Needle and Cartridge Basics

A tattooist is an artist just like Pablo Picasso or the Beatles, but instead of using paintbrushes or a guitar, they use an arsenal of needles.

Tattoos are one of the oldest art forms in history. However, the equipment has evolved drastically over time. Today, tattoo artists can choose from hundreds of different tools and supplies to develop their artwork. Before they can think about colors and styles for their art piece, a tattooist must choose the proper equipment. There are several tattoo machines on the market, which can be outfitted with a wide range of needles.

Needles come in many different shapes and sizes. If you're a beginner, it can be challenging keeping them all straight. Understanding the basic form and function of each is an essential step towards perfecting your craft. This guide can help you understand the different types of tattoo needles and cartridges and when to use them.

What are Tattoo Needles?

Tattoo needles have a unique structure compared to other types of needles. Instead of having one point like a sewing needle, they contain a series of needle points called pins. Pins come in various sizes and tapers that can be combined in different ways to create a range of tattoo needles.

The process of combining pins with a metal alloy is called soldering. The number and configuration of pins determine the style of the needle. Each one has unique properties for creating impressive tattoos.

While there are many different needle styles, they all fall into four basic categories:

  • Round
  • Flat
  • Magnum
  • Bugpin

These needles can be inserted into your tattoo machine interchangeably to achieve different effects. Tattoo needles will be the most used item throughout your career. Learning the difference between tattoo needles and practicing with each one will help you create various styles of artwork.

Start by learning the basics of each needle:

1. Round Needles

Round needles consist of several pins configured in a circular shape around a soldered center. They can be connected in a tight pattern or more loosely to achieve different results. There are two categories of round needles that serve different purposes:

  • LinersTight round liners are packed close together, making them useful for detailed technical work and lines. Slightly loose round liners are useful for thicker line work, usually seen in Japanese style or old-school tattoos.
  • ShadersRound shaders are spread even farther apart, perfect for color filling and basic shading.

It is important to understand product labels to identify the exact round needle you need. For example, it can be challenging at first trying to understand a needle marked 1205RS. Round needles are marked RS for shaders and RL for liners. A needle marked 1205RS would indicate a number five round shader.

The 12 describes the size of the needle, specifically a 0.35-millimeter diameter, which is one of the largest on the market. The number five indicates that there are five pins in the round configuration. Fewer pins will create a thinner line, and more pins will create a thicker line.

Round needles use the same size tube for needles. For example, a number five round liner (5RLT) would need a number five round tubing.

2. Flat Needles

Flat needles are soldered together in a straight line to a needle bar. These needles are ideal for lining because of their ability to hold more ink and deliver clear, dark lines into the skin in one stroke.

They also come in different styles for lining and shading. Large formations of flat needles can be useful for color fills and thick lines in one pass. Flat needles are labeled FL for flat liners and FS for flat shaders. Just like round needles, flats use the same size tube as the needle amount. A 7FL, or number seven flat liner, would use a 7F tube.

3. Magnum Needles

Magnum needles are the most popular for shading. This style of needle groupings holds the most ink. Therefore, they easily transfer and pack large amounts of color into the skin.

One pass can distribute more ink across the skin to quickly cover large sections. You can pack color on faster and cause less damage to the skin. Covering more skin with fewer passes also makes the tattoo less painful for the client.

There are three different variations of magnum needles that deliver different results for each tattoo:

  • Weaved: These needles are soldered like flat magnums but have a second row of alternating pins on the top, similar to how you might stack a pile of wooden logs. Weaved magnums are packed loosely, so there is a small amount of space between the needles. This spacing holds more ink and allows artists to cover more skin in one pass. Weaved magnum needles always come in an odd-numbered grouping and are labeled with M1. Therefore a 9M1 needle would be a weaved nine magnum grouping.
  • Stacked: This style of magnum needles has the same shaping and grouping as weaved, except the pins are attached much closer together. This needle is ideal for more intricate shading and adding color to smaller areas. Like the weaved version, they're manufactured in an odd number grouping, but they're labeled M2 instead. So, a 9M2 would be a nine stacked magnum needle configuration.
  • Round or curved: Round magnum needles are also called curved magnum needles. The pins are lined up in an arch, so the tips of the needles reach farther out at the center. They were developed with the concept of the arch conforming better to the skin, creating a consistent line and better ink disbursement. This configuration causes less damage to the skin and can be used to create softer shading. Round magnums are labeled with the number of needles followed by RM. Therefore, a 9RM would be a nine round magnum needle.

Electrum Supply offers three distinct styles of bugpin needles:

Each of the three bugpin options provides the same design and techniques offered by their non-bugpin equivalents with the benefit of greater details. By using the smaller needles, bugpin needles help create thinner lines and strokes, allowing for a more precise and controlled stroke for smoother shading. Electrum Supply bugpin needles provide a slower and steady ink flow to compensate for the attention to detail.

While bugpin needles are beneficial for creating tighter lines and increased details, they are not vital for most tattoo sessions. Some tattoo artists swear by them, and others find them unnecessary. You will find that the bugpin needles give you finer details, but the quality and skill come down to you.

4. Bugpin Needles

The term bugpin defines the size of the individual pins rather than the entire needle. Bugpin needles are made in the same layout as a magnum or round needle, but with much thinner pins in the cluster.

They're small and tightly connected so they can hold a lot of ink. The ink is released slowly, which gives you more control for creating intricate details. Bugpin needles are perfect for creating smooth gradients, portraits and photorealistic tattoos.

Bugpin needles are normally between 0.20 millimeters-0.25 millimeters versus a standard needle sizing of 0.30 millimeters-0.35 millimeters. When using a bugpin needle, you will need to size down one or two sizes for the tube. So if you're using a seven grouping, you may need a size five or six tube.

Tattoo Cartridges Explained

Depending on your tattoo machine, you may need tattoo cartridges instead of a standard needle. A cartridge can fit onto a rotary or coil tattoo machine if the grip is compatible. Rotary machines are made to accommodate cartridges, but you may have to purchase a special grip to adapt a coil machine. There are pros and cons to using a cartridge versus a regular needle, and you can use either one depending on your preferences.


What Is a Tattoo Cartridge?

Needle cartridges are available in all of the same styles as a regular needle. They cost more than a basic needle, but they're exceptionally versatile. With a traditional needle and tube setup, you would need to prepare multiple tattoo machines to be able to switch between needle configurations. With tattoo cartridges, you can simply swap out the tips on one machine.

Cartridges are single-use, so when you're finished tattooing, you can throw them away with minimal cleanup. Standard needles should only be used once as well, but they often allow more ink and buildup to collect in the grip of your tattoo machine. A standard needle will require more cleanup with an autoclave sterilizer machine.

With cartridges, you can skip the tedious cleaning process and switch your setup quickly and easily. Tattoo machines are configured with tubes, tips, grips and needles. It will take time and practice to determine the best configuration for your tool kit. Cartridges come with built-in tips so you always have the perfect size to fit your needle.

They come in two styles of tips:

  • Open tip: These tips are open on the top, allowing the full needle bar to be exposed. This type of housing is ideal for artists that go between various colors often, as the exposed needle is easier to clean pigment from.
  • Closed tip: These tips are completely enclosed around the needle bar, which helps enhance needle stability. They capture more ink but maintain a steady flow for more control. Closed tips are ideal for black and grey work and shading.

How to Use Tattoo Needle Cartridges

Cartridges are extremely simple and easy to use. As long as you have a compatible tattoo machine, like the Cheyenne, SOL Nova Unlimited Wireless model, cartridges should just snap into place.

When you want to switch needle cartridges, you just pop one out and insert another one.

6 Tips for Cartridge Tattooing

If you're just starting out, you may not have much experience with cartridge needles. They come in many different sizes and configurations. Regardless of which brand you choose, high-quality needles are essential for creating high-quality tattoos. Here are six tips for choosing the right cartridge and configuration.

1. Check the Quality of the Needle

There are many different cartridge manufacturers that produce similar needle configurations. Like anything else, there will be slight variations in products depending on the brand. Inspect the needle and ensure it locks firmly into your tattoo machine. Choose a configuration that you're comfortable using. You can rely on Electrum Supply for a wide range of premium products and high-quality cartridges.

2. Inspect the Needle for Stability

When you receive a new batch of needle cartridges, you can check for stability by wiggling the back of the needle. High-quality cartridges from Electrum Supply will remain in place for less ink splatter and more control while tattooing.

A tightly fitted needle will also reduce rattling for a quieter tattoo application.

3. Examine the Tip of the Needle

Depending on the brand, the tip of the cartridge that surrounds the needle might have a slightly different shape. Of course, you can choose between open or closed tips, but there can also be variations in the thickness and design.

Over time, you may develop a preference for the style of tip you use with different needle configurations. Check to make sure that you're comfortable tattooing with that particular tip.

4. Check for a Membrane

Membranes prevent ink and blood from backflowing into the grip of your tattoo machine and causing cross-contamination. This makes it a lot easier to sterilize your grip between tattoos. Check to make sure you purchase cartridges with a membrane that actually works. The benefit of using Electrum Gold Standard Needle Cartridges is the membrane system prevents the ink from running up the tube into your grip, which keeps your tattoo machine clean.

Membranes can also stiffen your configuration for less vibration and increased stability while you work.

5. Investigate Every Needle in the Box

If you're trying a new brand for the first time, make sure you check every needle before you begin tattooing. Sometimes new products will have inconsistencies within the same package of needles. Investigate each needle that you open to make sure it is not defective.

You can rely on industry leaders like Electrum Supply to provide consistent products. We sell several tried and true brands with a reputation for providing high-quality and consistent cartridges.

6. Measure the Price vs. Quality

There are countless brands that manufacture needle cartridges at various price points. The price does not always match the quality. You can find superior needles for an affordable price at Electrum Supply.

For only a few dollars, you can test out a sample of Electrum Gold Standard Cartridges to experience the quality for yourself.

Pros and Cons: Needles Versus Cartridges

The choice you make on using traditional needles and tattoo cartridges is up to your preference and tattooing technique. Check out some of the pros and cons for each option:

Tattoo Cartridges

The pros of cartridges include:

  • Disposable
  • Easy to attach to tattoo equipment
  • Less clean up

The cons of cartridges include:

  • More expensive per unit

Tattoo Needles

The pros of tattoo needles include:

  • Traditional technique
  • Cheaper per unit

The cons of tattoo needles:

  • Purchase additional tools
  • More clean-up

Collect Your Starter Kit From Electrum Supply

The best way to learn about needles and cartridges is to practice using them. You can find all of the basic needles and more at Electrum Supply.

Starting your career with a solid starter kit of superior needles and other supplies will set you up for success. At Electrum Supply, we offer everything you need from top-notch brands in the industry. We understand that brilliant artwork begins with a great needle. Our line of Electrum Gold Standard Needle Cartridges can help you elevate your craft with finer details and smoother shading.

Explore our website and start building your own collection of needles and cartridges. Our inventory is stocked with a full range of tattooing supplies from ink to aftercare productsContact us today with any questions to learn more about our premium needles or any other products.