The short answer is yes, you can tumble rocks without grit. But we really don’t recommend it. Read on for the why.
Is tumbling grit really necessary?
This is a common question for folks who are just getting started in rockhounding or with rock tumbling.
Many people receive a rock tumbler in the form of a kit as a birthday present or holiday present.
The kit comes with the grit as well as some rocks to tumble.
Then the grit is gone, and a search for replacement grit reveals a few things.
First, that grit is harder to find in the stores than you’d expect.
If you find it in a store, usually you find it as part of a kit, with all kinds of equipment and accessories you already have or don’t want.
Second, that it costs more than you expected when shipping costs are factored in.
What happens when you tumble rocks without grit?
As you would expect, when you put rocks in the tumbler with nothing, or even with water (but no grit), the rocks are going to bump and crash against each other.
Naturally, and of course this depends on the hardness of the pieces, over time the rocks will begin to change shape.
After all, rocks in the natural environment become rounded and smooth without the assistance of tumbler grit.
Just think of stones in the river, on the beach, or in windy areas.
The thing is, it takes many, many years for those stones to take the smooth and round shapes.
When you put stones in the rock tumbler without grit, the banging and bumping over time will produce smoother rocks.
But it could take months (or even years depending on the rock) of tumbling those pieces to achieve the smoothness and shape that you desire.
Another thing you might notice is that when you tumble rocks with just water is that the water can become saturated with the dust ground of the rocks, to the point where the polishing action is prevented from occurring because the muddy slurry acts as a buffer between the stones.
To tumble stones with just water, you’ll have to regularly stop the tumbler and clean it out.
You might also like: How Do You Dispose of Tumbler Water Safely?
Tip #1 Don’t Forget Electricity Costs
People who are anxious to avoid paying for grit may accept the fact that they will just need to tumble their rocks for a greater period of time (maybe even months).
While it is difficult to say how much it will cost, it is undeniable that at least some electricity is going to be used in order to make this happen.
If you are running the tumbler consistently for extra weeks, that there is going to be extra cost as a result in power costs.
Are there alternatives to using tumbler grit?
Absolutely. While people disagree about what type of alternative is best, there are a lot of people out there who are making their own tumbler grit.
The key to making your own tumbler grit is understanding what you are looking to achieve, and how long you want to wait to get there.
For example, folks will make up a mixture of flower, sand, salt, and finely crushed rocks,but also report that it takes quite a bit longer to polish their rocks.
Others purchase silicon carbide sandblasting grit at the hardware store, but report that the grades of the grit are very coarse and cannot be used for finer polishing steps.
You’ll have to try them out and see what sort of result you can achieve with them.
Tip #2: Creative Alternatives to Tumbler Grit
Here are some alternatives that we’ve found people using:
- hardware store grade silicon carbide sandblasting grit (as noted above)
- Red Any Piles (the mounds that red ants build up)
- beach sand (though many say it is too soft for anything other than fine polishing, while others complain that beach sand particles vary too much in size for consistent polishing)
- river sand
- walnut shells
- tile spacers
- plastic pellets from hacky sacks
- bb gun bbs
- bb gun plastic bbs
- aquarium gravel
- kitty litter
- mixture of water and sugar (at the end)
- cut up rubber bands
- pea-sized river stones
- corn cobs
We’ve even seen people breaking up used pottery (old plates and cups) to throw in with their rocks.
As long as you aren’t hurting your tumbler, it wouldn’t generally hurt anything to try out these various types of alternative grits.
However, we would recommend that you try out the alternative grit on stones that you don’t care too much about so you can observe what happens without being devastated if you ruin something irreplaceable.
Some of the grit suggestions above will work better when the rock is still pretty rough, while others work better near the finished stage.
Tip #3: Consider Buying Tumbler Grit in Bulk
Tumbler grit can get expensive, especially if you are using it a lot.
To try and reduce this expense, we recommend that you consider doing a bulk buy of the grit, rather than buying it in small amounts or in kits combined with out grits.
In general, grit is dramatically cheaper when you buy more at a time, and you’ll often be able to avoid the shipping costs once you spend enough.
You may be able to find someone else in your neighborhood, community, or network who is also interested in sharing the grit and the costs with you.
Consider buying in bulk from a wholesaler instead of your local craft store, or via Amazon like this option.
(As an Amazon affiliate, I may earn a small commission from qualifying purchases at no additional cost to you).
If you still have questions about rockhounding or rock tumbling, check out our YesDirt Knowledge Vault for related articles.