tumbled beads 01

Like so many of you, I LOVE the look of sanded polymer clay pieces. But, also like pretty much everybody – I HATE sanding polymer. It’s messy, it hurts – especially when you sand your fingertips…yes, I have – and it’s boring. AND….if like me….you have issues with chronic pain it is very painful to do the amount of sanding needed for production work. Over the years I have tried several techniques to get the look I want without putting myself into a heightened state of pain.

Many years ago I stumbled across Desiree McCory’s site that described how to use a rotary tumbler and sandpaper to sand beads. I used her techniques for several years but found the process very labor intensive. There HAD to be a better way. I think I have finally found that better way.

I use a rotary tumbler with plastic media cones from Rio Grande followed by rotary buffing using jean scraps. The media that I been using is the “Standard Plastic Pyramid Media” in Blue, Medium and Green, Fine Cut along with the “Standard Plastic Cone Media, Extra Fine Cut”. I find that this process makes sanding beads a breeze. If I want a bit more gloss to the bead I ‘paint’ on Armor-All Car Finish. I really like the finish I get and it is easy-peasy and pain-free.

I have cheapo tumblers from Harbor Freight, but I’m sure that this process will also work with Lortone tumblers. The black rubber drums can stain/yellow polymer so they must be lined.
Tall yogurt/sFinishing 05our cream/ricotta containers work well. Liners may need to be cut down the sides to fit the tumbler container. Cut a circle out of the liner’s lid to fit on top. You don’t want any of the black rubber touching the clay. Load the tumbler starting with a handful of plastic media, then beads, then more media, more beads until it the contents are about an inch below the top of the container.

Fill with water leaving about half an inch free to allow for media and beads to move around the container.Finishing 04
You can start with either the blue or the green media depending on the smoothness of pieces.

I usually let the tumbler run for 12 – 24 hours on each media grit. I have not found that a longer time does any damage to the pieces. After the tumbler has been run pour the contents into a colander and rinse. Make sure to clean the liner and barrel between grits.

Finishing 07

To buff by tumbler you need to cut up a pair of old jeans or purchase denim – some suggest using white denim – into 1 – 2 inch square pieces. Layer the jeans and the beads as before but you will be tumbling these dry. I allow this stage to run for between 12 – 18 hours. Again, it doesn’t hurt to run it longer and you can probably run it for as little as 8 hours.

I have seen some post recently that people are using polished rocks. I haven’t tried this yet and would be interested if anyone can share some before and after shots.

I’ll post some other alternatives to hand sanding in my next post.


I have worked with polymer clay for over 18 years. My work has been featured in books and magazines. I have won national and international awards for my pieces. I sell my work at local Fine Craft Shows, in a few Vermont Galleries, Breweries & Home Brew Shops in several states, and on Etsy. I love polymer clay as a medium because it can be used in so many ways.I love experimenting with its properties and the various ways it can be used to create all types of artful and functional pieces.


Susan Reed · February 1, 2015 at 9:08 pm

Cindy Lietz posted a video using a method similar to this in March 2013, and I have have been using her method ever since. The main difference between her method and yours is that she uses 3mm porcelain beads for buffing. This works beautifully with Premo, but I have had problems with Fimo. I would get a white haze covering the bead that will only come off with hand sanding at low grits. I am, however, experimenting with only tumbling the Fimo beads for 6 hours each round, and so far, I have not found the white coating happening.

    Mags Bonham · February 2, 2015 at 11:38 pm

    Hi Susan,
    Yes, I have seen Cindy’s video on tumbling, but I have been doing this for a lot longer than her video. I’m not sure what would be causing the white haze on your beads. I don’t work with a lot of Fimo, so I have no experience with that. Do you get the haze on any of the other grits? Also, do you line your tumbler with the plastic container as I recommend? If not, it might be an interaction between the tumbler material, the polymer, and the porcelain beads. If the hazing only happens after the tumbling with he porcelain beads then I would suggest you use the denim pieces instead. Let me know if you have any success.

      Susan Reed · February 3, 2015 at 1:53 pm

      The problem happens mostly with Fimo and to a less effect on Kato. Yes, I do line my tumbler with a yogurt container and it happens after the first grit. I have tested for many of the variables except timing and not using any dish detergent to cut surface tension. (Rereading your procedures, you don’t mention using any dish detergent.)

      Cindy and I had a bit of a discussion about this in the comment section for that video on her website (not YouTube) and our best guess is that Fimo reacts differently with long term exposure to water or the water and detergent combo than other brands of clay.

      I recently tried doing a set of Fimo beads using each grit/porcelain beads for six hours per round instead of 24 and I had no hazing or color fading. However, the beads were not as smooth as I would get from running each round for 24 hours. So perhaps I can keep increasing the time somewhat until I start to have a problem with the hazing and step back an hour or two from that.

      I also tried using the river rock method with the Fimo beads for 8 hours (followed by porcelain beads for 6 hours) and that worked as well as using the plastic pellets for 6 hours. It smoothed the beads, but not the level of smoothness I like to get. I would like to find smaller pebbles to use for a second round.

      Even with the six hours, I can probably do minimal hand sanding and get the result I want.

      I used Fimo almost exclusively for quite a while and have a lot of beads that need sanding. Since I started to use the plastic pellets in a tumbler, I’ve switched to using Premo for most of my rounded beads.

      When I can get to a fabric store, I will pick up some white denim and try that as well. Since that uses dry tumbling, I wouldn’t have any issues with reaction to water.

      Thanks for your advice.

        Mags Bonham · February 3, 2015 at 2:33 pm

        Try skipping the brown grit.I use the blue green,green,and then a yellow that is probably similar to the white balls. The brown might be sanding it too much.and you don’t need to use white denim. I just cut up old faded blue jeans. I don’t use soap. I used to use glycerine but I ran out one time and didn’t see a difference. So try the 2 greens,white balls,then jeans and let me know how it goes.I’m in the middle of a project,but I’ll try it when I get a chance. Another tip is to use Armor-All as a final coating. I got that tip from Kathleen Dustin.I spray a bunch on container of beads, rub it in with my hands and then let the beads sit overight or longer. Apparently the polymer chemistry is similar and it bonds with the clay.

          Susan Reed · February 4, 2015 at 3:36 pm

          Thanks again for the advice. I’ll give it a try when I next have a set of Fimo beads to run.

          I see you will be a Cabin Fever. Perhaps I will see you there.

          Mags Bonham · February 4, 2015 at 4:20 pm

          Oh good….I look forward to meeting you!

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