manufacturer, and often save yourself hundreds of dollars.  The idea that you have to spend hundreds to get a good tattoo machine is promoted by tattoo studios for a variety of reasons, mainly in the hopes that they will keep tattoo machines out of the hands of untrained professionals.  If you take a look on, you will see that the misinformation campaign is not working.  In fact, it has many professionally trained artists believing the propoganda and putting all their faith in the amount of money they spent being a guarantee of quality in the devices they buy.

 "You get what you pay for" is a popular anecdote about tattoos, and in most cases it is true.  Quality comes at a price, and if you are not willing to pay then there is a good chance you will not get quality.  However, we also all know that some artists are over-priced, charging more than their workmanship is worth or charging more than what a more talented artist might charge without the hype of a "celebrity" name attached.  It is no different with tattoo machines, and in reality those who malign tattoo machines from sources they consider unprofessional often own machines that are composed of components manufactured by those same overseas companies producing low-priced tattoo machines.

 That said, you have to know what you are looking for.  When ordering tattoo machines on-line, you are buying sight-unseen.  You won't know what you have until the machine arrives.  While the price-point is no guarantee of quality, a higher price does at least suggest higher quality materials and more precise manufacturing.  While I would argue against needing a $300+ tattoo machine to do a good tattoo, I would also look to a $25 machine as being the source of many problems a tattoo artist might have in executing a tattoo.  My $300 machines, purchased simply because I wanted them, tattoo no better than my $100 machines.

 If you don't know what you are looking for in a machine, you will always have problems with your tattoo that you simply cannot explain.  A solid apprenticeship should teach everything you need to know about a tattoo machine, but just like tattoos and tattoo machines, quality in an apprenticeship is not always a given.

 What I am offering here is just some basics.  You have to have some experience with a tattoo machine for most of this to be relevant.  Hopefully this will augment some of the things you are already learning.  Also, most opinions on tattoo machines are just that, opinions.  They are based on some science but mostly the experience of the individual artists.  Great tattoo artists have never been afraid to experiment with their machines; trying out different materials and configurations.  Most the information I offer here suggests tendencies in machine form and function.  Ultimately, the artists determines what type of machine works best for them based on what they are trying to accomplish.

 The ideal machine runs consistently with minimal adjustment.  It does what it is expected to do.  When an artist can rely on the machine to operate in a particular manner, and understands how that operation will effect the stroke the machine makes, he or she can be more confident in using that machine to execute a tattoo.  Cheap materials, poor manufacturing standards, and unnecessary adjustable components rob a tattoo machine of its consistency.


 If a better tattoo can be expected from a better tattoo machine, then a better tattoo machine can be expected from a better tattoo machine frame.  There is much ado about frame materials; brass, iron, steel, zinc, aluminum, and even more exotic materials all have their own strengths and weaknesses.  Heavy materials, like brass or iron, tend to reduce vibration.  Lighter materials, like aluminum or zinc, tend to allow the tattoo artist to work longer (as holding a vibrating hunk of metal above your hand for hours at a time can be a struggle).  Conductive materals can have the coils make direct contact with the frame base, while non-conductive materials require a yoke to form the u-magnet with the coils.  If your frame heats up, there is typically a problem with the circuit and not the frame.  The magnetic-field of a frame has so little effect on the operation that other aspects of the machine overcome any concerns about the materials effecting the magnetism of the machine (although some materials can become magnetized themselves).

 The main concern about a tattoo machine frame is it's geometry.  This includes the machines frame base length (a longer machine tends to operate slower and lends itself to shading or coloring) and post-height (which makes room for different length coil-cores).  The most important aspect of frame geometry, however, is the alignment of the spring mount, the frame base, and the tube vice, or more precisely, the screw-holes and opening of the vice.

Two cheap frames, but the frame on the left was less expensive yet has far better alignment than the frame on the right.

 If the frame is out of alignment, there will always be issues with its operation.  Being out of alignment can cause the frame to heat faster during operation and can wear out springs faster.  The pull on the armature bar will typically be inconsistent since it is not aligned on the center of the coil cores.  The picture above shows two relatively inexpensive machine frames, but the alignment of the one of the right is so far off the center of the frame base and the spring mount is completely out of line with the coils and tube vice that it is essentially worthless.  You could tattoo with it, but you will more than likely run into problems in the quality of your work that would be less likely with frame on the left.

Note the cut-back post option.
 Front upright alignment effects the operation of the machine making it better for a particular function; running faster or running slower.  The front upright is typically either aligned with the front coil, or forward of the front coil.  The further forward the front upright, the larger the machine stroke and the slower the machine speed.  Frames designed for lining tend to keep the front upright close to or in alignment with the front coil, while frames designed for shading or coloring tend to be forward of the front coil.

 Cut-back frames allow for the position of the front binding post to be adjusted; meaning the frame can be configured as a lining or shading machine, depending on the post's position.  While this can be advantageous in some situations. most professional tattoo artists use several machines each configured for different function.  Cut-back frames have one more point where things can come loose and move with the vibration of the machine.  

Note the slight pitch of the spring mount on the right.
 A final aspect of frame geometry to consider is the pitch of the spring mount.  Generally, a spring mount should be flat or parallel to the frame base.  A mount that has a pitch can offer greater tension on the back spring, resulting in faster machine operation.  Some frames have even been designed that allow the pitch of the spring mount to be adjusted (which is again, one more moving part to vibrate loose).  The artificial tension on the back spring will make a machine tend to operate as a liner, but at the cost of greater wear on the spring itself.  

 Frames are typically produced in one of three ways; cast, wire-cut, and pressed-then-bent.  Frames which are cast are typically considered ideal; the metal for the frame is poured into a mold resulting in one solid and (hopefully) consistently stable piece.  Wire-cut frames essentially take a solid piece of metal and carve a shape out of the block.  The result is still a solid piece of metal (hopefully), with clean angles and lines.  This is common to machines that are massed produced overseas.  Equally as common are the press-then-bent machines.  These are less desirable because the process of bending the metal into shape creates inherent weak-points in the frame, and unless the cut was designed to take into account the final shape there may be alignment issues from the bending process.

 Frames to generally be avoided are frames that come in more than one piece.  Tattoo machines vibrate, which is why you want your frame to be as solid as possible  With a frame that is several pieces bolted together, the vibration loosens the parts which means changes in the machine's consistency and the need for constant re-adjustment.  The vibration of a tattoo machine can change the alignment over-time of a frame that was pressed-then-bent into shape, a wire-cut frame that is too thin, or a cast frame that is flawed or cheaply produced, but frames that are multiple pieces suffer from this draw-back more than others.

 Keep in mind that, except for the alignment, other aspects of the frame can be overcome by changing the other components of the machine to compensate.  For example, a longer frame can be sped up using higher guage springs or a small capacitor (among other methods).  Again, these aspects of machine design indicate tendencies, and it is up to the artist to determine what works best for them.


 Coils generally come in 8, 10, or 12 "wraps" (layer of wire wrapped around the core) of 24 AWG red or green magnetic wire with a 150c heat rating).  The wire is wrapped around typically a 3/16 or 5/8 iron core or bobbin core.  The number of wraps effects both the speed of the machine (slightly) and the downward pull of the electromagnet formed by the coils.  Greater downward force tends to be favored in machines used for lining or coloring. 

 Ideally, coils have a consistent wrap.  That means no gaps between the wire as it goes around the core.  This is more easilly achieved with a machine than by hand (as one who has wrapped coils, I can attest to this fact), however when buying coils mass-produced you are again leaving yourself subject to the manufacturing process and quality controls of the producer.  Coils typically come wrapped in an insulator or sleeve that is opaque or features art of some kind.  Even with a transperent insulator, you would only be able to see the top wrap which could hide flaws in the lower layers.

 Moreover, some unscrupulous manufacturers pad their coils by adding additional insulator to the wrap, making the coils appear to have more wraps than are actually present.  Without cutting the coil open and unwinding it, the things to look for are smooth, straight insulator sleeves and to compare the coil-performance in a machine against what you would expect.  If the coils have a bloated appearance, that is an indicator that the wrap has been padded and your are getting a smaller wrap than indicated.

 Tattoo atists who buy machines from off-brand manufacturers almost always change the coils with sets they have purchased from a trusted source.  Even with reliable manufacturers, mass production can often result in flaws that would prevent consistent operation.  My experience has been about 50/50 with low-priced machines; they are equally likely to come with good coils as they are with bad.


 The capacitor, along with the wire, solder lugs, and coils (in contact with a conductive frame or yoke), form the electro-magnet that drives the function of a tattoo machine.  The purpose of the capacitor is to regulate the "flow" of electricity through the circuit, making the machine more consistent.  47 uF (units of Farad) and 22 uF are the most common size capacitor used on all machines, but adjusting the capacitor size can change the way the machine operates.

 By increasing the uF, your larger capacitor will slow the circuit down, and may also increase the downward force.  A smaller capacitor is faster and has less force, typically.  Keep in mind that other factors may off-set the machine's function (force is more a function of the springs).  The second most usual culprit in a machine over heating is a bad capacitor, with the first most usual culprit being an untrained artist who thinks increasing the voltage on the power supply will increase the machine's power and speed.  Mechanically, the machine has an upper performance limit.  The voltage limit (v) is generally printed on the capacitor along with its uF rating.  Exceeding that limit can damage your capacitor and cause your machine to get hot (as well as burn/bore a hole through your front spring in extreme cases).  Most capacitors used have voltage ratings of 25 or greater, while machines are typically run at 12 volts or less.

 Tattoo machine circuits are typically sold as a single unit.  Capacitors tend not to last as long as coils.  A simple modification to the circuit can seperate the capacitor from the coils by putting the capacitor on its own line with seperate solder lugs.  This allows the capacitor to be changed out from the coils if an issue becomes apparent or if you simply want to try a different sized capacitor on your machine.

 Springs and Armature Bars

 The spring and armature bar assembly is the moving part of the machine.  When the electric circuit of the machine is closed (the front spring is in contact with the timing screw), the coils form an electro-magnet that pulls the armature bar downward toward the coil cores.  This opens the circuit, shutting off the magnet and releasing the armature bar.  The tension created by the downward motion of the assemby on the back spring is reversed, and the assemply moves upward until is makes contact with the timing screw, and the cycle repeats.  The cycle speed of a machine helps determine what it is used for.  Lining machines tend to run faster, like 120-140 (or more) cycles per second, shading machines tend to run from 110-120 cycles per second, and coloring machines tend to run 100-110 cycles per second (or less).

Armature Bar/Spring Assembly
 It should be noted that we are again talking about tendencies, not hard rules.  The use of a machine is determined by a combination of factors and how the tattoo artist tattoos.  There is no right or wrong speed.  A faster machine requires a faster hand.

 Armature bars are typically made of iron or another metal that is ferromagnetic (reacts to magnets).  Springs are usually made of (gasp!) spring steel.  Spring steel is an alloy that allows the metal to return to (or snap-back to) its original shape when it is bent or twisted. Armature bars come in different weights and lengths, with heavier a-bars helping to slow the machine's speed.  Springs come in different gauges; thicker gauges speed the machine up and increase the downward force of the assembly.

 A front spring is bent at about 15-25 degrees.  The greater the bend or "roll", the softer the force of the machine stroke (as the needle has a shorter distance to travel).  The gauge of the front spring (also referred to as the timing spring) impacts the speed of the machine; a thicker gauge results in a faster machine because it has less "give" when making contact with the timing screw than a thinner gauge.  Back springs are generally flat, and determine the tension of the machine and the assemby's downward force; greater the gauge the more force applied.  Lining machines, color machines, and large needle groups generally require more force than shading machines or small needle groups.  Tension can also be increased by slightly bending the back spring.

 Traditionally, springs have come in two pieces; front and back.  When I first purchased a machine with a one-piece spring, my thought was that the manufacturer was cutting corners.  One piece means a few less steps in the fabrication process and would be less expensive.  However, I have seen several reputable companies offering one-piece springs.  The advantage I could see from a one-piece spring is that the spring is in contact with the armature bar until the point where it is bent, making it potentially more stable.  The standard spring assemply leaves the front spring elevated by the back spring slightly above the armature bar.  The disadvantages include the point where the spring is attached to the armature bar being the tension point and weaker than the standard assembly.  With the standard assembly the point of tension is the center of the back spring.  It also offers less flexibility in customization; the one-piece spring is a single gauge throughout, while the tradional two-piece assembly allows for two different gauges depending on the artist's preference.

 Another innovation that I am more in favor of is the "Tru-Spring" system by Eikon.  Armature bars in this system are cut with a 15 degree angle and a seperate mount for both springs.  This means there is no bend in the front spring, therefore no weak-point in the spring.  Your spring potentially lasts longer than the traditional bent spring, but it also means that you have to buy your springs from Eikon or cut them yourself in order to have replacements.

 You may notice that I did not include an o-ring in my assembly.  It is my opinion that consistent operation should be the goal when assembling a tattoo machine, and that an o-ring reduces that consistency.  The o-ring can quiet the noise of the machine, as well as speeding up the machine by adding tension to the front spring.  This can be compensated for by making other adjustments if it is not desired.  However, since the o-ring is made of rubber, it breaks down faster and changes shape as the machine is used, changing the way it impacts the machine.  O-rings, like gommets, should be thrown away after each tattoo, but many artists fail to do so.

 When attaching the armature bar/spring assembly to the spring mount on the frame, there are a few points to be aware of.  You want the a-bar and springs to align down the center of your frame base, which should be aligned with your tube vice.  An alignment tool helps ensure your springs are aligned on your armature bar.  The armature bar jig is placed in the tube vice, with the armature bar pin sitting in the jig-slot, lining the bar up with the center of the tube-vice.  This should also be directly over the center of your coil cores on a frame with good geometry.

 The next point(s) of concern is the space, or gap, between the armature bar and other points on the machine.  Much of this article has discussed speeds and measurements that require a metered power supply to varify.  Without a supply that tells you the Cycles Per Second or Hertz (hz), duty cycle, etc, you will have to rely on visual adjustments and the sound of the machine.  The armature bar should flutter between the coils and the timing screw.  The noise a machine makes should be a consistent, smooth sounding buzz, with no "clacking" (which suggests the movement of the a-bar is incorrect.  

 There are three gaps to check; the point gap, the air gap, and the back coil gap.  The point gap is the space between the front spring and the point of the timing screw when the armature bar is depressed.  The wider the gap, the slower the machine will run.  The timing screw can be adjusted while the machine is running, allowing for you to check the machine visiually and by sound, or to see what the machine is doing on a metered power supply.  

 The air gap is the distance between the bottom of the armature bar and the top of the front coil core.  This gap determines the throw of the needle, or how far downward the needle will travel.  The air gap is impacted by the point gap, and vice versa, so a faster machine will have a shorter airgap and potentially less throw then a slower machine.  This can be compensated for by adjusting the tube in the tube vice and setting the depth of the needle visually.  The less throw a machine has, the fewer needles it can push.    

 The back spring gap is the space between the bottom of the armature bar and the top of the back coil core.  When the armature bar is depressed, the bar should touch the front coil core, but there should be a slight space between the back coil core and the armature bar.  If the armature bar touches the back coil, there is not enough room to allow for proper movement.  Too much space puts unnecessary tension on the back spring, which can snap.  Ideally, this space should be about the same thickness as a sheet of paper.   

 When buying a tattoo machine, these are all points to consider; frame geometry, material, and type, coil quality and size, hardware materials (binding posts, timing screw, armature bar, screws).  Machines purchased from a manufacturer almost always require some adjustment before use, if only to tune the machine to the preference of the artist.  When buying machines, it is worth while to also invest in additional spring sets, different weighted armature bars, other hardware, and coils so that if a part of a machine that is purchased does not meet your expectations it can be replaced.  If you know what you are doing, you can purchase an average machine and make it great for far less than purchasing an expensive machine and hoping it lives up to the hype around it.  While the information offered here should be of some help, there is still a great deal of information about machine assembly and adjustment to be discovered through a proper apprenticeship. 

 Jason Sorrell is a writer, tattoo artist, satirist, artist, and generally nice guy living in Austin, TX.  He loves answering questions about tattoos.  Shoot him a message at