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December 09, 2018

Beginner Metal Polishing - Tumbling and Polishing Papers

You would think I would have looked into polishing my metal components before now - but I've always thought tumbling was enough. And tumbling is definitely better than not tumbling, but I'm coming to the conclusion that tumbling is definitely not the same as polishing.

Here's a before and after photo that I hope will help illustrate the difference.

The difference between tumbling and polish papers - top vs. bottom

The bottom paddle was 'polished' using a rotary rock tumbler. The top paddle has been polished to a mirror like shine using polishing papers. To be fair, I don't think I polished the bottom paddle with a cloth or anything, so it's a little tarnished - but trust me, that's not the only difference.

Before I jump into using polishing papers, I'll give a little overview of tumble polishing.

 Tumbling metal jewelry was something I learned pretty early on. It is a final step where you put your finished jewelry in either a rotary tumbler or vibratory tumbler with stainless steel shot, water and a de-greaser or burnishing compound. 

At the time I started tumble polishing, most people in jewelry making forums talked about using a couple of drops of original blue dawn liquid soap for dishes in the tumbler. I tend to just use dish soap. I think the intent is that it should not suds up too much and should remove the grease and oils. There are burnishing compounds like Shine Brite - but I haven't tried them (yet).

I tumble for at least an hour. Here's a video of me removing jewelry from the tumbler.

Tumbling will burnish the surface of your jewelry - making it shiny, smoothing burrs and also hardening it. I recently read that it does not truly work harden wire jewelry, since it is only hardening the surface layers - but it is noticeably stronger and more firm than when it went in, so it does what I need. I'm not going to split hairs over it.

Regardless of the polishing, I love that it will smooth over the cut wire edges, especially next to a wrapped loop. You do need to attempt to round it with a cup burr or nail file, but I often find that tumbling can reach spots that I can't quite get to.

For years, a little time in the rotary tumbler has been the final step (before the polishing cloth) for my jewelry.

But recently I began thinking if I want to take my metal jewelry to the next level, I should probably learn more about polishing. I'm not quite ready to pull out my dremel, because I've read that rouges are messy, so I decided to start with polishing papers.

As part of my last wire order with Rio Grande, I threw in some 3-M wet or dry polishing papers. There are 6 different color papers, each with a different grit.

I love Rio Grande Jewelry - Goodies galore!

To polish something, you start with the scratchiest, most coarse grit and move to the finest, most smooth grit. Since I didn't know much about this, I read where you will start polishing in one direction, say vertical lines across the project, and then switch to horizontal polishing for the next grit. That's what I did.

Here's some info that they neglect to tell you about the polishing papers - what color corresponds to what grit! Sheesh - you'll never be able to tell on your own.

I searched around a bit and found the following progression is most coarse to finest: 
  • avocado green (400 grit) - they call this green
  • gray (600 grit)
  • light blue (1,200 grit)
  • pink (4,000 grit)
  • aqua blue (6,000 grit) - they call this mint
  • cream (8,000 grit) - they call this light green - but to me, it is cream with a green cast
As a last step, I used a polishing cloth.  I cut a small square of each paper. I used the papers dry, but they can be used wet too. Next time, I'll try that.

The steps to a mirror shine  using polishing paper - in this order!

Now, for the results part. Here is a step by step on the ring.  Obvously, this is not a fancy ring - as a matter of fact, it's just an extra loop I cut off when I was making the domed spiral ring tutorial. I just hammered the ends.

After using the avocado green paper, you can see the scratches going across the paddle. This is a matte finish - but a scratchy one.

Polishing Papers on the bottom vs. tumbled on the top - step 1

After the gray paper, it is what I might consider a satin finish. It's neither scratched nor shiny.  It has a nice even finish.

I polished with each paper about 2 minutes. I think I did the first step for almost double that - only because I thought it was capable of getting out more tool marks than the other steps.

Polishing Papers on the bottom vs. tumbled on the top - step 2

After the blue polishing paper, there is a dull reflective shine. It seems somewhere between mirror polish and satin (which, of course, it is).

Polishing Papers on the bottom vs. tumbled on the top - step 3

From the light blue to the pink paper, there is a huge change in the grit. I've read that people suggest there should be a grit in between 1,200 to 4,000. 

With my limited knowledge, I think they're correct. You can immediately tell the difference using the pink paper. It felt squeaky as I wiped it across the metal. This is when you are switching to getting a high polish shine.

Polishing Papers on the bottom vs. tumbled on the top - step 4

And now after the aqua paper. At this point, it is getting hard to get a good photo since things are reflecting back in the paddle. It's pretty reflective and shiny.

Polishing Papers on the bottom vs. tumbled on the top - step 5

And the final step is the cream paper. Hopefully, you can see that there is a significant difference from where it started.  I have worn the ring on and off to see if the difference is still noticeable after the polish has oxidized (tarnished) a little and it is still a considerable difference. The polished paddle looks much more professional and finished.

Polishing Papers on the bottom vs. tumbled on the top - step 6

It's a bit hard to capture in photos - but below is another 'before' polishing paper picture. It has been in the tumbler for an hour, though.

Tumble polishing vs. Mirror Finish from Polishing Paper

And another 'after' polishing picture.  On this last picture, I used the polishing cloth, so the paddles are the same color, but you can still see that the top one has some uneven texture and pitting - probably tool marks.

Tumble polishing vs. Mirror Finish from Polishing Papers on handmade jewelry

Of course, once I did one ring, I had to try others.  Here's the thick spiral ring progression.

Tumble polishing vs. Mirror Finish from Polishing Paper - step by step

I don't think this shows a big difference in the photos - but there are significantly less noticeable tool marks in person. And the ring has a more polished shine. I was hoping that by doing the inside of the ring maybe it would decrease tarnish and the tendency to turn my finger green when it gets wet. No such luck though.

I will continue to use the tumbler and  probably polishing papers in the future. It doesn't take very long, but I think it makes a difference in the overall shine of the finished piece of jewelry. I will still need to tumble though - since it hardens the metal. I wonder if I'm supposed to polish then tumble or tumble then polish? Hmmmm.

Do you polish your finished wire jewelry? How? I'd like to learn more!

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  1. I've also used a tumbler as my final step & have been wondering about other methods, so thank you for answering questions I didn't know I had!!

    1. I'll be trying some other polishing methods in the future, so please stop by again for more info.

  2. Polish then tumble. We only go to 1200 grit in my jewellery class (led by a qualified, professional silver smith) as the others aren't really worth the effort.

    1. Thank you for the order of doing things! I think I read somewhere that the grit value on polishing papers may be measured differently. II definitely thought it made a difference using the last few - but I'll see if I can remember where I read about it and add the information.