Most tattoo machines are pretty standard. Much like fast food, they are built to a template to produce clones of the same design. There is nothing inherently wrong with this mass production concept; as with fast food chains, you know exactly what you are going to get without much variation. It can be reassuring. However, some tattooists will always aspire to something unique.
That’s where Knucklehead Irons come in. Owner Ralfy is a machine builder with a difference, making each machine from scratch and manufacturing each individual part. With each one taking between twenty and thirty hours to complete, Knucklehead machines are a world apart from the mass-produced clones. Nine Mag caught up with Ralfy at his workshop in Melton Mowbray to talk about his work, his motivation and his secret rotary machine.
Interview – Ben Lakin
Photography – Rich Luxton
Let’s take it from the top – can you start by giving us a short history of how you got into tattooing and machine building?
When I was thirteen I went on holiday with my parents to Lowestoft. At that age I wasn’t Interested in spending a week in a caravan with the olds, so I ended up hanging around the local tattoo studio. It belonged to a bloke called Old Will – I’ll suppose he’ll be dead now, bless him. He didn’t realize I was so young and figured I was getting on for eighteen. He did me a little tattoo; a swallow on my forearm. Now, I thought it was cool as fuck and I knew straight away that I wanted more. I wanted more tattoos and I wanted to be doing tattoos on other people too. I soon became the school tattooist, hand poking myself and my mates using ink and a sewing needle. I continued tattooing my mates until I didn’t have any mates left. I kept going though, eventually progressing to using machines when I was seventeen. That was 29 years ago I’ve been tattooing ever since.
Were you working in a shop then or..?
Was I fuck! I tattooed from home. I worked on my older mates until they were covered in crap, taking 10 years to reach and ‘acceptable’ level, then I eventually got my foot in the door of a studio. I started working part time; tattooing a few days a week and doing other jobs to make ends meet.
It was around 13 years ago that I had enough tattoo work to go full time. It wasn’t easy, particularly as I was married with kids at that time, but I had finally fulfilled a childhood dream that I’d had since I was thirteen years old.
I suppose I should mention here that nowadays I’m really anti-scratcher, and as a B.T.A.F member I know that sounds rather hypocritical. Let me explain that most old boys my age started teaching themselves at home because you simply couldn’t get an apprenticeship. I lived in Leicester at the time, but back then there were just one or two studios there, and Leicester is a decent sized city. Tattooing wasn’t a mainstream industry like it is now, with studios everywhere. Apprenticeships simply weren’t available like they are today. In today’s tattoo world there is no excuse. The health risk alone means it needs to be done right.
How did you get into machine building?
One of my other jobs when I was still starting out was building custom motorbikes. Coming from a fabrication background I knew how to work with metal. I remember looking at a tattoo machine and thinking ‘I reckon I can build these little things!’
The first machines I built were very basic. I didn’t have a milling machine, lathe, work benches or anything; just hand tools and a welder. That was back in 2008 and thankfully I’ve progressed a little since then.
No one has ever shown me exactly how to do it (build machines), but lots of people have been helpful. Terry Stafford was a huge inspiration. He wasn’t really a mentor, but he encouraged me a lot.
He said ‘Ralfy, you can build motorbikes! If you can’t build a tattoo machine then you’re a fucking idiot! Go home, Take one apart see what’s what, and then build it yourself.” So I did, and it worked!
Scottish Terry (Ritchie) for Thistle Tattoos in Lossiemouth was very helpful too. We still keep in touch. He’s a lovely bloke.Also, a few of the guys in the U.S.A were helpful as well, such as Austin Riley of A.M.R Machines and Gary “Dank” Showmaker. They are both true friends, I must also mention my friend Rob Williams of El Diablo in Wales. He’s had total faith in me since he bought his first machine from me in 2009, and of course my dear Alicia.
As for fellow machine makers (not builders) that I admire in this country, I have to mention Terry Stafford again, his machines are lovely! He makes them out of antique bits and bobs and all sorts of stuff, He’ll find out what you are into and make a machine from that. For example, he did some brothel tokens from early America. They’re truly works of art. Apart from Terry, there are not many true makers that stand out, in my view, don’t get me wrong here, there’s some very hard working Machine Builders in this country, that produce faultless machines and I have nopthing but respect for what they do, however, I’m talking about something just a little more personal, and I don’t think there’s many of us left, saying that you bet after this goes out, I’ll get contacted by a dozen lol.
Of course, you have to mention my machine building hero, Percy Walters, too. When I first started I found a picture of his range of machines and used that to design my brass Model A machines. There’s something about the way old Percy did his thing. He was never known to be drunk, didn’t take a wife and he slept in a cot next to his workbench. Now that’s dedication.
What made you decide you wanted to build every little piece by yourself?
I was brought up poor. If you wanted something and you couldn’t afford to buy it, then you had to make it, or go without. Saying that, for those first two machines I built; I didn’t make the coil cores, or A-bars – I robbed them from my Danny Harkins machines! I used premade springs too, however, I did make every other part myself – the frames, binders and contact screws and pretty much everything else.
Nowadays, I ill only buy in parts that I don’t have the knowledge or right equipment to make it myself, especially the smaller fiddly bits. For example, take this machine here; I used bought in fixing screws, washers, and coil washers. I used to always make my own coil washers, and still do on occasion, but eventually just bought a load in. I’ve got stacks of the fucking things – bags and bags of washers! Just as importantly for me, is that back in the early days of electrical tattooing, the guys working simply didn’t have a choice but to make what they needed, and to me the machine making tattooist is tradition that needs keeping alive.
Where do you get your material? Can you get them in the UK or do you have to import?
I try to but from this country where possible. I like to support the UK industries when I can and I get most of my materials here, but it’s not always possible. For example, I find the best spring stock comes from the U.S.A So there’s sometimes a compromise.
Generally though buying stock isn’t any problem, I’m lucky because I buy raw materials and most of it’s available over here. Plus I only buy small quantities, as I mostly build to order. Besides, when the finished product fits in the palm of your hand, how much stock do you really need?
I like to think of my machine building operation as a cottage industry, as opposed to a production line, and in similar terms as my mate Andy Bowlin. He’s a machine builder in the USA and he used to call himself a ‘closet’ machine builder, as his “workshop” back then was actually a converted wardrobe! I don’t think he realized the gay connotation of that expression.
Would you say that you prefer builder over tattooing?
I get asked that a lot and the answer is ‘no’. I like both building and tattooing. Building machines is nice to do, but I wouldn’t stop tattooing. I wouldn’t want to build machines full time, but I definitely don’t want to stop doing it.
When you’ve been tattooing have you experimented with rotaries?
Wash your mouth out! I’m loyal to the coil! I must confess I do have a rotary. I got it years ago from my friend Mike Metaxa, a Russian bloke who lives in New York. The problems with rotaries for me is that I don’t get the feedback like I do with a coil machine, and certainly with a handmade one. I can tell with my ears and my eyes closed if the line is how I’d like it. If I can’t get that from a machine, to me, it’s a lifeless tool. Ok, so you may love the results you get with it, but there’s no bond. Fair play to the artists that use them, but they’re not for me.
Do you still make your own needles?
Of course, when I have time. I always make my needles, apart from tight three and five liners as I can’t make them like you can buy them. If the studio’s busy I’ll use pre-made needles, but on the whole I make my own.
I remember back in the day one of the daily jobs was to make the needles for the day. This would mainly consist of making the usual generic lot. However, if something a little different came in, and you didn’t have the setup for it, you had to make it whilst they were waiting in the chair. I do not miss that.
I try to build these machines as if I’m keeping them for myself, or giving it to a dear friend. I treat every little part as if it’s just as important as the next. I even polish the ends of fixing screws that will most likely never be seen. If you use one of my machines day in day out you learn to love the little group of parts bolted together. You don’t get that with a production machine. You learn to understand the feedback I mentioned before, and how to run it to get the results you are looking for.
It becomes a partnership and that’s part of the Handmade Magic.
I made a liner for Kevin Bradford recently and he was very complimentary. He says it’s the nicest tattoo machine he’s ever used, it’s so tactile. He said, ‘I can’t put it down!”
I like to think that you (a tattooist) might go into work and you’ve got an appointment with some wanker sat in front of you wanting crappy tribal or something; and then you pick up one of my machines and suddenly it’s not so bad. I do this work to please me and, thankfully, other people seem to like it. I receive wonderful feedback which, to me, is the icing on the cake. Ann Nails in Belgium said that when she got her new machine it was love at first sight. It doesn’t get any better that than that.
What do you charge per machine?
It varies, but usually I charge £260 for a machine in steel and £300 for brass or alloy (plus postage etc). I made a special run of small steel machines for £300 too. There are only 6 pairs of liners and shaders and they’re rather special.
Do you make custom machines to other’s specifications?
No. I do what I do. Customers will often make suggestions or say, “I really like this… can you do it with this/ that or the other?” and I’ll say yes or no.
Really, I only like to do the old-fashioned vintage styles. I like the traditional machine made the traditional way, the same that I like to shave like a gentlemen, use a pocket watch, and call the radio a ‘wireless’. You might call me ‘old fashioned’ but I call it ‘traditional’.
A little birdie tells me that you like to play with rusty old blades too?
(laughs) What, razors? You’re saying I play with razors? Fucking hell! That’s exactly what my missus says – ‘He’s off in his workshop, playing with razors!’ Yeah, I do restore old cut throat razors for a hobby. I use a straight razor to shave myself with every day. Bring your throat here, I’ll show you how it’s done if you like!
Do you collect old tattoo machines too?
Now as it happens I’ve just acquired my very first! A 1957 Jonesy Roundback, I can’t wait to take it for a spin. I have rebuilt and refurbished some vintage machines. I’ve just rebuilt an old Jensen machine for Shawn Patterson. Funny story; at about the same I was working on Shawn’s Jensen I was refurbishing some antique cut throat razors for a guy in Sweden. Somehow I managed to fuck up postage and sent the razors to Shawn and the machine to Sweden! I’d love to have seen their faces when they opened the packages! It’s all sorted now, though.