Tattoo Machine Frames 101.

A decent cast aluminum tattoo machine frame.

The frame is one of the most important parts of the machine. If the frame geometry is out of whack your machine will never run correctly. The above picture is of a decent tattoo machine frame with solid frame geometry.

Tattoo machine frame spring deck or saddle.  With a, “ramped” spring deck.

This is the spring deck or, “saddle.” Notice how this deck is slightly ramped to effect the rear spring tension/stroke. You will see both ramped, flat decks, and decks that can be adjusted. Decks are set up this way with specific machine functions in mind. Note: A flat deck will add zero tension/stroke to the spring assembly; while a ramp will give it some extra tension and change the stroke a little. You want to look at the contact post and spring deck when building a machine for a task you have in mind. (If you need to know what a spring is click here.) (I’ll cover stroke in another article later.)

If the deck is not aligned with the coil heads, tube vice, or/and front binding post. Then it is garbage. This is true for every part. They must all line up. You must start with proper frame geometry or you will never build a machine that will function correctly. That’s what, “frame geometry” is.

The pictured frame above is not made from a magnetic material so it will need a yoke to function properly. (Short article on what a yoke is.)

Good quality cast iron tattoo machine.

Notice that this machine doesn’t need a yoke under the coils. That is because the iron frame acts as a yoke. Also, this machine has a flat spring deck when compared to the first machine frame. Iron is a good solid work horse material, but it is heavy. Iron also is more desirable than steel, as it has double the magnetic capacity and will not retain a residual magnetic field as bad as steel does.

Note the front binding post’s alignment with the front coil. This machine is a more oriented to be a liner. But the spring and contact screw are set in a way that this machine is to be run as a shader. It’s where the spring hits the screw that matters.

If you look at different machines you’ll notice that the front binding post will be set more towards the tube vice, (A little past the front coil and higher up for a longer stroke.) Or back toward the spring deck, (More lined up with the front coil and lowered for a shorter stroke.)

A frame with an adjustable sliding front post. Note the range of motion it provides the contact screw. The picture is set in a long stroke position.

This is because the position of the front post will help determine whether your machine frame would be better set as a shader or a liner. In the picture above the adjustable frame is set to a shading/color position. If you were to push the contact screw back over the front coil it would be a lining position. Of course you can get a machine designed to run as a shader to function as a liner; or a liner frame to shade; but it’s just easier to start off with a frame that was made for what you want to use it for. It’s also why adjustable sliding front posts are a nice feature.

In short: The front post position will effect the, “throw” of your machine. You must pair this with the springs you use, coils/cap, spring tension, and contact gap.

So how do you determine a good frame from a shitty one? Or the noob question, “What is a good tattoo machine to buy?”

This is a piece of shit tattoo machine frame.

Why is it a POS? It’s all dependent on the process used to create the frame. This frame was made by cutting sheet metal and bending it into shape by automated machines. If you look closely you can see how warped this frame is. The frame geometry on these frames will always be warped; making them worthless. Don’t go anywhere near these thin stamped POS frames.

Another piece of shit.

This machine looks solid, but it is in fact a POS. It is made by drilling and bolting three cut pieces together. It isn’t noticeable in the picture, but everything on this machine is out of alignment. The holes are slightly off and the whole thing was carelessly bolted together. You’re going to have unscrew the bolts and get everything into alignment again, then tighten things down; hoping you got it right. Running the machine will vibrate the bolts and cause them to loosen over time. You can see where this is going…

When looking for a frame, start out by looking for a cast frame with a simple practical design. Cast frames carry some of the most desirable qualities. The only decision you have to make is what kind of material the cast frame will be made from. You have different deciding factors when choosing your frame.

EDM wire cut frames can also be good frames. If you’re buying your frame from a Chinese source it’s most likely going to be an EDM wire cut frame. Look for something with clean angles and a solid thickness. You will have a hard time telling a EDMWC frame from a cast frame. So beware of sellers claiming it’s a hand crafted cast frame.

Weight:

The lighter the better. Having the lightest machine possible helps reduce hand strain. Although many people prefer a heavy frame, claiming that the weight absorbs the kinetic vibrations and steadies the line work. Get some machines in your hands and feel them after a needle and tube are loaded. Can you hold that machine for say, 2 hours?

Shape:

A good shape is something well thought out for the machines intended use. Bull dogs, dials, and J frames are solid designs. Anything that has good solid cast construction and straight forward geometric angles. The design will also affect the weight; so go for the most minimalistic designs.

Residual Magnetism:

Over time steel frames will become magnetized. This can cause funky things to happen as the interfering fields can throw off the operation of the machine. This includes any metal that reacts to a magnetic field. It is also one reason why brass/copper is a commonly desired metal in frame construction. Steel is prone to much more Residual magnetism than iron. This is one reason why an iron armature bar and iron coil cores are so desirable. The magnetic field in iron reduces to zero more effectively than steel.

Durability:

Durability of a material is common knowledge. Look out for materials that will rust or bend easily. One of the issues with machines made from non air craft aluminum.

Material:

Brass, iron, steel, copper, and aluminum are really the only materials you want to tinker with. It’s up to you to figure out what traits you want your machine build to have. I’ve seen really bad ideas like wood frames. I don’t think that porous wood with tons of places for bacteria and BBPs to hide should ever be used in a machine. Plus it will vibrate with the wood grain like crazy.

If you want a good quality machine out of the box for very little money I recommend these guys: https://www.internationaltattoosupply.com/

Of course you’re going to have to strip your machine down and set it up to run exactly how you want it to after it arrives. But the frame and all the parts are an incredible deal for the kind of quality they carry in their construction.

Note: I use a lot of pictures of generic machines because I don’t want to piss off the brand name guys. And remember the first thing you should think of when selecting/building parts is can this be sterilized?

NOTE: Yes you can build/find frames that are welded, bolted, etc… that will have excellent frame geometry. Casting is a solid piece that has little room for error when you are buying parts for construction. That’s why it comes out as the top choice.

Here’s a video from Underground Demagraphix that explains some things a bit more in depth:

11 thoughts on “Tattoo Machine Frames 101.

    • Thank you for the positive energy. I need to update this article and change a few things. Expect new articles very soon on setting up springs and all kinds of stuff to help the tattooists out there start to really get into machines. Feel free to correct me on mistakes. I’m pretty sure I made a few in this article.

  1. I have seen a plastic frame from a certain tattoo supply company, not that I would even consider using a plastic for a frame, but what’s your take on plastic frames?

    • It would be light weight, but would it be durable enough? I don’t see the point in plastic or wood frames when you can get a really nice brass frame cast using the lost wax method for around 20 dollars. Should I put up a spot on this site for people to grab decent cast frames to practice grinding and etching on? Plastic and wood just seems extremely cheap. I don’t see plastic or wood being able to be cleaned effectively either. I’ll post an image gallery of a machine I’m building using a walker brass frame I got for about 20 bucks.

      • I would love to see more on construction of a machine. I have two machines that came with a beginner kit I purchased several years ago. Ever piece on them is not bolted, but held together with hex screws, and the geometry is total bollocks from what I’ve been told and it was even pointed out on one that there is zero room between the armature bar and top of the coils so they’re basically tattoo machine paperweight worthy. I only know the basics of tattoo machines, but I am hoping that the guts of both machines are good enough that maybe I could just buy a good frame and reconstruct them. Or at least use it as a learning tool for myself.

        • You could always go through and change the coils on it to some smaller ones and try shimming them into place. But then you have to tweak anywhere else it’s thrown out. I would just write it off as a learning tool; and stay away from kits. Kits are always junk. I like to see people build machines by selecting each part, but it’s also very cheap and easy to buy a few with some good parts on them and then strip them. I have no idea what your machine looks like or have a way to test its parts with the magnet or spark test to see what they are actually made of. So I don’t know what you can salvage from it and what can be tossed. If you start getting into chemistry you can use chemical tests to see what things are made of as well.

          I wouldn’t trust to coils or the springs. The coil cores may be useable you’ll have to take them apart and spark test them to see what they are. (Probably 1018 steel or cheaper.) If you can keep the posts and the armature bar that’s a decent save. You can never have too many washers either.

          I will take your request and create a few articles for you on more detailed steps on machine building. My 2 main tips though are to always wrap your own cores unless you can find a coil maker you trust, and to always set up your own springs.

          I always tell everyone to use wax cast frames when they are just getting started as they are incredibly durable and there is little margin for error in their creation. As always it’s not a rule; if you can get a good frame using another method that works too. Let me know if you would like me to direct you to any parts sources.

  2. As an avid collector of Ink for many years, and a recent fortunate recipient of an apprenticeship, I have spent many hours perplexing the nuances of coil machines. I don’t know why, whether it is a closely guarded secret, or frequently misunderstood, or….I just hadn’t found the right place to search, but… Although my mentor is always willing to share info, he frequently sends me on a search for info for us to discuss. One of my first questions, was the difference of a “liner” “shader” set up. It seemed simple at first but the more I searched the harder it became to understand the set ups. Although there is still much for me to learn and understand about the infinite beauty of the coil machine, I have for the first time, made some forward progress in the understanding…I thank you.

    Sincerely
    Eric (Ottawa Ontario Canada)

    • Wow thanks for that complement. I’m glad the site is helping people out. Let me know what kind of info you want me to focus on in future posts.

  3. Hey I am wanting to learn how to build my own tattoo frame do you have or know where I can get the proper spects on how to build a frame. I want to make sure when I build one that it is correct as far as where every hole and position of everything because I know that if its out of wack it won’t work properly. Thanks for any help you can give me and great site man it’s been great reading all your info since I am new to tattooing and I am the type of person who wants to learn as much as I can about anything I do.

    • Building a frame from scratch would require you to determine what kind of work the machine will do. Fowler’s time machines are very interesting in that they are designed to allow the user to move the front post and also rotate the spring saddle. I don’t want to discourage you, but building a perfect frame from scratch will be incredibly difficult without precision machinist tools. Your best bet for a place to start, would be to get a nice straight frame from ITS for 20.00 bucks. Then get some machinist measurement tools and go through and size everything on the frame. Remember that some frames are for shading and others for lining. And remember the frame link I gave you is iron so it is sized without a yoke under the coils.

      • resin frames work fine…you don’t know what youre talkin about …lets see your work…..people are always trying to act like they know what time it is with the ink, but their work looks like SHIT!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


2 × four =

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>