Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Tutorial Tuesday - polishing jewellery with a tumbler

I've had a few questions about using a tumbler to polish jewellery recently, so I thought that I'd write a blog post so I could refer people to it in the future rather than keeping typing up the same information in emails!

The photo above shows my rotary polishing tumbler - as you can see, it's seen better days but it gets a lot of use both in my workshop and at college when I take it in for my evening classes to use. It's about three years old now, but it still works perfectly. The tumbler consists of the motor unit with rollers on top that the barrel sits on, and a barrel with two with push on lids.

Inside the barrel there are three plastic blades. These help the jewellery and the shot (more about that in a bit) move around in the barrel rather than just keep on the outside as the barrel turns, a bit like the fins inside a washing machine. The shot I mentioned is the collection of metal bits and pieces you can see inside the barrel. I use stainless steel shot as there's no risk of it getting rusty. The shot acts like hundreds of tiny hammers gently hitting your jewellery hundreds of times, harden and polishing.

Here's how I use my tumbler:
  1. Fill the barrel about a third full with clean, stainless steel tumbling shot. Add enough water so that the shot is covered by a good 3cm or so of water, and then add a couple of drops of washing up liquid. The job of the soap is to lubricate the shot and to help hold the dirt that comes off the silver in suspension so that it doesn't go back on the jewellery! When I bought the tumbler I also bought some "tumbling compound" - a substance that is mainly soap and also smells of ammonia. At the time that I ran out, my supplier was out of stock. I had a look on the web for any ideas of what to use instead, and lots of people suggested washing up liquid. I've used it ever since - it does the job well and smells a lot nicer!!
  2. Add the jewellery, head pins, jump rings etc. I don't fill the barrel right up as you want everything to still have plenty of room to move otherwise it won't actually tumble!
  3. While I'm doing the above I also put hot water inside one of the lids (the other lid is obviously on the barrel) to soften it as this makes the next stage much easier. Push the lid on the barrel. You need to make sure that the lid is on tightly so that there aren't any leaks, and the best way to do this is to 'burb' out the excess air by pushing on the centre of the lid with the palm of your hand and lifting up a section of the rim - try this with a cold lid and you will soon see why I warm mine up!
  4. Dry the outside of the barrel so that it doesn't slip on the rollers.
  5. Place on the rollers and switch on! My tumbler doesn't have an on/off switch - I have to plug it in to turn it on, so I make certain that my hands are dry for this!
If I am polishing fairly clean jewellery such as newly made bangles then I only need to tumble for about 20 minutes. On the other hand, I leave head pins and jump rings to tumble for a good couple of hours to make sure that the burrs are taken off the jump rings and the metal is harder and easier to work with. I rinse the freshly tumbled jewellery in clean water and dry it carefully on a tea towel.

Because I use stainless steel shot I can store it in the water until I need to use the tumble again - which for me is the next day at the latest!

A couple of cautionary points:
  • Do not tumble fine chains unless you enjoy spending hours de-tangling them!
  • I open up my barrel inside a large plastic bowl, just in case. You definitely don't want to be chasing tiny bits of shot if they are dropped and go bouncing across the room. Trust me on this one - and if you don't want to take my word for it, go and read what happened to Anne at Contrariwise a couple of years ago! The shot is less likely to bounce out of a plastic bowl than a metal one.
  • I don't tumble jewellery containing stones or beads, especially lampwork beads. I know pople who do. Most of them have not had any problems, a few have had stones crack, and I don't want to take that risk. Stone setting is always the last thing I do after polishing, oxidising etc.

Look, lots of pretty shiny bangles!

To answer a couple of questions in the comments (thank you Gemma and Vicky!), I bought my tumbler from www.silverclay.co.uk.
Make sure that you read the comments as there are some good tips in there!


  1. I use my knee to press out excess air from the barrel!

    Where did you get your finned barrel from. I only have smooth ones but your tumber is the same type as mine I think. Mine takes up to 3lb barrels but atm I just have 2 1.5lb smooth ones for stone tumbling.

  2. Hi Jo,
    These tutorials are so interesting and useful. Did you buy your tumbler online?

  3. I've got exactly the same barrel but with a blue lids. I just love it. And I found out the hard way about the bits going all over the floor as well! Now I open it on a tray.

  4. This will be very helpful to lots of people starting out with a tumbler. I had to smile when I read the sentence about tumbling fine chains - this is something you only do once ...!

    The only thing I'd add (again from learning the hard way) is if you're tumbling something like a tube or hollow, shot can sometimes get lodged in narrow and small spaces and it can be really difficult to get it out. I put a twist of wire through the tube to make sure none of the shot gets lodged inside.

  5. Thanks soooo much this information I was having alsorts of trouble with leaking and getting the lid on, not too mention using to much tumbling compound and having bubbles every where!

  6. My jewellery has stated to come out a bit dull... i'm cleaning it and the water regularly. Someone told me the problem might be the washing up liquid... that its sucking the oil out of the rubber barrell.. have you heard that?

  7. Hi Angela,
    I haven't heard that one before! I've been using washing up liquid in my tumbler for about a year now, and haven't had any problems with it. If my jewellery starts to come out a bit dull I know I need to give the tumbler and shot a good clean. My preferred method is to tip out the dirty water and give everything a good rinse. I then fill the tumbler back up with the shot, hot water and some bicarb of soda and leave it running for a couple of hours. I then run the tumbler again, this time with clean water to rinse everything out. The tumbler should then be good to go again!
    Hope that helps!

  8. heya...
    all i can say is it took a grave tumbler misshap to enable me to find your website and believe me I am now very relieved!...what a fab site!
    im signed up and will visit regularly!

  9. Thanks for the tumbling tips. Do you use a particular brand or type of washing up liquid? I read that Dawn liquid soap should be used, but that's not available where I live.

    I have a 3 Lb lortone tumbler, how much stainless shots should I use for great results when polishing jewellery?

  10. I plan on making some sterling silver earrings with gemstones beads wrapped on to them, is it ok to tumble the earrings and if so, for how long?

    Does is matter the brand or type of dish soap you use for tumbling jewellery?

  11. Thanks for your comments both of you. To answer your questions:

    We tend to buy fairy washing up liquid so I use that, but I have had the same results with other brands with the tumbler I use with my college classes.

    I have a 2lb tumbler and 1lb of stainless steel shot.

    As regards tumbling gemstones, it depends on how strong they are. You can find this out partly by looking up their mohs scale score - http://www.gemselect.com/gem-info/gem-hardness-info.php is a useful site for this. The higher the score, the harder the stone. Personally I don't tumble stones that have a score lower than 7, but that is a personal thing. I do know of people who tumble stones with lower scores. I never tumble stones that are faceted as I find that the lines between facets can be a weak point during tumbling. Either way, I don't tumble jewellery with stones already in it for very long - 10 minutes maybe.

    Hope that helps!

  12. Hi Jo,

    Thanks for being so clear with your explanation.

    Could you offer some advice on something please?

    I have a polisher almost identical to yours and I follow the same steps but my polisher seems to put a texture on the silver pieces which I roll in it. Lots of tiny dents which creates a matt look. I thought it was the larger or sharper pieces in the mixed shot so I took all the non-balls out of it leaving only stainless shot balls of various sizes (2mm largest).

    I only put pieces in for a short time (20 - 30 mins) and end up with this texture on them.

    It happens even when there is only one jewellery item in the barrel. I thought maybe it was the ribs in the barrel creating too much movement but your barrel has the same ribs in the picture so im quite confuesd.

    Any help gratefully accepted.

    Best wishes,

  13. Hi Gordon,
    I haven't come across that problem when I've tumbled my work - maybe someone else will come along and help us with it!
    Are you working with sterling silver or with silver clay?

  14. Hi,
    am new to this and am a bit fed up - hope you can help - I have a tumbler (new) that looks a lot like yours - having read your page and others, i did what was suggested and have switched it on - only the front roller moves - the back one is stationary - what am i doing wrong?? - i am sure it is something simple, but what???????

  15. Hi Neena,
    The motor only turns the front roller, and the back roller supports the barrel and is turned by the motion of the barrel.
    On the other hand, if the rollers are slow to move when the tumbler is one it usually means that the bearings need oiling. Try putting a drop of oil (cooking oil will do if that's all you've got!) or a quick spray of WD40 on them. I oil the black plastic bits at the ends of the rollers and the oil runs to where it's needed. If you get oil in the rollers themselves make sure that you wipe it off completely before tumbling otherwise the barrel will just slip and not be turned round. It's a good idea to oil the bearings every month or so to keep everything working smoothly.
    I hope that helps!


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