Monday, October 13, 2014

Tumble Etching Lampwork Beads

If you're a lampworker, you know that etching beads makes them have a smooth, matte finish.  Many people like this surface technique.  I am going to tell you about a technique to tumble etch your lampwork beads!

Sold Beads from Etsy

In 2012, I purchased a baroque-shaped beadroller from CG Beads, and started making this style of bead - I first offered them at Bead Fest, and then offered them in my etsy shop. And then I moved on, to different shapes with this finish, on and off for two years now.  These beads are etched with Etch-All, and acid-based etch solution.  While it works fine, it's...well...acid, and I wanted to get away from that.  Enter Soda Lime Times - a great digital magazine pubished monthly by subscription or single issues for lampworkers by lampworkers (in particular, Diane Woodall).  Jim Smirsich's technique for tumble etching beads was published in 2013.  Diane is kindly allowing me to share the information with you.

Using a dedicated tumbler (which you can purchase at Harbor Freight and use their 20% off coupon to save some money), add a couple of packages of glass seed beads (size 5/0 or 6/0) - they don't have to be expensive, because they are going to be doing a lot of work (I purchased mine at JoAnn's).  Also add about a tablespoon of grit - Jim teaches using silicon carbide grit size 1000; I tried using beach sand and it did not work for me.  Kingsley North sells silicon carbide.

 Add your beads to the tumbler, and add some water, to just cover the beads.  You can tumble for as long as you want - I would recommend experimenting on tumbling time, because there are different finishes you can achieve - a luster appearance all the way to a full etch.

 Tumbler in Action

Here are the results of my experimentation with this method. This first bead photo is to show you how etching with acid looks - it etches the whole bead, including the nooks and crannies.

Here are beads I made in the baroque style I made in 2012 unetched.

Here is a photo of the beads etched in the tumbler, for about 4 hours.
You can see the wonderful satin-smooth finish they get.  The only thing about tumble etching is that it doesn't get into the nooks and crannies of beads; you may or may not like that.

More beads etched with tumbler:
The last set in the photo (green) was made with enamel powder - notice that it etches the enamel powder as well.

I decided to try and etch some of my round swirl beads, as well as some smooth focals.

The finish on these beads is so smooth and satiny - it's a little bit different than using the etch acid liquid - it feels much smoother to the touch.  An added bonus is that you don't have to scrub these beads with a toothbrush and water to get the white schmutz (technical term) off the bead that the acid etch sometimes leaves behind.

More beads:

I have to mention that the beads in the top two collages are amazingly smooth to the touch - I feel the tumble etching makes the beads just a bit more elegant than not tumbling or using acid etch.  The black southwest style bead in the third photo is just amazing!  I did not care very much for how the beads in the last photo turned out - I think that the beads that are opaque look better.  If you notice in the last photo, the goldstone band on the top did not etch - these beads were in the tumbler for 2 hours - I'm not sure if it would etch if I left the beads in overnight.

So there you have it - tumble etching beads provides a beautiful finish to your beads, and I really like the fact that I don't have to use chemicals to get the effect.  If you had a bead that had a lot of texture or dots, you would probably still want to use the acid etch, but if not, this is a great technique.

Diane Woodall also told me that if you would like, you can get a sample issue of Soda Lime Times, to check out and see if you would like to subscribe.  I highly recommend it!


  1. I love etched beads, probably prefer them for the most part to shiny ones. I'm glad you've found a way to do it without Acid, that's always a good thing. Thanks for sharing!!

  2. Hi Sue, thanx for sharing. It's great that you don't need to use acid to do this.

  3. I love that soft, smooth feel on etched beads. And I really like the style of the beads in your first pics. Reminds me of a turban. Great post!

  4. Very cool post! I love the etched style you've created!

  5. You know how much I love those etched beads. This is so cool that you have a way to do them without acid! Great post! xo

  6. I love etched beads and this is a wonderful, non-chemical way to achieve that look.

  7. This is so cool and informative! I love the effect, especially on those baroque ones!

  8. I just started playing with tumble etching and I like that it doesn't etch the nooks and crannies for certain styles of beads. You got some great results!

  9. ONG! What a great way to etch! The cost of Etch-All has sky rocketed, and is difficult to find. I have an extra drum, and am going to do this!


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