Monday, November 17, 2008

Tumbler Rundown

A great many jewelers use a tumbler to speed up their polishing process. I was a doubter till I invested in one. Now I've found it's almost essential on some pieces & a lifesaver when I'm sick of hand polishing. If you're a chainmailer or make anything with jump rings & tiny parts, I couldn't recommend a tumbler more's amazing for polishing in those crevices.

A before & after shot of tumbling gold chain mail for only 30 minutes!

(Image & chainmail courtesy of redpandachainmail)

There are several varieties of tumblers that jewelers can use & a plethora of media you can put in them. The main varieties are vibratory & rotary versions. These shake up the media in various ways.
Rotary versions have a belt or motor that keeps a cannister rotating at all times. This one has two cannisters, which is a huge benefit of rotary versions...each cannister can have a different kind of media for different finishing options.

this version is around $110 on ottofrei

vibratory ones do just that...they vibrate to swirl around the pieces in the media. The boat shaped one to the left is the style I have & I love it. It is available on ebay. The version I have is slightly smaller & was around $130 or so a couple of years ago. I highly recommend this one. It is VERY quick for finishing & is easy to work with. Most of the time, I just pop the red top off & throw what I need in. The cannister is rubber & can be removed for cleaning. The downside of this one is that it is loud & I have to store mine in the garage or a separate room. Since it can finish a job in minutes rather than hours, I consider it a worthy trade off.

magnetic versions are AWESOME, but sadly, are priced accordingly. I used one at school a few years back & it was incredibly quick working & did a fantastic job. The smallest one on otto frei is about $500, the largest well over $1300. Sadly this is out of most of our budgets.

this small version is around $110 on ottofrei

what you put in your tumbler is just as important at the machine itself. Many jewelers prefer stainless steel shot. This gives your pieces a nice polish & also has the benefit of work hardening your pieces. I love to tumble things like post earrings & ring bezels in makes them MUCH more durable. When buying shot, you really only need a small amount. I have a quart sized container on my tumbler & have 2lbs of shot in it.

Shot comes in various shapes & sizes. I prefer a mixed pack of shot that has different shapes-pins, rounds & oblong shapes. These all work nicely to get into the crevices.

The cheapest place I've found mixed shot is at Santa Fe Jewelry Supply

When buying shot ALWAYS make sure you get stainless steel rather than regular steel. it will prevent it from rusting & last longer.

When tumbling with stainless shot I add just enough water in the cannister to go up to the edge of the shot. Less is more. Then I add either a burnishing compound or a squirt of dish soap.

Other media jeweler's use runs the gamut from corn cobs, glass beads, ceramic pellets, plastic pellets & walnut shells. Some are used dry, others (like the shells) with water. When using a rotary tumbler, it can be nice to start with something like steel shot & move to a final finish with dry walnut shells.

Walnut Shell media makes a light abrasive final cycle

I'm partial to the vibratory versions as they're super easy to access during the process...just pop off the lid (in mine, you don't even have to turn it off to do this!) & dig around for your piece. In rotary ones, it's a bit more tricky as you have to open up the cannister & take it off. Maybe I'm lazy, but I like the simplicity of mine :)


Anonymous said...

I too recently invested in a tumbler. Near me is a store called Harbor Frieght, a great place to find some tools for jewelry making. One of them being a tumbler. You can find the double barrel tumbler for 49.99 on their site,, I got it on a sale for 24.99.
I also found a dapping die set, a circle punch all for a good price. Great when you are starting a jewelry studio and need those dollars to go far. THanks for sharing the info on tumblers.

that's Headley! Jewelry Designs said...

fabulous info - thanks for sharing your experience and expertise!

Dana said...

I just got a Harbor Freight single barrel tumbler for Christmas and just used it for the first time today.

I have so many questions though...on how long to tumble pieces, how to store the shot, etc....

I love to make copper chain necklaces and bracelets. I can see now that I might be better off tumbling the individual rings and connectors before assembling the chain though.

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