Needle Techniques and Understanding the Tools.

I’ve read many articles over the years that have laid out certain needle techniques and as expected, they are very specific and focused on specific styles that many tattooers may not ascribe to. This practice focuses on how to use your needles to achieve a clean tattoo – yet each artist may have a differing opinion on what is considered “clean” or “done correctly”

After reading different articles and hearing people ask me how and why many times during my travels I have decided to sit down and spin a somewhat detailed article about how to hold your tattoo machine to achieve consistent lines, clean shading as well as solid color fills.

Most of the articles touched upon the difference between liner and shader needles but left out grouping effectiveness and what to expect when using them in out-of-context ways. Almost none of the articles focused on small-grouping liner needles or the best way to avoid blowouts when using them. I also never caught wind of an article discussing what is necessary to achieve optimal results with different needles. This led me to building this article and to continue to edit it as more information becomes available to me.

Before getting into the article that broaches the subject of needle technique, read our article about tattooing hands and feet, it has a load of info about the skin and what to expect when tattooing those areas..

Tattooing the hands and feet

Needle Technique
Funny enough, I was at a convention this week and I watched as many people using different machines and different needle groupings were applying tattoos to their wanting clientele. One thing I noticed was that everyone was running their machines in a way that I consider being incorrect.

The speed, angle of insertion and hand speed were inconsistent and incomparable with every artist I watched. This wouldn’t be an issue most often, but with how distinct types/areas of skin respond to trauma every tattoo artist should respond and adapt how they tattoo.

In my walkabout, I had wanted to walk up and give a couple pointers because, truthfully, if they were paying better attention to a couple things, that needle would give them better, cleaner, and easier lines. They would also be able to tattoo quicker.

I know this sounds like a crackpot-asshole calling bluff on a bunch of seasoned artists… I assure you it is not. This is another friendly critique for those out there who want to improve.

Make sure you have an eye loop with you while you read through this article.

Also, take a look at our tips and trick article for a little help with tattooing techniques. The article can be found at-

Different Techniques Used in Tattooing

Tattoo Setup – Needles
Let’s start out with liner needles because they are the most commonly overlooked tool. After we work our way through some simple improvements, we will move on the mags.

Needle Configurations
When preparing to do a tattoo it is always important to plan ahead regarding what needle configuration you plan to use.

Tattoo needles are like the paintbrushes artists use to fill a canvas. I say this because each individual needle grouping can return a different result, depending on how you use it. There are also different grades and sizes of needles which can affect all aspects of your finished product.

When choosing your needles, pay attention to what gauge they are. This may be foreign to you, or you may never have learned about how different gauged needles can affect the skin but, to obtain a clean looking tattoo that ages well, your understanding of these variables is key.

Larger gauge needles will traumatize the skin more. This certainty is apart from how well your technique nullifies their effect but is something to take into account when you are attempting to do work that is finer in detail or requires a smoother finish.

Larger gauge needles are great for covering larger, less detailed areas of skin. Their larger width creates a bigger opening for the pigment to be injected into the skin as well as allowing more pigment to flow down the needles during operation. This amount of trauma to the skin can be offset by the type of taper the needle has but the flow of pigment down the needle shaft will stay relatively consistent.

Liner needles are needles assembled on bar with a rounded tip. These groupings are like the fine, detail brushes painters use. They come in many flavours, like these listed below:

Regular -when the liner needles are constructed, the shaft of each needle is placed evenly next to the shaft of other needles in a jig and soldered. The gap at the end of the needle grouping (between the needle tips) is affected by the taper.
Tight – When assembling the needles, the tips of the needles are brought closer together, creating a choke point (or tight end) to the needle tips
Extra Tight – In the same manner as tight needle groupings are made, the very tips of extra tight groupings have even less space between them. This configuration makes for very precise marks to be made but also increases the chances of increased skin trauma. Pigment flow is decreased as well due to a smaller opening for pigment to flow through the middle of the grouping.
Power Liner – This configuration is set up in the same fashion as a regular or tight liner needle but each needle has an increased amount of distance between each other.. Sometimes these needles are labeled as shaders. Increased ink flow occurs and makes these needles great for packing color or running single pass lines.
Loose/Shader/Traditional – These needles are soldered to the bar with a hollow space between each shaft. This increases the ability for ink to flow between the needles which can in turn increase saturation. These needles can also be configured with a rounded end where the needles on the outer edges are slightly higher in relation to the needles located in the middle of the grouping. When using this configuration of needles, slowing your hand motion down slightly will increase the chances of running clean lines or filling colors/black. In more modern times, these groupings are used exclusively in high detail, photo-realism.
Flat tattoo needles are described as they are constructed. Needles are attached to a bar, side by side, creating a wide but thin end. Due to the thin side-to-side nature of this grouping, care must be taken with hand motion so as to not turn the needle head into a “razor blade” which will cut the skin to shreds if not used correctly. These needles are commonly used for smooth gradation with black work or color, as well as filling solid colors. These groupings are best used with a fast stroke machine for smooth gradient work, or a slow machine for even stippled effects.

Flat grouping have a unique feature the larger that they get (based on how the solder is applied to the needles). A “wave” can be applied to the needles – a side-to-side motion – when using a box motion with the hand versus running in a straight, linear motion. This is caused by the needles adjusting to the pressures that naturally occur when they hit the resistance of skin during operation. This unique response allows the user to create a more soft gradient as the needles on bar are entering the skin at different depths, placing pigment into the skin in a nonuniform way.

Stacked magnum needles (stacked mags) are a lesser found needle in modern western tattooing. Wile I had used these exclusively when we were building needles in the past, I find it difficult to purchase these from distributors found online. Stacked mags are fantastic for smooth, solid color and most types of black work. Their construction places 2 flat groupings, where the top of the “stack” has a lower needle count (building the grouping like a pyramid), on top of each other. The tightness of the needles decreases the flow of pigment onto the skin when working with them, which makes for a cleaner point of view.

By having the stacks of flats placed on top of each other, the grouping becomes more rigid and acts more like a liner than a flat. Keep this in mind when running smaller gauge needles or with groupings that have a very long taper as the pigment flow will increase saturation, depending on hand speed.

Weaved Mags
Originally called weaved shaders, weaved mags (or simply referred to as “mags”) are a very common grouping used in the industry. These all purpose needles are great for most all applications but can be tricky for newcomers as the hand motions used for different techniques may take time to learn.

Weaved mags are constructed like a standard flat but the grouped needles have a gap in between them. This is opposite to the stacks where all of the needles are close together. This construction allows pigment to flow more freely down the needles and into the skin. While most may assume the increased flow will increase concentration of pigment, the total pigment implanted into the skin per strike is actually decreased due to the needles being further apart from each other. Most manufacturers overcome this by decreasing the taper on mags. This increases the gap introduced by the needle which increases total saturation of pigment. Due to this, pay attention to speed and hand motion used as trauma can be increased if these groupings are used incorrectly.

Straight Mags/Flats
As the name suggests, these needle groupings are manufactured with a flat head. While manufacturing them is easier (by hand) than mags, care must be taken when setting up. Check ever needle bar constructed with an eye loop to ensure the needles at the end of the bar are truly even and flat, otherwise inconsistent work will result. Due to many artists not having or using an eye loop, many users report increased trauma to the skin and shy away from their use. I have found that people unaccustomed to using these needles have difficulty because they use them much like a liner or any rounded shader.

Because these needles are totally flat, any side to side motion can cause the edge needle to snag the skin or deposit ink more effectively in the grouping is not aligned parallel to the skin. One way to utilize these needles effectively for gradient work is by only moving in a linear fashion, forward and backward, pendulum like. These groupings are amazing at creating sharp edges and fanning/blending soft edges and work more efficiently than rounded needle groupings when handled correctly.

Curved Mags/Flats
Curved mags were introduced to combat the high discard rate and supposed increased trauma of flat groupings. While I do agree that when using flat groupings at a 90 degree angle increased trauma may occur, I disagree that this is caused by an uneven flex of skin tissues when being struck.

In a 2 dimensional setting, the uneven striking of the skin may occur. This would be amplified if the user applying the needle strike to skin did not have a perfectly perpendicular position above the skin. When we look at the needle stress entering the skin from a 3D perspective (like in real life), the most central needles hit the skin first, causing a bowing effect to occur. As they penetrate, the outermost needles (which are set higher than the central needles in the grouping) do not penetrate as deep into the tissue being tattooed. Because of this, the saturation of pigment become more superficial (at a steep angle versus a deep angle) and a gradient is naturally applied with the tattoo.

In staking this claim, the steeper angle of insertion an artist uses lowers the gradient effect applied by curved needles.

Anything over 9 needles for round liners or 11 needles for shaders/mags is what I consider to be an over-sized needle. Others claim that the over-sized label starts when you use more than 20 needles in a grouping. Regardless of how you identify as jumbo (most likely based on the size of work that you do commonly), jumbo groupings make fast work of large areas that need to be covered.

Jumbo groupings are tricky, mainly because you need enough power from your machine to push them into the skin as well as a modified hand motion to ensure you do not overwork the skin when tattooing. You also must have a very strong stretch on the skin for most large groupings as the natural resting skin tension on a human body will deflect the machine force driving these groupings into the skin. (In most cases, the larger a needle grouping is, the stronger a stretch you need)

If you are doing large swathes of solid black tribal, large scale pieces like a full back or have something that could benefit from using less passes to fill an area of interest, jumbo groupings are the way to go. Use the same techniques outlined above and pay attention to “needle wag” on groupings that have a greater distance between the needles.

Facts about application
There is an inconsistent consensus on how best to use most groupings of needles. All of the artists working inside this industry are different people with different ideas about aesthetics. On top of that, every person utilizes a different path to complete a tattoo, even if they are the same design. While we may argue about how best to use any grouping, I am working off experience of how best to not use such groupings or what has worked best for me personally.

Most of the claims about needles above are based on simple mechanical function and have not taken into account the stretch applied to the working area. Utilizing different stretching techniques can alter the effectiveness and working ability of any needle. There is always a need to further explain the most simple of tasks so, in the future, I’ll work up an article about proper skin stretching and how it affects the trauma to skin, creates different effects and what can go wrong if you do it wrong.

Identifying what is on the needle box
There is no consistent labeling in the tattoo needle world among distributors. Personally, I find this beyond aggravating. Each company has a different bevel, stock source and bar length and all companies claim proprietary values increase the brands utility. Because of this practice, I am going to focus on the most common labels applied and build a table to help you choose what needles work best for you.

On a side note – you can see how much the average tattoo setup costs with our calculator –

Found on our article Tattoo Cost Calculator

1203RL Needle Gauge T Tight grouping
1203RL Amount of Needles XT Extra Tight Grouping
1203RL Type of grouping *T or TX Textured
RL Round liner S Standard taper (1.5mm)
RS Round shader LT Long Taper (2.0mm)
F Flat DLT Double long taper (2.5mm)
M1 Weaved mag, single stack ELT Extra long taper (3.5mm)
M2 Mag, double stack SLT Super long taper (5.5mm)
MR / MC Rounded / curved mag ESLT Extra super long taper (8.0mm)
5M1 (mag)

5MR (Curved)

5 flat (open or closed)

7MR (Curved)

7M2 (Stacked)

7 flat (open or closed)
4-5 flat (open or closed)


9MR (Curved)

9M2 (Stacked)

9 flat (open or closed)
5 flat (open or closed)




11 flat
6-7 flat (open or closed)



13 flat
7 flat (open or closed)



15 flat
1RL, 3RL 1 – 3 round
4RL (Square), 5RL 4 – 5 round
7RL 7 round
8RL, 9RL 8 – 9 round
11RL, 14 RL 11 – 14 round
3RS 1 – 3 round
5RS 4 – 5 round
7RS 7 round
8RS, 9RS 8 – 9 round
14RS 11 – 14 round
Rules of the Tattoo – Liners
Regardless if you use small or large groupings, you will get varying results on the healed end of the tattoo if you don’t follow a few simple needle techniques.

Rule 1- Always run your needle against the tube back when running lines. This is called moving forward or running against the back of the tube. This ensures the needle stays in contact with the tube tip while running lines which creates a consistent pull of ink from the tube reservoir. If you run into a situation where you cannot push the lines in, using an s-motion where the needle runs against the side of the tube will return similar results.
Rule 2- To create gradations or less saturated work, work opposite to Rule 1. Pulling the needle (depending on the band tension to have applied to the machine setup) will create a skipping of the needle across the skin surface. Doing this you decrease the depth and consistency of the needle entering the skin which decreases saturation.
In the beginning, we overly focus on what some of us experienced tattooers think of as the mundane. Running lines, whip shading, light source… It something that we may take for granted as practice leads to understanding. That understanding leads to mastery, in most cases.

This leads me to a question: If we are working towards a mastery with knowledge that is incorrect, can we ever obtain mastery?

Funny enough, some of those things that we used to be driven crazy by, when our mentors or just by ourselves we’re trying out new things, have become something that we rarely focus on what we’re doing tattoos as we mature towards mastery.

How often do you pay attention to where your needles are?

Do you only pay attention to what feels right?

Liner needles
Let’s move on and take a look at needle technique using liner groupings.

Small needle grouping – Liners
When I first started tattooing, I was told that you had to keep the needles in the tube at an angle somewhere between 45? and 60? (standard angle or SA) when running lines in the skin. This idea seems to be true for most applications when applying lines (along with running against the tube).

Consistently using a SA will result in the return of having consistent results. Especially when using smaller groupings .Needle skip when running lines with small groupings can be disastrous when working a highly detailed piece.

Although I had started my career using mostly larger grouping liners, I only use 3 round and 5 round liners for the vast majority of my work currently. When I first started to use this practice, I was beyond nervous for the first week or so. It felt awkward to run lines multiple times and I could see glaring issues with my hand control. Luckily enough, most designs I set up for the training experience could easily be repaired with a 7 or 9 liner

The result of this experience is that I’m very cautious when ever I run a line. My tube is held in the SA and I am always looking for the best way to push when I’m running and/or sculpting lines.

If you’re like most of us, your hand gets a bit tired and those machines start getting heavy.

When that happens, your machine sags and you run your needle too shallow. Shallow is considered <45° angle and can be useful for some applications but, since we are focusing wholly on lining techniques, you should avoid this practice as often as possible. (I know that it may be difficult when running a continuous line around a surface like the forearm of ankle.)

What happens when you run your machine shallow:

Your needles won’t penetrate to the correct depth in the skin unless you press your tube tip into the skin (bury the needle).
You lose most of the pigment in the upper tissues by increasing the traveling distance of the needle.
Your machine must work harder to push the needle in which increases machine load. When this happens, the heat that is created due to operation increases which decreases your machine’s life.
If you are pulling a line, the needle will skip across the skin surface. When this happens the needles deposits little ink but creates a greater amount of trauma to the tissues surface.

Shallow with a Mag Needle

As you’re pulling a line, at whatever speed your hand moves, the needle at the end of the tube seems to bounce around on the skin surface if your machine throw is not long enough to engage the skin. This is because it’s not hitting the skin directly or that the needle is unable to travel far enough out of the tube end to put the pigment into the dermis.

This unwanted effect can be seen more commonly if the skin is stretched too tight. You see the needles going in their normal up and down motion but after running a line or a fill there will be little pigment deposited into the epidermis. When this happens the needles are either bouncing off the skin surface (more common with coil tattoo machines versus direct drive) or they rip the skin apart (more common with rotary/direct drive machines).

If the needles are running at a steeper angle the needle will just hop along the top not making any sort of penetration, thus leaving any pigment that you want to put into the skin stuck on top of the skin. In this case, the needles just chew up the upper layer of skin for no reason.

In both cases the pigment (if it does make it into the dermis) will be trapped in the uppermost layer as the needles won’t get deep enough to deposit the ink properly. The body will push the pigment out of the skin due to the increased pressures or the body will be unable to supply the blood flow that get the immune system to lock onto and hold the pigment particles, making the tattoo permanent.

Keep your hand above shallow angles when running lines. Working in this way that makes the warped and uneven surface of the skin seem flat and helps the needles to penetrate the layer of skin we want in the most efficient way.

Steep angle of tubes
What happens with the needle facing straight-up-and-down to the 90? angle, or somewhere between 75 and 90°?

The needle has to work harder to pass through the skin, especially if you have a very tight stretch on a specific area.

When the needle strikes the skin, it doesn’t so much a slide in as it does blow the skin apart to create an opening for the ink to enter.


To bypass this some artists have lightened their stretch and kept the steep angle when tattooing. This needle technique, which may actually work when using smaller needle configurations, still isn’t totally efficient. You can utilize it when trying to build/sculpt lines, but if you’re trying to do very fine lines…Not so much

What you push the pigment into the skin with needles at a steep angle, while holding a softer stretch, the skin layers that accept the pigment are out of alignment. You can tell this by releasing the stretch after running a line.

When you release that light stretch you will notice that your lines are wavy or inconsistent. This is because the skin is an organ that is susceptible to stresses, like stretching. When you pull the skin tight, you squeeze the layers together making an easier path for needles to push through. If you hold it too loose, or stretch incorrectly, the skin layers will move into a position where the needle will inject pigment into the skin. When the stretch is released the pigment inserted will migrate to a place other than where the artist intended it to be.

What happens with the needle facing straight-up-and-down to the 90? angle, or somewhere between 75 and 90 The needle has to work harder to pass through the skin especially if you have a very tight stretch on a specific area. When the needle strikes the skin it doesn’t so much a slide in as it does blow the skin of parts to create an opening for the ink to enter.

To bypass this effect, some artists have lightened their stretch, which may actually work when using smaller needle configurations. It also may work when trying to build lines, but if you’re trying to do very fine lines, the increased trauma will make it impossible to heal a long sitting, single sitting tattoo well.

Large groupings
Large liner groupings should only ever be used in one way. Run any of your lines the standard 45 to 60? angle with a decent stretch, which is determined by skin type.

Just steep enough to get the needles in for some reverse whip shading

Watch the effects of your lining when you use these angles. From experience, you’re only going to be getting partial saturation. This is due to a lack of full penetration of all needles entering the skin. This is especially evidence and needle groupings that are loose, such as round shaders

What happens when you bog down?
Yes it is true that you can run steep angles with round shaders, or loose groupings, or large groupings of round liners if you take it slow enough. The partial needle grouping entering the proper depth will deposit enough pigment if you go slow enough. However, this is incredibly poor needle technique.

But, this defeats the purpose of using large groupings. You wanna be able to move fast put the ink in the skin and move on to your next tattoo.

I remember back in the day of Spalding Rogers’, National’s and Danny Fowler’s; people would just crank their machines up to 13 just screamed the pigment into the skin.

When your tossing your needle technique out the window like that, regardless of what your angle was at, the ink went in.

Magnum needles
The industry hasn’t reached a consensus about how to use needle mags. Regardless of this fact, there is one generally accepted procedure when using them that will ensure quality results, depending on the style you’re working with.

Soft shading
Soft shading can be accomplished using any dispersion of pigment that you have laid out on your table. The trick here is your needle angle when entering the skip.

Softer shading is better accomplished by having the needles at a steeper angle i.e. Between 75 and 90?. Having the needles at this steeper angle causes them to bounce off the surface of the skin due to the largest surface area that is being engaged by the needles. This bouncing off the skin ensures that not all the pigment you want to put in will go in it will just sits superficially in the upper layer of the epidermis.

Just like stated above, care needs to be taken as you will burn through that top layer of skin quickly if you keep a tight stretch while continuously running the needles over the skin surface.

Inversely, you can lighten up on the skin and allow the mags to just bounce off the skin surface. This will give you a softer tone while keeping the potential of a hard edge at a minimum.

Color filling
When filling color you can alternate between steep and normal angles 75 to 90? (which is steep) or 45 to 60? angles (which is standard). The steep angles can be used to feather out colors when blending while the SA are used for filling.

Be careful when using the steep angle technique for shading. You need caution because the needles are more prone to chew up the skin if you don’t Get the saturation correct on your 1st pass. Use a standard angle between 45 and 60? to put color into the skin. Most people work in small tight circles, but with mags, I have found that a Box Motion works better than circles.

Box motion explained
The Box motion for filling in color or solid black is as follows
Start by pushing forward into the skin with the Magnum needle.
As you start to circle back just pull a hard 90? right while lifting the needle out of the skin.
Finish pulling out of the skin as you pull straight back away from the skin
Make another 90? turn to start heading towards the skin while dropping your needle depth towards the skip.
Lather rinse repeat.

Proper technique
Using small liners proper technique for putting people into the skin is
Get a stretch on the skin or area that you are planning on Tattooing
Get ink in needles and tubes by dipping and in ink cap.
Start your line with the machine tube set up 45- 60? off the skin surface
Only move forward with your liner. You will be pushing the needle against the back of the tube. you can shortcut this and/or cheat it by going in a side to side motion.
Never drag your needles backwards when running lines.
Run your line in a smooth motion.
What do I mean by smooth?

It’s easy.

Everyone has a range of motion. When you push past the natural range of motion for any muscle grouping that you’re using, your body has to switch between the one muscle group you are using, to another. That switch is necessary to complete the movement.

When you pull a long line, the transition between muscles happen and you’ll get a little shake. Sometimes the shake can be extremely evident, sometimes, not so much.

Finish your line by feathering the line out. You’ll need to do this with every line. Especially if you have to tie one line into another line to complete a longer segment.

Lather rinse repeat until your job is done

Packing tribal
This one seems to be elusive to most people nowadays. When I started tattooing all we did was tribal. It’s what you cut your teeth on you did it 7 days a week 14 hours A-day and if you couldn’t get it right by God you wouldn’t get a color piece.

Perhaps that’s why tribal is just not so in demand now

To pack tribal you go with a mildly shallow angle

Normally, I’ll use the box method of filling, moving in very tight squares. Those squares create a line pass that overlaps each other. When making a pass over to fill in an area next to a spot already done, overlap the area already filled in 1/4 to 1/2 of the way.

To some, this is the most boring aspect of tattooing but I normally make a game out of it and enjoy large swathes of black!

To keep myself busy most of the time when I’m doing tribal such as this, I hum meow mix in my head for hours on end.

The cool thing about this (packing tribal, not humming Meow Mix) is when done correctly, the amount of touch ups needed for the person who is receiving the black work is going to be minimal.

That’s correct if done correctly you only really have to touch up tribal you won’t have to redo the whole sucking thing.