A fossil preparation laboratory contains specialized tools, equipment and materials that enable the preparator to complete the exacting tasks required to both expose the fossil and to preserve it for future generations.
The precise make-up of the lab will depend on space, budget, and the number of people working there, but the ideal lab setup will allow for some segregation of the various types of activities involved in fossil preparation along the following lines:
“Dirty” space – The ‘dirty’ space is where specimens collected in the field will be brought, matrix removed and larger specimens made ready for study and exhibit. Other activities done here include molding and casting of specimens so that copies can be exhibited or shared with other institutions. The ‘dirty’ space should include adequate bench-space and sand boxes for larger specimens. It is very useful to have these on wheels for flexible use of the space.
“Gray” space – This too is a workspace where activities such as micropreparation, which requires a clean, quiet area for preparation of small, delicate specimens in a controlled environment can take place somewhat separated from the main lab traffic. It should be equipped with a workbench space for at least one microscope, a compressed air supply, a vacuum for dust and localized fume extraction. Convenient storage for tools and materials is important, as is a means of sharpening needles with a bench grinder and smaller rotary tools fitted with diamond wheels. This lab should have at least one dedicated space with appropriate lighting for imaging specimens (i.e. a ‘sweep’ or copy stand for photographing small to medium sized specimens). Activities such as specimen conservation, and packing and unpacking of specimens to be loaned or exhibited should also take place in this area. Ideally a large table with nearby storage for materials and tools should be maintained in good order for these tasks.
“Clean” space – A dedicated ‘clean’ space should be kept as an office space with desks, chairs, bookcases, and computers (with internet connection) for the various documentation and research tasks associated with preparation.
Setting up and outfitting a new lab is estimated to cost at least $20-30,000 but expenses will vary widely depending on the location. Download the floorplans and workstation diagrams from the Chicago Field Museum’s prep labs to see an example layout. See the section on Equipment & Tools for additional information. Below are recommendations on lab infrastructure requirements based on the advice of a number of preparators.
The lab needs to be well-lit. There should be even, bright overall ambient light with moveable/portable lighting for specific tasks. Ideally there should be some natural light as well.
Temperature and relative humidity in the lab should be controlled not only for human comfort, but to reduce ageing of prep materials and compounds as well as the specimens themselves. Keeping relative humidity low is important for specimens that are susceptible to conditions such as “pyrite disease”.
Because of the variety of incompatible activities that go on in a lab, space must be allowed for both ‘clean and quiet’ and ‘dirty, noisy, and noxious’ prep activities. There needs to be at least some separation of these spaces. Ideally the prep lab needs to be situated near, but not actually in, collection storage for safe and easy transport of specimens.
A compressed air delivery system is necessary to power prepration tools. This needs to be of the right air capacity, with many convenient outlets, and air dryers and filters in place. Ideally the compressor for the system should be located somewhere outside of the lab to cut down on noise.
Good ventilation is a key element to setting up a safe working environment as dust generated by mechanical preparation, fumes from solvents and casting materials, and the gasses generated by chemical preparation can all cause health problems if not properly ventilated. If the room has a centralized vacuum system a remote hopper is extremely useful. Any compressors should be located outside of the workspace since the noise of these two systems can become overwhelming.
- Dust vacuuming systems - ideally this should be a centralized system with the motor and dust hopper located remotely to cut down on noise. If a central system is not possible, then portable vacuums can be used.
- Fume extraction system - a system of “elephant trunks” for fume extraction may be sufficient, but there should also be a minimum of one large fume hood.
See the Health & Safety section of this site under Resources for more information on dust and download the 2008 SVP presentation by Heather Finlayson on installing an efficient dust collection and ventilation system.
Storage - Specimen and storage cabinets
Different types of cabinets will be necessary for storage of specimens as well as storage of materials.
- Specimen storage - See the Storage page in the Paleontology Portal Collection Management module for specimen cabinet vendors.
- Equipment & tool storage - Adequate, convenient and secure storage spaces for all tools and equipment must be included in the lab design, and this should include secure storage for individual tools that are not shared.
A water source and sink are necessary for both prep activities and cleanup.
Workstations for preparators need to be comfortable and convenient, with sufficient space for tools, microscopes, portable lighting, and specimen layout. Floor surfaces and counter tops should be clean, smooth, and well sealed to allow for containment of fossil fragments.
Appropriate desks, chairs, bookshelves, and filing cabinets are necessary for the conducting the various documentation tasks associated with preparation.
Nowadays a computer and digital camera are essential equipment for any preparator, these are necessary to keep effective records of activities performed on each specimen and as well as to communicate with researchers and other preparators.
A digital camera should have the highest megapixel possible, as photographs may be enlarged on the computer to look at fine details. If possible it should attach directly to microscope so that photographs can be taken of minute details.
A computer is needed for writing reports documenting techniques and materials used on each specimen, and processing images, networking with colleagues.
Health & safety equipment
Some vendor/source information is given below. This is done solely to provide examples and does not imply endorsement.
Flammable materials storage cabinet
Solvents like acetone, ethanol, and many casting materials are flammable. This cabinet should be vented, either to the outside or through a fume hood, to prevent a buildup of toxic and flammable fumes.
A fume hood is necessary to safety conduct a number of basic tasks including mixing adhesives with organic solvents such as acetone or ethanol, molding and casting, and chemical preparation. All casting materials give off toxic fumes and can be hazardous to the health of the worker. The hood should be at least 6 ft in length to contain fumes from the largest casting project.
Mobile or stationary dust collector with "elephant trunk"
The removal of sand or rock matrix from the specimen creates quite a lot of dust, breathing this dust long term can be harmful to the preparator. A dust collector will remove the fine particles of dust from the air creating healthier conditions. Localized “elephant trunks” that can be used at individual workstations are also essential in providing fume extraction for molding and casting projects that are too big to fit in a fume hood.
Personal protective equipment
Safety glasses, dust masks, hearing protection, respirators gloves - atlas brand gloves are great, reusable gloves that breathe.
HEPA vacuum with variable speed control
A vacuum like the Nilfisk GM80 HEPA vacuum is extremely useful for cleaning exhibits and the lab in general as the HEPA filtration provides the highest filtration ensuring that dust does not recirculate into the lab. With the addition of the microtool attachment kit, the vacuum can also be used to clean specimens, as well as the variable speed attachment allows for good control of suction levels.
- Download floorplans and workstation diagrams from the Chicago Field Museum’s prep labs.
- Access additional recommendations on the Equipment & Tools required for macro- and micro-preparation activities.
- For vendor information for some of the items listed on this page click here.
- For a complete manual with detailed information on tools, equipment and workspaces for the mechanical preparation of microfossils download Wax On, Wax Off: A Guide to Fossil Vertebrate Micropreparation by Scott Madsen. This document covers a wide range of topics including:
- Preparation of Small Vertebrate Fossils is a manual written by Peter Parks in 1972 with detailed information that is still valuable today with details on mechanical tools and techniques and other aspects of preparation.