Most of the tools that we use in the laboratory we obtain from a major suppler of paleontology tools in Utah called, not surprisingly, Paleotools! Among these instruments are airscribes, air powered tools that function by valving air around a piston that drives a carbide needle. The needle vibrates at speeds varying from about 10,000 to over 50,000 cycles per minute. At these speeds the pin disarticulates (breaks apart) grains of rock from around the fossil without adversely affecting the fossil itself. There are different sizes of instruments depending upon the scale of the work being carried out. In the field we use the larger models such as the Mighty-Jack shown at left. On the right Ryan is using the Mighty-Jack to help remove a large femur from the quarry rock. Our pet name for this air jack is “Goliath” because it is most often found in the hands of David, Quarrymaster of Stair Quarry!
We also employ the smaller ME-9100 airscribes for removing coarse material from around the bones in the field. Shown below are a cluster of ME-9100 tools on the right. In the picture on the left, one of the 9100 tools is being used in the quarry by Elsie to free a bone from the surrounding mudstone matrix.
In the laboratory we use the ME-9100s and the smaller Paleo_Aro airscribes, shown below on the left. For close work and for cleaning microfossils and delicate fossils, we employ a variety of the Micro_Jack airscribes, shown on the right. Because of the high frequency sound produced by the airscribes, workers in the laboratory and in the field who use the tools must wear ear protection to prevent damage to their ears. Usually they choose to wear the headphones, but earplugs are also available for those who wish to wear them. They must also wear eye protection at all times when working in the lab, or in the quarries, to protect their eyes from rock fragments and such things as wire bristles (see below).
Another tool frequently used in the laboratory is a Dremel tool with a wire brush shown on the left. The Dremel tool is a small electric motor often used for working on craft projects. We use these motors almost entirely to drive a small wire brush. This is used to clean debris from the surface of the bone after the airscribes have done their work, as one of the final steps in the preparation. Because the bristles can access grooves in the bone, they are excellent for removing dirt from these grooves. Great care must be exercised to prevent scuffing the surface layer of bone with the wire brush.
Another tool we use for cleaning very important fossil finds when we want to get the best possible outcome is the microblaster. The machine is shown on the right. This tool propels an abrasive substance in an airstream at high velocity into a handpiece shown in the picture below where Rory is cleaning a maxillary of Edmontosaurus. The impact of the abrasive against the surface of the bone works like a sandblaster. If the abrasive was hard, like sand, it would quickly eat away the surface of the bone and would ruin the fossil. So we must use a substance that is quite soft. This can be limestone or dolomite or sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). The first two are relatively close to bone in hardness and can only be used with great care. We use sodium bicarbonate for most of our cleaning work.
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