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Can You Tumble Rocks Without a Tumbler? Step-by-Step Guide

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Rock tumbling is a very exciting hobby for enthusiasts and can be a very rewarding experience. It can be a very exciting experience turning a jagged piece of stone into a beautiful gleaming gem. Especially as the rocks that you polish can be used for a variety of different purposes. Rounded, polished stones can be used for jewelry making, crafts, decorations, and so much more.

Surprisingly, the use of a rock tumbler is not actually necessary when creating these beautiful rounded stones. With a few simple materials and a little bit of hard work, it can be easy to create gorgeous polished rocks and gems from a collection of jagged stones.

This article will explain a little bit about rock tumbling as well as the best methods to polish rocks without the use of a rock tumbler. It will also outline some things that polished rocks can be used for and where to find rocks that would be perfect for polishing and rounding off.

Tumbling Rocks without a Tumbler
Tumbling Rocks without a Tumbler

If you are interested in checking out the best rock tumblers you can find them by clicking here (Amazon link).

What is Rock Tumbling?

Rock tumbling is a hobby that involves collecting a variety of rocks in all different shapes, sizes, and colors and turning them into beautiful gemstones that can be used for decorations, crafts, jewelry, or simply just for collecting for fun.

It is a rather simple hobby that can be done from home and that can be enjoyed by the entire family. It is a relatively inexpensive hobby that can be a lot of fun.

It’s likely that you’ve been to the beach a few times and found beautiful stones that are beautifully round and perfectly soft to the touch. Those types of rocks aren’t naturally rounded – they have been ‘tumbled’ in the ocean with water and sand over the course of hundreds of years.

Rock tumbling as a hobby is basically the same process but that takes place within your own home. Although rock tumbling usually involves the use of a rock tumbler, it is possible to get the effect of tumbled rocks without needing a rock tumbler at all.

What is a Rock Tumbler and How Do They Work?

A rock tumbler is a machine that is used to smooth out and polish rocks and stones. They are a fairly popular device that is used in the jewelry-making industry, as well as the crafts industry. They are also popular among hobbyists who like to collect and tumble rocks for their own pleasure.

Rock tumbling is also a fun activity that is popular among people who want to discover the hidden beauty of minerals and rocks.

When using a rock tumbler, you start off with a jagged, rough piece of rock and you tumble it into a beautiful rounded stone that can be used to make gorgeous jewelry or craft materials. This can be a very rewarding experience.

The most popular types of rock tumblers feature a barrel that is loaded up with abrasive grit, water, and your chosen rocks.

The abrasive grit used in a rock tumbler is similar to the small grains that appear glued to sandpaper. This grit is usually graded into fine, medium, or coarse grades – similar to the different grades of sandpaper that you can get.

The barrel that contains your rocks, the grit and the water is placed upon a motorized piece of machinery that rotates the barrel in order to tumble the rocks that are inside.

The rocks grind up against each other and the grit particles as they tumble. This motion wears away the sharp edges of the rocks and creates a smooth surface. These types of tumblers are known as “rotary tumblers”.

The rocks are usually tumbled within the rock tumbler for around one to two weeks in coarse grit, then one week in medium grit, and then one week in the fine grit. The rocks are also cleaned between each of the grit changes and the barrel is also cleaned between each of the different sized grit changes.

The rocks are then tumbled for another final week with water and a type of rock polish. Once this step has been completed, your rocks will have been transformed into beautiful, gleaming stones.

Rock tumblers may seem more advanced than they actually are. What happens within a rock tumbler is basically the same as what happens in nature for hundreds of years.

TIP: 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. Check out the differences between these two rock tumblers in the article below:
Rotary vs Vibratory Rock Tumbler: Which One To Buy & Use

What Can You Do with Tumbled or Rounded Rocks?

There are so many reasons why people enjoy rock tumbling. A lot of people enjoy collecting rocks and displaying them proudly in their homes. However, there are many uses for tumbled rocks.

Below is a list of some common things that tumbled rocks can be used for:

  • Paperweights
  • Craft making
  • Jewelry making
  • Magnets
  • Keychains
  • Vase fillers
  • Planter fillers
  • Holiday decorations
  • Aquarium décor

Which Rocks Are Best for Tumbling or Rounding by Hand?

You want to choose rocks that are quite hard. A good rule of thumb is to try scratching your rocks with your nails.

If you can easily scratch the rock using just your nail, that means it is too soft to tumble. Rocks that score 7 or more on the hardness scale are usually the best for tumbling.

Some examples of rocks that are perfect for tumbling include:

  • Quartz,
  • Topaz,
  • Garnet,
  • Zircon.

In terms of smoothness, you want to choose rocks that aren’t too gritty. Rocks that are very weathered are not recommended for tumbling.

When trying to smoothen these types of rocks, little fragments may break off in the process and this will make the process of smoothing it out much more difficult.

With this in mind, be sure to look out for relatively smooth rocks and try to choose ones that don’t have particularly jagged edges. This will ensure that you get the best overall results from your rock polishes.

The Types of Rocks That Are Tumbled Most Frequently

Below is a list of the most popular and most common types of rocks to tumble:

  • Agates
  • Jaspers
  • Citrine
  • Aventurine
  • Amethysts
  • Smoky quartz
  • Tiger’s eye
  • Petrified wood
  • Arizona petrified wood
  • Obsidian
  • Moonstone
  • Sunstone
  • Amazonite
  • Labradorite
  • Granite
  • Basalt

Many other different types of rocks can also be tumbled, however, the above list includes the most common and most heavily available types of rocks that can be tumbled.

Which Rocks Can’t Be Used for Tumbling or Rounding?

As I mentioned above, the hardness of the rock is important.

Rocks that are too soft can’t be tumbled as they would simply just crumble up if you try to sand them or smooth them down. Chalk and talc are both great examples of rock types that are too soft to tumble.

TIP: You can use sand for tumbling your rocks. I wrote about this topic in the article below, be sure to read it.
Can You Tumble Rocks with Sand? Everything You Need to Know

Similarly, rocks that are too hard also can’t be tumbled as the hardness makes it almost impossible to round off the edges. Some examples of rocks that are too hard to tumble include diamonds, ruby, and sapphire.

You should also look out for rocks that have large pieces protruding out of them or that have long sharp edges that stick out.

These types of rocks will be extremely difficult to tumble or sand down. It’s better to find rocks that already have a nice rounded-off shape.

You also want to avoid using any rocks that have any physical damage or cracks already present within them, as these types of rocks are likely to easily break and so won’t be suitable for tumbling.

Choose rocks that are not gritty or grainy to avoid the possibility of your rocks becoming very scratched up.

The end goal when tumbling rocks is for the rocks to be super smooth and soft to the touch, so keep that in mind when choosing the rocks that you want to tumble.

The smoother the rock is in the first instance before going through the tumbling or smoothing process, the easier, quicker, and better the end result is going to be once the rock has been polished off.

TIP: Calcite is one of the easiest rocks to tumble without a rock tumbler. I wrote about tumbling calcite in the article below, feel free to read it.
Can You Tumble Calcite? Be Careful and Follow These Tips!

How to Find Rocks to Polish?

Now that you know some of the basics of rock tumbling, you may be curious as to where the best places are for finding rocks that are perfect for tumbling.

It can be a very exciting experience and can make for a great day out for the whole family when looking for rocks to tumble. The thrill of the hunt can be a major part of rock tumbling.

Agate is a type of Quartz rock and this is probably the most popular of all rocks to tumble. It is usually translucent and can have a huge variety of different designs and patterns on it. Once tumbled, these rocks can look absolutely beautiful.

These types of rock can usually be found around coastal areas as well as lakes and places that have had past volcanic activity. In the United States, Agate is usually found in Western states such as Arizona, Montana, South Dakota, Oregon, Wyoming, and Michigan.

It’s best to visit rocky beaches during times of low tides. You may sometimes find the rocks laying right on the surface of the ground, or sometimes you may have to dig a little bit between other rocks to find the perfect rocks for tumbling. They’re usually quite easy to spot and so rock finding can be a fun game, especially with children.

Jasper is a different form of Quartz that is fairly popular and relatively easy to find. These types of rocks are also most commonly found in Western states such as Oregon, California, Utah, Arizona, Idaho, and Washington.

Is it Harder to Polish Rocks by Hand?

Polish Rocks by Hand
Polish Rocks by Hands

It is much harder to polish rocks by hand than it is to round them off in a rock tumbler. Softer rocks can be fairly easy to polish by hand, however, harder rocks can be quite difficult to polish by hand.

This is particularly true for rocks that have a lot of sharp edges or pieces protruding out of them.

Using a rock tumbler is the easiest option as you can leave the rocks in the tumbler to tumble without really having to do much.

Polishing by hand takes a lot of effort and can take a much longer time than using a rock tumbler. On average, it can take around an hour to just polish one rock by hand.

On the other hand, a rock tumbler can tumble multiple rocks at the same time, however, you do need to tumble the rocks for around a month before you get to the final result.

Is It More Cost-Effective to Polish Rocks by Hand?

It is more cost-effective to polish rocks by hand as you don’t need to purchase a rock tumbler or the gavel that is needed to allow the rock tumbler to work.

Polishing by hand only requires a chisel and sandpaper at most. With this in mind, if you are looking for the cheapest way to round your rocks and get them looking amazing, polishing them by hand is definitely the way to go.

Do Rock Tumblers Make a Difference?

Rock tumblers can allow you to tumble harder rocks than you would be able to by hand. Tumbling certain kinds of rocks can be incredibly difficult by hand and so the use of a rock tumbler can result in a wider variety of rocks.

Polishing rocks by hand can give you a lot more control over the end result of the rock. When tumbling rocks in a tumbler, you have no control over the way that the rock is being shaped.

If you polish a rock by hand, you can see the process as it is being done and you can control the rounding of your rocks. This means that you can form rocks that are perfectly in line with your vision.

Being able to see the changes before your eyes and having that control over the rocks can be a much more rewarding experience than tumbling your rocks in a tumbler.

TIP: Tumbling rocks with a rock tumbler is much more easier that without it. Do you want to know what the best rock tumblers for hobbiest are? Check them out in the article below:
Best Rock Tumblers in 2021: Beginner and Hobbyist Options

How to Polish Rocks Without a Rock Tumbler?

Rock tumbling can be completed using a few simple materials and a bit of elbow grease. Even the most novice of rock collectors can create gloriously polished gems and stones from a collection of jagged rocks.

Below is a list of the steps to take in order to polish and shape your rocks at home without the need for a tumbler:

  1. Find the Right Rocks

The first step in rock tumbling is to find the right kind of rocks to round off and polish. Hard rocks work best and it’s always good to choose ones that have unique patterns and colors so that they look the best.

You should always aim to choose rocks that already have a rounded kind of shape as these will be much easier to shape and polish by hand than rocks that have a lot of jagged or sharp edges.

  1. Wash the Rock

Start off with one rock and ensure that the rock is thoroughly washed. Wash it with soap and water. You want to make it as clean as you possibly can. Use a scrub brush to remove any stubborn debris or dirt that may be present on the rock.

Once you have finished washing the rock, pat it dry using a dry towel or cloth.

  1. Shape the Rock

If you want to get your rock into a better shape or if you want it to be smaller, start by chipping away at the stone using a small hammer or chisel.

Be sure to put on safety goggles to protect your eyes from any pieces of rock that may chip of and fly away into your eyes. You may also wish to wear protective gloves to protect your hands in the process.

If you are already happy with the shape and size of your rock, then you don’t need to worry about shaping it.

  1. Rub Your Stone with a Rough Grade Sandpaper

The roughest type of sandpaper is 50-grade sandpaper. This is great for shaping and smoothing out the surface of your rock. Use the sandpaper to sand down any protrusions or large bumps in the rock that you want to smoothen out.

If you are already happy with the overall shape of your rock, simply go over it with the sandpaper evenly so that it is completely smooth to the touch all over.

  1. Use a Fine Grade Sandpaper to Remove Scratches

Once you have gone over your stone with the 50-grade sandpaper, you may find that it has been left with a lot of unsightly scratches on it. In order to remove these scratches from the surface, you need to use a finer grade of sandpaper.

Take 150-grade sandpaper and go over all of the scratches. Rub your stone until the scratches are the least visible you can possibly get them.

  1. Sand Your Stone Using a 300-600 Grade Sandpaper

Once you have completed the other sanding and your rock is starting to look a lot smoother, go over it again with 300-600 grades of sandpaper.

Go over the rock completely and be sure to focus on any particularly scratched areas.

A 300-600 grade of sandpaper is very fine and won’t cause any scratches to appear on your stone. However, it’s great for getting rid of any scratches left behind by the rougher grades of sandpaper.

  1. Polish the Stone

The last step is to ensure that the stone is completely polished to finish the look. Once you have finished all of the sanding steps, polish your stone using leather and a tube polish.

A couple of dabs of tube polish on a piece of leather is enough o get your rock completely polished. Rub the leather against the stone and this should give it a lovely, lustrous shine all over.

TIP: The Dremel is a great tool for polishing rocks – providing more control over the final stone’s shape and texture than other polishing methods. Find out more in the article below:
How to Polish Rocks With a Dremel Drill? Follow These 4 Steps

The Importance of Patience

Whether you’re using a rock tumbler or you’re shaping and polishing your rocks by hand, you are definitely going to need to have patience. Rock tumbling is never a fast turnaround, no matter which method you choose.

When using a rock tumbler, it usually takes around a month for your rocks to be completely tumbled and polished.

Similarly, if you are shaping and polishing the rocks by hand, this is going to take a lot of time. It can take around an hour to simply get just one stone shaped and polished and can take even longer for larger stones or stones that have a lot of jagged edges.

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):

Final Thoughts

As you can see from this article, rock tumbling is a very fun and rewarding experience that can be enjoyed by the whole family. Take the children out for a day out to find some beautiful rocks to tumble and then get them excited about creating some beautiful rounded stones with their chosen rocks.

I’ve explained that it’s not absolutely necessary to have a rock tumbler in order to create beautiful rounded stones.

Often the experience of rounding off, polishing, and finishing the stones by hand is a much more rewarding experience than just using a tumbler as you really get to feel the rocks and watch them develop into beautiful stones before your eyes.

Rock tumbling is great for creating beautiful stones that can be used for crafts, jewelry, decorations, and so much more. If you have ever thought about giving rock tumbling a try, why not give it a go?

TIP: Have you ever thought about tumbling rocks in a rock tumbler? Rock tumbling is a popular hobby and it is not as tough as it may seem. Check out this ultimate guide on rock tumbling and find out more about his interesting hobby:
GUIDE: What is Rock Tumbler & How Do Rock Tumblers Work?