How to Tune a Tattoo Machine: 5 Tips for A Good Lining & Shading


Tuning a tattoo machine maybe not as straightforward as it could be. This, of course, is more complex if you are a beginner.

How to tune a tattoo machine for lining or shading is completely different depending on the gun – a FK Irons model will be less complex than a Dragonhawk one.

On top of that it also requires skills and you to know the tattoo gun.

Every well known specialist knows that. They cannot always use a tool out of the box, no matter how good the manufacturer says it is already.

The same is true for tattoo artists.

That is why, when starting, you need to learn the basics of tattoo machine tuning so it is ready for your liking.

As you climb up the professional ladder, you will find what works best for you accordingly.


How to Tune a Tattoo Machine?

There are different techniques to drawing a tattoo. Two (2) techniques are common to all tattooing processes – lining and shading.

Tuning a tattoo machine for lining work
Photo credit: Cottonbro

Lining, as the name implies, is the process of realizing the outlines of the tattoo from the stencil on the skin.

The shading part refers to adding more depth and color to the lines so that the tattoo comes out as it is intended.

These processes all combine to give the right tattoo but they require different machine tunings.


Tuning a Tattoo Machine For Lining

The lining is usually the first and the most delicate step in the tattoo process. Get this right and you have a better chance of success with your shading.

The following suggestions are for a coil setting.

 

Step I – preparation

  • Make sure you have your blister pack needles, rubber bands, and tattoo machine tubes.
  • Never handle the sterile parts of the tattoo machine without your latex gloves on.
  • Designate a work area that is covered by a clean, disposable cloth for this operation.

Step II – pre-checks

  • Bring the tattoo machine to eye level so that you can see the coils.
  • Depress the armature bar. If the top of the front coil touches the bar before the rear coil touches the same bar, you are good to go.
  • Otherwise, you need to get some coil shims (you can purchase them online or from a local tattoo shop) to adjust the situation.
  • Note that both the front and rear coils must not touch the armature bar at the same time either.
  • When not moving, the front coil and the armature bar should be apart by about 1mm. You can use a dime as a handy measurement of this distance.
How to tune a tattoo machine - rotary models
Photo credit: Cottonbro

Step III – adjustments

  • Adjusting the machine speed – lift the retaining bar on the contact screw to adjust the speed of the machine. This contact screw is found at the top back of the tattoo machine.
  • For faster speeds, adjust the contact screw to the right. Make sure to stick with speeds that you are comfortable with – and the speeds that ensure consistency in the kind of work you are about to do.
  • Return the retaining bar to place after adjusting the speed.
  • For machines with volt speeds, aim around 6 volts for the best – balanced speed settings.
  • The spring tension controls your needle stroke. Adjust it accordingly to make longer or shorter strokes.
  • In lining, you should aim for short (but strong) strokes.

Step IV – needling

  • The choice of tattoo needles for lining should be pointed, not flat. Flat needles will give your lining a thickness that might ruin the overall quality of your work where pointed needles keep the work neat.
  • Open the tube’s sleeve and place it in your work area.
  • This is a sterile environment, so don’t forget to wear your rubber/ latex gloves.
  • Open the blister pack, choose the required needle and make a slight bend in it. The bend will ensure some tension when it snaps into place.
  • Gently position the needle into the tube.
  • The curve you made on the needle should point back towards the machine itself.
  • A neat trick for increased tension is wrapping a rubber band around the needle arm, extending the rubber band to the back of the machine.

Step V – final adjustments


Tuning a Tattoo Machine For Shading

Shading brings out the details in your work. Done well, the colors pop in all the right places and your initial outlines from above don’t get smudged.

You need to tune your equipment right to achieve the best shading. As the previous section, this is for a coil setting.

 

Step I – preparation

  • Make sure you have your latex gloves on before handling any equipment.
  • Ensure all tattoo instruments are clinically sterile before you start setting the machine up. This includes, but is not limited to, the tattoo tubes, needles, needle bars, and grips. Speak with your mentor (who we believe to be a licensed tattoo artist) on recommended sterilization equipment. Most artists use a combination of bleach and autoclave.

Only tattoo machines with detachable motor feature can be autoclaved.

 

Step II – adjustment

  • The thickness used for the lining above is not the same for shading. Here, set the distance between the armature bar and the contact screw to about 2mm.
  • If you have a standard US nickel, you can use the thickness to determine when a tattoo machine is properly set.

Step III – needling

  • Get a tattoo tube optimized for shading attached to the tattoo gun. You can use just about any kind of tube but you might not get the best work if you don’t use the specialized options.
  • Insert the appropriate needle into the tube.
  • Make sure the needle is secure in the tube.
  • Adjust the needle tube and rubber band like you did with the lining machine setup above.
Tattoo machine tuning - needles and tubes
Photo credit: Osvaldo Medina

Step IV – speed settings

  • Shading might take more space and give you more room, but you need a slightly slower speed than used for the lining. Remember that you don’t have an outline to follow here so you want to be as careful as possible.
  • Like tuning a guitar, the best shading speed is determined by ear. When the buzz of the machine sounds deeper than what you used for lining, that is a good sign.
  • Get into a shading speed that is comfortable and consistent.

Step V – How to tune a tattoo machine: final inspections and test

Do final checks on the tattoo gun itself to ensure it is at optimum working condition.

Lastly, it is basic a run test. Power it using all the voltage settings and feel how the machine behaves.

To learn about how to tune a rotary tattoo machine, check this guide: Rotary Tattoo Machines Guide.


How to Tune a Tattoo Machine is Half the Job

We always recommend getting a different machine for tuning and lining.

That way, you have two highly specialized pieces of equipment that have been set to the best condition for both operations. Otherwise, you have to do the hard work of breaking apart and resetting the machines whenever you are switching between the operations.

Even if you would be using different machines for lining and shading, though, it never hurts to know how to tune a tattoo machine for when the need comes up.


 

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