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What started out as an outing with my daughter and grandkids has turned into a passion, though the best part is time spent with my family. As we collected our prized lakers, (Lake Superior Agates) I began to realize there were other stones that each had their own special kind of beauty, we just needed to enhance it. That meant getting a tumbler and learning the process of bringing out that "wet-look mirror" shine. After completing a few batches, it was time to learn how to display and show off my little beauties, which lead to learning the art of wire wrapping or wire sculpture.

Rock Tumbling Basics

What's Most Important? CAUTION! Rock tumbling is very addictive!
Rock tumbling for most people is a hobby they can do with their family so there's only one answer as far as I'm concerned and that's to have fun! What could be better than having fun with your children or grandchildren? Get them and yourself out of the house and go collecting rocks together. Visit nature, find a gravel pit (please get the land owners permission) and dig around for rocks that have pretty colors and interesting patterns.
Remember, these are just the basics to get you started. Things will get deeper in the intermediate stage later.

What Do I Need?
A tumbler, grit, polish, water and most of all PATIENCE! This is a big joke amongst rock tumblers .. Patience? What is that?

  • A Tumbler
    You'll need to learn some because rocks don't polish overnight, it takes weeks to get a good shine. You'll need to get a tumbler. Don't buy one of those kiddie tumblers with the plastic barrels ... you're wasting hard earned $$! My suggestion, get a small Lortone tumbler. (No, I don't work for Lortone, I have several and I like them.) The Lortone 33B is a great tumbler to start with. It has two three-pound rubber barrels (*I'll mention more about the importance of having two barrels later.) If you decide you don't like polishing, a good tumbler will retain it's resale value, a plastic kiddie tumbler won't. Another plus ... the rubber barrels are quiet.
  • Grit & Polish
    • Coarse = 60/90 ... This is the most common coarse grit. You can go lower if you want to but if you go much lower, you'll need to add an additional step. The coarse step is most important for shaping the stones and causes the most reduction in size of the stones your polishing.
    • Medium = 120/200 ... This step removes the scratches made by the coarse grit and begins the smoothing process.
    • Fine = 500 ... This step removes the scratches made by the medium grit and begins to bring a matte finish to the stones.
    • Polish ... This step puts the shine on the stones.
  • Water
    You'll need access to water for a couple of reasons. First, you need to put water in the barrels with the grit. Second, you'll need to be able to clean the rocks between the various steps.
  • Buckets
    Get yourself a couple of 5 gallon buckets to wash the rocks in. DO NOT pour the slurry down the drain, it can settle and cause problems, its hardens like a rock. Use a bucket and dump the slurry water outside!
  • Patience
    Did I mention patience? *smile* It's very hard to wait between the stages but you'll learn.

What Are The Basic Steps?

  • Coarse (60/90) = 1 week minimum
  • Medium (120/200) = 1 week
  • Fine (500) = 1 week
  • Polish = 1 week minimum

What Kind Of Grit Should I Use?
The grit is what grinds and shapes the stones. You'll need at least three different grits ... coarse, medium, and fine. There's graded (i.e. 80 grit) and ungraded (i.e. 60/90) Ungraded means it's a mix of grit sizes between 60 and 90.) You can buy graded grit but it's more expensive, ungraded works fine.

How Much Grit Should I Use?
Whatever tumbler you buy should come with instructions. Read them! You'll need to learn how to maintain your tumbler and it will also give you basic amounts to begin with. After you've learned a little about tumbling, you'll pick up on different things about your tumbler and how it works. My suggestion is this ... begin with 3 tablespoons and if you find there's still grit left in the barrel after a week, reduce it to 2 tablespoons. DO NOT think that by adding more grit the stones will tumble faster, you're just wasting grit. If you think you have too much grit on hand, send it to me, I'll use it wisely. *smile*

What Kind Of Polish Should I Use?
Aluminum Oxide is a good basic polish and I think what comes in most beginner kits. Until you've decided if you really like tumbling, it's a good basic polish to start with. Run the polish stage for at least a week, but 10 days to two weeks will give you much better results.

What Kind Of Rocks Should I Use?
Whatever you've collected, give them a try! Rocks have different hardness (MOHS) to them so you should learn the basics of how to determine what those are. Lots of people use driveway gravel, some use the decortive gravel you can buy at hardware and garden centers, some buy the "rough" from rock shops.

How Full Should The Barrel Be?
Again, this should be explained in the booklet that came with your tumbler. If you can't find it, a general rule of thumb is 3/4ths to 5/8ths full.

How Much Water Should I Add?
Add water to the bottom of the top layer of rocks.

Why Is It Better To Have Two Barrels?
To prevent cross-contamination between grit and polish. Use one barrel for the grits and keep one barrel just for polishing.

Can I Peek?
*smile* Like if I say ... no you can't, you're not going too? Yes, you can peek but at least let them go for two days until you do. Open your barrel, take out a couple of rocks and wash them off so you can get a good look at how the edges are smoothing. Now put them back in the barrel, clean the edge or lip of the barrel off and put them back on the tumbler.

Ewww! The Water Is All Gray And Foamy?
I hope so! As the grit shaves down the stones, the microscopic pieces will begin to fill the water turning it to slurry. This is what you want to happen. It should look gray or chocolate brown and have the consistency of a semi-melted shake.

Remember, DO NOT dump the slurry down the drain.

OK, so you couldn't look at just one or two, you dumped the whole barrel and washed them all off.
That's ok, this is a good time to check the grit then. After you've swished them around in the bucket to wash the slurry off, take a good look at how they are shaping. Wash the barrel out (an old toothbrush works good for cleaning the lip) and put the rocks back in. Now you want to find out what's left of the grit ... hope you have more buckets. Pour the rinse water slowly into another bucket. Watch closely when it gets nearly empty, do you see a lot of the grit left in the bottom of the bucket? Don't waste it, put it back in the barrel. This was why I suggested just rinsing off one or two rocks. LOL .... avoid the mess. I never completely do this until they've been tumbling for at least 5 days. By then the grit has been used up and I can recharge the barrel with new grit.

What Do You Do With The Polished Rocks?
Give them as gifts, make jewelry, fill glass jars with them, put them on top of your houseplants for decoration, decorate a picture frame ... there are endless ideas of what you can do with them.

OK! You're Addicted To Tumbling ... What's Next?

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Lake Superior Agates | Stone Wrapture Jewelry | Stone Knives
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Rock Tumbling Basics | Rock Tumbling Intermediate | Top of Page

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