Vibratory Case Cleaners vs Wet Case Tumblers

Vibratory Case Cleaners vs Wet Case Tumblers

With so many decisions to be made about presses, dies and components, how you clean your brass probably isn’t something you’ve given a whole lot of thought too; particularly if you’re just learning to reload for the first time.  While it may not be the first thing you think about, it’s still worth considering.  If you were to ask 100 reloaders how they do it, my guess is nearly all would tell you they use a vibratory cleaner.  Vibratory cleaners have been with us for a long, long time, and they certainly do a respectable job– but are they really the best method out there?

Although wet tumbling systems aren’t exactly new, they’ve definitely seen a substantial increase in popularity and uptake in the last decade as major manufacturers like Lyman and Frankford Arsenal have begun producing affordable, quality tumblers.  With the rise of online shopping, wet tumblers are also much easier to find and purchase than has previously been the case, particularly for folks in areas with limited retail shopping options.  With all of that in mind, let’s take a look at these two technologies and discuss the pros and cons of each.

Vibratory Cleaners

Beginning with vibratory cleaners, these essentially consist of a large plastic or metal bowl mounted on top of a vibrating base.  Dirty casings are loaded into the bowl with tumbling media and mechanically agitated to scrub the cases clean.  Although the cleaner itself contains no moving parts, the vibratory action coupled with the differences in density between the casings and media, as well as the domed shape of the bowl, pushes them up the sides of the bowl to the surface, where they’re subsequently pulled back underneath the media again in a circulatory fashion.  It’s a simple design that works surprisingly well.

There are several major pros to vibratory cleaners, first among them is the price.  You can purchase one of these for between 1/3 and 1/2 the price of a wet tumbler.  Considering how many hundreds of thousands of these are out there, savvy shoppers can also save considerable money purchasing one used from folks looking to retire from the hobby, or upgrading to a newer or larger model.

The second major advantage to vibratory cleaning is selection.  A number of companies produce different types of media including crushed corncob and ground walnut, as well as treated medias that contain polish or waxing agents designed to protect your brass.  Reloaders in communities with relatively few firearms retailers are much more likely to be able to find these types of media than the stainless steel pins used for wet tumbling.

The third advantage is cleanup.  Unlike wet tumblers that require you to dry and separate your brass, as well as dispose of the water and detergent, with a vibratory system you simply pull the cases out, and they’re ready to reload.

Vibratory cleaning probably sounds pretty good so far (and it is), but there are also some cons to be considered.  The biggest without a doubt is performance.  Dry media does a solid job of scrubbing away lead and carbon residue, but can really struggle with tough or caked on deposits as well the smaller or narrower areas of casings such as the inside edges of the base or primer pocket.  Likewise, even with treated media or added polish like Brasso, vibratory cleaning just can’t remove tarnishing, stains or corrosion the same way wet tumbling does.

The second major drawback to vibratory cleaning is one very few people consider, and that’s lead dust.  While most reloaders are at least somewhat conscious of the fact that indoor ranges and bullet casting expose us to lead, the fact is that the dust thrown up from this type of cleaner is just loaded with it.  That dust ends up filling the air you’re breathing, and covering the area the cleaner operates in.  While people with the requisite space and security often address this by running their cleaner outside, or in the garage, for some folks that’s simply not practical.

Lastly there’s the need to replace and dispose of the tumbling media.  Whether you’re using corn cob or walnut, vibratory media needs to be refreshed regularly to ensure your cases are getting a good, thorough clean.  When you finally decide to dispose of it, it’s severely contaminated with lead, further increasing your exposure.

Now that we’ve covered the pros and cons of vibratory cleaning, lets do the same for wet tumbling.

Wet Tumblers

Wet tumblers are basically water tight drums made from either metal, or plastic that spin on top of a motorized base.  Dirty brass is loaded into the drum with water, a detergent or cleaning fluid, stainless steel media, and sometimes a polish or waxing agent.

The rotational action of the drum causes the mixture to both mechanically and chemically clean brass.  As the metal pins scratch carbon, lead and other grunge from the surface of the casings, the detergent and additives work on a chemical level to remove the tarnish, staining and corrosion.

The first pro of wet tumbling is obvious, and that’s the incredible job it does cleaning.  The combination of hard, abrasive stainless steel media as well as the chemical reactions taking place in the tumbler ensures that even the filthiest and most corroded brass come out looking factory new.  Cases I would have abandoned as lost causes with my vibratory system are no problem at all with my wet tumbler.

The second major advantage is that it’s far safer in terms of exposure to lead.  Because the lead dust is trapped in the water, it never gets airborne, which means you don’t have to worry about breathing it in.  This also means that you can run the wet tumbler in your home without having to worry about contaminating your living space.  That’s a major advantage if you’re living in an apartment or other location where leaving equipment outside just isn’t possible.

The third advantage to wet tumbling is long term savings.  While it’s true that the initial investment for a wet tumbling system is two to three times that of a vibratory cleaner, the savings from not having to replenish your media are substantial, particularly if you use expensive treated media.  Five pounds of stainless steel pins will last virtually forever, as they never corrode or wear out.  Even if you lose some over the years, refresher packs are very reasonable.

As with vibratory cleaning, there are still some cons to wet tumbling.  The first is naturally the price.  As discussed earlier, the initial investment is substantial.  I generally try to stay away from dollar values with these articles as prices fluctuate so frequently, but you can expect to pay two to three times more for a wet tumbling system than you would a vibratory model.

The second problem with wet tumbling is mess.  Everything comes out soaking wet as you can probably imagine, which means you need to do a lot of this work with a sink, or in a bucket.  Likewise the brass itself needs to be dried, which means you can’t just clean 500 cases and then immediately reload them.

The last con is fairly minor, but I still feel the need to mention it, and that’s the media separation in the wet tumbling process.  This takes considerable time and effort, particularly when compared to that of a vibratory system.  Surface tension causes many of the pins to stick to the inside of the brass, necessitating their removal prior to reloading.  A number of companies make media separators for this purpose, but to be perfectly honest I haven’t found any of them really does a job I consider satisfactory, so I usually just end up doing it by hand.  It’s not difficult, but it is time consuming, as I have to shake the media out of each case a few at a time.

Having used both methods for a number of years, I have to admit I’m pretty squarely in the wet tumbling camp, but again both methods work well and it really comes down to personal choice.

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