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A Brief History of Rock Tumblers

Posted by Bill Wright on

A Brief History of Rock Tumblers

Sea glass and river rock share an important characteristic: they are both polished smooth by the action of water and sand. Ancient people noticed and admired the smooth surfaces of rocks they found on stream beds and beaches. In short order, ancient civilizations came to value certain stones as gems, and the lapidary arts were born—early jewelers learned ways to smooth and polish rocks. Here’s a brief history of rock tumblers.

Water, Sand, and Goatskin Bags

A long and laborious process, early rock polishing began with troughs of water and sand and long hours of slave labor in ancient Egypt. Laborers shifted the troughs side to side to create friction to polish roughly chipped stones into smooth gems. This trough method could take months to finish a stone.

In India, jewelers combined roughly cut stones with water and ground rock in goatskin bags that they would then drag back and forth across the ground to create the polishing action, a method that also took many, many days. Others in India figured out how to make roller boards, sort of like miniature teeter-totters, to roll jars filled with beads and some kind of abrasive materials to produce smoother, more uniform beads.

Mid-Century Baroque Stone Jewelry

In the 1950s, a jeweler named Edward Swoboda made jewelry featuring hand-cut and polished “baroque”-style semiprecious stones. His designs become so popular he had to figure out a way to mass produce the gemstones he needed. He worked with Warren Jones to create a rock tumbling machine that could produce a lot of baroque-style gemstones of good quality to use in his jewelry items.

Following on Swoboda’s success, a man named Herb Walters figured out a process that could polish enough stones to create a wholesale business selling stones for jewelry and crafts. His business was called Craftstones and still exists today, having expanded from California to international operations.

Paint Cans and Rubber Tires

Hobbyists noticed Swoboda Jewelry and Craftstones’ products and became interested in rock tumbling for fun and crafting. Several manufacturers began offering tumblers for hobby use, and rock collecting and tumbling became a popular pastime. Early tumblers were built from paint cans, which made a lot of noise. Other manufacturers figured out a way to make quieter machines with rubber tumblers. Once the hobby was well established, fewer enthusiasts needed to buy tumblers, as they already had them. Many smaller manufacturers ceased production, while those who innovated survived. The ’70s and ’80s saw the advent of toy tumblers made of plastic.

Large Barrel Tumblers

Tumbled stones are big business now—they are extremely popular as gifts, for crafts, and for some people, spiritual purposes. Large industrial tumblers can produce batches of polished stones much faster and more efficiently than before and keep the supply flowing to stores and artists who use these gems and stones in their creations.

Now, the history of rock tumblers had evolved to include rotary and vibratory tumblers, like the C&M rotary topline tumbler, to perform polishing jobs on metal parts and other types of materials in shops both small and large.





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