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Tumble Polishing Jewelry

Aislyn Bryan - Monday, March 31, 2003

We highly recommend the use of a rock tumbler and stainless steel shot for cleaning and polishing jewelry. We favor that method so much that most of this page and all the photos are devoted to explaining in detail exactly how to do it, despite the fact that we don't sell tumblers or any supplies for them. We hope you find the information helpful and delight in the relentless shine of the finished product as much as we do.

Until you get a tumbler, or for those times when it isn't convenient to use one, have a look at our page on Other Polishing Methods.

Along the right side of this page is a series of photos with notations detailing, step by step, how to use a tumbler to polish jewelry. They illustrate everything you need to know to put your new tumbler to good use. The text in this column explains how and why it works.

What Does It Do?

Tumbling with steel shot will shine your jewelry like nothing you've ever seen before. That's not an exaggeration. However high your expectations, you'll still be shocked at the shine the first time and every time for a good long while. You'll wonder how you lived without a tumbler. Everyone does once they see the results. *s*

We tumble all our metals, sterling, Argentium, copper, bronze, palladium and platinum sterling and gold. Our normal process keeps the rings separated by metal type, but I often mix metals in my jewelry and so know that all these metals can be tumbled together. Care must be taken, however, in choosing which gemstones to tumble together. Very hard stones could cause damage to very soft stones in the tumbling process. When in doubt, tumble separately.

How Does It Work?

Burnishing is the technical term for what the tumbler does to your jewelry. It's as though your jewelry is being pounded millions of times by tiny little hammers. Although you're likely to hear rumors to the contrary, tumbling is not abrasive and does not remove any material from the surface of the metal. It does not damage metal in any way at all. It will knock off minor burrs if you have them (but you won't if you're using our rings *s*) leaving behind something that looks like glitter, and it will burnish away mild scratches. It will not remove gouges, though it will smooth them and make them very shiny. Like all forms of burnishing, tumbling hardens the outer layer of the metal. The net effect can be significant hardening if the metal is very thin, such as headpins, but less dramatic with heavier metals. Although it doesn't seem as though it would be, tumbling is very gentle. Even the most delicate pieces will emerge brilliantly polished and completely unmangled... unless tangling occurs. Even thin headpins will emerge still straight, as long as they don't get tangled with something else and bent as a result. For this reason, you'll want to be careful what sorts of items you tumble together. You'll learn best about that with experience.

What Do I Need?

There are rotary tumblers and vibratory tumblers. We don't use vibratory tumblers (actually, we do now... I'll add an update), but I understand that they work faster than rotary tumblers but also require more shot and are loud and tend to 'walk' with the vibration. We have eight rotary tumblers of two different brands, Lortone and Thumler. Rotary tumblers sound soothing, like a waterfall, they don't walk around and we're not in too much of a hurry to appreciate that. *s* You'll need to choose according to your own needs and preferences, of course, but the information here all relates to the rotary type.

The Lortone 3A is a good tumbler in a good size for jewelry. Search for the best prices, but it will probably cost around $60. The double barreled tumbler is the Lortone 33B. The barrels are identical and interchangeable and the double barreled 33B can run just fine with only one barrel loaded.

You'll need about two pounds of mixed, stainless steel shot to go in it. One pound will work, it just takes longer to get the shine. More than two pounds is likely to bog down the motor because of the weight. Stainless steel shot costs more than carbon steel, but it doesn't rust and become ruined in the absence of perfect caretaking so it's worth the extra investment.

It's not a good idea to use just one shape of shot because no matter which shape you get, that one shape won't touch every tiny nook and cranny of your jewelry pieces the way using all the shapes together will. You can, however, live without pins, so get the shot without pins, if you can find it. They don't hurt the jewelry, but they're a pain to pick out of chain and hollow beads and you don't need them. The purpose of pins is to get into very deep areas, so you might want them if you're doing something unusual such as tumbling Bali silver with the intention of removing every bit of the color from the crevices to leave them totally bright and shiny. The darkness in the crevices is what brings out the detail in Bali silver, though, so removing all of the color will generally leave it looking pretty bland. Tumbling Bali silver without pins definitely lightens it and brings up the shine on the high spots, but it leaves enough darkness in the low places to keep the detail.

I've read that pins can leave ping marks on flat, polished expanses of sterling and copper. I haven't personally experienced this, but I felt I should mention the possibility just in case. If you can't find mixed shot without pins, you can always pick them out or, better yet, use a sieve with holes big enough to let them pass through and shake your new shot around in it til they all fall out. In addition to the tumbler and the shot, all you need is Dawn dishwashing liquid.

Dawn is a degreasing dishwashing liquid commonly available in the US. Original blue Dawn or Dawn Ultra (also blue) both work well in tumblers. If Dawn is not available where you live, look for a degreasing dishwashing liquid that does not contain bleach, moisturizers or other additives. We've heard that Fairy Liquid and Simple Green both work well, though we have not tested either of them ourselves.

What Do I Do With It?

There are as many 'recipes' for tumbling as there are people who do it and much of the advice people give is conflicting. In addition to the several hundred troy ounces of sterling rings we tumble every week, I've tumbled every piece of jewelry I've ever made and the shine speaks for itself. This is the way we do it and what we recommend.

Run a new tumbler for a couple of hours with nothing but the shot, enough water to cover it and a couple of healthy squirts of Dawn* the first time. Rinse the tumbler and shot well afterward, then you're ready to go.

With the clean shot in the tumbler, add the jewelry (you can polish multiple pieces together, but fine chains will tangle and earring wires will tangle with chain, as well), a healthy squirt of Dawn and enough water to cover everything. Put the lid on snugly and tumble from half an hour to overnight. As long as you put the lid on correctly, you don't need to worry about it sudsing up and blowing off. There have been times we've used more Dawn than any sane person ever would and the only time we've had even a minor bubble leak was when we didn't put the lid on well. Despite hundreds of hours of tumbling in multiple tumblers and running through many cases of Dawn, we've never had a single leak that amounted to more than a tablespoon of suds... so no worries. *s*

Some stones require special care. Amber can be ruined in a tumbler because it can't stand to be soaked in water. Soft stones such as turquoise and malachite can lose their polish and become dull. Brittle stones such as opal can shatter, pearls can have their nacre damaged, emeralds can seep oily resin and make a mess of everything else, as well as themselves... so you polish all beads and gems at your own risk. It's always better to test tumble a lone bead or two than to take the chance of ruining a finished piece. Having said all that, though, I have to also say I've never had anything ruined in the tumbler and I tumble everything. (Except amber; I've never tumbled that because I ruined some once just soaking it in water.) Your mileage might vary, of course, so always test tumble a single bead if you are at all unsure. As mentioned before, mixing soft stones with hard stones can result in damage to the soft stones. (Compare stones on the Mohs Scale if you aren't sure of their relative hardness.) Any time you feel worried, tumble an item alone; it's always the safest tumbling option.

Use great caution when draining your shot into the sink. Always use a good sieve that can take the weight. If you drop even one piece of shot down the drain on the garbage disposal side, get it out by any means necessary before the disposal is turned on. It only takes one piece of shot to ruin a garbage disposal. (Update... sometime after posting this page, someone told me about getting a bit of shot out of the disposal by holding a wadded up piece of bread with a pair of tongs and pressing the shot into it while holding a flashlight to see down the disposal. You might want to keep that method in mind, just in case. *s*)

If you ever open your tumbler and find everything in there has turned mysteriously dark, don't panic. Although people often insist you need only one drop of Dawn, there is a limit to how much crud -- for lack of a more technical term -- can be held in suspension by one drop of Dawn. If your jewelry has turned uniformly dark, it simply means that the crud removed has overloaded the amount of Dawn you used and been uniformly redeposited onto your jewelry. Rinse out the black water, put in fresh water and considerably more Dawn and tumble again. The answer to the mysterious darkness is always more Dawn.

The Mysterious Darkness

In our own experience, the mysterious darkness is always caused by overloading the Dawn (which is a degreasing dishwashing liquid) with more than it can hold in suspension. Dirty shot, base metal contaminants and even hard water can all contribute to what has to be held in suspension. If the problem is very bad, the shot and jewelry will need to be cleaned separately prior to tumbling again. See the follow up below for information on how to do that.

There is, evidently, a second type of jewelry darkening, though, related to using a tumbler barrel made of a lower quality rubber. A really bad smell appears to be a clue to that problem. See the follow up and be sure to read the comments for more information from our customers on how to deal with that problem.

Traditional Jewelers' Methods

Given all the benefits of tumble polishing and all the risks of using traditional jewelers' polishing methods, especially for chain, it makes no sense at all to polish chain by traditional methods. A tumbler will remove minor burrs, burnish and harden the metal, deliver an absolutely breathtaking shine and all while you're off doing something else productive with your time. A tumbler is an inexpensive investment, it does not produce nasty dust for you to breathe and it will never, ever snatch off one of your fingers. Just don't polish chains by traditional methods anymore; it's not healthy and it's not smart. Just the facts, no offense intended. Please keep in mind that we don't sell tumblers, shot or Dawn and we don't recommend any particular vendor who does. We include this detailed information on tumble polishing purely as a service to our customers, because it results in the best shine for the least effort, it's absolutely safe and environmentally friendly. It just doesn't get any better than that. *s*

Just the Faqs, Ma'am

Hello! I came to your site to purchase sterling rings but in browsing I came across your recommendations regarding tumble-polishing. I have a question and I've searched high and low without finding a suitable answer. Since you seem very knowledgable, I hope you can help! Can you safely tumble jewelry made using Swarovski crystal beads? What about glass beads?

The answers are yes and yes. It's always possible that something could have a flaw in it, like a crack in a crystal or a lampwork glass bead that wasn't annealed properly, and the tiny pinging in the tumbler could make that flaw show itself... but if that happens, the flaw was already there and the bead would have broken sooner or later anyway. Better it happens while you still have it then after you've sent it off to a customer. Still, though, in all my years of tumbling every thing I make, including plenty of Swarovski and glass, I've never had a casualty, so you're pretty safe. Anytime you're in doubt, though, just sacrifice a bead and tumble it alone. *s*

Note: It's generally not a good idea to tumble anything with a coating on it. I don't use the Swarovski crystals with coatings myself, but I've heard tumbling can dull the shine. Just FYI.


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