Rock Hunting: Polish Your Finds in a Rock Tumbler

Anyone getting into lapidary work almost invariably starts with a rock tumbler. Often, it’s one of those plastic barrel tumblers found in toy stores and marked “Scientific!” for wannabe nerd kids like myself. Plug them in and they roar to life suddenly as the rough stones beat against the unpadded plastic barrel sides. Kits like this usually come with a starter mix of rough gem gravel. The gem mix is a good idea both to start you off and running on your lapidary career and also to jump-start the new hobby before you (or your horrified parents) discover that the interminable racket is going to last an entire month!

Rock Hunting: Rumble in the Tumbler

Scrap gem material never looked so good.

After admiring the polished goodies, it’s time to run out and pick up a new load of gravel to start the experiment anew. Anew, that is, before you have to order a fresh supply of grit. This first request for a grit reorder is a good sign that the lapidary seed is taking root (and possibly a bad sign for your parents). If you’re clever, you can use this as a reason to invest in a new tumbler with rubber barrels that reduce the noise level. Think Christmas and birthdays!

The other good news is the noise will markedly diminish as the stones become smoother in the tumbling process. Be sure to drop the birthday hint during the noisy first day of a new tumbler load and to speak loudly to drive the point home.

Rock Hunting: Rumble in the Tumbler

Polished goodies fresh from the rock tumbler.

Rock tumbling is the perfect start to both lapidary and rock collecting beyond mineral specimens. It forces a collector to consider what is beneath the rough surface appearance of a find and the hardness of the material. All of this is going to be critical if new lapidaries graduate to other forms of lapidary work. It also broadens the range of targets on a collecting trip. Chips of agate, jasper and shattered crystal suddenly become more attractive. Even common materials like quartz pebbles and river gravel join the collecting menu. The end result is that you have an endlessly intriguing supply of polished gemstones to admire, gift, or simply hoard like Smaug the dragon. Even better is the vast new array of collecting possibilities to consider and enjoy when planning field trips.

Scott Stepanski is a mineral collector and co-author of Gem Trails of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. He also produces the world’s largest selection of mineral and fossil rubber stamps at

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