TOOLS How to Kaliedoscope Deconstruct a Cane

Kaliedoscope polymer clay canes are absolutely mesmerizing. They look so intricate; they look incredibly difficult to make. But if you've got an eye for color and a sense of proportion, you'll discover they're not hard to make. And the most cool thing about kaliedoscope canes is their synergistic potential.

Huh? Is she getting all "hippie". Nope. These "k-puppies" are practically magical.

Let's start with a completed kaliedoscope cane.

My Tumblers

I started out cheap and small, getting the 'kiddie' rock tumbler. It was actually not a bad buy for me, since I don't tumble much, most times. I don't do production work. But the noise, noise, noise. Even in the garage, the noise was annoying. So, next came the single barrel Lortone 3A. What a difference - nice and quiet. A little tricky to open, but it seals well, which is important. Lortone is also a well respected brand and easy to find info and replacement parts.

After much research, reading about the amazing processing speed, I purchased a basic vibrating tumbler at a gun shop (much cheaper there). Then I discovered using one isn't quite the same as a rotating tumbler. So I actually set it aside, intending to do a little more research. A few years later, just as I was planning to sell it, I figured out how to use my tumbling stones. And the vibrating tumbler turned out to be the perfect tumbler when using the stones.

1 lb capacity "kiddie" rock rotary tumbler. $30 at a toy store. The motor is a noisy little beast.

"Kiddie" rotary tumblers:
  • usually the least expensive rotary tumblers ($20 - $30)
  • very noisy
  • because of the plastic barrel, they won't stain polymer clay like some of the rubber barrels have been known to do
  • small capacity
  • barrel has built-in ribs which promotes tumbling

3 lb capacity Lortone 3A rotary tumbler. $65 at a lapidary store. Blissfully quiet.

Rotary tumblers:

  • rubber barrel tumblers cushion the material so offer a more quite operation
  • rotary action is close to what nature does
  • processing times are slower than with vibrating tumblers
  • better at rounding shapes and corners than vibrating tumblers
  • barrels require being sealed during operation
  • more readily available
  • tend to be viewed as more reliable, steady, kinda of the tortoise of the tumbling machines.

3 qt capacity vibratory Hornady. $65 at a gun store.

Vibrating tumblers:

  • are a little less common, a little less online info on them
  • can be pricier, though for my purposes, the low end ones are comparable in price to standard rotary tumblers, especially if you check out gun stores
  • some brands can be more complicated to operate (e.g gyroc brand)
  • known to process times 3-5 times faster than rotary tumblers
  • less likely to round corners, shape the material, etc.
  • can operate while open
  • operationally, need to be checked more often (but that applies more to rock tumbling than polymer clay tumbling)

After you have the tumbler and the polymer clay beads, you need to choose the abrading material - the stuff that will grind smooth the surface of your beads. Most common options are smooth rocks or sand paper. Click on the links below to learn how to use those materials to tumble sand your beads.

Some ask if they can use loose grit, the material used to tumble smooth rocks. In the tests I did, the loose grit embedded in the surface of polymer clay. So I wouldn't recommend using loose grit.

General Rotating Tumbler Sanding Info

From what I can tell, there are basically two types of rock tumblers; rotary (like your clothes dryer) and vibratory. I got the models you see above.

So far, if the kiddie tumbler didn't make such an annoyingly loud noise and had such a small capacity, I'd use those exclusively! They're great for doing polymer clay beads, IMHO.

One key factor to know, the rotate tumbling process is much slower than sanding by hand... per bead. But if you're staring at a big pile of beads and feel your hands trying to leap off at the wrist at the thought of that much labor, you may not mind the tumbling pace. Vibrate tumbling is supposed to be faster.

Sanding many little objects is generally tedious and mindless, a perfect task for a machine. And the time you recouped by handing over the task to a machine, you can use to relax or make more beads!

Good tumbling is dependent on some factors that may be new to you, but perhaps vaguely familiar, if you do a lot of laundry!

Your clothes dryer likely has 3-4 'fins' inside. These fins help the clothes tumble over each other instead of just sliding along the bottom of the drum. Rotary tumblers have various ways to promote tumbling. It's important to make sure you don't suppress or interfere with your tumbler's ability to work effectively.

Carefully read whatever documentation you can get your hands on about your tumbler and tumbling. Here's one really good online reference site by Alan Silverstein:

There's nothing better than having a great tool when you need it.


Last update to this page: 21 Oct 07. Send comments, questions or suggestions to Desiree McCrorey.