Rotary Rock Tumbling: Getting Started

Part 1 of 6 – initial setup and preparation

The most important Rotary Rock Tumbling advice that we can offer to you as you are just getting started is to have patience. The guide that comes with a new rock tumbler might tell you that a tumbling load can be completed in four cycles lasting around a week each, but we would teach you instead is how to experience consistent success. This starts with a well-planned approach focusing on the condition of the material at the start, and a grit cycle that lasts as long or as short as the material dictates it should.

What follows next in no specific order is a bullet list of pro-tips, tricks and advice on the subject of getting started in rotary rock tumbling, contributed by the Rock Tumbling Hobby Forum community.

  • Study and read about tumbling before you get started. There are several really helpful and well-written books about tumbling and we have featured them for you in the Rock Tumbling tab of our Book Recommendations page.
  • Purchase as high quality of rock tumbler as you can afford. The quality difference between a $50 tumbler and a $120 tumbler is profound. It’s the difference between a mostly plastic machine with lots of bells and whistles and shiny packaging and a sturdy steel frame machine with good bearings, designed (with proper maintenance) to spin a heavy barrel continuously for years and years.
  • If you have purchased either a new or used tumbler, it is important to examine it mechanically, read and follow the manufacturers recommendations and make sure the bearings are oiled well and the shafts spin freely. We recommend using a quality oil such as carbine, or sewing machine, or 3-in-1.
  • If you have immediate access to view the belt on your machine, especially on a used machine, pay close attention to make sure it is visibly in good condition and is well-adjusted without a lot of slack. The belts on many rock tumblers can be replaced with an O-ring from your local hardware store if necessary.
  • Rock tumblers involve water and electricity, noise and mess, so choose your tumbler location carefully. For best long term results place your tumbler where it is electrically safe on a GFI protected outlet, has a constant power supply and cannot be accidentally turned off with a wall switch, and will not have to compete for an electrical outlet.
  • Make sure to place your tumbler on a good level surface in a place where no children or animals can disturb it and where it wont be a nuisance or a tripping hazard.
  • Rock tumblers can be noisy so pay attention to place it where the constant noise will not disturb anyone. Some of us enjoy being able to hear the background buzz of our tumblers running but when others who live in the house don’t quite share our enthusiasm, factoring in sound dampening measures around your tumbler could be appreciated. Simple plywood walls lined with sound dampening foam positioned on three sides of the tumbler should help a lot, but make sure to leave plenty of ventilation to keep the motor cool.
  • We have several examples of where our members built elaborate cabinets from scratch to house multiple tumbler barrels on our DIY Rotary Rock Tumblers page.
  • Accidents such as lids popping off do happen, so locate your tumblers with potential wet spillage and cleanup in mind, and not adjacent to anything that could be ruined. Consider placing a container or catch pan under your running tumblers to capture any spills in the event the barrel pops open.
  • Some of the tools that you might want to have on hand when you are getting started are a toothbrush or other brush with thin stiff bristles, with good bristles, an inexpensive loupe, colander and funnel. You may also discover as you go that dental picks can be useful for picking grit out of hard to reach places.
  • To go along with the advice point above, there may be some exceptions but it’s good advice to never use a wire brush on tumbled rocks. Most metal brushes are not made for water environments and some brushes, especially soft brass, will transfer metal to the surfaces of your rocks and you don’t want that, especially as your rocks are nearing completion.

Now that you have acquired your rotary rock tumbler and have properly prepared yourself and the operating area, it’s time to move on to Part 2 of this series: Rotary Rock Tumbling – Choosing your rock tumbling material

If you would like to offer feedback about your own experiences, pro-tips, tricks and advice, please post in this thread in the Rock Tumbling section of the RTH Forum, and they might eventually make it into the appropriate category in this article series.