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Rock collecting can mean anything between picking up the odd rock on a hike and keeping a full mineral display shelf at home. When I entered the world of rockhounding over two years ago, I had no idea how many possibilities this hobby held, so with this article I want to explain the possibilities and how to get started with them.
First, research the rocks you want to find. Info on how a type of rock forms, typical surrounding geology, localities where you can find it, and how to search are all available online. Now you can go on an adventure to find it. Once home again, test and inspect the rock to identify it. Lastly, label it, clean and polish it, and add it to a display.
Some of these steps are more important than others, for instance, I love knowing everything about a rock or mineral and going out to hunt for it. I’d like to take you through the best ways to perform each step and which parts are most important.
If you are interested in checking out the best rock collection displays only you can find them by clicking here (Amazon link).
Step 1: Research about Rocks and Minerals
You don’t need me to tell you that there are millions of types of rocks and minerals out there to find. What I might be able to help with is steering you in the right direction when it comes to which of these you want to try to find.
Let me start by saying you don’t necessarily have to know what rock you’re looking for when you go on a search. Sometimes it’s the most fun to just go out exploring and looking for something shiny or oddly colored or just anything that catches the eye.
If you’re more than one type of person you should keep reading to see how rewarding it can be to pick a specific type of stone and find it, but if you’re still inclined to afterward can skip the research step.
I find it most rewarding to know the ins and outs of a type of rock or mineral before I go searching for it. Knowledge also makes it easier to find the stone, and even more rewarding when you do.
So, what kind of stones do you want to find?
To answer this question, I suggest you start with something which can be locally found. Luckily, the earth is made of rocks and minerals, and the ones which seem rare sometimes aren’t if you know where to look, so you’re never too far away from a beautiful find.
That being said, the geology of a region decided which minerals can show up there.
I’ll give you a few ways to find which rocks are around you:
- Search for mines around you on mindat.org. The types of minerals they mined for in the past will tell you what is around.
- Go to local rock shops or museums. Be sure to chat with the owners or employees because those are rock enthusiasts like yourself, and they’ll have all the secrets!
- Watch some youtube videos on the geology of where you live. Besides being interesting, this will also tell you which and even how to find local rocks and minerals.
These tricks are especially useful because they will not only give you inspiration on what to search for, but they’ll also tell you where to find it.
For example, if you find a tourmaline mine, you know that somewhere around that area will be tourmaline, whether in an old mine dump or still in the ground. You can research the mine or the mineral itself to find out more about how to find it.
That brings me to the last point of this very important research section: geology.
Geology is much more complex than I personally got out of my high school class. Just because a mineral was found on the same mountain you’re searching on, doesn’t mean it will be where you’re searching.
Let me explain with an example. While searching for some smokey quartz and amazonite near Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs, CO, USA, I hit a bit of a roadblock.
I was searching right around where others had reported finding amazing specimens, but I came up dry. I went home, researched more, and found out that most quality specimens of that specific mineral formed in air pockets in the granite, which only formed on the rim of collapsed upheavals.
All that to say that the quality specimen was at the same elevation but was located on the outside of a very elusive circle.
In short, you’ll also want to research the forming process and how know when you’re close.
TIP: Still don’t know where to start? The easiest way to start is to look around your backyard. A lot of interesting rocks can be found there. Find out more in the article below:
12 Gemstones You Can Find in Your Backyard Right Now
Step 2: Search for Rocks and Minerals
Searching is widely agreed to be the most fun part of rockhounding. You get to go out and be an explorer, miner, or prospector for a day which is an amazing part of this hobby.
That being said, the most fun part about it is when you successfully find a stone, so don’t forget to research to give yourself a better chance!
Hopefully, you’ve narrowed it down to a specific few places to search in the research section. Now it’s time to get out there and search.
Here are a few things to think about bringing on your search:
- Hammer and chisel
- Fingernail brush
I’ll lobby for the fingernail brush as a rock cleaning tool every day of the week. You’ll find yourself needing to brush the dirt off rock faces and out of crevices, and this is the best tool for the job. I recommend buying this cheap set of five brushes (Amazon link).
- Quality gloves
Barehand might be more comfortable, but only until you’re digging through sedimentary rock flakes, reaching into a crevice for crystals, or even just handling rough stones for a few hours.
- A larger container than you think you’ll need
Every rockhound has found his/herself in a position where every rock they find is better than the one before. But how do you know?
You usually don’t until you get home, therefore sometimes it’s best to take both and decide once they’re clean and you have good lighting.
I recommend buying this larger rock container (Amazon link) which is great for small and medium rocks.
- An empty pill bottle
If you’re looking for gems or anything small, it’s best to have a separate place to store them which doesn’t open so easily.
Anything which fits that criteria will work, but when I found some red garnets and apache tears, that was the most convenient for me.
As you search for the rock or mineral, look not only for the mineral itself but for some telltale signs of it also. My favorite example of this is how people back in the gold rush time would follow quartz veins to the gold which was usually somewhere near.
Another example: you may be nearing an agate when you come to some rock that is softer than its surroundings and looks more affected by erosion.
Each rock will have different telltale signs, and you’ll want to try to recognize these to make the search easier!
When you are out on your search, don’t forget to make it fun. You can incorporate it in a hike if you like that too, listen to music, or bring someone to chat and hunt with. It’s a great family activity too!
My last tip for your search is to go slow. Minerals don’t usually form massive pockets which are easily noticeable. Trust your source and your location and get up close to the material to search in it.
One of the easiest mistakes to make is to discount a rockpile, face, or crevice just because it doesn’t look different at first glance.
TIP: If you are interested in buying rockhounding tools (and also safety equipment), check out my recommendations in the articles below, I hope they help you make a decision on which one to buy:
Recommended Rockhounding & Safety Equipment
Step 3: Test and Identify Your Rocks
Once you get home with your rocks, you’ve probably already spent a good amount of time thinking about what they could be, hopefully, the very type you were out looking for! But there’s only one way to know for sure what it is: testing.
The most useful properties of a rock or mineral when it comes to testing to identify them are:
- cleavage fracture
- crystal form
Some of these properties are only obvious after a clean, so if you need to, skip to the clean part of step 4 and come back. Don’t polish yet though!
You’ll want to identify your specimen before you polish it (if you polish it) so that you know what to use and what not to use in the polishing process.
Because color is fairly easy, I’ll skip to luster. Luster is a geologist’s way of describing how a rock reflects light. The main question to answer is: is it shiny or dull?
Try to classify it yourself by holding it in good lighting (fluorescent if possible) and identifying if it looks almost metallic, earthy, vitreous (glass/transparent), waxy, or pearly.
Streak is the color of the mark made when the rock is run across a streak plate. This is a more reliable metric than color because it’s usually the same for a specific mineral, where color can sometimes vary.
White porcelain is used for a standard streak plate, but you’ll want to buy a cheap test kit because it’s very fun to identify minerals.
Hardness is rated on a scale of 1-10 called the Mohs Scale. Testing kits come with rocks of every hardness so you can find out for sure.
If your rock can scratch a certain mineral, it is harder than that mineral. Fingernails, pennies, glass, and knives can be used in place of a kit (with hardness of 2.5, 3.5, 5.5, and 6.5 respectively).
Cleavage and fracture define how a rock breaks. Rocks with cleavage break along flat surfaces, and rocks with fractures break along random surfaces.
These are typically described by the number of directions that are shown by a break in a mineral and whether or not it forms sharp angles, soft angles, or right angles when broken.
Lastly, crystal form is the shape taken by a mineral as it cools. This is easily identifiable if you have a freely formed crystal, but is not helpful if not.
Some minerals have other properties like magnetism or reactions to acid. If you are testing for a specific mineral that shows these properties you should test for the first to narrow it down easier!
Once you’ve performed all the tests you can, search a rock property database and find which stone you think matches the properties the best.
Quick reference for testing and identifying rocks:
|Property||How to test for it?||Rating Options|
|Color||Clean and inspect in light with good CRI (Color rendering index)||Brown, black, red, etc|
|Luster||Clean and inspect light reflection off the surface||Metallic, earthy, vitreous, waxy, pearly|
|Streak||Scratch on a white porcelain plate||Same as colors|
|Hardness||Scratch rocks with known hardness||1-10|
|Cleavage||Inspect already broken edges or break yourself with a tiny chisel||Depending on the direction of broken surfaces|
|Fracture||Same as cleavage||Conchoidal, earthy, hackly, splintery, uneven|
TIP: Mineral identification is an integral part of work for both mineral collectors and scientists. Check out the complete step-by-step guide on identifying minerals in the article below:
Easy Step-by-Step Mineral Identification (Expert Explains)
Step 4: Label Rock and Mineral Specimen
One main source of satisfaction from a rock collection is looking at it holistically and seeing how much diversity is represented. Labels are a great way of quantifying just how much work you’ve put in and how much great material you’ve collected.
For example, if you’re able to go on a rockhounding trip for vacation or incorporate one in a vacation, your rock collection may end up representing finds from all around the country or even all around the world.
Even with the small sample size, your collection would be a study on the geology of the earth, which is definitely interesting enough to deserve some labels!
Type of rock is also a great thing to document. You might think that you’ll never forget that one specific stone you found, but if you continue rockhounding, you’ll see enough mind-boggling stones to forget things about some pieces of your earlier collection.
Just label it and every time you see the stone you’ll remember more specifics like how long it took to find it, what was the experience of the search like, and more. At the very least, it’s a great way to reward yourself for doing all the work to test and identify the stone.
Physical labels can come in many forms, but should mainly not take away from the view of the specimen. If you plan on displaying your collection on a shelf, you may think about triangle-folded paper labels set next to each of your best specimens. If the display is more compact, you may make a small sticker to put on a less impressive side of the stone.
You can choose what to include in the label, and it should largely depend on what you like most about rockhounding.
I recommended putting the date and location where it was found, the mineral’s name, the weight, and even some properties you’ve identified which stand out, such as high hardness or conchoidal fracture.
Below is a list of possible items to document on a label. Museums typically chose the location, mineral name, and a brief description, but you should choose the ones most interesting to you.
- Name of mineral(s) in the specimen
- Date found
- Location found (geological)
- Context of the find (which vacation or search)
- Interesting properties you’ve identified
- Relative or absolute dimensions
- Surrounding natural geology when you found it
Step 5: Clean or Polish Your Rocks
The proper methods for cleaning and polishing depend on how you plan to display your collection. Before you do any of it, you’ll want to identify the hardness of the stone you want to clean in order to be sure that the cleaning method will not break the stone.
For most stones, soap, warm water, and a few minutes of scrubbing with a fingernail brush will do the trick well.
For softer stones, it’s better to use a toothbrush and spent a little more time on it, angling so that all the cracks are taken care of. Once it’s clean you can think about how you want to display it.
If the rock makes an interesting color pattern when smoothed, you might want to smooth and polish it. Conversely, if it’s rarer and has a crystalline structure, you may want to leave it in its initial form.
If you want to round, smooth, and polish your stone, the process is outlined in another article called “How to Polish Rocks With a Dremel Drill” Another option for smoothing and rounding the stones is tumbling them in a vibratory or rotary tumbler.
TIP: And what if you don’t own a rock tumbler or dremel drill? Don’t worry, you can even tumble rocks without these tools. Find out more about how to do it in the article below:
Can You Tumble Rocks Without a Tumbler? Step-by-Step Guide
Step 6: Display Your Rock and Mineral Collection
There are many options for a display, and they depend mostly on where you’ll be most inspired by them. Tap into your spiritual side to decide how the finished product makes you feel, and then from there decide where you want to put it.
If you’re a handy person, it’s very rewarding to construct your own display with some small cheap LED spotlights and some black felt, especially for a large, impressive specimen.
For smaller, more common stones, it’s an awesome look to fill a glass container with tumbled stones of different colors. I’m relying on your creative competence for this one, but here are some inspirational displays to get your mind rolling.
|Shelf with assorted stones|
To wrap it up, keeping a rock collection is a very gratifying use of spare time. It keeps you in touch with your natural surroundings and gives you ways to explore the geology of any place in which you find yourself – whether on vacation or in everyday life.
It also provides endless fun times spent with family or friends searching, identifying, labeling, displaying, or researching rocks.
Lastly, the collection adds great personality to any space as a display. Don’t be afraid to pick your favorite part of the process and spend most of your time with that one part!
Remember, it’s mostly just about having fun appreciating the natural wonders of the earth.
TIP: So where to find all the rocks for your rock collection? Well, I hope my articles about the best rockhounding locations in each state in the United States can help you. You can find them all below:
Best Rockhounding Locations in the USA + What to Find There