The 8 Best Tattoo Machines 2017

best tattoo machines coil and rotary

Despite being an ancient tradition, particularly in the Pacific, tattoo artists have evolved a lot in the past twenty years. While technologies for tattoos vary both with time and culture, most people avoid tattoos applied manually with needles or animal bones. Instead, tattoo artists are faced with choosing between coil and rotary tattoo machines for applying the highest quality tattoos. Before listing recommendations for the best tattoo machines available, we should understand the differences between these main types.

The tattoo gun is a handheld machine which is used to insert ink beneath the skin. The ink is inserted through the surface of the skin to the secondary layer which is called the dermis. The marking is classed as permanent and is applied with indelible ink.

How to choose a tattoo machine

Choosing a tattoo machine is a personal matter. The best way to find a tattoo machine that suits you is to visit a trade show, and if possible try out some machines before you invest in any.

Essentially the gun is a paintbrush which allows you to paint a picture, so getting the right one is important. Whether you choose coil or rotary, you need to be sure that the ink and any accessories you may need are also readily available.

Talking to other tattoo artists on a forum is a great way to hear other people's points of view, and to get ideas of which guns are best to invest in, and which are best avoided.

Rotary Tattoo Machines

Rotary tattoo machines are named for their mechanics: a needle is attached to the top of a rotating cylinder, and the rotation steadily drives the needle in and out of the skin. This results in quiet, gentle application of ink. The consistency of the needle’s movement makes it great for filling in color evenly. They’re also quite easy to use, with few moving parts for simple maintenance.

There are some drawbacks to rotary tattoo machines. Because of the nature of the rotation, you have to use a complete stroke (in and out). Also, it’s not easy to shade with rotary machine since they are so smooth and consistent with the needle drive.

Although most of these use electric motors to turn the cylinder, a relatively recent invention of pneumatic machines are also available.

Pros

  • Quieter than the coil machine
  • Less damage to skin
  • Easy to use for beginners
  • Lower maintenance
  • Meddle movement in fast and consistent
  • Better for filler work

Cons

  • Line depth and shading is often more difficult
  • Full stroke is needed to complete the motion
  • Fast needle movement sometimes makes it hard to create stitched lines

Coil Tattoo Machines

Coil tattoo machines are more common than rotary machines. When you think of tattooing and that trademark buzz associated with it, you’re thinking of coil tattoo machines. These machines have current running through their coils to create an electromagnetic field that closes and breaks a circuit in a rapid, periodic manner, pulling an armature bar (along with the attached tattoo needle) into the skin and then springs it back. While most are double-coiled, single or triple coil tattoo machines are available as well. Coil tattoo machines are highly customizable, but be careful with your warranty to be sure alterations don’t void any guarantees.

These machines hit a lot harder than rotary machines, meaning healing might be slower and more skin damage is possible (especially with unskilled application from the artist). However, more intricate linework can be created than with the steady rotary machines. The artist has more control over the depth and power. This control doesn’t come easily, so it’s better for experienced artists. With so many moving parts and a variable number of coils, it’s easy to modify these machines, but at the same time, they tend to require more maintenance and tuning.

Pros

  • Makes very smooth, refined lines
  • Faster completion time
  • Great for intricate lines
  • Has an overall better control
  • Easy to build your own machine

Cons

  • Noisy
  • Good for more experienced tattoo artists, may not be to good for beginners
  • Harsher on the skin
  • More moving parts
  • Higher maintenance

Differences between Rotary and Coil Machines

The coil machine is a little more complicated than the rotary gun. The rotary machine works with the needle attached at the top of a motor that spins clockwise. This action moves the needle forwards and backwards, and the needle is inserted smoothly into the skin in fluid movements.

The coil machine uses electromagnetic current to work, and moves the needles which are attached to it into the skin. It then retracts the needles out of the skin when the circuit breaks.

Rotary machine offer a gentler choice for a tattoo, they are kinder to the skin, and the tattoo heals quicker with less scarring possibility. This would be a good idea for a novice to start with.

Coil machines deliver the traditional 'buzz' which is sometimes what some people enjoy hearing. Rotary guns have less moving parts and that makes then low maintenance.

Other factors to consider

In addition to choosing between rotary or coil machines, there are a few other factors to consider (outside of price, of course). First, you should consider the purpose of your machine. Is it designed for shading, or is it better suited for linework? If you use a liner for shading, it can hurt a lot more and wear out the coils faster too. Not every machine can push every size needle well, so make sure it can handle the size you need for the tattoos you wish to produce.

Next, check the build quality. You want a strong, stainless metal build that feels solid and comfortable. Speaking of comfort, the weight of the machine will affect how careful your lines are. Balancing a strong build and pen-like weight can lead to an excellent choice. The voltage required will also affect how smoothly the needle strikes. A lower voltage is preferable but only if the machine still operates smoothly and hits hard enough.

Finally, you should consider its ease of use. As a tattoo artist, you know your own skill set, but your machine should match that. Consider the difficulty both of operation and maintenance. Do you prefer an adjustable machine? Some have a few different settings to adjust the stroke, or they’re able to attach any kind of tube.

There are an incredible number of tattoo machines on the market, each designed for a specific user and purpose. If you get a chance, try to test a few different models to get an idea of what feels and sounds best for you and the goals of your tattooing.

Best Rotary Tattoo Machines

#1 Neotat Vivace

Topping the list of rotary machines, the Neotat Vivace wins on reliability. Although priced like a beginner’s machine, the ease of maintenance and use would be a great choice even for pros. It’s very lightweight—only about 115 grams—and you can adjust the stroke-length to suit your uses. That weight and adjustability keeps you from getting tired in longer sessions. You can disassemble it without much difficulty for cleaning and oiling, but even that is only required after plenty of use. It’s also very quiet, as a good rotary would be.

For detail and line quality, you won’t find a better rotary machine. At around 300 dollars, the Vivace is a great value for a simple, versatile machine.

#2 Ink Machines Dragonfly X2 Rotary Tattoo Machine

The Dragonfly X2 is made of anodized aluminum for both a strong build and an incredibly low weight. At 80 grams, it’s hard to find a lighter, more comfortable machine. It’s also very easy to handle, with a built-in damper and reduced vibrations.

It’s versatile as well. You can use cartridge or standard needles. You can also easily adjust the hitting force with three different stroke settings.

The only downside of this well-made Swedish machine is its price. It will likely run over 500 USD for this level of comfort and stability, but for many tattoo artists working a long session, that will be worth it.

#3 Spectra 2 Halo by FK irons

The Spectra 2 Halo combines ease of use and build quality to make for an exceptional rotary tattoo machine. Because of advanced stabilizers, it’s extremely quiet (if you want that piercing tattoo buzz, look elsewhere) and steady. It comes with three different stroke wheels to choose from that can be swapped out without difficulty.One of the best features of this machine is its ease of cleaning. Everything can quickly be disassembled and the whole body can go straight into the autoclave. Furthermore, you don’t need rubber bands for this machine, adding to its cleanliness.Some users reported minor difficulty getting the needle and tube into the tube vice, but after you get the hang of it, it should be no problem. With a lifetime warranty and a price point around 500 USD, the Spectra 2 Halo could be a wise investment.

Taking into account the various pros and cons of both types of machines, my favourite tattoo gun is the Bishop Rotary Tattoo Machine

Because of the way that the weight is distributed, this gun is very easy on the hands and wrists. Being almost weightless, it would be good for anyone suffering from painful wrists. It weighs in at a mere 3.8 ounces!

The machine is made from aircraft aluminium and is anodized to a very high standard. The motor is Swiss made and the needle clip keeps the needle firmly in place.

The stroke length is 3.5mm, which ensure clean line work.

The machine comes in some amazing colours such as Beatnik Purple, Lamborghini Orange, Graphite Black, Royal Blue, Emerald Green, Blood Red, Gothic Pink, and various shades of Grey.

Best Coil Tattoo Machines

#4 Seth Ciferri Weiner Dog Ver. 2.0

Often the handcrafted route really makes for superior products. While there are endless designer-made custom tattoo machines available, the consistency of the Weiner Dog 2.0 put it on the list. This tattoo machine excels in line versatility. Running at around 5 Volts, both the liner and the shader can push needles anywhere between a 3 and a 14. Because it’s custom built, it is also custom tuned by the designer Seth Ciferri, ensuring consistent quality for daily use. Seth Ciferri himself guarantees each of his tattoo machines for life, so you can be sure this product will last. Sold by Workhorse Irons, both the liner and shader run for around 300 USD each.

#5 Borg Design Signature Series

Borg makes the list for its handmade, careful approach to quality tattoo machines. And they take that handmade approach to the next level, crafting everything from the coils down to the silver contact screws themselves. Borg designs their machines from the perspective of tattoo artists, often bringing in successful artists like Zaza Ink’s Joe Peterson to help with their designs. Their Signature Series combines the best of these practices.The Signature Series machines are very lightweight for coil tattoo machines (at only 190 grams for their steel models and even less for aluminum), and with careful balanced design it will feel stable and comfortable for long work.Borg not only machines the parts but they test everything heavily to ensure you receive a great product out of the box. For under 350 USD and a lifetime warranty, you can’t go wrong with Borg.

#6 Getbetterlife Danny Robinson’s 2 Tattoo Machine

The quality of the Getbetterlife shows right away, with pure copper and brass components to make sure it lasts. This also makes it a little heavy for its size, but it shouldn’t be too much of a problem. The liner has plenty of power at around 5 volts with sharp, consistent lines. The shader is not quite as strong as the liner, requiring more volts and still not quite hitting as hard as most users would like, but some small adjustments could lead to great results.Part of the reason it lands on this list despite some flaws is its price. At under 100 USD with a lifetime warranty (for both the shader and the liner), you can expect professional quality at an entry-level price. Plus they come in really cool boxes with clear diagrams that help show how the machine is built and how to take care of it.

#7 Blue Frame Vital Tattoo Machine

This is a great machine as it is fairly lightweight, so you are less tired at the end of a session. It is a very powerful machine, and with minor adjustment, can be set up to run with any needle size.

The frame is made of aircraft aluminium and is high strength and light weight. It is durable and made from aircraft composite so it will not crack or distort.

All the parts are made in the USA so are readily available. The steel parts are tempered so will not bend or break. The springs are high quality steel so they will not distort.

The machine comes in a blue, red or black frame.

#8 SKIN 2 Rotary Tattoo Machine

It is possible to adjust the needle hitting speed. It is a silent machine, with vibrations at a minimum.

The machine is good quality Swiss made. It takes up to 55 needles. The machine comes with a tightening bar so does not need any elastic bands. Needles can be adjusted to different centres.

It is entirely Italian made, weighs in at just 90 grams, and has high quality ball bearings.

Comes in black, blue, red, silver, green and purple.

Wrapping it up

Tattoo machines have evolved since they were first invented some 140 years ago. Machines are lighter, and better made. The type of machine you choose will be made on your decision of whether you prefer rotary or coil types. There are hundreds of different types available now. Whichever type you select, and whatever your budget may be, you will be able to find the perfect tattoo machine.

About the author

John Thatch

John Thatcher is a computer science educated artist. He uses technology to solve artist problems. His friends don't like it when he speaks of himself in the third person. But John does it anyway, because he's a rebel.

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