14 Jun Coil vs Rotary Tattoo Machines
Whether you’re new to tattooing or simply curious about how it all works, one of the first questions you’re bound to come across is, “what’s the difference between a coil machine and a rotary machine?”
They’re two totally different beasts, and which one is best really comes down to a matter of opinion more than anything. We’ll break it down here and show you the main differences, fill you in on the evolution of the tattoo machine, and then hear from some artists themselves on which machine they use and why.
So, first things first, the machines themselves.
If you’ve ever walked past a tattoo shop and heard that signature loud buzzing vibrating out of the door, then you’ve heard a coil machine at work. That noise has become synonymous with the art and is the underlying tone to every studio. But how do they work, and why are they so noisy?
There’s some physics going on here, but we’ll keep it simple. Basically, a coil machine consists of two electromagnets (coils), an armature bar (which the needle is attached to), a contact screw and some springs. It works like this:
1. When a direct current passes through the coils, a magnetic field is created.
2. This field pulls the armature bar down, breaking contact with the screw and therefore collapsing the circuit.
3. The spring then pulls the bar back up again, where contact is re-established and the whole thing starts all over again.
4. This up and down motion is what pushes the needle in and out of the skin.
The end result is a choppy linear motion of the needle, and that sound you hear is the armature bar and screw contacting each other over and over again at a rapid rate. This does mean that they create more vibration than a rotary machine, so artists have to be careful when using them for long periods.
See, nice and simple.
Rotary machines are a lot simpler than coil machines, so this should be an easy one.
A rotary machine consists of a small motor, a cam wheel and a needle bar. Obviously, there’s slightly more to it than that, but those are the important bits for understanding how it functions. It works like this:
1. When power is fed into the motor, it spins the cam wheel in a circular fashion (hence why it’s called rotary).
2. The needle bar is attached to the cam wheel, converting the rotary motion into a linear one.
3. The needle moves in a continuous and smooth backwards and forwards motion.
Because of their design, rotary machines are much quieter than coils, practically silent actually, and there are a lot fewer parts to deal with.
No tuning up, just attach your needle cartridge, plug in, and get to work.
The Evolution of Tattoo Machines
As with so many other modern conveniences, we’ve got the one and only Thomas Edison to thank for tattoo machines.
The very first machines were based on his design for an electric pen, a device that was intended to make it easier and quicker to create copies of content.
Fortunately for us, in 1891 Sam O’Reilly saw the potential in Edison’s design and modified one of his pens to deliver ink beneath the skin, and the very first tattoo machine was born. So technically, that means rotaries were around first.
However, coils were close on their heel. Really close in fact. Just 20 days after O’Reilly patented his rotary design, Thomas Riley of London filed the patent for the world’s first single coil tattoo machine, and people have been trying to decide which one is best ever since. Riley’s coil machine used a modified doorbell housed within a small brass box.
Soon after this, Charles South threw another coil into the mix, and we were given the first incarnation of the famous dual coil machines that are used the world over to this day. It’s reported that these first machines were so heavy, they were often suspended by the ceiling from strings to save wear and ache of the artists’ wrists and arms.
We’re glad things have got a bit lighter since then.
What The Artists Think
So that’s what the different machines are and where they came from, but that doesn’t tell us much about their practical applications. So, we’ve asked our friends and fellow artists which machines they prefer using and why.
“I use a different set up depending on the type of tattoo I’m doing/how I’m feeling that day. But typically I use a coil to line (this is pretty much always, some people use rotaries to line but I think I line a bit quick for them) and a rotary to shade (because I think I can get a nicer blend with them and they are lighter and have a lesser vibration to save my little hands!”
“I was all coils and learnt with them for a long while but recently I’ve started using a rotary for lining.
The machine I use is pretty special though in that it acts as a great mixture of both kinds of machine – the low maintenance ease of a rotary with the power of a coil. You can line super quick with it even with large needle groupings.
I use a coil for my whipped dots as I’ve found as long as you move with speed, they’ve got more power for defined dots.
However, for colour packing and black shading, I use rotaries. Also, I’ve found running a rotary real slow works great for stippling.
The convenience of rotaries is pretty desirable – but I think it’s important to try both to learn how to maintain them. Changing springs and fixing other issues with coils is pretty satisfying.”
“I generally prefer to use coil machines and have only ever really bought directly from independent machine builders. It’s a great way to give back to the tattoo community and support independent makers. I don’t buy my machines from tattoo supply companies where possible.”
“I prefer coils for linework. I like the weight balance; I think it’s better for getting bold, thick lines.
I also prefer coils for my black and grey background work with big magnum needles (19 to 35 mags).
Rotaries I like for colour packing, soft black n grey, fine lining delicate work and layering or blending colours.”
So, there you have it. There’s no clear consensus on which is better, as it does purely come down to the individual artist, their personal style and their way of working. There’s pros and cons to both machines, so best practice is to learn to use them both and make up your own mind on which you prefer. Whichever machine you do favour, Black N Gold Legacy have a range of products to suit. From tattooers, for tattooers.
Head over to our product pages to browse our range and join the Black N Gold family. United we stand.