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If you’re a casual beach stroller who picks up the odd pretty pebble as a keepsake, you probably won’t be interested in a rock tumbler. However, if you have a passion for shaping and polishing raw rock or making jewelry, a tumbler is the way to go. Rotary tumblers spin the rocks around as though they are in a washing machine, while vibratory tumblers shake them up at high speed in one place.
A small rotary tumbler is the best choice for beginners. They are easy to use, inexpensive, and don’t cost much to operate. Rockhounds who polish many rocks often also buy a vibratory tumbler to use after initial shaping in a rotary tumbler because it’s quicker and uses less grit and electricity.
Both kinds of tumblers have their pros and cons. Understanding which type is better, the differences between them, how they work, and how they shape the rocks will help you choose one that works best for you. We’ve got all these questions covered in this article.
How Do I Choose A Rock Tumbler?
Ask yourself why you want a tumbler. Is it just for the kids to stimulate their interest in STEM subjects, or are you a rockhound yourself and want to go deeper into the hobby? Do you intend to turn your rockhounding into a small business sideline and sell your rocks, or is it just for personal pleasure?
You get small, inexpensive rotary tumblers for kids to use. Then you get progressively more expensive, better quality, larger rotary tumblers for rockhounds, serious collectors, and professionals. If you’re a beginner, it’s best to start with a small rotary tumbler that’s well-made and will last a long time.
Vibratory tumblers are more expensive than rotary ones and use a bowl instead of a barrel. Instead of tumbling the rocks, a vibratory tumbler shakes them around inside the bowl. They work faster than rotary tumblers, but it takes a bit more time to get the hang of them.
Ask yourself how many rocks you intend to tumble. Using only a rotary tumbler can take six weeks to several months. If you want to get your rocks to market fast, you may need to use a large rotary tumbler to shape them and then a vibratory tumbler to smooth them down quicker.
If you don’t have any urgency and don’t process a lot of rocks, you wouldn’t need a large tumbler that can do heavy loads. In fact, most hobbyists start with a small rotary tumbler because they don’t take up much space, they don’t cost that much to run, and they are inexpensive.
How big are the rocks you want to tumble? A small tumbler barrel can’t accommodate large rocks. A general rule is that the largest rock you put in the barrel should be less than a half barrel’s diameter.
The size of a tumbler is given in weight. For hobbyists and beginners, the most common size is a three- or four-pound rotary tumbler. A three-pound tumbler will take two pounds of rocks and one pound of polishing grit and water.
Tumblers come in different sizes, depending on the number and size of rocks they can tumble. A three- or four-pound rotary tumbler may be too small for people who are passionately into rock polishing. They may need a six or twelve-pound tumbler to process all the rocks they collect.
The rotary tumbler must always be run at full capacity, which means that you should fill the barrel to around sixty-five or seventy-five percent with rocks and the rest with grit and water.
If you only fill the barrel with fifty percent rocks, you will have to make up the rest with grit and water. This might not have the best results because now there is too much grit around the rocks.
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)
Are Vibratory Tumblers Better Than Rotary?
The popularity of rotary tumblers suggests that vibratory tumblers aren’t necessarily better – just different. Many people will first tumble the stones in a rotary tumbler to get that smooth rounded shape and then put them in a vibratory tumbler for further smoothing and polishing, so they use both.
Rotary tumblers are a bit easier to use for a beginner, but they take longer. They, therefore, use more electricity, grit, and polish than a vibratory tumbler.
They also make much less noise than a vibratory tumbler which is a plus. Consequently, they are more expensive to run in the long term but less expensive to buy.
TIP: Once you have tumbled your own rocks and have loads of gorgeously polished gemstones, you may start wondering what you can do with them. Check out the simple and clever ideas in the article below:
What Can You Do with Tumbled Rocks? 10 Simple & Clever Ideas
Rotary vs. Vibratory Rock Tumbler: Differences
A rotary tumbler turns all the rocks into uniformly rounded shapes with smooth edges. It rolls them around in the barrel, taking off all the angles. A vibratory tumbler doesn’t actually tumble the rocks. It vibrates, rubbing them against each other with the grit in between but retains their angular shapes.
A vibratory tumbler works faster than a rotary tumbler. It can take around half the time or less to do the same job. A rotary tumbler completely changes the shape of the rocks, while a vibratory tumbler just smooths their original form and grinds away any rough edges.
Vibratory tumblers generally can’t hold as many large rocks as good-sized rotary tumblers unless you can afford the considerable cost of an industrial size vibratory tumbler.
You need much less grit for a vibratory tumbler than a rotary one. For a start, you can skip the coarse grit stage you would use in a rotary tumbler altogether and begin with the medium grit. Each stage from medium to fine to polish is also shorter in a vibratory tumbler.
This is why people typically use a rotary tumbler to shape the rocks and then switch to a vibratory tumbler for the rest. It saves time and money.
Rotary tumblers are much quieter than vibratory tumblers. Fill a metal pot with some stones and shake it vigorously.
That’s approximately the noise you will have to put up with from a vibratory tumbler – for hours. If you have a small home and next-door neighbors within touching distance, the noise may be a problem for them and you.
If you have a larger home with a basement for a vibratory tumbler and no nearby neighbors to disturb, then the noise it makes won’t matter that much.
TIP: Rock tumbling is the perfect hobby for kids around 8 years or older. There are small, safe, and easy-to-use tumblers on the market. Check them out in the article below:
Best Rock Tumblers for Kids in 2022: Options For Diff Ages
Best Rotary Rock Tumbler
The National Geographic Professional Rock Tumbler Kit (Amazon link) comes with a two-pound barrel, three different speeds, and a timer. It’s ideal for those wishing to explore the joys of rock tumbling using a rotary tumbler, and the manufacturer claims it is very quiet.
It includes a pound of rough rocks, grit, jewelry fastenings, a strainer, and a rock polisher. It can encourage the kids to take an interest in a STEM subject, but you can also use it to polish gemstones for jewelry making or beautify your rock collection.
TIP: I’ve written a complete guide about rotary rock tumblers so if you are interested in reading more about these rock tumblers visit this article.
Best Vibratory Rock Tumbler
The Eastwood 18 Lbs Electric Rock Tumbler Vibratory Case Tumbler (Amazon link) is a nifty vibratory tumbler that you could try using for rocks. It comes with a deep bowl, fifteen inches in diameter, and operates on a 120 Vac, fifteen Amp Ground Fault Circuit.
TIP: I’ve written a complete guide about vibratory rock tumblers so if you are interested in reading more about these rock tumblers visit this article.
Rotary tumblers are simpler to use, less expensive to buy, quieter, and shape the rocks nicely. Vibratory tumblers are more costly to buy, faster, keep the angular shape of the rock, and use less electricity and grit. Vibratory tumblers are very loud and maybe a noise nuisance.
TIP: Rock tumblers require some maintenance, though, as you will need to oil them regularly to keep them running smoothly. Check out the step-by-step guide on how to oil your rock tumbler in the article below:
Step-By-Step Guide: How To Properly Oil Your Rock Tumbler