Tattoo machines are the tools that make us money. They are tools that must be maintained. Like any tool the amount you spend on that tool will most likely reflect the quality of said tool. Another quality that affects the price of a tattoo machine is the way it looks, the rarity, hand-made, cast, machined, rotary, coil, pneumatic, iron, aluminum, brass, etc. Many artists swear by specific machine builders and the metal that the machine is constructed. Is the machine engraved? Is the machine a one-off? There are many things to change the cost, however, one thing you will not be told is that a $12.00 machine is as good as a $500.00 machine. You get what you pay for! We tell our clients the same thing when it comes to tattoos.
I have yet to find a machine that has really good frame geometry and workmanship in the $12.00 range. Can I tattoo with a $12.00 machine? Yup, I sure can. Do I want to? No. While the machine would work in a bind, it will most likely not be consistent, and will get knocked out of tune easily, overheat, and just generally irritate me. The machine will have to be tuned in order to make it work well enough to tattoo with, but yes it can be done. Don’t get rough with it because you will knock it out of tune. My Todd Hlavaty machine runs consistently day after day! My handmade Hlavaty is engraved and was made specifically for me, so I am really attached to the machine. This machine has ran well since the day I got it back in 2005! Are they a bit more expensive? Yes, but worth it! Some of my other machines are: 2003 G3 by Danny Fowler, 2003 Invader by Danny Fowler, 2005 Soba Pilot by Workhorse Irons, 2005 Seth Ciferri liner by workhorse irons, 2 original Neumas (they still run great), 2005 Tim Hendricks shader, and a box full of machines hand made by artists, and local builders, and then there is the box of pumas, swing gates, and cam machines that I use to teach machine tuning and building.
I spend the money on quality machines because I do not have to worry about the machine breaking down, not running right, being inconsistent, getting knocked out of tune, etc. I know that the frame geometry is going to be correct and if it is not I can send back. Any machine I have from the above linked builders will fix their machines. They stand behind their product. There are many other great builders out there and I own some fantastic machines built by people that do not have a website or a company. My tattooing benefits from a consistent machine.
You will learn volumes from tattooing with a steady machine. Try to be consistent in using the same liner and shader until you get a feel for the way the machine runs and hits. This will allow you to apply that feel to another machine. This will allow you to feel it by running your thumb against the armature bar while it is running and be able to feel if it is hitting too soft or too hard. This will be invaluable to a new artist. Every apprentice that I have had was given a quality set (liner and shader) of tattoo machines when they finished the first part of their training and they were beginning to tattoo. I wanted them to have a firm foundation of information. The way to do that was to give them rock solid machines that would give them the ability to build that tactile knowledge they needed.
Cheap machines hurt more than they help. Yes, they will work in a bind. You should be working smart, not hard. It is okay to work hard if you are doing in an intelligent manner. Everyone will have their favorites. I have some machines that I will never part with. I have found newer machines that I like as well (Stigma Bizarre). The Neuma machine is a great machine. However, I will not line a tattoo with anything other than a coil machine. For me the coil machine gives me more control over my lining. I do use a wide variety of machine when it comes to shading. There is more than one way to skin a cat!
I hope this was helpful.
Scotchie Chapman Owner and artist of DCL Tattoo in Modesto California. 209-571-8282