Magic is the word used when describing that special feeling a favourite tool, technique or ink is pulled from the rack for use. Most often we hear it in reference to an artist’s favourite tattoo coil machine. Those coils that are the artist's favourite, reliable machine, gifted from a mentor, bought from a mate or custom built for the artist. It has that special kind of magic.
In this article we are looking at the kind of magic that comes from the physical construction of the coil machine, specifically the frame. The frame is the most visible part of the machine, what you see the most of, and a key determinant of the coil's weight and balance.
The crazy state of new tech, manufacturing techniques and improved tools available to today’s machine builders encourages innovation, precision and refinement to a machine design that has, in its essence, remained unchanged for well over a century.
It can also enable mass production, copying and shortcuts. That removes the magic.
So let’s look at coil frame construction, how things have changed and some of the impacts of those changes.
How are Coil Frames Made?
The Welding Process
The basic set-up for any tattoo machine maker was to make the machine at home, in the garage. Ignoring CNC machine use, coil machine frames are most often made by welding or brazing metal parts together into the desired shape. A lathe, bench top grinder, drill press and welding set-up, the core tools, are easily purchased and stored without the need for much space.
In simple terms, welding is a process that joins separate parts of an object together using heat. Brazing will also join separate parts, usually with a gas flame & at a lower heat range than for welding. Frame pieces such as the base plate, side plate and spring shelf can be separately cut and shaped, before being welded together, making it flexible process without significant capital investment.
Low carbon steel, favoured for its superior magnetic properties, is soft and has high ductility making it suitable for thin metal objects like machine frames. This type of steel is more easily forged, bent, shaped and punched so a welding process can be used to take a solid piece of flat steel and create the desired shape of a tattoo machine frame.
For an Australian modern machine maker at the top of his game check out Colin Creed whose workshop production process is a precision artform he documents so well on his Instagram socials @colincreedtattoomachines and also offers tattooists workshop classes to build their own magic machine with him.
Metals were sourced by the builder, typically steel or brass, or what was simply available at the time and cheap, or for aesthetics. Salvaging and reusing reclaimed metal was popular and you will see coils frames with keys, washers, spanners and tap heads in any collector’s drawer.
For makers wishing to produce a significant quantity of consistent frame designs, handmaking the frame was time consuming and difficult. Foundries could be accessed to produce single piece frames, or core frame components through a metal casting manufacturing process.
The frame is produced by filling a void within a mould with liquid metal, which then sets solid. A process often referred to as “Casting” and can produce everything from art pieces to engine parts. In this way, the tattoo machine frame is often created as a single piece of metal.
The shape of the metal is determined by the cavity space within the mould. This mould shape is created separately using a “pattern”.
The process of creating a pattern is considerable, a pattern must include the right dimensions for the desired object to be created, a means of being removed from the mould cavity once it is created, without breaking it, as well as allowances the shrinkage and distortion that will occur as the metal sets from liquid into solid.
So the discipline of pattern making is a mix of art, design, engineering and mathematics. This is where Australian tattooist Des Connolly was able to work with Sailor Jerry, as a pattern maker having the expertise to create their design ideas and bring them to life from molten cast iron at Victoria refinery’s. In the 1970’s Des and Sailor Jerry worked in this way to produce, amongst others, the frames referred to as “The Aussie Frame” or “Collins-Connolly Frame” later renamed “The Bulldog” by Mike Malone.
You can read more on that in our blog on Des Connolly here.
Rise of the Machine
Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machining is where programmed computer instructions dictate the movement of factory tools and machinery in a manufacturing process. In our case, the metal being machined in a CNC process, can be moved around and positioned within the same machining process, enabling three-dimensional cutting tasks to be accomplished in a single set of prompts.
For some further terms you may have seen when hearing about CNC machining, let's clarify CAD and CAM. CAD (Computer-Aided Design/Drafting) is the software used to develop the digital model geometry of the piece to be created, and CAM (Computer-Aided Manufacturing) creates the G-Code from CAD as the tool path instructions CNC uses to actually make the part.
Once you have a computer-generated model of your part design further possibilities are opened up using modern engineering technology. A machine maker can test for instance how a part works and fits with other components to know whether they have the right design measurements, and can run modelled operations on that part, or completed machine to gauge how it runs. A maker can test whether the machine or part works properly and with the right output expectations, like the power of needle hit and stroke speed, before it's even made and brought into existence.
The precision design and reliability created from a CNC machine when properly used is amazing, opening the door to a maker’s creativity in design with the safety in knowledge that it can be tested and refined before manufacturing. This is only a part though, what happens to it after its produced remains in control of the maker.
As USA machine maker and tattooist Brandyn Feldman put it, “The only reason I make the machine frames with the CNC machine is because I can get it so precise and the geometry so perfect. I mean it can make a frame that's absolutely seamless. But I still add that hand element to it. Just because it's a CNC machine, you can still have that handcrafted aspect. And I try to keep that with all my machines, and I think the end user can really feel that.”
Retracing the Bulldog
Des Connolly was technically a Pattern Maker by trade, and as such, he used this skill to create many patterns needed by foundries to cast machine frames. Des made several machine casts for tattooist Sailor Jerry in the 1970s. Sailor Jerry was one of the greatest innovators of tattoo machines, parts, and equipment.
With this history in mind, Brandyn Feldman and myself set out to one of Melbourne’s foundry heartlands of that era, the town of Ballarat.
Having attained global recognition for its quality products, the iron and steel manufacturing industry in Australia has evolved considerably over the last few decades as a result of international competition and domestic policy changes.
In the 1970’s Australia’s steel industry centred around one steel producer – BHP, a blast furnace-based producer who opened a steelworks factory in Newcastle NSW in 1915. This has since changed of course as BHP has since divested this steel manufacturing business.
It was the quality of Australia’s raw material, Iron ore and the steel produced from it, was the focus for Sailor Jerry in his quest to build tattoo machines of the highest quality. With Des Connolly, he found a like-minded ally in close proximity to the material he needed and the skill to prepare the required patterns to create the frame castings to their designs.
A Foundry casts metals into shapes by melting them down and pouring the molten liquid into a sand, ceramic or metal mould to form geometrically complex parts. The Victoria Foundry was the first foundry established in Ballarat in March 1856. At the time Des and Jerry were casting their machine frames there were an estimated 90 odd foundries operating in the town of Ballarat.
Today there are a handful. The Australian Foundry Institute’s website lists a national total of 57 foundry’s operating in Australia at the time of writing.
There has long existed a trade imbalance between Australia’s levels of exports and imports on iron and steel products, with 2019 exports totalling $1.01 billion compared to imports of $2.63 billion. In 2021, the Australian steel industry output 5.78 million tonnes of steel, with a previous low of 4.6 million reached in 2014, down from 7.6 million in 1980 and a peak of 8.9 million achieved in 1998.
General Motors produced the last Holden Commodore in Australia in 2017. Less manufacturing, less parts being produced, means less work for foundries and this skill, business and manufacturing industry segment has declined.
There’s a Pattern
Des Connolly sadly passed in 1985, aged 42. Brandyn Feldman and I headed into Ballarat keen to meet some of the Ballarat pattern makers from the era Des Connolly was casting his frames. From our experience, Ballarat is a beautiful friendly town with people proud of the region’s rich history. With some helpful advice from the locals, we were soon introduced to Ballarat pattern making legends, Mr Dennis Keenan and Mr Ian McGee.
Spending time with these men, their great intelligence and skill was obvious. Brandyn and myself were both warmed by their generosity to welcome us into their home workshops and share their insight into the pattern making trade.
To create a part pattern, which is commonly made of wood, you have to have the right blend of engineering knowledge and associated design mathematic skills, artistry and ingenuity to bring that design to life, and craftsmanship to produce the required model or pattern block from woodturning.
It's difficult to describe and impossible to understate how much skill and artistry was required to produce these patterns by these craftsmen.
Of the few foundries still operating in Ballarat today they still employee pattern makers and mix old and new manufacturing techniques. Brandyn and I visited several on the day and enjoyed tours of the steel production process at work.
For the foundry’s no longer operating, those not demolished can still be seen around the town of Ballarat as historical buildings repurposed, such as the local café where the original foundry door is still in use, though out the back for the WC.
So, where is the magic?
With a better understanding of the skill required to produce a tattoo machine from hand there is a danger of thinking that a CNC is the enemy of craft and death of magic. It is not. It’s a tool like any other and a very handy one at that. This technology requires its own significant level of skill and craft to operate effectively. A career in itself.
The machine is the sum of its parts. Construction of the actual machine will matter, but not necessarily each individual element of that construction. Design, materials and arrangement are perhaps more relevant. Look to the maker first, then the machine for the first guide on quality.
An Artist takes into account a bunch of factors when choosing their tattoo machine. Function, reliability, cost and aesthetic, all are important. Many won’t spare a thought on how a machine was made, as long as it performs the function they require from it.
But where is the magic, the mojo? That’s in each artists own perspective really. For those who value history and tradition then a special feeling will come from a handmade machine and maker they respect. Lifting that special machine out adds to their pleasure and confidence, a feel of history and craft absolutely flowing into their work.
Makers love for their craft will lead to build decisions in their artform production choices with a sparkle in their eye. The magic is in that sparkle.
We received so much help with this article and are extremely grateful to those who so willingly shared their time, expertise and memories. Thank you to the following (in alphabetic order);
Colin Creed, Brandyn Feldman, Dennis Keenan, Ethan Mavay, Ian McGee and Sam Smyth.