The long throw psychosis

This is something I’d like to write about, and I’ll be pleased if you read and enjoy it, and maybe learn new facts about tattoo machine theory. During the last years, I’ve noticed an increasing belief between tattooists, specially the ones who started recently, in thinking that a tattoo machine needs a long throw to run and perform fine. It seems a lot of artists don’t like, and can’t get used to a short throw machine. First, I’d like to make clear that I wouldn’t like anybody to think that I consider them stupid or ignorant. I just think there’s a lot of misinformation on this, and I’d be happy if this adds some light to this issue.

The throw length of a machine is the space the armature bar goes over, the distance between the points where it hits the top of the front coil, and where it stops after going up again (pushed by the rear spring) and starts the way back to the coil. This distance is commonly referred as long, medium or short throw.

As I said, I receive many requests to build tattoo machines with long throw, independently of the type of machine it is (liner, shader, etc…), the number of needles it’s going to push, or the tattoo style it is going to be used for. Many tattooists want them that way for reasons like wanting to hang the needle out of the tube a long way, to see it better, because they think the needles will carry more ink, or other things they think a long throw is better for. The fact is that you don’t always need a long throw, and, in some cases, it is counter-productive.

I guess this misconception has been fed by: 1) recent popularity of rotary machines, that usually have a long throw because of their format, and 2) proliferation of bold lines / solid color art styles that usually demand a long throw. I think people have seen artists working with long throw machines in a bigger number than before, and this may cause them to think that they all use long throw machines because they run better. In some way, it’s the new trend.

Why a long throw is not always the best option? Let’s talk about machine theory for a while… what does the length of the throw determinate? The answer is the strength of the impact of the needles with the skin. I use to give this example to understand it: place your hand 2-3 centimeters far from your cheek, and hit it (without moving your hand palm further to get impulse). Now, place your hand far from your face, at your shoulder distance approximately, and hit your face again with the same strength you hit it before. Do you feel the difference? 😛 I hope this silly test will prove you that the longer the distance, with same force, the bigger the impact, the harder the hit.

So, we got that a longer throw produces a harder hit. It’s perfect when we need our tattoo machine to hit hard. Color packing is easier with a machine that hits hard, for example. Or when you want to outline with a very big needle group (I don’t recommend outlining with very big needles, I think it’s better to “build” the lines with smaller needles, but that’s another story). But, what happens when you want to push a fine line into the skin? A 3-5 needle configuration doesn’t need too much force to get into the skin, and if you are using a very long throw it means you are putting on excessive force: that may cause blowouts, more pain inflicted than needed, and more skin trauma caused (that will lead to longer healing time). Another good example is when we are using fast, soft shaders for smooth grey… you need a machine working at a fast speed, and hitting soft, so you can move your hand fast, too, and push without fear of leaving big marks on your subtle gradients. Also, this means you can go over the same zone for a longer time without causing much trauma to the skin, and be able to add layers to the shading.

Now, some people is able to do this same thing (subtle grey shading, fine lines, and other techniques that work better with a short throw) with a long throw machine. How is that? It’s as easy as loosening the contact screw, and opening the gap between the armature bar and the front coil top. This will cause, obviously, a longer throw, as the armature bar will go over a longer distance. And it will also cause a softer hit, as the machine is not going to run the way it was set to run, loosing power on the way to the coils. Keep in mind that a tattoo machine builder (a good tattoo machine builder, at least) will set an exact spring tension and throw length for the task you asked him for the machine to perform. If you modify that equation between the machine elements, the machine will not run in an optimal way. If you loosen the contact screw too much, it will affect the duty cycle, the hit will loose power, and yes, it will hit softer, but at the price of the machine not running as it should. That will cause the coils to work harder to attract the armature bar, leading to exhaustion and overheating. Some tattooists use to set their machines like this, even needing to give them a push to start moving, and while it does the trick, it’s causing a wrong functioning of the machine. Why doing it like this, when you can get the same effect without making the machine work harder (and even experiencing a loss of power after some time of use, caused by this irregularities).

I know a lot of tattooists that are used, or learnt to tattoo with just long throw machines. Some of them are even really good at it, and make incredible works. I tried to get a few into short throw machines for some tasks, but I must admit that only a few listened to me, or gave up after a few tries. Luckily, others told me that their work improved after learning how to get advantage of a short throw, and I hope many others will try it too after reading this.

Another thing I’m concerned of is the excessive long throw used at times. An excessive long throw will only cause harm to the skin and unnecessary pain, and 4-5 mm is enough in most cases. I hope this writing helps some of you to understand how the throw length affects the way the needles hit the skin, and take advantage of this knowledge to improve your tattoo works. Thank you for taking the time to read it!