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Rock Tumbler Instructions - Guide to Rock Polishing

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Let's Make Some Tumbled Gemstones!

  Happy Rock Tumbler :)

So you are interested in making tumble-polished gemstones? Thatís great! I would like to show you how easy it is to turn the rocks shown on the left side of the photo at right into the tumbled gemstones shown on the right side of the photo. We will go step-by-step through the tumbling process using plenty of photos -- so that you will understand exactly how it is done.

The tumbling process is simple. You start with some broken rocks, known as tumbling rough, (as shown at right) and place them into a tumbling barrel (like the black barrels in the photos in the right column) with some abrasive grit and water. The barrel is then rotated over and over 24 hours a day on a rock tumbler that is powered by a small motor.

All of this tumbling wears the rough edges off of the stones and produces smooth, rounded pebbles. These are then run through a polishing step to produce the shiny gemstones shown in the right side of the photo. Tumbling rocks is easy and fun. You can use the tumbler menu at right to progress through this lesson. We hope that you have a lot of fun!

Step 1: Coarse Grind

Inspect the rocks that you are about to tumble. Make sure that they are the same hardness and of various sizes. Remove any rocks that are cracked, have deep voids or have extremely irregular shapes. These should be discarded or broken. Fill the barrel 2/3 to 3/4 full of high-quality rocks. (See our tumbling rough page for additional tips.)

Note: If you are tumbling rounded beach rocks or rocks that have been pre-tumbled and are satisfied with the shape of the rocks, you may skip the coarse grind step and go straight to the fine grind. But if your rocks are broken, have jagged edges, or you would like them to be a bit more rounded, put them through the coarse grind first.

This video shows you why filling your rock tumbler barrel between 2/3 and 3/4 full is essential. See more videos and rock tumbling instructions at RockTumbler.com, a partner site of Geology.com.

The barrel must always be at least 1/2 full for the tumbler to operate properly. But donít overload it! Barrels more than 3/4 full (including grit and water) may be too heavy for your tumblerís motor and there might not be enough space inside for the rocks to tumble. A 3 pound tumbler has a motor designed to tumble a barrel that weighs up to 3 pounds, a 6 pound motor can handle a barrel or two barrels weighing 6 pounds total, etc. If youíre not sure if the barrel is too full, weigh it after adding the water.

Add the appropriate amount of tumbler grit according to the tumblerís instructions, or use the chart below.

Rock Tumbling instructions chart

Add enough water to reach the bottom of the top layer of stones, but not so much that they are covered. You want to see some of the rock above the water. See photo to the right.

Use a paper towel to clean the inside and outside rims of the barrel and the edges of the lid. Make sure the surfaces that will form the seal are clean and dry.

Cleaning the seal on tumbler barrel
Be sure to clean the top of the tumbler barrel where the lid will seat. Just one piece of grit on that rim will cause the barrel to leak. Be clean to avoid a mess!

Place the lid on the barrel and seal the barrel. Put the barrel on the tumbler and start the motor. And we’re off!

Stick around for a few minutes to make sure the tumbler is running smoothly and the barrel isn’t leaking. If the barrel is leaking, stop the machine, remove the lid and re-clean the surfaces of the lid and barrel that must make the seal. Double-check that they are clean and dry. Replace the lid securely and proceed. Also, check the tumbler in a few hours again to make sure it’s still running smoothly. After this, it can probably be left unattended, but it’s not a bad idea to check up on it every day or so.

If you have a double-barrel tumbler, you might will need both barrels charged (loaded) for the tumbler to function properly. We recommend filling both barrels with batches of coarse grind of the same hardness so that they can be combined later on. Then you can have one barrel running a batch of fine grind while the other prepares more rough.

safety glasses
Safety glasses are highly recommended when working with grit and tumbler slurry or when opening tumbler barrels.

Let the tumbler run for 7 days, 24 hours a day. You can open the barrel to check the slurry (the muddy liquid inside) or to release gas build-up (gas build-up is usually not a problem) occasionally if you like, but be sure to clean and dry the seal areas before replacing the lid! After 7 days, stop the tumbler and open the barrel. It will look like a barrel of mud!

Do NOT pour down sink
DO NOT POUR THE MUD OR THE USED GRIT DOWN A DRAIN. It can clog your plumbing system. Instead empty the barrel into a colander over a plastic bucket or a disposable container, like the bottom half of a milk jug or 2-liter bottle. Rise thoroughly with a weak stream of water. Wear safety glasses while rinsing to protect your eyes from a possible splash of muddy water.

Now that you have rinsed the rocks, take a good look at them.

Virtually all of the shaping is done in this first step. The other steps only smooth the rock, not shape it, so the shape you see now is what you will end up with if you continue to the fine grind. If you would prefer your rocks to be more rounded, you should repeat this step with fresh coarse grit until they are shaped to your liking. It may take a few re-runs, but the extra wait is worth the results. Don’t be in a rush! Quality takes time. We are picky. When we tumble most loads of rock that aren’t beach rocks or pre-tumbled will go through the coarse grind at least twice. If some of the batch is ready to go on to the next step, you should set aside these rocks to wait for the others to catch up.

If there are any rocks that have deep cracks or pits, these rocks should not be tumbled with the fine grind. Particles of the coarse grit will get trapped in these voids and contaminate the next step, scratching the other rocks. Break these rocks and include them with your next batch of coarse grind. If the cracks or pits are very shallow, it might be possible to tumble them out, but this should only be done in the coarse grind. Don’t think that you can scrub the grit out; it’s next to impossible! Be safe and save them for your next coarse batch.

If you are repeating the coarse grind, use fresh grit. The old grit can’t be reused because after seven days it breaks down too much to be effective in shaping (yet will still effectively scratch rocks if it contaminates the fine grind). When charging the barrel, you might need to add new tumbling rough to bring the volume of the barrel to at least 1/2 full. If you don’t have more rough, you can use plastic pellets or ceramic media to bring the volume to 1/2 full.

If you are proceeding to the fine grind, first CLEAN the rocks, barrel, and lid THOROUGHLY. This cannot be stressed enough. If you have grit or slurry left in the barrel or on the rocks when you proceed to the next step, you will contaminate the load and have to start over with the previous step. The particles of leftover grit will scratch the rocks during the next step. While these scratches may be very tiny, the end result could be that the rocks do not polish to a high shine. Thorough cleaning is very important, so take your time and do a good job. You can use paper towels or an old toothbrush to clean the inside of the barrel. Pay particular attention to the seal area and the bottom edges of the barrel - lots of gunk might be trapped here and will not only contaminate your batch, but might cause the barrel to leak. If you opt to use a toothbrush, mark it as “Coarse grind only,” etc. so that you remember what step it can be used for. You should have a separate toothbrush for each step; you don’t want to contaminate the barrel the next time you are cleaning!

Step 2: Fine Grind

Once you have enough rocks for the fine grind, place them in a barrel and add fine grit as shown in the chart to the right:

Add enough water to reach the bottom of the top layer of stones, but not so much that they are covered. If necessary, add plastic pellets to bring the volume of the barrel to at least 1/2 full. Check the seal area to be sure that it is clean and dry. Place the lid on the barrel and seal the barrel. Place the barrel on the tumbler and start the motor. Again, stick around for a few minutes to make sure the tumbler is functioning properly and the barrels aren’t leaking. Check back again in an hour, and periodically after that. Let the fine grind run 24 hours a day for 7 days, then check the rocks. They should appear shiny when wet.

Now you are ready for the Prepolish Step!
Rocks before and after tumbling
Here are some of the rocks that we will tumble while writing this article. Samples of the roughly broken rocks are on the left and the finished gemstones are on the right. Notice how rocks on the left are angular in shape while rocks on the right are nicely rounded (and quite a bit smaller). That's what happens during the grinding steps of tumbling. From top to bottom the materials are: brown agate, rose quartz, green aventurine, amethyst and tigereye.

rock tumbler barrel with grit and rough
About four pounds of tumbling rough of various sizes and coarse grit ready to load into a six pound tumbler barrel. Tumbling different sizes of rough in the same batch produces better results than tumbling rock of a single size. If we filled the tumbler with the 1 to 2 inch-size rock on the left there would be very few points of contact between the rocks during the tumbling process. Mixing in smaller rock fills the spaces between the large particles, increase the amount of abrasion and delivers grit to all surfaces of the large rock.

Rocks and water in tumbler barrel
A loaded tumbler barrel. It contains tumbling rough, tumbling grit and enough water to almost cover the rocks. Don't add too much water and be very careful not to get rock dust or grit on the rim of the barrel where the lid will seat.

Muddy barrel after coarse grind
Yikes! This is what things will look like when you open the barrel after running it on the tumbler for seven days. Don't dump it down the drain!

Muddy rocks in collander after coarse grind
We poured the contents of the tumbler barrel into a plastic collander. The collander allows the water and grits to drain through (into a bucket - not down the drain). The rocks are caught in the collander and the water passes through. Don't use a metal collander because it will mark the rocks.

Clean rocks in collander after coarse grind
Wow! Here's what the rocks look like after we rinsed them thoroughly. They are now rounded and have a surface like frosted glass. Be sure to rinse the rocks THOROUGHLY. If some coarse grit remains on them into the fine grind, your gemstones will have lots of scratches on them. Being very careful and very clean at every step of the process is extremely important. You don't want to wait an extra week for your gems! Or, open the barrel after the final polish step and see scratches on your rocks - that will require starting over again.

Rock Tumbling instructions chart
Here are our recipes for different size tumbler barrels. If your barrel size is not listed here you can estimate the amount needed or consult the instructions that came with the tumbler.

 Rocks and Minerals Commonly Tumbled
Lapis Lazuli
Petrified Wood
Rose Quartz
Smoky Quartz
Tiger's Eye

Rock Tumbler Home Selecting A Tumbler Instructions - Part 1 Instructions - Part 2
Rotary Tumblers Vibratory Tumblers Tumbling Supplies Kid's Tumblers
Rough Grit Polish Media
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