Electronic tattoo needles are up there with one of the great inventions of the late 19th century. No, we mean it - they’re an ingenious innovation designed to quickly, effectively, and safely apply the most amazing artwork to your skin.
For a beginner tattoo artist learning the intricacies of which needle to use and when can be just as challenging as learning how to apply it itself.
There are a large and complex selection of needles to choose from, along with needle groupings, counts, tapers and diameters to know about.
But understanding all of this can be very much like figuring out the offside rule in soccer or figuring out cryptic clues in a crossword - once you get it, you get it. Here, we take a look at the history of the tattoo needle, the main types of needle and what else you need to know about ensuring you always have the right tool for your art.
As it turns out the history of the tattoo needle is as complex as its modern evolution. And as with almost everything to do with electrical inventions it features the name of Thomas Edison. However, unlike a few other inventors involving that legendary innovator, Edison wasn’t battling to claim precedence as the genius behind the first electrical tattoo needle. Nor is there any evidence he was interested in tattooing at all. His company did invent a patent for a rotary operated stencil pen. This machine was designed to efficiently apply stencilled copy to flyer (before modern printers) However the person who gets the credit for inventing or at least patenting the tattoo needle is fellow American Samuel F O’Reilly - who essentially modified the stencil pen, increasing its speed and accuracy to patent the first electric tattoo machine in 1891.
But like all stories from those dynamic times - that’s not quite as neat it sounds. It was also influenced by none other than an electrical dental plugger - which shaped gold into fillings. And there were several other inventors on both sides of the Atlantic innovating devices in parallel.
Nevertheless it’s Samuel F O’Reilly who held the patent and his work with the needle was being published in newspapers as early as 1889. And of course, it would still take further years for this machine to evolve into a safer, more sophisticated tool.
These days the array of brands, needles and configurations can be mind-boggling. However they can be simplified into some main categories. As with all tools some needles are adapted to be better at some parts of the tattoo application than others. So knowing what each needle types is most of the battle in choosing the right one.
There are six main grouping when it comes to needles, so let's take a look at the each of those below along which designs or part of the process they are best used for
These rounded needles are best used to create really clean lines, no matter what level of thickness you are aiming for. They work by only allowing a small amount of ink out, so you can create the perfect outline for your design. This makes them a necessary needle for most tattoo designs - but especially for dot work designs, traditional, neo traditional, tribal and pacific influenced ones like Japanese or Samoan. They also work great for lettering.
Round needles can also be used for certain types of shading. The pins which allow the ink to escape are not located as close together as a round liner needle - which means they can be used in more broadstroke ways for shading and filling. They can also be used for some liner work, and in fact they work well for most of the same designs too.
While round shader needles can be used for shading work, the needle that is preferred is usually the magnum shader needle. These needles can carry and apply lots of ink so can efficiently tattoo large areas that require filling. This also makes them kinder to the skin and it needs less of the needle to circulate on it. You’ll find these needles most commonly used for blackwork or greywork. But again the older, more traditional and tribal styles use this needle a lot too.
This needle is similarly used for the design discussed in classic magnum shader needles. However this produces a softer, more sophisticated effect. The pins differ by arching slightly at the centre of their alignment. This allows softer shading for the more realistic designs, and it’s also kinder again to the skin as the ink is dispersed in a more consistent way.
These needles used to be more popular and are sort of a compromise between a liner needle and magnum. They are used for more intricate shading or colour work. They have as many pins as the classic magnum - they are just more spread out. These are good for colour realism or indeed blackwork and grey designs, as well as all the designs discussed previously.
This needle has pins which sit in a straight line on the needle bar, allowing them to deliver more ink to the skin when doing lining. This makes them more intricate than a magnum but more efficient than a liner needle. Indeed larger flat needles can be used for colour shading while smaller can be used for intricate shading like on a geometric pattern. This makes them the most versatile needle in terms of style - though not the most efficient for a particular task either.
As well as different types of needles they also come in other variations, again depending on what you use them for.
There are 3 common sizes of needle, usually referred to as 8 gauge (0.25mm), 10 gauge (0.30mm), and 12 gauge (0.35mm). The smaller the needle the more controlled the flow - a pit like you use a smaller paintbrush for the more intricate pieces.
This essentially means the configuration or grouping of the pins to create the overall tattoo needle. So you might use a 10 gauge flat liner with a 9 grouping - in other words 9 flat pins of 0.30mm diameter. Once you understand what the needles do, what size you’d like them and how you’d like them grouped, it becomes a lot easier to choose the right one for the artwork you are working on.
However when choosing or ordering needles is also important to double check the following
● Have your needles been sterilised?
● Are they a well-made brand? Needles that easily bend or break can quickly cause skin damage
● Is whatever needle you’re choosing the right match for your commission?
● Are they compatible with your existing equipment?
Hopefully you’ve learned a whole lot more about needles, the most common types used and what to ask yourself when using them. Our artists here at Black Hat know a lot about which needles to use but are still learning about them everyday, so don’t let the complexity of choice put you off, now you know the basics. And as always we’d happy to help you here at The Black Hat should you have any questions.
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