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Buying a rock tumbler can be a daunting task to a beginner and a fascinating task to a seasoned pro, but either way, there are so many different options that it is good to have a strategy before hitting the market.
The best tumbler overall is the Lortone 3A for its simplicity, quiet, and long life. The National Geographic tumbler is a great alternative for beginners for its affordability and value for the money. The best option for a hobbyist in 2021 is the Tumble-Bee TB-14 because it is built to last and still has a large capacity.
Tumblers are hard to look through, that is no secret. I will break down our choices and give you a framework to evaluate any tumbler you see for sale.
If you are interested in checking out the best rock tumblers you can find them by clicking here (Amazon link).
What is the Best Rock Tumbler to Buy?
The Lortone 3A single barrel tumbler (Amazon link) carries Lortone’s long-time reputation of simple, yet quality tumblers. This tumbler blows other designs out of the park with value for the money and still chugs on after more expensive tumblers have given up.
If even after reading this article, you are still unsure of which rock tumbler to choose (especially if it is a gift), you will not regret this choice.
Lortone is a family-owned business based out of the Northwest. Like many smaller companies in the giant lapidary field, everything about them is face value and no-nonsense.
Their products work as described and you will never have to try to see through pounds of marketing façade to the real product.
The 3A tumbler comes with a warranty by default and a replacement of some of the more damage-prone parts. After reading further, you will know this is a main signifier of quality in rock tumblers.
The design incorporates a few notable aspects. First, the whole barrel is made of hard rubber to reduce noise. This works remarkably well, as many people familiar with tumblers cite surprise at the quiet operation of this particular barrel.
Second, the barrel spins due to friction with a pin underneath. This way, the motor is not spinning an off-center weight, but a small metal pole. Because taking care of the motor is of major importance with rock tumblers, this design decision works remarkably well for the Lortone 3A (Amazon link).
|Barrel Capacity||3 lb|
|Reliability||State of the art|
What to Look for When Buying a Rock Tumbler
Rock tumbler choices all boil down to a combination of a few important aspects:
- Barrel size,
- Vibratory vs. rotary
- Construction quality (also equipment lifetime)
The main challenge when buying a rock tumbler as a beginner is recognizing aspects of a design that will strongly impact the way you use it and how long it lasts for you.
There are a few major decisions you need to make at the beginning of your search that narrow down your rock tumbler choices considerably. Each is broken down in detail in this section. The first thing you need to decide is how often you will be using this device, and that leads us to our first important tumbler attribute.
Choosing your Barrel Size
Are you a rockhound bringing in a few loads every weekend? What about a rock shop owner looking to sell tumbled stones or jewelry made from them?
Are you just entering the world of rocks and minerals and looking to try out this beautiful hobby? Depending on your situation, a different size barrel will serve you best.
Each load of rocks in a rotary tumbler can take 4 weeks or even more if the stones are especially hard. This must be taken into account when you’re looking at hobbies, budget, or pro-options.
Whatever the barrel size is, just do a quick calculation to see how many rocks you could tumble with it in a year and check if that fits your needs.
For example, our top pick, the Lortone 3A single barrel tumbler (Amazon link), has a capacity of 3 pounds, so you could get 36 pounds of tumbled stone out of it per year, more than enough for a beginner, but might not be enough for the avid hobbyist.
Now that you’ve decided on the ideal barrel size, you need to decide on the tumbler type.
Rotary vs. Vibratory Tumblers
Rotary tumblers and vibratory tumblers have a single fundamental difference which makes them very different beasts in the rock tumbling world.
For a brief introduction, rotary tumblers spin a horizontal axis barrel filled with rocks, water, and abrasive – relying on collisions between all the components, facilitated by gravity, to smooth to rocks.
Vibratory tumblers do less tumbling. They fill a container with abrasives rocks and vibrate this container – relying on small movements and friction to smooth the rocks. Check out the tumbler explainer article for a more in-depth explanation of how they both work!
Because they work differently, they fundamentally change how you will use the rock tumbler. We have recommended rotary tumblers in this article because they are more common among the entry-level crowd and are more built for at-home use.
In order to choose, take these factors into account:
- Tumbled rock shape
- Sound level
- Speed of tumbling
Because they involve fewer collisions, vibratory tumblers will change the shape of your raw stones less than rotary tumblers. Rather, they smooth the stones out in the general shape that they started in.
This also makes these tumblers achieve a smooth, polished end product quicker – up to two times quicker. On the other hand, rotary tumblers can be quieter and exert a less piercing noise frequency.
|Noise Frequency||High pitch||Oscillatory|
|Speed||3-4 days per load||4-7 days per load|
|Popularity||Among Experts||Among beginners|
|Other Uses||Casings, coins||Mostly rocks|
As with any product, but exacerbated by the fact that tumblers are mechanical, involve moving pieces, and generally operate around the clock, the more inexpensive options will have a shorter life expectancy because they are made with fewer quality designs and materials. Lower quality tumblers will also be louder.
While this is to be expected, just because a rock tumbler is affordable, does not mean it is cheap and low quality. There are many budget options that can last years on end.
Therefore, I want to give you a few rules of thumb to choose an affordable option without sacrificing too much quality.
When you are looking for a quieter rotary tumbler, check to make sure the inside of the barrel is lined with a good thickness of rubber. It is common that cheaper tumblers have rubber that quickly rips, leading to low-quality stones and louder operations.
Mechanical parts break, that is just a fact of life. A sign of a tumbler that is built to last is that it will come with some spare parts, such as rubber belts connecting to the motor or a wrench.
Another telltale sign is if you see a lot of people online asking for replacement barrels. Of course, this can just mean that the barrel is low quality, but it more often means that the main mechanical construction outlasts many barrels.
The last trick to determining quality is more nuanced. You would not guess it, but the main way rock tumbler barrels break is by opening and closing them while reloading.
Always look for simplicity and rubber connections in these openings. Not only will they make your life much easier and cleaner, but they will also signal a higher quality product.
TIP: Check out the complete comparison guide if you are interested in understanding all differences between rotary and vibratory rock tumblers:
Rotary vs Vibratory Rock Tumbler: Which One To Buy & Use
What is the Best Rock Tumbler for the Beginner?
We chose an option with a similar, yet smaller, design concept for the best beginner tumbler. While small and entry-level, the National Geographic tumbler (Amazon link) has been being sold for a while and gives good value to its buyers.
While not as cheap as some tumblers on the market, it’s much quieter, longer-lasting, and just works better than cheaper models. In other words, the extra value gained by paying a bit more for a budget tumbler is well worth it.
The National Geographic Hobby Rock Tumbler (Amazon link) employs the same spinning pin design as the Lortone 3A, as well as the same rubber barrel. It has a few additional features which make it especially tailored to beginners or children.
All the moving pieces are sealed tight and the motor is not easy to access for curious hands. It also has an automatic shutoff timer since it is relatively easy to forget to stop and reload the tumbler.
|Barrel Capacity||1 lb|
|Reliability||Medium – Safety Focused|
Rock Tumbler Starter Kit for Beginners
The best tumbling starter kit of 2021 (Amazon link) is also made by National Geographic. Starter kits are especially interesting because tumbling is so customizable that whenever a kit gives more diverse options, it is usually a great pick.
And what does this tumbling starter kit contain?
This starter kit contains half of a pound of stones to try out tumbling with. One of the most interesting and fascinating aspects of tumbling, no matter what level you are at, is getting to know the mineral you are tumbling.
It goes through such a transformation in color, shape, texture, and clarity from its raw shape to its tumbled shape that it is interesting to know the “why’s” and “how’s” of the mineral to see how they affect the tumbling process.
This kit facilitates this interest by including 9 different types of minerals in this half-pound of sample rocks and explains the minerals in the instructions.
The instructions also contain fun facts about each mineral and information about how the tumbling process works in relation to how the natural process of smoothing and rounding is carried out.
The last important piece of any starter kit is the abrasives. This kit comes with a small amount of abrasive, enough to take the sample minerals through each step of the process.
It’s great to have this small amount of abrasive as a starter because it lets you see a typical process before you choose how you want to conduct your own tumbling processes.
Some people choose 3 or 5 steps for their tumbling process, and some change the process depending on the stones. Because grit abrasive is usually only found in bulk, this small amount is a much appreciate sample.
TIP: Every tumbler can go wrong from time to time. Therefore, it is good to know what can be the cause and how to fix it. Check out the most common reasons why your rock tumbler leaks and how to fix it:
6 Reasons Why Your Rock Tumbler Leaks and How to Fix it
Best Rock Tumbler for the Hobbyist
The Tumble-Bee TB-14 model (Amazon link) is our favorite hobbyist option. For the curious hobbyist, this tumbler will be everything you need. It is simple, hard-working, and built to last.
It has a similar design to the Lortone 3A – that we have found to be the most efficient design on the market.
The motor spins a pin on the bottom, which turns a hard rubber barrel through friction, while the end of the barrel is held in place by a pin. This design differs from the Lorton 3A in how the motor is cooled and the structure of the base of the tumbler is sturdier.
This Tumble-Bee model (Amazon link) has two main perks over the Lortone 3A. The fan-cooled design is more efficient at cooling the motor (warm motors can be a sign that they will wear out earlier, though that has not been a problem for the Lortone model).
However, because of this rule of thumb, Tumble-Bee has installed a thermal overload protector on this model, making sure that the equipment shuts down if it gets too hot. The barrel also can hold 1 pound more stones, which is a big improvement for a high-volume rockhound.
When you buy it, this model includes a moderate amount of grit to try out the standard 4-step process and the abrasives to go along with it. It also comes with oil and a wrench to facilitate working with the equipment – a clear sign that this tumbler is built for the long run.
This tumbler (Amazon link) is simple, with not much operation other than an on-off switch (and operation instructions of course). For the average hobbyist, this is more than enough because creativity comes from what is put inside!
|Barrel Capacity||4 lb|
TIP: Rock tumblers require some maintenance, though, as you will need to oil them regularly to keep them running smoothly. Check out the complete guide on oiling your rock tumbler in the article below:
Step-By-Step Guide: How To Properly Oil Your Rock Tumbler
Best Rock Tumbler for under $100
The best tumbler for under $100 may surprise you. It is actually our top pick for rock tumblers in 2022 – the Lortone 3A (Amazon link). This incredible construction does not run you very much at all, and that value is why we have picked it as our top choice this year.
To reiterate, the Lortone 3A wins because of its all-around value. Its simple, no-frills design affords it a reasonable cost while allowing the motor to run for years. Its hard rubber barrel ensures it’s among the quietest of the rotary tumblers and is made for at-home use.
We recommend that if you are looking into the hobby of rock tumbling with any chance of carrying it with you for a year or two at least, this Lortone will not disappoint you.
However, take our advice and make sure the 3-pound capacity works for you, and do not store it anywhere hot or you might find its lifetime less than expected. Check it out on Amazon!
TIP: Rock tumblers use various types of grit in the multiple stages of the rock tumbling process to shape, smooth, and polish the stones. Find out the complete guide about tumbling grit in the article below:
Rock Tumbling Grit: Usage, Types, Disposal & Substitutes