The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Rock Collection & Tumbling

Do you want to collect rocks and tumble them? Well, you’re in the right place. We’ve got information on where to go, what to look for and how to create beautifully tumbled rocks, minerals, crystals and diamond rings. Ok, maybe not the latter.

Either way, in this ultimate beginner’s guide to rock collection and tumbling we’ll be answering all of the frequently asked and common questions below:

  1. What Is Rock Tumbling?
  2. What Are the Three Types of Rock?
  3. How Do I Begin Rock Collecting?
  4. What Are the Geology Tools and Supplies I Might Need?
  5. Where Can I Start Rock Collecting?
  6. How Do I know Which Rocks Will be Best for Tumbling?
  7. What is a Tumbler and What Do I Need?
  8. What are the Five Steps to Tumbling Rocks?
  9. What Can I do with the Tumbled Rock Collection?

There’s a pretty big chance you’ve seen tumbled rocks in the past. Anywhere and everywhere from the museum giftshop to the unsuspecting store around that dark corner in town. Read on to find out where these colourful gemstones are sourced from and how they’re transformed into smooth and shiny tumbled rocks; sometimes through sheer artistry and sometimes with a bit of helping hand from best rock tumblers

What Is Rock Tumbling?

The first step in the ultimate beginner’s guide to rock collection and tumbling would be to know what rock tumbling is and why people would do it. In fact, the hobby has been around since the late 1950’s with the first tumblers being made out of paint cans.

Tumbled rocks are a very common part of modern-day culture. From garnishing fish tanks, to becoming ornaments to decorate a house and from making and selling jewellery to rock collecting for the supposed ‘energy’ benefits. 

The idea is that any rocks, gemstones or minerals that can be found with a pretty design or precious properties, can be smoothed using rock tumbling to create attractive stones with endless uses. 

Believe it or not, nature does a very good job at tumbling its own rocks. Have you ever been to the beach and stumbled across perfectly rounded and smoothed pebbles? Well, that’s the effects of land, sea, air, time and friction. 

This combination of ingredients is what is used to tumble rocks at a quickened pace for us impatient people looking to tumble our own rocks. 

A rock tumbler is a chamber that allows for grit and rocks to be tumbled with each other for a specified amount of time. This is done until the grit effectively smooths the edges and removes unwanted blemishes or scratches from the rock.

Sounds simple, right? Well, there’s actually more to it. But, don’t worry because this ultimate beginner’s guide to rock collection and tumbling will take you through every step.

What Are the Three Types of Rock?

 

There are three types of rock on our planet. And, for your rock collecting and rock tumbling adventures, you should know about all three.

  • Igneous Rock
  • Sedimentary Rock
  • Metamorphic Rock

In short, igneous rock is formed when magma cools with air or water and can be found in magma chambers or above the Earth’s crust after a volcanic eruption. Metamorphic rock, on the other hand is formed through extreme heat and pressure closer to the Earth’s core. Metamorphic rock is then brought to the Earth’s surface with tectonic movement. Finally, there’s sedimentary rock. This type of rock is formed through weathering and sedimentary placement on the Earth’s surface in layers from the wind and water movements.

Interestingly, there isn’t just one type of these rocks you’ll find best to rumble. Regardless of where they can be found. This is because each of these three types of rock can harbour properties that make for good rock tumbling. In fact, it is really the hardness of the rock that would determine its use in a rock tumbler. 

You’ll, typically, come across all three depending on your hunting grounds and what colours you’re looking to tumble. For example; here’s the most common rock to tumble from each of the three types:

  • Obsidian (Igneous)
  • Quartzite (Metamorphic)
  • Petrified Wood (Sedimentary)

How Do I Begin Rock Collecting?

Many people looking into the world of rock tumbling miss one of the most fun and rewarding processes: rock collecting or rockhounding. Of course, when purchasing rocks in store or online, there’s more of a guarantee the rocks can be tumbled as well as having access to a global variety of rocks. 

But, collecting rocks can be part of the fun, while making the end product much more valuable and close to home. So, in this ultimate beginner’s guide to rock collecting and tumbling, this is one area that we will not be missing out on.

To begin rock collecting, you’ll probably want to familiarise yourself further with each type of rock. This can be done with our article file. Simply click on a link below to find out more:

  • Are Rocks Biotic or Abiotic?
  • These are the Rocks you Can Expect to Find Fossils In
  • Melting Rocks: Is It Possible?
  • Which Type of Rocks are Igneous?

Then, it would be a case of deciding which rocks you’d like to collect and where you’d like to collect them from. For example, the British coastline has a variety of hunting grounds for colourful and interesting rocks. But, if you’re looking for sedimentary rock like Blue John, there’s one particular mine in the peak district that will have you covered. 

What Are the Geology Tools and Supplies I Might Need?

The next stage in the ultimate beginner’s guide to rock collection and tumbling would be to look at the equipment, tools and supplies you need for collection. Luckily, there aren’t many.

Here’s the short list of the geology tools and supplies you’ll need for rock collecting:

  • A Field Guide (To find your hunting ground)
  • A Magnifying Glass (To see where you’re going)
  • A Bag (To hold everything)
  • A Divider (To separate the specimens, such as an egg carton or pill box)
  • A Piece of Scrap Paper (To label each specimen)
  • A Pen (To write the labels)
  • A Hammer (To split or reduce a rock)
  • A Pair of Hiking Boots (To allow for rough terrain hunting)
  • A Pair of Goggles (To increase health and safety measures)
  • A Friend (To make a day of it)

However, if you’re rock collecting with the intention of rock tumbling later down the line, you’ll need a few more items. Read on to find out more about what tumblers are and what the processes of tumbling will entail. After all, this is the ultimate guide to rock collection and tumbling.

Where Can I Start Rock Collecting?

Just like with hobbyists in the metal detecting field, any collector or hunter needs to abide by a particular code of conduct. As well as being respectful and showing a collector’s etiquette on British soil.

For one, you’ll need permission from the landowner to search and remove any specimens. For the majority of gemstone and rock hunting sites, they are owned by the National Trust who’s code of conduct you can abide by. If we take the famously fossil-rich collecting ground named Jurassic Coast in Dorset, it gained new regulation in May of 2020 for the safety of collectors and the rocks. 

Secondly, any stones, rocks or fossils you believe may have any geological, historical or archaeological importance must be left and reported to the local authorities. While it may be tempting to begin collecting and rock tumbling fossils into beautiful pieces of jewellery for an Etsy site, fossils are heavily regulated throughout the UK and abroad.

Now, let’s think about your direction of travel. Luckily, the UK is a goldmine (often, literally) for finding stunning rocks and having vast numbers for collection. So, the best call of action would be to try and find field guides for areas closest to you. They’ll be able to tell you which beach, cave or mountain you can find specific rocks, gems and minerals in. 

However, we’ve put together a brief guide to give you an impression of the rocks our little islands have to offer:

  • Central England

In this part of the UK, rocks tend to be quite young. Not to mention it is formed through layers and components settling to make them sedimentary rock. In this area, the rock collection hobbyist is likely to find soft rocks and sands such as limestones from the Jurassic period and chalks from the Cretaceous age.

  • South West England

The South West of England is a rainbow for all three types of rock. It has metamorphic rocks such as gneiss and schist which have been pushed up from the ocean floor in the Lizard Peninsula of Cornwall. There are igneous rocks like granite intrusions in the moors and around Lands’ End. Yet, the main rock to be found is sedimentary rock in the form of old red sandstone and siltstone. 

  • South East England

This region of England probably has the most iconic rock to catch the eye: The White Cliffs of Dover. A chalky compound of sedimentary soft rock forms the popular tourist destination’s cliffs. It is also the youngest formation of rock in the UK as it is post-Jurassic. However, the oldest rocks here would be the sandstones and mudstones present in the Weald of Sussex and Kent. One thing to add; if you’re searching for eye-catching amber, Hastings is the place to go.

  • North England

Offering a little mixture of everything, Northern England has limestone, mudstone, siltstone and sandstone situated across the Pennines. And, the Lake District houses volcanic rocks through their igneous site such as granite.

  • Wales

The most popular rock collection sites in Wales include the famous slate beaches and quarries. These slates reach the entirety of Snowdonia dating back to the Ordovician and Silurian age. However, further South in the Welsh country, collectors will find themselves reaching for the same old red sandstone found in the South West of England.

  • Midland Valley

Forming part of Scotland, a land dubbed ‘The Home of Geology’, Midland valley has a rich history with the old red sandstone and volcanic basalt lavas. It must be known that rock collecting in Scotland can only be done under lawful permission. The Midland Valley also hosts the largest resource of shale that is used to create most of our oil and gas with extreme heat and pressure. 

  • Highlands

As we hit a running trend, you may guess that old red sandstone has also formed throughout the Scottish Highlands during the Devonian age in its desert environment. Otherwise, it is home to the oldest metamorphic rocks such as gneiss in the Outer Hebrides area. And, then there’s younger formations such as the granite-rich bodies in the Cairngorm Mountains. To top it off, Scotland’s Isle of Harris is home to the rarest and most stunning sapphire. Unfortunately, this gemstone is under a protection that bans its removal.

  • Ireland

With Ireland sporting the marvellous Giant’s Causeway, it is home to vast amounts of 50-million-year-old igneous basalt lavas. The rest of Ireland, on the other hand, comprises of Ordovician slates with limestone and sandstone from the Devonian and Carboniferous ages. Side note: Northern Ireland is said to be the best place to find white quartz!

For more information, you could always use the free, online and interactive toolkit from the Open University. When you click on an area of the map, it takes you to a variety of geology information about that area.

Now, don’t take these nuggets of rock information around the UK as gospel. While these are the native rocks, it doesn’t mean the sea and international travellers don’t bring new and exciting rocks from around the world. For example; the various colours of sea glass that washes onto the British shores. Don’t forget, finding a rare colour may earn you a penny or two.

How Do I know Which Rocks Will be Best for Rock Tumbling?

First thing’s first, when you’ve collected your rocks, you should identify them. This is because not all rocks can go through a tumbler. Take diamond, for example; the only thing that can cut a diamond is diamond. So, putting a raw diamond in a tumbler with a normal grit won’t do anything. 

To identify your rocks, you can use a guide such as the British Geological Society’s Rock Classification Scheme. Or, you could visit OpenLearn who have a virtual rock identification toolkit for anyone to use. A final resort would be to travel to the famous Natural History Museum, where the scientists are always happy to help identify a rock, gemstone or fossil. 

Once you have identified your rock, you can begin to think about tumbling. And, if you decide to do so, take a look at the Mohs Hardness Scale created by German-born Friedrich Mohs. This scale will determine which rocks are best to tumble and which rocks you definitely should not tumble based on their hardness.

The scale runs from one to ten, with 1 being the softest rock (talc) and ten being the hardest (diamond). The best numbers on the Mohs Hardness Scale to tumble would be between 5 and 7. While it’s quite a Goldilocks and the Three Bears narrative, it ensures the rocks don’t crumble for being too soft and they are able to be tumbled as they are not too hard. But, straying outside of these numbers won’t end the world. 

In order to find out where your rock sits on the Mohs Hardness Scale, you can easily check with the guide that helped you identify the rock, with Google or with the fun route. The fun route is known as the ‘Streak Test’ and involves running your rock or mineral across a piece of unglazed white porcelain. If a mark is left on the porcelain and your rock hasn’t crumbled, it should be good to go into the tumbler. 

Examples of Rocks that are best to tumble:

  • Quartzite
  • Jasper
  • Agate
  • Bloodstone
  • Amazonite
  • Beryl
  • Moonstone
  • Nephrite
  • Jadeite
  • Sunstone
  • Turquoise
  • Obsidian
  • Basalt
  • Granite
  • Malachite
  • Garnet
  • Fluorite
  • Sodalite
  • Hematite
  • Rhodonite
  • Petrified Wood
  • Silicified Coral
  • Gneiss
  • Gabbro
  • Feldspar
  • Apatite
  • Tiger’s Eye
  • Labradorite

Examples of Rocks that should not be tumbled:

  • Soapstone
  • Marble
  • Diamond
  • Ruby
  • Sapphire
  • Corundum
  • Topaz
  • Calcite
  • Gypsum
  • Talc
  • Magnesite
  • Azurite
  • Dickinsonite
  • Dolomite
  • Celestine
  • Gold
  • Silver
  • Pearl
  • Copper
  • Amber
  • Sulphur
  • Zincite

What is a Tumbler and What Do I Need?

And, you’re finally here. You’ve done your research, collected your rocks and sifted through rocks you can put into your tumbler. Now it’s time to understand what a tumbler is and exactly how to use it. 

A rock tumbler is a rotating barrel that continues to move for a number of days. You place your gemstones, rocks and minerals into the barrel along with a grit to slowly sand the rocks down. 

There are actually two types of tumbler: rotary and vibratory. A rotary tumbler is the most common and familiar of the two as it is a barrel that sits on two parallel rotating shafts. A vibratory tumbler, on the other hand, sits and shakes the contents of the chamber. While vibratory tumblers are generally quicker in the polishing process, the rotary tumbler is easier to use and provides highly satisfactory results.

Often, those who tumble would make use of both types depending on their goal. However, as this is the ultimate beginner’s guide to rock collection and tumbling, we highly suggest going for a rotary tumbler as your first choice (it’s also more cost-effective). 

A small list of tools and supplies you’ll need to get going with rock tumbling is:

  • A Tumbler (To tumble your rocks)
  • Plastic or Ceramic Pellets (To top-up and fill the tumbler to the right capacity)
  • A Tablespoon (To Measure)
  • Some Water (To water-down)
  • A Bucket (To dispose of slurry, grit or mud elsewhere from the drain)
  • Wipes (To clean and wipe the barrel)
  • Grit (To shape, sand and polish with 80, 220, 400 and 600-grit)
  • Borax or Soap Shavings (To give your rock some extra-fabulous sparkle)
  • A Plug Outlet (To keep your tumbler tumbling)
  • Patience (To get you going to the end of the month-long process)
  • Your Jeans (To do any optional hand-polishing)

  • What are the Five Steps to Tumbling Rocks?

There’s four stages to the rock tumbling process, slowly taking your rock collection from its raw state through the sanding and polishing movements. Yes, we did say ‘five’ steps, but the fifth step is actually optional. 

Many people are happy with results of polishing and decide to move on from there. However, as this is the ultimate beginner’s guide to rock collection and rock tumbling, we couldn’t miss it out. Plus, it gives an extra sparkle that could do well in the sales department!

The Tumbling Process

  • Step 1: Shape the Rocks with Coarse Grit

You’ll want to begin by filling your tumbler’s barrel with rocks until half full. Don’t worry if you don’t have enough rocks, simply fill the remaining space with ceramic or plastic pellets. 

Top tip: add rocks of a similar hardness because only faces of the rock will polish, while edges can still cause damaging scratches.

Per pound of rock, add two tablespoons of coarse grit such as an 80-grit silicone carbide. The, fill the chamber with water until the rocks are fully submerged. 

Finally, close your chamber, attach to the tumbler and set it tumbling for about a week. Don’t forget to check-in every few days to make sure you’re happy with the shape.

Before moving onto step 2, you will need to remove the rocks (ensuring there is no left-over grit on them) and fully clean out the barrel.

  • Step 2: Use a Finer Grit

Step 2 begins with adding the same rocks to the barrel. The pellets can also be used again in this stage providing they are clean, otherwise get yourself a new batch.

Add your finer grit such as the 220-grit silicone carbide and water until the rocks are fully submerged. There’s a pattern coming along: attach to the tumbler and press ‘go’.

Again, this process can take up to a week to finish depending on the hardness of your rocks, but this time you should check-in every day to make sure you’re happy with the results. 

When ready, take your rocks out and – just like in step 1 – clean your barrel so it is ready for step three, the pre-polish.

  • Step 3: Use a Pre-Polish Toner

You’re probably guessing ahead at this point, but you can place your rocks, pellets, and pre-polish grit into the barrel. This can be the 400-grit silicone carbide or 400-grit aluminium oxide.

Fill the chamber with water until the rocks are covered and let the tumbler do its thing for another week. 

It’s very important we highlight there is no left-over grit from previous stages as you progress. This is because remnants of a coarser grit can cause unwanted scratches and blemishes in your final product. 

You’ll need to check-in regularly for this step, and when you’re happy to move on, complete the removal and barrel clean so it is ready for the polishing stage. 

  • Step 4: Now Polish Perfectly

Here we are, at what is often considered the final step for many. Again, get your nearly-finished rocks in the barrel with pellets and water. This time, measure out your finest grit; often a 600-grit silicone carbide, aluminium oxide or diamond powder. 

Once again, using a rotary tumbler can make this process last up to a week, but keep checking-in.

However, this stage can also be subbed-out by using jeans to hand-polish your softer rocks. While not the most popular method, it provides a satisfactory end to an enduring process. Simply take some denim, wet it, add some grit powder and gently rub your rocks one-by-one until you are happy with the result. 

  • Step 5: Add an Optional Burnish Stage

This stage is the actual final stage to making rocks smooth and shiny. By definition, burnishing is the act of rubbing a metal to make it shiny. But, it is an interchangeable term used within the rock tumbling world, too. 

Making sure your tumbler is definitely clean and has no left-over grit, you can add your polished rocks, gemstones and minerals into the barrel. Then, per pound of rock, add half a tablespoon of borax or soap shavings to the chamber. 

Connect it to the rotary tumbler, press ‘go’ and check-in the next day to collect your finished piece!

What Can I do with the Tumbled Rock Collection?

Now you have completed the stages of rock collection and rock tumbling, you can choose what to do with your rocks. The world is your oyster! While you may often need a few more tools and supplies for some of these plans, there are many options that simply require cunning product placement.

If rock tumbling is a continuous passion, you may begin to run out of space. At which point, creating an online shop or opening a stall in your local market will help you thin your stock. There are many people out there that would love your beautifully polished pieces.

What to do with your tumbled rocks?

Here’s some ideas :

  • Jewellery
  • Magnets
  • Paperweights
  • Personalised Gifts
  • Ornaments
  • Fishbowl or Aquarium Filler
  • Vase Decoration
  • Table Centrepiece
  • Flooring (with Resin Overlay)
  • Keyrings
  • Lucky Charms
  • Children’s Crafts
  • Rock Collection
  • Mindfulness and Spiritual Healing
  • Prizes and Rewards
  • Sale Item
  • Garden Cover
  • Coasters (with Resin Overlay)
  • Bookmarks
  • Hair Accessories

And, there you have it! The ultimate beginner’s guide to rock collection and tumbling. We hope this article has been helpful for you to reach your goals of rock collection and rock tumbling.

Let us know in the comments if there’s anything else you’d like to see from us. In the meantime, don’t forget to check out our other articles. 

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