Do I Need a Tumbler?

Q: I make jewelry, and so far I’ve been dipping things into a solution, rubbing it with steel wool, then polishing everything by hand using a flex-shaft, but it’s slow. My question is: do I really need a tumbler? Would it give my work a more professional look?

A: Nobody ever absolutely needs a particular tool, since there is always more than one way to make a thing or solve a problem in jewelry making. Tumblers are just a tool, not some magic device you must have or you won’t be a jeweler. You need a tumbler only if you have needs in finishing your jewelry that your existing methods don’t solve to your satisfaction, and that a tumbler would do better or more economically, and if you can afford one. It’s that simple.

There are various types of tumblers, each do somewhat different things. All have their uses, and none of them will do everything. Many of us find them quite useful, but I’d hazard a guess that even the most ardent proponent of tumblers doesn’t use them for everything. So the questions are these: “Does your existing method do the job you wish it to do? Are you happy with those results, and does the time it takes you seem reasonable to you?” If so, then maybe you don’t need a tumbler. If, on the other hand, a tumbler could improve your results, or save you money and time, then perhaps it would be a good investment.

You are the maker and designer of your work. You set your own standards. If the work is coming out as you want it to, then it’s OK. You don’t need our permission or approval to decide that your work is good enough or not. Now, whether your end results or methods are what any of us would find appropriate for our own work is an entirely different question. For some, it might be, for others, it wouldn’t. What you need to do is examine samples of what others are able to do with tumblers, and decide whether this would be a worthwhile addition to your studio or not. For some of us, it’s a definite yes, but for others, moving to a tumbler might remove some of the personal touch and variability in their work.

For my money, though, considering your description of what you’re doing, I’d guess you might wish to upgrade your traditional polishing and finishing equipment before going to a tumbler. A decent polishing setup, with mounted motor and dust collector, for example, would be the first thing I’d suggest getting. I’m kind of a traditionalist in this. I’d rather see someone (a student, friend, etc) learn how to polish and finish well using the traditional manual methods before learning how to automate it with a tumbler. The tumbler does not produce quite the results of proper hand finishing, but it can be pretty good. So if you become dependent on a tumbler for acceptable results before you learn to do it the traditional way, you may never quite get past that stage of dependency on the tumbler. Learn to polish well first, and then the tumbler becomes an addition to your capabilities, not a limitation.

Oh, and the solution you clean the work in after soldering is called “pickle”. You may wish to search for methods of soldering that preserve the surface finish, without giving you fire scale or fire stain on the metal. That will allow you to solder nice clean silver assemblies, and get them out of the pickle still looking like nice clean metal, so you don’t then have to scratch it all up with steel wool. Using Argentium silver is one way to avoid this, but others are methods of fluxing and coating the silver prior to heating that protects the surface. Cupronil flux or Prips flux (you mix it yourself) are two such solutions. Steel wool has its place, but it does, after all, start by scratching the work up a bit—not always what you might want.

by Peter W. Rowe M.F.A., G.G.