Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Tattoo Machines

I mentioned at the end of a post that I used to make my living as a tattooist, lets talk machines. First, let's be clear that they are tattoo machines and not tattoo guns as gangsters use guns, tattooists use machines. I was started out in the business with respect for the business and felt that the sentiment should be carried over to my post here.

First, for the uninitiated; a typical tattoo will involve an outline and than color/shading and those steps are accomplished using typically two different tattoo machines, tuned to the specific task. The two tattoo machines for the tasks are colloquially named liner and shader. I run my liners to oscillate around sixty times a second and my shaders at fifty times per second, but each machine runs differently and now let's go through some of my main machines that I used day in and day out.

The one machine that I have used through out my ten plus year tenure in tattooing is the frame I built out of 1080 carbon steel that has been heat treated; frame geometry is based on one of Percy Water's frame designs which I felt worked well as a liner. The material was chosen to be favorable to magnetism, a very ferrous metal that encouraged magnetic attraction as that is the driving force of a tattoo machine. The frame was cut on a Bridgeport three axis and everything else hand fitted and finished as my tooling was limited at that time. The frame has seen many color changes but I have left it red as I have come to affectionately call it 'Fisher Price my first tattoo machine'.

The coils are twelve wrap which are slightly bigger than the typically large wound coils at ten wraps and my coils are hand wound and in phase to one another. The phase correction was done by reverse winding the rear coil to create a balanced polarity in the magnetic field, which translates to a smoother and more consistently running tattoo machine in the end. The same coil design concept will be repeated for each of my machines and have been running them that way for most of my tattooing tenure. The contact screw is pure copper which I prefer for my liners.

The front and rear springs are hand cut to this day, I collected steel bands that were used to ship lumber with at lumber yards and as far as lumber yards were concerned it was trash so I was able to collect a lot of it for free. This is key as this is how tattoo machines for were built once upon a time, by found materials available to the tattooer's environment. The steel bands are made of tempered spring steel (you can tell it was tempered by the brilliant blue finish) and is an ideal material for tattoo springs. I would go around collecting this stuff in my car and gauge it later with a piece of metal I cut gauge slots in to and sort them by thickness. I have come to find that I prefer a thickness of .019" for my liner springs.

The next machine is designed and produced by Pulse International out of CT, which is owned by Tim Brewer who is a wonderful tattooist and a long time colleague and friend. I have one of the first runs of this machine and it runs beautifully to this day. It is made of 1065 carbon steel which is cold rolled and than is CNC and EDM cut, perhaps one of the first american tattoo machines produced with very high tech cutting methods when it was first introduced.

The frame design was inspired by the Sharp's dial and the dial looking detail was a direct inspiration from a deli cutting wheel. The contact screw is pure silver on this as I run this as my shader and beefed up the springs ever so slightly to .020" thick, coils are the same size.

The biggest innovation at the time for the machine aside from the material and cutting method which delivered a consistent magnetic field due to a consistent material as a result of the cutting process and cold rolling is the cam lever gate design to retain the tube. Before the cam lever you basically had the choice of a screw that collapses a sleeve or pulled the frame together, the cam lever takes the latter approach and can deliver even tension across the tube which prevents warping as well as a sure and repeatable contact with it.

The last machine that I will go over out of my collection would be one made by Seth Ciferri. The machine is made from iron and was produced using a lost wax process. Iron is a very classic material for a tattoo machine as well as the process and I liked the way it ran at a convention and bought it then.

The frame geometry is a little weird which is what attracted me to it initially, the geometry produces a 'long throw' machine meaning that it moves the armature bar in longer wavelengths but at very even intervals which makes for a unique liner. I run 000 and 0000 bug pins on my needles and a long throw is awesome for small grouped fine needles which can be fragile in the wrong hands (specially on a long throw machine) as the groupings can blow out (to mean to have the grouping of needles loosen out) or worse, hook them which will lead to not only a bad line but injury to the recipient.

Might be wondering what the weird cut quarter is doing on the back of the machine? It is there to control where the rear spring bends at, so that as it ages and wears it will bend at the exact same spot over time versus unevenly and wildly as the metal weakens. If you look back up, the Pulse Intl. machine has yet another advancement in design at the time by incorporating this concept to the frame design by nesting the spring in and a plate on top and the first machine we talked about in this post has a simple washer to accomplish the same thing.

Well, those are my oft used tattoo machines that are now tuned up to prime running condition, I may be tempted to come out of retirement for a few select appointments....oh, and for those that may be wondering, I run my machines on a first generation Pulse Intl. power supply, which was at the time one of the first power supplies that was not only produced for the specific purpose of running a tattoo machine but was also completely engineered from the ground up for the sole purpose. It is a tank of a power supply that I have used across the world and can't say enough good things about.

Pulse Int'l power supply!

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