Best Rock Tumblers for Kids, Beginners, Pros & Everyone In Between

What is the Best Rock Tumbler and How To Choose

Rock tumbling is a fun hobby that can be enjoyed by people of all ages. Choosing the best rock tumbler is easy when you know what to look for. This article will break it all down and help you choose a tumbler that best suits your individual needs.

Before getting into what to look for in a rock tumbler (and for those who just want to see my recommendations), here are my top picks for each category of tumblers:

Best Rock Tumblers for Beginners

Rank

Tumbler

Barrel Size

Barrel Material

# of Barrels

My Rating

Price

Lortone 3A

3 lbs. rock

Rubber

1

5/5

Thumler's 3lb

3 lbs. rock

Rubber

1

4.5/5

Lortone 45C

4 lbs. rock

Rubber

1

5/5

Best Rock Tumblers for Kids (Toys)

Rank

Tumbler

My Rating

Price

Chicago Electric 3lb

3.9/5

NSI Classic

3/5

Smithsonian

3/5

Best Rock Tumblers for Commercial-Use

Rank

Tumbler

My Rating

Price

Diamond Pacific 24T

5/5

Lortone C40

4.5/5

Diamond Pacific 40T

4.9/5

Best Vibratory Rock Tumblers (specialty tumblers used for polish)

Rank

Tumbler

My Rating

Price

Thumler's UV-10

4.9/5

Lot-O Tumbler

4.8/5

Summary

(I will talk about the pros and cons of each of these at the end of this article)


Buying Guide​

The first thing to consider is what will be the intended use of the tumbler you want to buy?

Are you buying this for a child?

Are you buying this for yourself because you want to start making jewelry? 

This article is broken into a few sections based on intended use of the tumbler. We'll also talk about some of the things to look for when choosing the best tumbler to buy.


​What to Look for When Buying a Rock Tumbler

Let’s take a look at some of the things you should look for when choosing a tumbler. For this article, I will not be talking much about kids tumblers. I have a separate article on this topic which you can find here.

Here are some things you should look for and consider when deciding which is the best rock tumbler for you:

Barrel Size

One of the biggest decisions you’ll have to make when choosing a tumbler is what size barrel to get.

When shopping for a tumbler, you’ll notice that sizing is expressed in weight - the most common size for beginners and hobbyists being 3 lb.

Put simply; a 3 lb barrel means that for each load, you should use 2 lbs of rocks with the other pound being made up of grit and water.

For beginners and those who just want to tumble as a fun pastime, you’ll most likely want a 3-4 lb tumbler.

For folks who are more serious about the hobby and want to be able to tumble more rocks, a 6 lb or 12 lb tumbler would be your best bet.

For commercial use, you’ll want to look at the larger 20 lb and 40 lb heavy-duty machines.

If you’re new to the hobby, it might seem like bigger is better.

Well, that’s not necessarily true.

The size you choose depends on two things really: how many rocks you want to tumble at a time, and what size rocks you want to tumble.

Rock tumblers have to be filled with a certain amount of grit which is dictated by the size of the barrel, and how many rocks you’re tumbling.

So if your barrel is too large, you might end up having to make up the difference with grit and other forms of media.

You should always try to fill your barrel about 65-75% of the way with your rocks. So if you buy too large, you’ll have to buy more rocks to meet the minimum recommendations of the tumbler.

It’s imperative not to fill your tumbler with anything less rocks than what the manufacturer recommends. The reason for this is that it can negatively affect the way your rocks are tumbled, and can often break or crack your rocks.

On the flipside, if your barrel is too small, you’ll be limiting yourself to the size of the rock you can tumble as well as the amount of rocks in a single load.

Keep in mind that one load of rocks can take up to 6 weeks to tumble properly. So you’ll want to plan and batch your rocks accordingly.

To get a general idea of rock size for the average 3 lb tumbler here is a good rule of thumb to follow:

  • 50% of your barrel should be 0.25 - 0.5” diameter rocks
  • 25% of your barrel should be 1” - 1.5” diameter rocks

It’s important that each of your loads contain various size rocks for optimal performance - you don't want to tumble JUST small rocks.

Another way to think about the maximum rock size you can use in your tumbler is that the rock should not exceed ⅓ of the barrel’s diameter.

So on the popular Lortone 3a tumbler for example, the barrel diameter is about 4”. That means the largest rock you should use in this barrel is about 1.33”.

This is not a perfect science, rather just a good rule of thumb that’s easy to remember.

If you think your rocks may be too large, you can always break or cut them into smaller pieces.

Barrel Material

The material of barrels has come a long way since rock tumblers were first made famous back in the 1950s.

In the beginning, barrels were made out of materials like paint cans and were loud enough to wake your neighbors in the middle of the night!

Today, barrels are primarily made from either plastic or high-quality rubber for the optimal rolling of the rocks as well as noise reduction.

The lower end, kids tumblers are usually made with plastic since it’s cheaper to do so.

Any tumbler that’s not considered a toy will use a high-quality rubber (with the exception of much larger commercial tumblers which will use metal casing with rubber lining).

One of the bigger concerns people have when deciding whether to get into rock tumbling is the amount of noise the tumbler makes. After all, these machines run 24 hours a day for weeks at a time.

So if you’re in an apartment or even a small house, it can be very annoying to listen to the noise regularly.

That’s why it’s so important to get a rubber barrel. While it will still make noise, the noise will be muffled and much more pleasant - it sounds a bit like waves at the beach pushing around rocks.

It’s also important to note here that the smaller your barrel, the less noise it makes (since there are fewer rocks inside).

Rubber barrels also help promote better rolling of your rocks as well as a more cushioned surface to prevent any damage to your rocks.

Multiple Barrel Configuration

One of the cardinal rules of rock tumbling is always to put rocks together of similar hardness according to the Mohs scale.

For example, agate and jasper are two of the most popular rocks to tumble. Both are a form of quartz, so they have a very similar hardness. These would be perfect to tumble together.

Alternatively, you would never want to combine quartz with fluorite. Fluorite is much softer than quartz and would most likely disintegrate if combined with a harder type of rock like quartz.

So what do you do if you want to tumble both kinds of rocks at the same time?

Get yourself a multi-barrel tumbler!

Simply group your rocks by hardness and put into separate barrels.

The other huge benefit to a multi-barrel tumbler is that you can run batches in different stages - let me explain.

Since a single batch of rocks can take several weeks to complete, you won’t be able to tumble other batches until the current batch has completed it’s cycle.

If you plan on tumbling large amounts of rocks, this can be a dealbreaker.

So instead of buying a second tumbler, just get one with multiple barrels. You can start one batch today, and another batch a week from now - no need to wait!

It’s like having two tumblers for the price of one!

Brands

If you’re buying anything other than a toy tumbler for a child, you’ll want to go with one of the better brands out there for their better build quality and longer warranties.

Lortone and Thumler’s are two of the best, and make a full line of tumblers (from 3 lb all the way up to 40 lb).

While the design of a tumbler may seem simple, there are a lot of parts that can go bad or break when cheaper materials are used.

Remember that your tumbler will be operating 24 hours per day for weeks at a time - so the motor and belt (among other parts) needs to be high quality if you want it to last for any period of time.

The better brands will also have better warranties. Most Lortone and Thumler tumblers will have a one-year parts and labor warranty.


Rotary vs. Vibratory Tumblers

When most people picture a rock tumbler in their head, the image that comes to mind is that of a rotary tumbler - the most common type.

But there is another kind of tumbler which is meant for different applications and worth mentioning in this article.

They’re called vibratory tumblers and are best used for the later, polishing stages of the tumbling process.

Without going into too much detail (because I already talked about this in my rock tumbling guide here), a vibratory tumbler should only be used to polish rocks - not to shape.

While rotary tumblers polish rocks in the final stage, the advantage to a vibratory tumbler is that the polishing is done much faster than in a rotary.

Because of this, a typical setup with serious rock hounds can be to have both types of tumblers so they can do their shaping/smoothing in the rotary, then move to the vibratory for faster polishing.


Rock Tumbling Kits

If you’re buying a rock tumbler for the first time, you should consider getting yourself a complete kit to help get you started.

Most kits will come with all four stages of grit/polish, rough stones, and maybe even some tumbling medium like plastic pellets.

Buying a complete kit like this is a very good idea to get started quickly - especially if you’re buying this as a gift for someone!


Pros/Cons of My Recommended Tumblers

Now that you know what to look for when buying a tumbler let’s revisit my recommendations from the beginning of this article, and talk about the pros and cons of each.

For Kids (toys)

Chicago Electric 3lb

Pros

  • Rubber barrel for reduced noise
  • Moderately priced
  • Great instructions and detailed schematics

Cons

  • The short lifespan of belt. Although replacement is only a few dollars.

NSI Classic

Pros

  • Most affordable tumbler on the market
  • Very popular model for kids - millions sold

Cons

  • Limited rock selection included

Smithsonian

Pros

  • Inexpensive

Cons

  • Only enough grit for one batch of rocks - but you can easily buy more on Amazon for cheap

For Beginners

Lortone 3A

Pros

  • Professional-grade
  • Will never leak
  • Hard rubber barrel for reduced noise levels

Cons

  • Does not come with grit or stones

Thumler's 3lb

Pros

  • Includes grit and sample stones
  • Rubber barrel
  • Professional-grade

Cons

  • Slightly less build quality than the Lortone.

Lortone 45C

Pros

  • Larger, 4 lb barrel
  • Hard rubber barrel for reduced noise levels
  • Professional-grade

Cons

  • Does not come with grit or stones

For Commercial-Use

Diamond Pacific 24T

Pros

  • Two 24 lb heavy-duty commercial-grade
  • Steel hopper with heavy rubber lining for maximum cushioning
  • Polyurethane-covered roller shafts for smooth operation

Cons

  • Price tag out of reach for some

Lortone C40

Pros

  • Single, 40 lb barrel heavy-duty commercial-grade
  • Steel barrel with replaceable neoprene liner
  • Compact size

Cons

  • Price

Diamond Pacific 40T

Pros

  • Single, 40 lb barrel heavy-duty commercial-grade
  • Steel hopper with heavy rubber lining for maximum cushioning
  • Polyurethane-covered roller shafts for smooth operation

Cons

  • Price

Vibratory Tumblers (specialty tumblers used for polish)

Thumler's UV-10

Pros

  • Removable heavy polyethylene bowl
  • Cyclonic effect moves objects throughout bowl
  • Small, compact, well-made

Cons

  • Not used for tumbling (only polish)

Lot-O-Tumbler

Pros

  • Fast, 5-7 day polishing
  • Professional-grade

Cons

  • Hard to buy online
  • Must be attached to something heavy

I hope this article was helpful and you now have a better idea of which tumbler may be best for you. If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments below!

Mark Orwig
 

My name is Mark Orwig and I am obsessed with keeping my mind busy, keeping active, and staying healthy.

Tony P - October 8, 2017

This page proves you can always learn something new… Good job Mark

    Mark Orwig - October 9, 2017

    Thanks Tony!

Beth - October 14, 2017

Who makes the National Geographic tumblers? Are they any good?

    Mark Orwig - October 16, 2017

    Hi Beth. I’m not sure of the actual manufacturer, but I consider these toys meant for kids.

Travis W - October 25, 2017

Nice Job!! I moved to the Oregon Coast this year and your article was a huge help for someone brand new to the hobby.
Thanks

    Mark Orwig - October 25, 2017

    Thanks Travis!

Dave S - November 12, 2017

Thanks Mark! This really helped. Hard to sift through reviews on amazon and know what to buy! I will look forward to reading more of your articles!

Andrea - December 10, 2017

Hi – my daughter is 10 and we have a large collection of agates from the OR coast we’d like to polish. I want to get her a tumbler as a gift because she loves rocks. We can put it in the garage. Based on some other reviews I got the Natl Geo tumbler but now that I see your review I am having second thoughts. Would you say the Chicago brand is preferable?

    Mark Orwig - December 12, 2017

    Hi Andrea. I’d look into the Lortone 3a tumbler.

Dan Bullins - December 19, 2017

Thanks for all info. I’m same way have stay busy. I GOT hurt on job June 21 2013. Was depressed. Found rocks tumbling jewelry making. Found new life. Found your page today. It’s great thanks so much . I have 3 tumblers right now. 3 lb, 6 lb,15 lb time 40 lb. Your info got me going right direction
Thanks Dan

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