Tumbler Maintenance: Cleaning Your Steel Shot

Close up shot of a Jeweler's blend of stainless steel shot that shows the different shapes of the steel pieces. Steel shot is used in rock tumblers to polish jewelry.

Did you know that you need to clean your steel shot regularly? I didn’t know that when I bought my first tumbler fourteen years ago. I learned it the hard way, and I hope to spare you that lesson if you haven’t already learned it.

If you’re like me, you probably use your tumbler frequently. I no longer make dozens of pieces of jewelry every week (and my hands thank me for that!), but I still make jewelry often enough that I run my tumbler around once or twice a week.

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This is how the story goes… You load a few of your latest pieces of jewelry, fresh out of a warm bath of Liver of Sulfur (LOS), into a tumbler barrel. Then you add some warm water and a healthy squirt of original Blue Dawn dish soap. You seal up your barrel and plug in your tumbler. All is right in your world as you listen to the quiet shushing of the barrels. You can hardly wait to see your gorgeous creations, all bright and shiny and ready for a photo shoot.

A few hours later, you open up your tumbler only to discover that the gorgeous jewelry you put in there — you know, the stuff with the bright copper or silver highlights that you painstakingly brought out with wet super fine steel wool (Grade #0000) before putting it in the tumbler — is now the flat dull color of a dirty old copper penny. Yeah, it’s shiny alright, but where are those gorgeous bright metal highlights?

Seriously. What happened?

Here’s the thing. You used dirty shot to tumble your freshly antiqued jewelry. It sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? You think to yourself, but I used dish soap. Shouldn’t that clean and polish the jewelry and the shot? Well, no. Not exactly.

How Your Tumbler Works

Think of a sandy beach covered with seashells. Your tumbler rolls your jewelry around in shot much like the tides roll sea shells around in the sand. The sand polishes the shells much like the shot polishes your jewelry.

What happens when you rub two things together? Stuff breaks down. The constant friction of one object against another causes an exchange of surface material.

In the case of your tumbler, the patina on your lovely copper or silver jewelry transfers onto the decidedly harder stainless steel shot. You may have noticed that after a few tumbles, your shot is still shiny, but it’s no longer bright silver. Instead, your steel shot is now a dark gunmetal gray tone. Almost as if the shot itself has been patinated.

Well, it has. Dish soap doesn’t actually clean the jewelry in this application. It serves more as a lubricant to soften the water, which is technically a mild abrasive. Soap and water won’t remove patina. But the patina on your jewelry can be transferred from your jewelry to your steel shot as your jewelry is tumbled.

Cleaning Steel Shot

To learn how to clean your steel shot, watch the video tutorial below. Or, if you prefer written instructions, just keep reading!

The latest on Youtube:

This is perfectly normal, and there’s a super simple fix: clean your steel shot. I use Sunsheen Steel Shot Cleaner, by Rio Grande. It’s a concentrated mild acid cleaner that comes in a one-quart bottle. The whole bottle makes six gallons of shot cleaning solution.

According to the directions, you mix 5 ounces of cleaner with one gallon of water. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t have the space to store a six-gallon jug (or even a one-gallon jug) of cleaning solution, so I reduced that formula to 2 1/2 Tablespoons of shot cleaner to 4 Cups of warm water. That gives me just enough cleaning solution to wash two barrels of steel shot.

Pour two cups of the cleaning solution into each barrel of the dirty shot. Seal your barrels tightly and let them tumble for a few hours. Your shot should be as bright and shiny as new when you open your barrels. Rinse your clean shot and your tumbler barrels thoroughly with clean water, and let everything air dry before pouring the shot back into your barrels for storage or reuse.

That’s all there is to it!

Tool Tip!

Always let your stainless steel shot and your tumbler barrels air dry completely before storing. That way your shot will always be squeaky clean and ready to use the next time you have a batch of jewelry to tumble.

Fixing a Bad Finish

Now, what do you do about that batch of jewelry that lost its pretty highlights? You go back a couple of steps and restore those highlights by hand — either with wet steel wool (always use superfine #0000 — you’ll find in the paint department at your local hardware store) or a dry brass jeweler’s brush.

Always rinse your jewelry thoroughly after restoring the highlights with steel wool. I use an old toothbrush to scrub out any particles of steel wool that might be clinging to the jewelry. Those little bits of soft steel wool are pulverized in the tumbler by the harder stainless steel shot, and that gunks up your steel shot. You’ll know this is happening if you start to notice rust spots on your dry steel shot or on the strainer you use to drain your barrels after tumbling.

Once you’ve restored the gorgeous bright copper highlights and thoroughly removed any steel wool particles, you can re-tumble the jewelry in your freshly cleaned shot one more time. And the next time you open the barrel, you’ll be so much happier with your results.

How Often Should You Clean Your Shot?

Rio Grande recommends cleaning between each use. I tend to use my shot two or even three times between cleanings. But remember, I’m no longer tumbling large quantities of jewelry on a daily basis. I generally tumble one piece (or one or two pairs of earrings) at a time, and I am flat out compulsive about making sure I remove all traces of steel wool before my jewelry goes in the tumbler. So, I can usually get away with using my shot a couple of times between cleanings. I’ve also learned to recognize when my shot is starting to really build up patina residue.

How often you clean your shot really depends on how frequently you’re using your tumbler and how much jewelry you’re loading into your barrels each time. If you’re making finished jewelry for sale, I suggest cleaning your shot after every use, as recommended by the manufacturer. You never want a customer to question the quality of your craftsmanship because the finish is flat and lifeless.

If, on the other hand, you’re more of a hobbyist who makes jewelry mainly for personal use, you can probably go a bit longer between cleanings. How finicky are you about your final finish? Will you be annoyed if your finish needs to be reworked? Let your answers to these questions help you set a cleaning schedule that works for you.

Another Common Tumbler Maintenance Issue

If you use your tumbler frequently, the barrels will inevitably stop turning. There’s an easy fix for that problem, though. And it’s something you can even do yourself. Learn how in this free tumbler maintenance tutorial!

Discover more behind Door 44!

Was this article helpful? If so, please give it some love and share it with your follow jewelry makers. Is there another jewelry related topic you’d like me to discuss? Let me know in the comments! And be sure to browse all the other tool tips that you’ll find here.

Thanks so much for joining me today. I hope you enjoyed this post. Visit my Etsy shop for the latest ad-free downloadable PDF wire jewelry tutorials. Also, I’d love to see what you’ve made and hear your ideas and suggestions for new tutorials and blog posts. You can connect with me @door44studios on Instagram, and Facebook. And I’d love for you to join my private Facebook Group, Wire Weaving with Wendi!

Until next time, go tumble something beautiful with your squeaky clean shot!

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Did you know that you need to clean your stainless steel tumbler shot frequently? Clean shot results in a beautiful high-polish finish on your wire jewelry. Learn how to clean your steel shot in this free tutorial.

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