Mastering the Art of Tattoo Machine Stroke: Tips & Techniques

Finally, an end to your tussling with tattoo machine strokes, as explained in this guide: Tattoo Machine Stroke Explained

I’m eager to tell you something:

Tattoo stroke machines are essential for any tattoo artist. They help keep your lines neat and even while assisting with shading and complex details.

So, stop betting on this question – read on to discover all the goodies…

Key Takeaways:

  • Tattoo machines use a linear motion to move the needle up and down quickly
  • Tattoos are created through a combination of ink and needles puncturing the skin at different depths
  • Tattoo strokes can be classified as a shader, liner, or color packs

What is A Tattoo Machine Stroke?

Tattoos are a personal business – at times, your heart and soul. This uniqueness is confirmed by celebrity tattooist Lauren Winzer, who says [1]:

artist reusing a tattoo needle on men

“A lot of nostalgic pop culture comes my way from cartoons to childhood toys.”  

To master tattoos, you need to know something about the stroke, one important part of your tattooing journey.

If you’re tempted to know How a Tattoo Machine Stroke Explained tattoos and still does, it’s difficult not to get super excited. So let me start with the basics…

One of the biggest struggles that new artists face is getting their lines clean and achieving smooth shading. 

This is why knowing how to use a stroke machine is so important.

The reality is that the stroke you use is the difference between a work of art and a tattoo that’s completely ruined and will need a lot of work to fix.

Tattoo machine stroke is a term used to describe how a tattoo artist moves the needle of their machine when giving someone a tattoo. 

It MEASURES the distance the armature bar travels when in use.

Every type of line or shader needs to be done in its own UNIQUE way. Tattoo artists use strokes to ensure that the lines look even and consistent throughout the entire tattoo.

Before I continue, I need to dazzle you with a superb visual demonstration of tattoo machine strokes (you can’t miss this):

Pro Tip: The stroke of a tattoo machine can also be referred to as the throw, which exists in rotary machines and coil machines.

Why is the Tattoo Machine Stroke Important?

The tattoo machine stroke is important because it allows the artist to control the AMOUNT of ink that goes onto the skin and creates a smooth finish.

Tattooing is all about precision and accuracy, so having CONTROL over how much ink you put down helps to create perfect lines.

To summarize, different stroke lengths have different uses, and it all DEPENDS on the type of tattoo you are working on (but we’ll get into that later).

First, what does the stroke machine do? The stroke machine determines the following:

1. How Hard the Machine Hits

Tattoo needle stroke machines come with ADJUSTABLE settings. 

The artist can set the machine to hit the light, medium or hard option, which helps them CONTROL how much ink is injected into the skin.

2. Tattoo Stroke Types

Tattoos are created through a combination of ink and needles puncturing the skin at different depths.

 Tattoo machines use a LINEAR MOTION to move the needle up and down quickly. Tattoo strokes can be classified as a shader, liner, or color pack.

3. How Fast the Needle Moves

The speed of the stroke is also important. Tattoo artists can adjust the speed depending on how intricate and DETAILED they want the tattoo to be. 

Slow strokes are used for shading, while fast strokes are used for lines, outlining, and details.

4. The Max Needle Depth

The needle depth is another important factor. Tattoo machines come with adjustable settings that allow the artist to set the MAXIMUM depth of the needle. 

This helps them control how deep into the skin they deposit ink.

By understanding and mastering different types of tattoo machine strokes, an artist can create beautiful tattoos that last a lifetime. 

Tattoo machine strokes are ESSENTIAL to the craft and can make or break a tattoo.

If you’re experiencing issues with your tattoo machine or want to learn more about tattoo machine tuning, be sure to check out our articles on ‘tattoo machine tuning‘ and ‘why does my tattoo machine keep cutting out‘ for helpful tips and advice.

When to Use Different Tattoo Machine Strokes

When it comes to different types of lines or shading, the type of stroke you use will depend on what kind of EFFECT you are trying to achieve. 

For example, outlines the need to be done with a slow and steady stroke, while shading requires a smoother, more sweeping motion.

The size will also make a difference. Tattoo artists need to ADJUST their stroke lengths depending on the line size or area they are shading [2].

  • Short Stroke Machines (1.8-2.5mm): Used for thin lines and small details
  • Medium Tattoo Machine Stroke (3.5mm): Used for thicker outlines and shading
  • Large Tattoo Machine Stroke (4.0+mm): Used to cover large areas quickly
  • Sweep Tattoo Machine Stroke (varies): Used to create smooth gradients and shading

Pro Tip: A short stroke (or small) cannot be used for lining. While it can do very detailed work, it is always best to use a long stroke (large) for line work. A medium stroke is perfect for shading.

How to Adjust Your Machine Stroke

Adjusting your machine stroke is easy and can be done in a FEW simple steps. However, it will depend on if you have a rotary machine or a coil machine.

shader vs liner, what's the best

1. Rotary Tattoo Machines

To adjust your machine stroke on your rotary tattoo machine, try this:

Step i:

You need to adjust the speed of your machine by turning the voltage knob on the power unit. This will help to REGULATE how fast or slow the needle moves.

Step ii:

You need to adjust the depth of your stroke. Tattoo artists typically adjust the depth of the stroke by TURNING the needle bar. 

As a result, this will allow you to control how deep or shallow your lines are and help to achieve a smooth finish.

2. Coil Tattoo Machines

To adjust your machine stroke on a coil tattoo machine, try this:

Step i:

You will need to turn the front contact screw to CHANGE the stroke on a coil machine. This controls HOW FAR the needle travels up and down, affecting the width and depth of your lines.

Step ii:

Finally, you can adjust the power of your machine by turning the tension knob on the rear contact screw. 

In the end, this will help control HOW hard or soft your machine hits when running.

 Once you have adjusted all of the settings, you should be able to create different types of lines and shading.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do You Push or Pull When Tattooing?

Tattoo artists typically use a push-pull technique (up and down motion) when tattooing.
 This means that you will be pushing the needle into the skin with one hand and pulling it out with the other.

What Is Meant By Stroke Length?

Stroke length is the distance that the needle travels in one stroke. Tattoo artists need to adjust their stroke length depending on the size of the lines or area they are shading. 


With your tattoo machine stroke explained, you’ll feel better, more powerful, and more excited to tackle tattooing and become a real tattooing guru. 

But, before I say goodbye, let me wrap it all up:

Tattoo machine stroke is an essential component of tattooing and can MAKE OR BREAK the look of your work. 

Tattooers must understand how to use different strokes to create clean lines, smooth shading, and EVEN gradients.

It’s important to practice DIFFERENT types of strokes and experiment with the speed and depth settings on your machine to achieve the desired results.

Understanding the basics of using a machine and adjusting your stroke accordingly allows you to create BEAUTIFUL tattoos that will last for years.

tattoo machine stroke


1. Austen A. Celebrity Tattooist Lauren Winzer Says This Wild 90s Trend Is Back [Internet]. 2019. Available from:,from%20cartoons%20to%20childhood%20toys.

2. About Tattoo Machine Stroke – How to pick the right stroke length – CNC Tattoo Supply [Internet]. 2021 [cited 2023 Jan 18]. Available from:

About Edith Russo

Edith is a self-made entrepreneur with a keen business sense that others admire and a total “can-do” attitude. She’s always coming up with new ideas to anticipate her readers’ needs and help solve all their toughest beauty and skincare problems. READ HER LATEST ARTICLES. FOLLOW HER on Linkedin and Twitter. Learn more about her HERE.

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