How to set up a rotary tattoo machine ?

Tattoos flourish outside tattoo parlors. Many enthusiasts are crazed by modern tattoos because it makes them feel different.

Whether you’re a new artist or want to do your tattoos to yourself, a rotary tattoo machine is more likely to be your machine of choice. Most rotary machines are relatively easier to set up, plus they run smoothly and quietly relative to their coil counterparts.

If you’re new to tattooing, you may not yet know how to set up your new rotary machines. In this article, you will learn more about rotary tattoo machines, including how you can set them up. Keep reading!

Let’s start with the most basic.

What is a rotary tattoo machine?

The first-ever electric tattoo machine was invented and patented on December 8, 1891, by Samuel O’Reilly. This machine which has revolutionized tattooing was inspired by Thomas Edison’s 1876 rotary-operated stencil pen. As technology advanced, compact eccentrics featuring smaller yet powerful electric motors were being used with instantly replaceable needle cartridges.

At its core, a rotary tattoo machine is a tattoo machine that uses an electric motor mechanism to move needles in and out of the skin. It is operated by a compact DC motor, which rotates clinically to produce the energy needed to drive the needle.

The electric motor in these machines moves the needle slowly to give a smooth feeling on the skin while offering a greater degree of precision. This results in fine lines and shading during the tattoo process. Rotary tattoo machines promise great versatility and feel like an ink pen when drawing lines and shading. The appeal of these machines is that they are lightweight and operate quietly, allowing tattoo artists to work faster and for longer in a favorable environment. With these machines, your hands will not cramp even when designing complex tattoos that require a lot of time

How does a rotary tattoo machine work?

If you’re a thoughtful, talented artist, a tattoo machine is one of the best machines you should have at your disposal. Of course, there is a lot to learn before you can start tattooing. Besides knowing how to sanitize your tools and workplace, you need to understand how your tattoo kit works, the various types of needles, and when to use them in different types of tattoos.

So, how does a rotary tattoo machine work?

A small electric motor powers a rotary machine. The motor is attached to an armature and spins to produce an up and down motion. It transmits the rotation to the eccentric through the shaft, where the rotational motions are converted into oscillating-axial.

To deeply understand this operating principle, you need to familiarize yourself with the different parts of the rotary machines.

Parts of a rotary tattoo machine

The main parts of an ordinary tattoo machine include

DC or RCA connection point


Needle bar

The needle

Cam wheel

Tube (for guiding the needle)



Operational process

When you connect the machine to the DC or RCA power supply, the motor starts rotating, which causes the cam wheel to move. The cam wheel is usually connected with the needle by an “eye” secured into place using a grommet. You must place the grommet into the eye of the needle bar before connecting it with the cam wheel end.

As long as there is a power supply, the motor will continually move in a clockwise motion. The eccentric converts this rotational movement into and down movement. As the needle bar moves up and down, it causes the needle to move in and out of the skin. You can now move the machine to design the tattoo. Typically, lining requires you to move your hand relatively faster.

A general rule of thumb: Turn the voltage up when lining and bring the power down when shading. Shading is a meticulous process that needs to be done precisely and with great attention to detail.

How to properly set up a rotary tattoo machine

Generally, tattoo machines are easy to set up. Most importantly, you need to set up your tattoo machine in a clean environment. Here are the steps to follow.

Sanitize your hands: Tattoo equipment needs to be treated with utmost care. For this reason, start by washing your hands with antibacterial soap and wear disposable gloves. It is also a good idea to disinfect your working station.

Fasten together the holder, the tube, and the tip, then carefully insert the needle into the tube. The type of needle you choose depends on what part of the tattoo you’re coloring.

Insert the needle bar into the nipple (grommet) and tighten it while adjusting the needle ledge. The aim of adjusting the needle ledge is to ensure it does not protrude beyond the tip when not in use.

Fix the needle bar using a rubber band and put it on the machine’s body to stabilize vibrations when tattooing. Tighten to secure the needle in place and avoid wobbling.

Once your tattoo gun is set up, install the power supply at the workspace, connect the cables, and plug it in. Next, connect your machines to the power supply through the clip cord while accounting for capacitor polarity. Set the desired voltage.

Understanding rotary tattoo gun voltage

Rotary tattoo machines can either be regulated or unregulated. The regulated options come with pre-set voltage, while their unregulated counterparts give the tattoo artist the ultimate control over the voltage. Rotary tattoo machines from different brands have different voltage ranges. All in all, many pro tattoo artists run their machines at 7.5-8.5 volts during lining and 8-10 volts when shading.

There’s no recipe for adjusting the voltage for your machine. As you use different machines, you will learn how to adjust the voltage to best suit you. This means developing your style of tuning so you can speed up your machine rather than turning up the voltage to voltage to get the desired speed.

The voltage immensely depends on the hand speed of individual tattoo artists.

How do you tune a rotary tattoo gun?

Machine tuning is precisely how you need to set up your machine to run a specific way. Of course, tuning your rotary machine to line, shade, or perform other subtle things is part of the gun setup. That said, tuning a rotary machine is all about setting the right depth for tattooing and adjusting the voltage accordingly.

There isn’t any wrong way to tune or set up a tattoo machine. It ultimately depends on the artist, what he/she will be using the machine for, the thickness of the client’s skin, and the size of the cam wheel.

Tuning a rotary machine is as easy as it gets. Depending on what you’re doing, you need to adjust needle depth. The other way you can significantly customize your tool is by changing the cam wheel. Basically, a shorter cam produces a shorter stroke length while longer cams give longer stroke length. A larger cam also means you will have a slower machine.

No matter your skill level, you will find a smaller cam more comfortable when lining and a large cam useful in shading.

Fault finding and Troubleshooting rotary tattoo machine

There’s no perfect tattoo machine; any design has its advantages and disadvantages. Like all other tools and equipment, a rotary tattoo machine can run into problems while working. Probably the worst experience is your machine failing to start after connecting it to the power supply.

Here are some of the faults you may experience when using your rotary tattoo machine.

Voltage issues: Your machine can fail to start due to insufficient power supply or low voltage. If you’re certain to have assembled your machine correctly, then it fails to start; you will need to check your power supply. Keep in mind that the machine might be defective as well.

Needle-related issues: When you are making a tattoo, the needle suspension of your gun can jam. In most cases, jamming occurs when the needle-bar pin loosens up or the inner piston clogs. New pistons can also cause jamming, particularly if they are not well lubricated. You can remedy these issues by ensuring all parts of your rotary are well remedied.

Pistons: If you notice that the motor of your rotary tattoo machine is straining or underperforming, odds are, its piston is clogged, or the pin connection is loose. Your motor could be struggling because the adjustment screw is too close to the cap. Lubricating or tightening the rotary parts should solve the problem.

Speed reduction: Another frustrating issue many tattoo artists experience is speed reduction. The machine starts working correctly but appears to lose power gradually. Although speed reduction is mainly associated with power or a faulty motor, it might result from the needle-bar pin coming into contact with the housing. Another fault to consider is if the needle-bar retainer is too tight against the needle-bar or even worn out. Checking and troubleshooting the issues will solve the problem.

Springs: As a tattoo artist, you might find yourself battling with a wobbly needle-bar pin. If the needle-bar pin is unstable, the inner pistol spring of your gun might be loose or defective, or the piston and needle-bar pin movement might be unsynchronized.

Rotary tattoo machines are offered in different models and tend to vary from one brand to another. Although some common issues can be solved by lubricating your machine, the best bet when it comes to troubleshooting your rotary tattoo gun is by following the instruction manual. Manufacturers understand the different issues you can experience with your machine, so they proactively indicate potential issues and how to deal with them.

Rotary tattoo machine maintenance

Knowing how to service your machine is as important as knowing how to set it up.

Like other tools, rotary tattoo machines are vulnerable to wear and tear. All the same, an adequately maintained tattoo machine will less likely show faulty performance. It will also last longer.

Taking good care of your gun is a daunting task, but you cannot avoid it. So, what should you do?

Learn the signs of wear and tear: Understanding the signs of wear and tear can be a bit challenging for newbies. As you get acquainted with your machine, the best way to notice wear and tear is by being ultra-careful with its performance. Poor performance is a sign of faulty components.

Keep the machine lubricated: Your machine has some moving parts and is also susceptible to rust. To save rotary parts from rusting and ensure your machine works effectively, you have no other option except lubricating it with a proper lubricant.

Sterilize the machine: Tattoo machines need to stay clean. To protect your investment and ensure it lasts longer, you should consider buying quality cleaning equipment. Keeping your machine clean wards off potential health risks that might occur during the tattooing process. Ideally, you need to use hospital-grade disinfectants and sterilizers to keep the equipment clean.

Change the banding and sealing rubber periodically: Rotary machines operate very quietly, thanks to the rubber parts. When tattooing, these bands, and sealants rapidly lose their properties, which can cause vibration as well as accelerate wear in moving parts. Over time, they also get dirty, reducing the hygiene of the taping procedure. Replacing them will help get rid of potential problems.

Do not allow oil to get into the motor casing.

Learn to fix common problems: As an artist, you should learn how to fix minor issues like loose or disconnected wires. You should also learn how to replace worn-out parts. This should not be a big deal because the instruction manuals provide notes.

Do rotary tattoo machines hurt more?

Honestly, you can’t avoid getting hurt in the tattooing process. The good news is that rotary tattoo machines are gentle on the skin and work quietly


You have just learned all the essential things you need to know about rotary tattoo machines. Although you may find it challenging to set up your machine initially, you will soon familiarize yourself and have an easy time taking good care of the equipment. To have the best experience as an artist, you might need to seek the assistance of experienced tattoo artists.

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