Vibratory vs Rotary Tumbler for Sterling Jewelry and Findings
by David Altherr
I spoke with a friend of mine, a professional jeweler of 20 years experience about my cleaning/buffing/polishing needs and he recommended I use a Vibratory Tumbler with Ceramic media but everything most of what I see online recommends rotary with steel shot. Can you verify or refute his advice for me please? Let me explain my needs.
I am primarily a jewelry dealer specializing in antique and collectible jewelry. Some of the jewelry I sell is antique or collectible, much of it is contemporary fine gold and silver - but almost all of it is pre-owned pre-worn jewelry. I buy jewelry and jewelry lots at estate sales, garage sales, auction, etc... and the majority of it is filthy, scratched, and tarnished.
All of my antique or collectible jewelry, along with the nicer quality sterling and most gold, I would give special care and attention to. I am looking to liquidate the lesser cheap sterling and this I want to tumble after sonic cleaning to get it looking 'good enough' and toss it into my clearance space.
Some of the jewelry I want to tumble has stones in it, some doesn't. I know what jewelry and stones I can tumble together and what I can't tumble together, or tumble at all. My confusion is in what kind of tumbler to use, and what media with what compound. I'd like to use a cleaning compound media if you think that would be necessary after sonic cleaning, I'm not sure if it will. A buffing media for lightly scratched pieces, I will previously sandpaper out bad scratches. And finally a polishing media, or pre-polishing then polishing medias, to shine things up for sale. All the jewelry I will be tumbling is sterling and fine. Please let me know what you recommend.
Tumblers, both rotary and vibratory are not the best option for finishing or re-finishing a piece of jewelry. One must consider the metal, the stones, a finish or coating, patinas, platings and it's overall condition. Some items can't be put in a tumbler of any kind or a sonic cleaner either, like emeralds and opals.
Since you already know what you can and can't tumble, ask your friend why he prefers a vibratory tumbler with ceramic media. At what point in his jewelry fabricating process is he using the tumbler? After casting? On finished pieces? How are his needs similar to yours?
There are different types of ceramic media for achieving different results - some for quick removal of surface roughness like a ceramic aluminum oxide, and also grinding and polishing media. But even after a time in the polishing media, jewelry often require a finer polishing when removed from the vibratory tumbler like what you can achieve on a buffing machine after the surface has been prepared first. There is a compound that can be added to the ceramic media during the "tumbling" process to remove tarnish without removing any of the metal from the pieces too. I think your friend could help you in choosing what media is best for the varied needs of the pieces you're wanting to re-finish. An advantage for you may be the larger capacities possible with the vibratory tumblers and that they can be used both wet and dry AND that you can use different media to achieve different results. The vibratory tumbler also works faster than the rotary tumbler with stainless steel shot.
It sounds like you've got too many variables in your finishing/polishing needs to say that only one method can work for you. Badly scratched Sterling or fine silver will not benefit much from being tumbled in a rotary tumbler with stainless steel shot.....it will come out shinier and still scratched! The ceramic media would work better in that case. But......it will also remove any fine surface details too if you're using a cutting media to remove the scratches. (sigh)
Overall, rotary tumblers are usually less expensive and easier to use than their vibratory cousins, making them better suited for the lesser demands of many "hobby" or small-production professional jewelers. And, since there are more of us, it's what you're going to see recommend more often! :-)
I'm sorry to say David, I don't think that there is a black or white answer here. I actually think you could use BOTH tumblers AND a buffing machine for different items! However, because of your varied requirements, I think your friend is right and that the vibratory tumbler would be more versatile for you overall. Smaller items like charms, big chain-style bracelets, small earrings, etc. and tarnished silver bead jewelry would clean-up nicely in a rotary tumbler without compromising any delicate surface design. So use that for the smaller items and the vibratory tumbler for the larger or more scratched-up stuff. You'll be able to move more jewelry through your finishing process and get it on your shelves faster!