Tattooing and tattoo machine tuning go hand in hand. You are missing a piece of the puzzle if you tattoo with no knowledge about your equipment.
This is a skill that not every tattoo artist will learn. Doesn’t mean they won’t be a good artist. It just means they will have to learn how to depend on others for tuning help. They count on buying equipment that is set up already or doesn’t require adjustment. I feel this limits an artist.
The more you know about your equipment the easier it will be for you to adjust your artwork. You can overcome problems easily because you know what will work best. You can create a machine that is custom fit for your needs.
Also there are those of use who just enjoy working on things. Not just using equipment but creating it. Those of us who are mechanically inclined and love to mess with things. Some of us can’t resist taking something apart and making it better. This page is for those people.
So either you are building a tattoo machine or you already have one. If you have a nice machine you might want to adjust it for yourself. If you have a cheaper machine you might need to put it together correctly.
Where do you get started?
Start to single out problems and fix them one by one. Fix each thing until there is nothing left to fix. Then you get to take your machine for a test drive. If you did everything correctly it will tattoo the way you want it. If you aren’t getting good results then you go back and adjust it again.
If you want to understand what I’m talking about you need to know some machine terminology. To make everything more difficult everyone doesn’t have the same terminology. As long as you know what I’m talking about you will be good.
There are some issues with machines that can be fixed very easily. Then there are things that can’t be fixed and need to be replaced. A good place to start is a solid frame. It is easy to bend a really thin machine frame. Usually the process to make them requires the frame to be bent. This leaves you with angles that are incorrect. If your angles are off it is hard to make things work correctly. You can put the machine in a vice and try to beat it into shape, but this is a real pain. You might be left with a frame that is still defective and weaker now that you messed with it. Save yourself the trouble and start off with a good frame. I personally don’t like really heavy frames. They will cause more hand fatigue.
Try to avoid the machines with a bunch of nonsense on them. Usually this extra stuff just gets in the way and makes it harder to bag your machines.
You can buy an alignment tool or you can make one. Take a metal tube and notch the top so the armature bar nipple sits in it. The needle needs to sit in the middle of the tube without touching the sides. At the same time the armature bar needs to be straight across when it touches the front core. This way your needle is seated correctly. It also makes sure your armature and springs have the correct distance. If your coils are not the right height the armature bar will hit at an higher or lower angle. If your springs are too long the armature bar nipple will overshoot the tube. Hold down the armature bar so it hits the front core when checking the correct placement.
*Coils have different lengths. Some of these might look the same but they aren’t. If you buy a cheap frame there is a good chance nice coils won’t fit on it. They will be slightly bigger and the armature bar will not hit level. Check the height of your cores before ordering that expensive pair of coils.
Your springs, armature bar nipple, and contact screw should all line up. You want to put everything together loose at first. This way you can make adjustments as you go. If your contact screw is off you can add a washer or remove one to adjust the placement of the contact screw. Underneath this your cores should also line up directly underneath the armature bar. It is possible for the machine to work without being correct, but it will work harder. Working harder will cause it to overheat. The quality of your tattoo will suffer if the machine is not setup correctly.
You can adjust the size of the washers for optimal placement of the contact screw. If you have a frame that conducts electricity you need to put plastic washers between the frame and the contacts. You don’t want any wires touching the frame or any metal objects touching the wires. If you have a plastic frame you can use metal washers.
*Common problems that cause shorts are broken shoulder washers. Don’t tighten the washers down so much that the plastic splits. I like to use a fat plastic washer and a metal washer to distribute the force when tightening. The wire under the coil touching the frame. Make sure shims and washers don’t touch this wire. Put clear silicone around any exposed wire. Coins touching a wire and touching the frame.
You getting the idea yet? See how everything needs to line up. The coils also need to line up. Everything lines up so that needle is straight up and down in the middle of that tube. A good frame will have everything lined up so you don’t have to tweak it. If the frame is bad you are screwed from the start. A good frame will allow you to make adjustments. You will need a machine shop to fix the bad frame.
It really isn’t as important to have your clip cord line up. It is nice when it does. What is vitally important is having your rear deck at a the right angle. If this is not at 90 degrees your armature bar will not hit the cores incorrectly. It will be at an angle instead of hitting flat on the front core.
Now you want to attach your rear spring and your front spring to the armature bar. Right here is where your brain is going to get a little scrambled. Don’t worry right now. You are not going to die if you put the wrong springs on the tattoo machine. Put some springs on there and see what it does. You can always take them off and try different springs.
You are looking at this and you need to make a decision. What do you pick? Let me answer that question with another question. What are you trying to do?
Armature bars have are made from different materials and have different weights. Try to use an armature bar that is the same material as your cores. The heavier the armature bar the slower the machine. Speed bars are very fast because they are very light. Pick up a rock. A heavy rock takes longer to pick up than a tiny rock. This is the best way to speed up or slow down your machine.
Another thing that controls your speed is the front spring. Short fat springs will run faster. Long thin springs have more flex so they run slower. Short springs are stiffer and don’t stay on the contact screw as long as a more flexible spring.
Rear spring controls your tension and your duty cycle. If you want more tension you use a fatter spring. For less tension you use a thinner spring.