This Thing Rules

This workhorse rock tumbler makes righteous gemstones

The National Geographic tumbler, um, rocks.

National Geographic

As I’ve shared in this very column previously, the Rockaways — a coastal community in the borough of Queens — is one of my absolute favorite places in New York. And when I’m not contemplating the ocean from the comfort of my Tommy Bahama chair there, I’m walking the beach with my wife. She’s usually collecting rocks, of which — as you might imagine — there are many. I tend to grab a couple of them, too.

As I type this, I’m glancing at a one-third-filled pickle jar of smoothed stones on our kitchen table. I have no idea what kind of rocks they are — what do you take me for, some sort of geologist? — but they are comforting to look at. Some are speckled, some striped, others uniformly hued. I’m quite fond of one small tortoise-shell stone; its colors remind me of a favorite pet, a stray cat named Waffles my family adopted when I was in high school.

All these irregularly shaped stones — known as baroque stones — are not only beautiful, but extremely smooth to the touch. This thanks to the National Geographic Professional Rock Tumbler, which my wife got for free through a friend on Facebook earlier this year. It has been whirring in our back office, pretty much 24/7, ever since she got it.

I don’t think it’s what you’d consider a “cool” hobby.

Modern-day rock tumbling dates to the 1950s, when a Los Angeles jewelry designer named Edward Swoboda collaborated with his friend Warren Jones to build a tumbling machine. Hobbyist tumblers emerged later in the decade, and there was something of a rock-tumbling craze in the early 1960s.

But to tell you the truth, I don’t personally know anyone else who currently owns a tumbler. The subreddit dedicated to the practice, r/RockTumbling, is tiny (4,300 members). The only recent pop culture mention of the pursuit that I know of comes in an episode of HBO’s Hacks: Kaitlin Olson’s hapless character proudly notes that she “self-tumbles” the rocks she uses in her jewelry. So, yeah, I don’t think it’s what you’d consider a “cool” hobby.

As for the National Geographic tumbler, it’s a workhorse. (The one we have is meant for professionals, but there’s a hobbyist version as well; both come with a variety of colorful rocks.) You put your rocks in the barrel with some grit (it’s included, but you’ll ultimately have to buy more) and some water. Then let the thing spin round and round and round.

You’ll do this for four cycles of anywhere from three to 10 days each, using a different grit each time. At around four weeks, you’ll have produced polished stones that might take the ocean thousands or even millions of years to shape.

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So really, it’s mostly a waiting game. A very noisy waiting game. Though at first the rattle and hum of the tumbler got on my nerves, now it’s like white noise — comforting even.

Our next batch of precious stones will be ready soon. My wife has often joked that we should start a business called Rockaway Rocks. (Sing it to the tune of the Ramones’ “Rockaway Beach.”) And hey, if this whole journalism thing doesn’t work out, that sounds like as good an option as any.