Choosing which tattoo needle to use when you’re just starting out can be overwhelming. There are countless variations and confusing box labels. As a tattoo artist, you must know how to read the box so that you are able to select the right needle for the job. Different needle configurations produce different effects on the skin and are designed for working on different types of tattoos.
You cannot simply pick a needle at random and hope your artistic skills will guide you through. Using the correct needles for the tattoo you are doing will let you tattoo faster and more efficiently while causing less trauma to the skin. Basically, you’ll be able to do better tattoos with less difficulty because you’ll be using the correct tools for the job.
By the end of this article, you’ll understand everything you need to know about tattoo needles: which ones you should use, when you should use them, why each is important, and how you can apply your newfound knowledge in your next tattoo.
Reading the Needle Box
Tattoo needles come in different shapes, sizes, and counts. Knowing how to read the tattoo needle box and identify these differences between needles is essential for being able to select the needle that is best suited to the tattoo you are about to do. There are typically 4 sets of characters on the box that act as your guide when choosing which needle is the right one for your design. (See the diagram above.)
When selecting your needles for a tattoo, there are four things you need to consider. Each aspect will affect how ink is distributed into the skin. They will be listed on the box in the following order:
The diameter, or gauge, of the needle is the measurement of the thickness of the needle at its widest point (the base where the needle begins to sharpen to a point).
The needle count is determined by how many individual sharps make up the whole needle. The more sharps included, the bigger the needle will be.
A needle’s configuration describes how the individual needles (sharps) are set up on the needle bar. This will tell you what type of needle it is. For example, whether it is a liner, magnum, or round shader.
The taper refers to the length of the part of the needle that is pointed, or how steep the angle of the needle’s point is. The taper determines the precision of the needle as well as how fast it can pack ink into the skin.
A Note on Taper
Occasionally, the taper will not be listed, and there will only be three numbers. If the taper is not listed on the box, the needles are probably short taper (or "standard") needles.
What Diameter Should You use?
What is diameter?
Diameter is the gauge, or thickness, of each individual needle attached to the bar in the configuration.
Why is diameter important?
A needle’s diameter controls how much ink is picked up and distributed into the skin. Changing the diameter of your needles not only affects how much trauma you cause to the skin, but also how quickly and smoothly you can put ink into the skin.
- Thinner needles (with a thinner diameter like a #08 needle) allow you to build up more layers by putting less ink into the skin with each pass. This leads to smoother blends. But, because they distribute less ink, they will slow you down.
- Larger needles (with a larger diameter like a #12 needle) distribute more ink, allowing you to pack ink into the skin faster. However, because each needle in the configuration is larger, they will cause more trauma to the skin with each pass.
Most common needle diameters
- #12 – 0.35mm: These needles, called “Standard” needles, allow the artist to pick up a good amount of ink during the tattoo.
- #10 – 0.30mm: Also known as “Double Zeroes,” #10 needles are a bit smaller than their #12 counterpart and cause less trauma to the skin while still allowing for more ink than a #8 needle.
- #08 – 0.25mm: These tightly-packed needles produce a finer effect on the skin. They are often called “Bugpins.”
How do I decide which needle to use?
Once you decide on a design, you’ll need to figure out what you need to accomplish with the diameter of your needle. If you’re looking to pack in solid colour, you’d pick a standard #12. If you need tiny details or want to get ultra-smooth blends by building up lots of layers (like in a black and grey portrait, for example), go with a bugpin.
Needle sizes will make a difference
Not only are #12 needles larger than #10, the spaces between the needles within their configuration are larger as well. So, while a 12-15-M1 needle will allow you to add colour to a large area quickly, a 10-15-M1 will be slightly smaller even though it has the same needle count because its needles are packed closer together. This will slow you down because the needle won’t be as big and will put less ink in the skin, but it will also provide a smoother colour application on the skin. This applies to all needles: liners, flats, etc.
Knowing what each of these needles does best will help you decide which one to use on a client. Choosing the “right” tattoo needle can be difficult at first and requires lots of practice. Once you get a feel for how each needle performs, you’ll know which one you need without much thought.
It’s always best to think through which needles you’ll need before starting on a tattoo. This will eliminate guesswork and ensure you have everything you need at your station (and that you don’t keep the client waiting while you search for a needle you suddenly realize you need).
What each diameter does best
- Fills large areas quicker but causes more trauma to skin
- Packs solid black and colour
- Traditional work: larger needles leave bigger dots in the skin which gives traditional tattooing that “pepper shading” look
- Stippling and shading
#10 (Double Zeroes)
- Softer shading
- Mixes the benefits of standards and bug pins
- Smoother gradients between black and grey
- Tiny details in portraits
- Not advised for packing solid colour
- Allow for multiple passes over the skin, causing the least amount of trauma to the skin but will slow down your work
A note on Bugpins:
If you are not using premade cartridges and are putting your bugpin needles into a configuration, use a grip smaller than you would with a standard needle grouping. For example, if you have a 17 mag using bugpin needles, you can put it into a 15 mag grip to make up for the smaller size of the needles.
If you're using premade cartridges, you do not need to worry about this issue, as they are housed correctly.
What needle count should you use?
What is needle count?
The needle count refers to the total number of individual needles/sharps that make up the whole needle. The higher the count, the bigger the needle will be. Because most configurations lend themselves to odd numbers, you’ll almost always see the needle count as an odd number: 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, etc.
Needle counts can go up to numbers like 27 or even into the forties. However, these are rare and most machines do not have the power needed to move a needle that size well enough to puncture skin (not to mention the pain that might cause the client). When preparing a needle, ensure your machine can handle the needle count and effectively push the ink into your client’s skin.
Why is needle count important?
Needle count determines how big the needle will be. For example, a 12 03 RL (with only three needles) will produce very fine lines that are great for delicate linework or tiny details. Alternatively, a 12 14 RL (with fourteen needles) will produce a much thicker line that will create the strong outline you would want to see in a bold traditional tattoo.
What size liner should you use?
- Needle count determines your line weight. It’s important to vary the line weights in your tattoo to provide contrast. This will make the most impactful parts of the design stand out and make the image readable even from far away. (In other words, line weight is what helps the eye see an image instead of a jumbled cluster of lines.)
- It’s best to use two to three different sized-liners to achieve this contrast. We recommend three for big tattoos and two for smaller tattoos.
Smaller lines are easier to get into the skin, as fewer needles means less resistance from the skin. However, they are harder to keep straight and easier to blow out. Larger lines are harder to get into the skin, but are easier to keep straight.
What size magnum should you use?
- Smaller mags are great for filling in tight areas, shading small details and creating texture.
- As a rule of thumb, you should use the biggest mag the tattoo will allow. If you use a small mag to cover a large area, it will be harder to get a consistent fill or smooth blend.
For example, if you use a 5 mag to fill in a full tribal sleeve, it will take forever to finish and cause unnecessary trauma to the skin. Or, if you have a colour background, your colour application will be uneven and cause the tattoo to heal patchy. (An exaggerated image of this would be using a paintbrush to paint a wall instead of a paint roller.)
If you’re going to be packing large areas of skin, use a larger mag like a 15 or 23. They cover more space, and produce smoother gradients over a large area than a smaller needle. Why? Because larger mags require fewer passes to cover the area. (We’ll cover these “configurations” of liner, shader, and mag in the next section.)
Key points to remember when choosing the size (needle count) of your needles:
- Whenever you can, make sure to use multiple line weights in your tattoo to make parts of it stand out.
- Use the biggest mag possible for the design for easier tattooing and consistent blends.
- Script: Use the thinnest liner that you are comfortable with, as that will give you the most precision without the risk of blowing out your lines.
Achieving Straight Lines
Lines are a crucial part of any art form, and tattooing is no different. If your lines aren't straight and precise, your tattoo will immediately point out your inexperience.
All lines, despite their thickness, should require only one pass. If you need more than one pass to apply a line, you are using the incorrect technique.
Thicker lines are easier to get straight. If you're a beginner, try working with bold, solid linse to improve your craft.
What the Different Configurations Mean
What is the configuration of a needle?
A needle’s configuration consists of how the needles are placed on the needle bar.
Why is configuration important?
The configuration of the needle will have a big effect on how the ink will be deposited into the skin. One of the most commonly used needles is a “12 07 RL.” This means seven #12 needles arranged in a Round Liner configuration.
How should each configuration be used?
This chart can help you remember which needle configuration to use in each scenario:
What each configuration is used for
Round Liner (RL)
Used for: Clear-cut lines, delicate and thin lines, script, dot work, stippling, small areas of shading (i.e. portraits)
- The needles in a round liner configuration are grouped together tighter at the end. This keeps the ink in a concentrated area and the look of a line is more clearly seen.
- A “Tight Liner” is a liner with needles that are particularly close together. However, this tilting can give a bit of a “pinching” feeling to the client’s skin, making liners potentially more painful for your customer.
- 1-3RLs can be used for script or delicate details like eyes in portraits.
Round Shader (RS)
Used for: Soft-edge lines, shading small areas, colour packing
- Great for filling in small areas, texture and highlights
- Produce less trauma than a liner because the needles are spaced farther apart.
- 7 RS is a popular configuration used for adding highlights to finished tattoos.
- Can be used for creating lines. The needles are placed farther apart, so the line will be softer, lacking the hard edge of a liner. However, for some designs this is the desired effect.
- Flats are less commonly used, however they can deliver a good amount of ink.
- They allow for precise shading as they are easy to angle.
It can be very easy to cut a client with a flat, so be careful how you angle these needles.
Used for: Packing black or colour, tribal designs, colour blends, some black and grey, “All-rounder”
- This is the most common needle type. It’s considered an all-rounder because it is one of the most versatile configurations. You can do just about anything with them.
- It’s easier to get smooth gradients of colour with larger mags because more ink is able to be deposited. They require fewer passes over the same area. This will allow you to get a smoother gradient and solid fills that don't heal patchy. (If you were to pack colour into a large area with something small like a round liner, it will be very patchy and uneven).
- These “regular” magnums (as opposed to stacked magnums) are sometimes called “weaved magnums.”
Because a magnum is flat and the skin will dip in response to the needle’s pressure, you need to be careful not to cut a client’s skin with the edge of a magnum.
Curved Magnum (M1C, RM)
Used for: Packing black or colour, softer shading (less traumatic for skin) like in portraits, realism or out-of-focus backgrounds.
- Due to its “arched” shape, curved magnums allow you to blend without creating “defined edges.” This effect is perfect for out-of-focus backgrounds, portraits, colour blending, and having the edges of an image “blend out” into the skin instead of having it outlined.
Stacked Magnum (M2)
Used for: Packing black or colour
- The needles on a stacked magnum are closer together than those on a regular or curved magnum. The idea here is a stronger saturation of colour to require fewer passes over the skin.
Causes more trauma to the skin than a regular magnum.
Warning on using an M1 - Straight Magnum
Because an M1 is straight and is puncturing into curved and cushy skin, it can potentially cut the client at the edges of the needle. Many artists prefer a curved magnum needle over a straight, as it bends with the client’s skin.
"Tilting" Your Mags
There are no real rules when it comes to determining which needle you should use for a specific part of a tattoo. As you become more comfortable tattooing, it might become easier to tilt the machine and use the edge of a mag to fill a small space instead of taking the time to change needles or switch out machines.
What Needle Taper Should You Use?
What is needle taper?
Needle taper is the measurement from the tip of the needle to the point where the needle reaches its thickest point. The taper applies to each individual needle in the configuration. Needles with longer tapers are sharper because the point of the needle is steeper. (The skin will put up less resistance to a sharper needle, which is why longer-tapered needles cause less trauma per pass.)
Needles come in a variety of tapers, with a short taper (ST), being the standard.
- Short taper (ST or S for “Standard”): 1.5mm
- Long taper (LT): 2.0mm
- Double long taper (DLT): 2.5mm
- Extra-long taper (ELT): 3.5mm
- Super long taper (SLT): 5.5mm
- Extra super long taper (ESLT): 8.0mm
While these measurements are the most common, they are not always a hard-and-fast rule. Some companies will have short, medium, and long tapers at different lengths before getting to extra-long tapers.
Why is needle taper important?
The taper of the needle affects the amount of ink that can flow from the needle.
The longer the taper, the less ink can be distributed. This means the tattoo will take longer and require more passes, leaving you with the risk of chewing out the skin. However, when working on delicate details or going for precise lining, a longer tapered needle (and a slower flow of ink) allows an artist to have more control over how the ink is put into the skin. This slower distribution of ink allows you to build up layers and create smoother blends.
While a little less precise, short tapered needles are considered the industry standard because they allow for a steady flow of ink and efficiently pack colour into the skin without the need to constantly go back over an area.
Every tattoo needle type has pros and cons. And while some needles are better at certain jobs than others, there are no real rules to which needle you should use. You can still achieve those same effects with other needles. Much of your choice will come down to your personal preference.
How is each taper used?
As a general rule, the longer the taper, the less ink you’ll get into the skin because the holes that long tapered needles put into the skin are smaller. This is great for blending black and grey and executing precise details, but not colour packing. For colour packing, you’d want a short taper.
This Taper Cheat Sheet can help you decide what to use in each specific case.
Taper Cheat Sheet
Short/Standard Taper (ST, S)
- ST needles pack solid colour by putting larger holes in the skin
- When packing in ink, precision is not as important as getting the ink into the skin.
- Large areas and background.
- Bold, traditional tattoos
Long Taper (LT)
- Smooth blends in portraits
- Lining thin script (particularly on difficult areas like the ribs). In this case, getting less ink into the skin and spending more time on the tattoo is worth the extra precision they give your linework.
- Longer tapered needles with tighter groupings (bugpins) are ideal for the smooth blends and shading in needed for delicate portrait work.
Double Long Taper (DLT) +
- For even more precision or even smoother blends, you can go with longer tapers than an LT needle.
- Warning: The longer the taper, the more delicate the needle. If you hit your ink caps when dipping with a long taper needle it is far more likely to be damaged and you will need to change needles.
In addition to all the other factors to consider, you can decide to buy "textured" needles. These needles have small grooves in them that hold extra ink, allowing you to deposit more ink into the skin than a "polished" needle can. This can make them ideal for colour packing.
Textured needles are often more painful for the client and cause more damage to the skin, allowing for fewer passes.
"Textured" DOES NOT mean the needle is haphazardly dented. It is purposefully textured by the manufacturer (not the artist) for a specific effect.
Figuring Out What Works for You
When giving a tattoo, it’s important that you choose the tools and needles that will work for you and your designs. Think of each needle grouping as a different type of paint brush. You use what gets the job done, angling the brush in different ways and using your favorite tools, even if another artist might have a different method. However, just like with any other art form, the skills to use these less conventional techniques come with time and practice.
Experience is the Best Teacher
If YOU want to learn more and try your own hand at tattooing, Tattooing 101’s Online Training Course is here to help. Created by professionals in the industry, our online curriculum has everything you need to know from designing top-notch tattoos to proper autoclave use to the best tattoo aftercare advice. Join our students and go from complete beginner to professional tattoo artist in just 90 days.