How’s It Hanging?
Let’s talk needle hang. If you are having difficulty getting reliable, consistent results in your PMU, you may need to adjust your needle hang.
What is needle hang?
Needle hang is the amount of the needle tips that you can see sticking out of the tube/cartridge tip.
So, what is stroke length then?
Stroke length is how far the needle travels up and down in a duty cycle. This is a lot easier to understand in reference to a coil machine because all the moving parts are exposed, and you can see the mechanics; however, it works the same way in a rotary device. We all know that the needle moves up and down and pokes tiny holes in the skin, leaving behind pigment. The stroke length is how far the machine is set to move up and back down again. One full up and down movement is called a duty cycle. Back when everyone used coils, this information was important because coils could be adjusted to different lengths and variations in the duty cycles. Today, most machines are set to one stroke length. Look up your machine’s specs to determine the stroke length, which typically varies between 1.5 mm and 3-4 mm.
The stroke length affects the needle hang when the needle is in motion. For example, when the machine is not in motion, you may not see the needle sticking out of the tube because it is in the UP position, and if it has a long stroke length it may not be visible. When the machine is powered on and the needle moves into the DOWN position, you’ll see the tip of the needle coming out of the tip of the cartridge. For this reason, when setting your needle hang, you should have your machine powered ON so that you can see how far the needle is coming out of the tube.
Years ago, I know many trainers would teach their students to work off the tube, meaning they would set the needle hang just enough to puncture the skin in the DOWN position. Techs would then press the tube tip up against the skin, and the needle would pop out when in motion. The rationale for this was that newbies may not yet have a knack for dialing into the sweet spot, and they wanted a foolproof way of keeping the new techs from going too deep. There are a few problems with this technique, in my opinion.
First, not all skin has the same thickness. There are variations from person to person AND even within the same space on a person, i.e., the bulb of a brow is thicker than the skin of the tail. Therefore, there is no one set length that will work across the board. The next problem is that you can’t see the tips of the needles. Since the needles must fit inside the tube, the tube is going to be slightly bigger than the needles, meaning that you are losing accuracy by working from the tube and not the needles. This becomes a HUGE issue with modern PMU where techs are creating eyeliner wings that are so sharp, they can split a hair, delicate hairstrokes, and sharply defined lips edges. And finally, running off the tube means pigment will flow out of the tube more freely causing the tech to dip more often as well as making a mess on the skin that needs to be wiped clean, and we all know that the more we rub the skin, the more irritation we create.
How far should my needle hang be?
Well, that’s going to depend on the set stroke length of your machine, the technique, and speed you like to work at, the consistency of pigment you are using, and the type of needle configuration. It’s a lot, I know, but don’t worry, there are some simple tips you can use to figure it out.
Put the needle cartridge in the machine and set it to the speed you are planning to work at. Turn your machine on and adjust your machine until the needle protrudes approximately the width of a nickel.
If you prefer to work at a very slow voltage or speed, you’ll want your needle hand to be relatively short. The reason is because if your machine is running low, the duty cycle (the up and down movement) takes longer to cycle through and so you don’t want your hand moving before the needle comes up out of the skin or it will snag. Low speeds are for slow hand movements.
If you are working a little faster you can bring the hang out a little further, but too far and again, you may snag in the skin. I prefer to always keep my needles about a nickel’s width, regardless of what I’m doing EXCEPT when I’m using a magnum.
Magnum needles are wide and thin. The cartridge tip looks a bit like a shovel. When I use a magnum, I hold the machine at about a 45–65-degree angle and I just barely touch the tip of the tube to the skin, so here I’ll pull my needle hang back to about the width of a dime. Now, I know I said I don’t suggest working off the tube, but magnum needle tubes are OPEN at the tip, so you can certainly see the needles well.
What about pigments?
Glad you asked. If you haven’t already noticed, we work with all different levels of consistency. Some inks/pigments are very free-flowing, and others are of a thicker consistency. If you are using a thick consistency pigment, consider having a shorter needle hang. Why? Because the thicker pigment takes longer to flow down out of the tube, down the needle and into the skin. If the needle hang is too long, there won't be enough time in the duty cycle to get that pigment all the way down and into the skin, leaving puncture marks in the skin that don’t have pigment in them.
With a thinner consistency pigment, it will flow more freely down the needle allowing for a longer needle hang and allows the tech to use faster hand movements. Keep in mind that the more needles there are in the configuration, the more pigment needs to travel down the length of the needle to reach the skin, so larger needle configurations should have a shorter needle hang than smaller configurations.
If you find the needles snagging or catching in the skin, and you don’t have stretch issues, try shortening your needle length. If your length is already short, try increasing your machine speed. If that doesn’t help, you might want to check the stroke length of your machine and make sure it’s on the shorter side. Most PMU specific machines are 1.5-3mm. If you are using a traditional tattoo machine not optimized for PMU, it might be too long for the work you are doing.
If you are making several passes and not seeing pigment implant, make sure the needles are long enough to be able to see the tips of the needle penetrating the skin, but not so long that the pigment can’t slide down to the skin.
If you are having a lot of pooling of pigment on the skin, your needle might be a bit too short. If that’s not the case, then you might just be using a very thin consistency pigment. Don’t worry, with practice you’ll learn to work in the puddle; for now, just blot it up with a tissue or switch to a brand with a thicker consistency.
Remember that when you are working off the needles, there's a chance you can go too shallow, or too deep. Inconsistency results in splotchy healed work. It all hinges on your hand movements, so stay focused, keep your hand steady and consistent, and practice your hand motions until you can confidently and consistently puncture the skin without going too deep.
We have had many new members join since the beginning of the year and I am looking forward to meeting you all at the SPCP 31st Annual Convention and Trade Show in Orlando October 1-3. Come early for our pre-convention classes Friday September 30th!
Who knows how to Salsa? The Saturday night poolside reception will be so much fun! www.spcpevents.org
See you in three months!
Angela Torresiani, CPCP