December 30, 2020 6 min read

The battle between coil and rotary tattoo machines is nothing new. Tattooers have gone head to head for years over which option makes a better machine. With both coil and rotary machines maintaining their popularity and reputation, we don’t expect a winner in this long-term war anytime soon. Both come with their own set of advantages that make them a staple in tattooers’ everyday toolkit.

While the debate has long been over which machine is better, the attraction for each really boils down to personal preference. Let’s take a look at the tattoo machine’s evolution before we jump into the differences between coil and rotary machines and tips to help you pick the right machine. 

The Invention and Evolution of Tattoo Machines

Best Tattoo Machines

When it comes to coil and rotary tattoo machines, the differences lie in their inner workings. Both machines evolved from the same source of inspiration. Thomas Edison’s electric pen, a duplicating device that leveraged rotary technology to speed up copying content, sparked a new idea in 1891. Fifteen years after Edison patented hisStencil-Pens, Sam O’Reilly realized that he could modify the electric pen to introduce ink into the skin. That realization led O’Reilly to patent a tattoo tube and needle system. Over 120 years ago, the original tattoo machine was born from the electric pen when O’Reilly added an ink reservoir.

While the first tattoo machine used rotary technology to operate, more modern tattoo machines emerged that used electromagnetic currents to create a hammer-like effect. This is what drives the functionality of the coil machines we use today. The first coil tattoo machine was a single-coil machine patented by Thomas Riley of London, England. Riley actually used a modified doorbell assembly placed in a brass box to make the tattoo machine work. 

Eventually, Alfred Charles South would patent the dual-coil configuration we see in the coil tattoo machines used today. That first rendition would be so heavy that the device needed to be suspended from ceilings by springs to take the weight off artists’ hands. This was a far cry from the lightweight options artists use today, making sense of the progressive transformation in tattooing art we’ve seen over the years. 

While the coil and rotary machines are the most popular options used by tattooers Carson Hill invested a third type of tattoo machine in 2000. The pneumatic tattoo machines are powered by air compressors that use pressurized air to drive the needles up and down. While these pneumatic machines are incredibly lightweight and entirely autoclavable, they are surprisingly not as popular as coil and rotary machines. 

Long-Stroke vs. Short-Stroke Machines

When it comes to choices, your options don’t stop there. Once you choose between coil and rotary machines, you can also select between long-stroke and short-stroke machines. Short-stroke machines are best for shading, but can also be used for lining. A 3.75mm or 4.0mm stroke will allow artists to create solid lines in a single pass, making the more subtle gradients you see in portrait work. Shader tattoo machines also use short strokes. Most shaders, however, are long-stroke tattoo machines. These are better suited for coloring, shading, and sculpting lines because they do less damage to the clients’ skin. For this reason, they’re also best suited for dark skin complexions.  

How They Work

Regardless of which side of the fence you stand on with the coil vs. rotary tattoo machine war, the interest in these machines’ inner workings isn’t up for debate. Both machines work to embed ink into the skin, but how each does that is entirely different. 

Coil Machines

Coil machines use a hammer-like motion to push the machine’s needle up and down to pierce the skin again and again. It basically boils down to physics, but here’s how it works. 

Coil machines have the following parts:

  • Two coils or electromagnets
  • An armature bar where the needle attaches to the machine
  • A contact screw
  • Springs

Here’s what happens:

  1. When a direct current passes through the coils, it creates an electromagnetic field. 
  2. The field pulls the armature bar down, breaking contact with the screw and collapsing the circuit. 
  3. The springs then pull the bar back up again, re-establishing contact and restarting the process. 
  4. The up and down motion created in this cycle pushes the needle in and out of the skin. 

When it comes to complicated setup, the coil machine takes the win. 

Rotary Machines

Rotary machines are the original in tattoo machine technology. Remember how we said the first tattoo machine used rotary technology to operate? Rotary machines have the following essential parts:

  • Small, slick electric motor
  • Cam wheel
  • Needle bar

Here’s what happens:

  1. Power is fed into the motor, spinning the cam wheel in a clockwise circular fashion. 
  2. The needle bar is attached to the cam wheel, converting the rotary motion into a linear one. 
  3. The needle moves in a continuous backward and forwards motion that gives the rotary machine its smooth, fluid results.

Compared to coil machines, their inner workings are definitely much less complicated. 

Defining Better

While the inner workings of these machines don’t really come into play when picking a preference, the following factors do:

What’s All The Noise About? 

It’s safe to say that most memories of previous tattoo sessions come with that buzzing noise. There’s no tattoo studio around that is entirely void of that infamous buzzing sound associated with tattoo machines. That’s because it comes from the belly of the coil tattoo machine. On the contrary, the rotary machine is noticeably quiet. But does noisereally matter when it comes to choosing coil vs. rotary? 

While most tattooers aren’t worried about creating a peaceful, quiet workspace for themselves, the buzzing noise might make a difference to your customers. When it comes to inexperienced clients, the relentless buzzing of a coil tattoo machine can be anxiety-provoking and even intimidating. Every reputable tattooer wants their clients to feel comfortable through the tattooing process; that’s why some keep both machines on hand to deliver a calmer experience when clients need their minds put at ease. 

Coil Tattoo Machine

All In the Feels

When it comes to how both machines operate, the differences in how they produce power undoubtedly affect how the machines act and feel for the artist. Coil machines certainly aren’t famous for their user-friendliness. Remember how we explained the break in the electromagnetic field? This constant disconnection and reconnection of power make the needle move. They also open the door to potential shaking and vibration of your machine. 

As mentioned, rotary machines are much smoother because their electric motor keeps movement consistent. They’re also lighter, a huge determining factor when it comes to personal preference. Having a lightweight machine doesn’t just ease the pressure on a tattooer’s body, but it also allows artists to handle longer tattoo sessions with ease. While some still prefer coil tattoo machines, ease of use is undoubtedly reflected in the quality of the tattoo you create. 


When it comes to choosing between coil vs. rotary tattoo machines, sometimes it boils down to convenience. While coil machines are incredibly useful, they aren’t very versatile. One of the most significant drawbacks of coil tattoo machines is that they can either create lines or shades, but not both. Because of this limitation, artists who prefer coil machines need to have both types. 

On the other hand, rotary machines can create both lines and shades by merely selecting a different needle. With a broader range of abilities for handling multiple styles and techniques, many artists choose rotary machines. They deliver an all-in-one option that allows artists to move from creating crisp, defined linework to producing shading with real detail and dimension. 

There’s a host of factors used to establish which machine is better, but, ultimately, you should pick the machine that best suits your personal style. We personally believe the rotary is a better choice because of its consistent performance. In the past, rotaries were considered weak and did not hit hard enough for most tattooers. Now, with the availability of machines such as the Pearl by CA Tattoo Supply, you can have the best of both worlds. 

Coil machines are great, but between the weight and constant tuning, they are not recommended for the novice tattooer. The artists who swear by them have generally been using them for years, building up enough hand strength and technique to use them effectively. 

Rotary Tattoo Machine

Consider the type of work you regularly produce. Your own unique style will determine which tattoo machine is right for you. Remember, many artists choose to have both options on hand. What defines “better” when it comes to the coil vs. rotary tattoo machine debate is which machine works best for you. Lucky for our valued customers, we carry both! Shop our  coil tattoo machines and  rotary tattoo machines with convenient online ordering by following the links. 

As always, all content has been written by CA Tattoo Supply, based on our 30-year experience in tattooing. If you have read this and feel we have left out any pertinent information, please add your personal experiences to the comment section below.