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So you’re a budding rockhound dying to burnish your prize finds and display them in all their glory – but you don’t have a tumbler. This is not a train smash because there are other ways to make your rocks shiny. They may require some elbow grease and determination, but the rewards are worth it, and it can be quicker than tumbling too!
Handheld electric rotary tools or drills with grinding and polishing attachments can be used to grind down sharp edges and smooth rough rock surfaces. You can then polish out small imperfections by hand with emery cloth, stone polish, diatomaceous earth, or toothpaste or spray them with clear resin.
You need to know which rocks shine the best and the tools and materials you can use to polish them. The art of shaping, cutting, and polishing gemstones is known as lapidary and can be a gratifying hobby. However, you can also elevate humble river rocks to lustrous beauty using some simple techniques.
If you are interested in checking out the best products for cleaning rocks you can find them by clicking here (Amazon link).
Know Your Rocks
Not all rocks become shiny with washing, grinding, sanding, and polishing, so you need to know which ones are worth the effort. Stones such as jaspers, agates, and petrified wood come in intricate patterns and striking colors and can be brought to a beautiful luster.
Aventurine and tiger’s eye are other rocks that can be made to shine. It is better to start with hard rocks that are very dense and without pores or voids inside them.
Agate has a translucent quality that gives it an internal glow, and it polishes very brightly. It occurs in abundance in stream beds and dry river washes and has natural decorative patterns such as bands, swirls, moss, lace, and plumes.
Jasper comes in various colors but is often white, gray, red, orange, brown, or yellow. It is more opaque than agate and also polishes nicely.
Rocks like sandstone that consist of tiny granules are not worth polishing because they will never shine. Smooth, softer stones like onyx, calcite, fluorite, limestone, and dolomite are easier to polish by hand but can break easily.
To find out if a rock will polish well, score the surface with a pocket knife. If the scrape mark is white or gritty, the stone will not become shiny no matter how hard you work at it.
The Process of Cleaning Rocks without a Tumbler
If the rock is too large, you may want to cut it down to size using a hammer and a chisel. You can also use them to break off any unsightly protrusions.
Another more expensive way of doing this is to use a tile saw. This is an electronic machine with a blade over which water runs continuously. You can use it to cut rocks in half or in slices to expose their lustrous inner patterns before starting the beautification process.
You first need to clean the stones with hot, soapy water. Put them in a bucket and scrub off the dirt and grime with a scrubbing brush or old toothbrush, depending on their size. Leaving them in the bucket to soak for a few hours first may help loosen the more stubborn dirt.
Once they are clean and dry, you need to use a grinding tool to get rid of the sharp edges and create a pleasing shape.
Depending on the size of the rock, you can use an electric handheld tool like a Dremel, an angle grinder, or another electric grinder. You can also fit attachments to electric drills that can be used for grinding.
Always wear welding gloves, a face mask, and eye protection to avoid injury during the grinding and cutting stage. It is also vital to secure the rock in a vice or clamp to ensure that it does not fly off and injure you or someone else.
Next, you can begin the sanding process. Wet a piece of coarse grit emery cloth or sandpaper and sand the edges until they are smooth. Some stones may already be smooth enough that you don’t need to use the coarsest grit on them first.
Also, softer stones can easily be damaged by sandpaper that is too coarse. Rinse the stone in water frequently during the sanding stage to get rid of the dust in fine crevices and scratches.
Sanding in different stages using finer and finer grits may be necessary.
After this comes the polishing stage. You can buy powdered stone polish at a hardware store or a rockhound or gemstone store. It comes in various colors that can alter the color of some stones, so be careful to choose one that closely matches the stone.
Dampen a small piece of denim cloth and dip it into the polishing powder. Then rub the rock with the fabric. Stones must be completely dry before you polish them.
A strip of leather can be used instead of denim cloth. Add the polishing powder to the leather and then buff the stone on it. You can also use diatomaceous earth to polish rocks.
TIP: When you find a rock in nature it is often dirty. So it is good to clean it before trying to make it looks shiny. Acids are a great option for cleaning dirty rocks. Find out how to effectively clean your rocks in the article below:
How to Clean Your Rocks and Minerals: 5 Simple Ideas
Materials That Can Be Used To Make Rocks Shiny
Emery cloth, also known as wet-dry sandpaper, is available for purchase at any hardware store. It ranges from coarse to fine grit depending on the polishing stage.
You start out using the coarsest grit to get rid of all the rough corners and edges and work your way down to the finest grit for delicate polishing. It is better to use the one with a cloth backing than the one with a paper backing.
Repeatedly wetting the rock while rubbing helps eliminate excess material and prevents damage to the surface. The last polish should be done with a piece of felt containing aluminum oxide powder, which can be obtained from craft stores.
If you are interested in buying emery cloth for cleaning rocks and minerals, check out these products (Amazon link).
Some rocks are just too soft for any kind of abrasive and should not be sanded. You can use car wax to make this kind of rock shine without damaging it. Before applying the car wax, wash the rocks well to remove any loose debris and dirt, and then dry them thoroughly.
Use a soft, moist cloth to apply the wax. Let it dry, and then gently rub the rock with a clean cloth. You can then apply a second coat for even more gloss.
Diatomaceous earth (DE) consists of the remains of ancient, microscopic organisms called diatoms and looks like a powder. It is widely available at gardening stores and suppliers of products for swimming pools. It is a naturally occurring substance that is mildly abrasive. The advantage of using diatomaceous earth to polish smooth pebbles is that you do not lose as much rock from the surface.
Use food-grade diatomaceous earth as it contains the finest particles. Buff the pebbles with the diatomaceous earth to make them shine. You can also put the DE in a small plastic food storage box together with the rocks and shake it. The container should have five times as much DE as rocks.
If you are interested in buying diatomaceous earth for cleaning rocks and minerals, check out these products (Amazon link).
Use plain white toothpaste that claims to whiten teeth. The chemicals in it will remove stains from the rocks as well as it does from your teeth. Do not use colored toothpaste or gel toothpaste.
You can squeeze it onto a denim cloth and buff the stones with it or put it on a toothbrush and work it onto the surface. It removes contaminants that cloud the rocks and also increases their glossiness.
TIP: Making your rocks shiny is a similar process to making them look wet. In case you want to know what to do to make your rocks look wet check out the article below:
7 Simple Ideas: What to Put on Rocks to Make Them Look Wet
You can shine smooth river rocks and pebbles with jojoba oil after washing them in soapy water. You will have to reapply for it after a few weeks as this is not a permanent result.
The oil does not polish the rocks; it just gives them a shiny appearance that freshens them up and makes them look wet.
If you are interested in buying jojoba oil for cleaning rocks and minerals, check out these products (Amazon link).
If your rocks are already worn round and smooth by mother nature, you can spray them with high gloss resin spray. Coat each stone with a light layer and let it dry.
Then apply a second and third coat. Turn the rocks over once they are dry and repeat the process. This gives them that wet look as though you just picked them up from the beach or streambed.
BTW: Do you want to know more about rock and mineral identification? The books listed below are the best ones you can find on the internet (Amazon links):
- Smithsonian Handbooks: Rocks & Minerals
- Gemstone & Crystal Properties (Quick Study Home)
- Ultimate Explorer Field Guide: Rocks and Minerals (National Geographic Kids)
There are several methods to make rocks shiny without a tumbler. To get a permanent shine, you can grind, sand, and polish them by hand using simple tools and materials available from most hardware stores. An even quicker method is to coat them with resin or other high gloss sprays.
TIP: Making your rocks shiny is one option. And what about dyeing your rocks? I found dyeing rocks as a great leisure activity, especially with the kids. Check out how to dye rocks with food coloring in the article below:
How to Dye Rocks with Food Coloring? Follow These 5 Steps