Ken Nelsen Finds Inner Beauty in the Ordinary

Ken Nelsen's over-sized rock tumblers are center stage in his workshop.


By Kathalina Hoffman, Northwest Christian High School Intern to ThurstonTalk

Ken Nelsen's over-sized rock tumblers are center stage in his workshop.
Ken Nelsen’s over-sized rock tumblers are center stage in his workshop.

From the outside, Ken Nelsen’s Tumwater house appears somewhat ordinary. However, upon entering, you will find it to be anything but. Spheres in an array of colors and sizes line the windows and occupy the shelves. Approximately 140 cut, shaped, and polished rock and mineral orbs hold residency inside Nelsen’s seemingly ordinary walls, turning the inside of his home into something remarkable.

The wonder does not stop there. His garage, or “the workshop” as he likes to call it, is teeming with an energy that is audible, even from the outside.

Ken’s garage has two rooms, both of which put parking as a second priority. The first holds five massive, homemade rock tumblers (hence the noise), the biggest built by Ken himself. Ken Nelsen is a rock tumbler:  an artist who finds exquisite beauty in the mundane. In multiple buckets and sprawled across the countertops are beautifully polished rocks bearing every color and design imaginable. Tucked away in cabinets are precious stones of exotic beauty that glisten when shown in the light of day.

It doesn’t stop there. The next room is where Ken’s true passion takes its shape – literally.  Almost perfectly round rocks are scattered about the room, waiting to be ground down into a perfect sphere before being polished to perfection. Over the years, Ken estimates he has polished over 200 spheres.

Ken Nelsen has an amazing collection of polished spheres on display in his house.
Ken Nelsen has an amazing collection of polished spheres on display in his house.

Ken Nelson’s passion for rock tumbling started in the 1950s at the bottom of a pit, digging for sapphires in Montana. His hobby started off small as a silversmith working with semi-precious stones. Later, he purchased his first rock tumbler. Then in 1988 he began making spheres. It wasn’t until 1990, when Ken retired, that his hobby transformed itself into the passion it is today.

Once retired, Ken and his wife Helen set off across the United States in search of beautiful rocks in the rough with nothing to guide them but a book.  Ken proudly states, “I’ve gathered 90 percent of all my rocks myself, about 35-40 tons over the years. Of course I’ve bought a few.”

Every year since retiring, Ken and Helen make a trip to Quartzite, Arizona, for the biggest rock show in the United States. There, rocks from all over the world can be bought and sold. Some of Ken’s more interesting purchases include Fire Opal from Australia, Star Granite from India, Crazy Lace agates from Mexico, natural Asbestos from Russia, Unakite from Africa, agates from Brazil, and Ocean Jasper from Madagascar.

He has also collected rocks and precious stones himself from all 48 continental states (he claims to have no interest in Alaska or Hawaii). The more memorable finds have been White Quartz in California, Pink Zebra in Utah, Lilypad in Oregon, Purple Sage in Wyoming, and Plume Agate from a now restricted zone in Death Valley.

While searching for the perfect rocks to tumble, Ken has made a few interesting finds. He has accidentally dug up fully intact fossils, purchased glass-gold stone that was made by monks in Italy, and came across a few meteorites. His best find, in his opinion, is a fossilized dinosaur dropping that he turned into a sphere. He jokingly disregards the find and complains on the quality of the sphere insisting, “It’s a real shame!”

Finding, polishing, and sharing rocks is Ken Nelsen's passion.
Finding, polishing, and sharing rocks is Ken Nelsen’s passion.

Rock tumbling, although not widely known, is not an uncommon interest. You do not have to be a “Ken Nelsen” to enjoy the hobby. Tumbling rocks is a fairly easy process with a large supply of patience as the main requirement. The rock tumbler itself is a cylinder placed sideways on a tumbler that spins the container. A mixture of grit, water, and the desired rocks are left to tumble for three to five weeks. Every week the grit inside is rinsed out and replaced with a softer, more powdery one until, during the final week when a polisher is substituted.

Rock tumbling is a fun and interesting hobby that is easy for anyone to do. You do not have to go far to find rocks that emerge transformed when tumbled. Everywhere you go, even in your backyard, there are different types of rocks with an inner beauty waiting to be discovered.

Growing up, I was a rock collector. Everywhere I went I insisted on taking a few home with me. When I received my first rock tumbler as a gift for my twelfth birthday, a new perspective emerged for my sought out treasures. I could now transform my findings into colorful, smooth handfuls of precious bobbles. I could take something ordinary and turned it into something extraordinary right inside my garage.

Through all his years, family has been the most important part of Ken’s life. He discovered tumbling from his father-in-law and has shared his passion with his own parents. His wife Helen used to make jewelry out of the little precious rocks and gems he tumbled, but has now, like Ken, retired.

When the day comes that Ken is unable to continue his hobby – “Not any time soon!” he insists – his son will be there to follow in his father’s footsteps. Ken’s joy for rock tumbling will be passed on through generations as members of his family continue to reveal the inner beauty in the ordinary.


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