High school students with an interest in dental laboratory technology can seek out courses and activities that allow exploration of ceramics, metal casting and soldering, molding, and the related skills practiced by dental laboratory technicians. In addition, a local dentist or school counselor may be able to recommend a technician or laboratory in the area that the student might visit in order to get a firsthand idea of the work involved.
Check out What's in Your Mouth? (http://dentallabs.org), a helpful Web site from the National Association of Dental Laboratories that provides information on careers and dental laboratories, including videos of lab technicians at work.
Part-time or summer jobs as laboratory helpers may be available to high school students. Such positions usually consist of picking up and delivering work to dentists' offices, but they may also provide a chance for the student to observe and assist practicing dental laboratory technicians. Students in dental laboratory technology training programs often have part-time jobs that develop into full-time technician positions upon graduation.
Interested students may also call their state dental laboratory association or a local commercial laboratory to find out when seminars and lectures are held. By attending such events, a student can learn more about dental laboratory issues and techniques, and can also talk with laboratory technicians.
Dental laboratory technicians often find that their talents and preferences lead them toward one particular type of work in their field. The broad areas of specialization open to them include full and partial dentures, crowns and bridges, ceramics, and orthodontics.
Complete dentures, also called false teeth or plates, are worn by people who have had all their teeth removed on the upper or lower jaw, or both jaws. Applying their knowledge of oral anatomy and restoration, denture specialists carefully position teeth in a wax model for the best occlusion (how the upper and lower teeth fit together when the mouth is closed), and then build up wax over the denture model. After the denture is cast in place, they clean and buff the product, using a bench lathe equipped with polishing wheels. When repairing dentures, they may cast plaster models of replacement parts and match the new tooth's color and shape to the natural or adjacent teeth. They cast reproductions of gums, fill cracks in dentures, and rebuild linings using acrylics and plastics. They may also bend and solder wire made of gold, platinum, or other metals, and sometimes fabricate wire using a centrifugal casting machine.
Removable partial dentures, often called partials, restore missing teeth for patients who have some teeth remaining on the jaw. The materials and techniques in their manufacture are similar to those for full dentures. In addition, wire clasps are mounted to anchor the partial denture to the remaining teeth, yet allow it to be removed for cleaning. Fixed partial dentures serve the same purpose as removable ones, but are cemented to the adjacent teeth rather than anchored by clasps.
Crown and bridge specialists restore the missing parts of a natural tooth to recreate it in its original form. Fixed partial dentures, made of plastics and metal, are sometimes called fixed bridgework because they are permanently cemented to the natural part of the tooth and are not removable. A crown is permanently cemented to a single tooth. Technicians in this area are skilled at melting and casting metals. Waxing (building up wax around the setup before casting) and polishing the finished appliance are also among their responsibilities.
Some dental laboratory technicians are porcelain specialists, known as dental ceramicists. They fabricate natural-looking replacements to fit over natural teeth or to replace missing ones. Many patients concerned with personal appearance seek porcelain crowns, especially on front teeth. The ability to match color exactly and to delicately shape teeth is crucial for these technicians. To create crowns, bridges, and tooth facings (veneers), dental ceramicists apply multiple layers of mineral powders to a metal base and fuse the materials in an oven. The process is repeated until the result conforms exactly to specifications. Ceramicists must know and understand all phases of dental technology and possess natural creative abilities. Because they require the highest level of knowledge and talent, ceramicists are generally the best paid dental technicians.
Orthodontics, the final area of specialization for dental laboratory technicians, involves bending wire into intricate shapes and soldering wires into complex positions. Orthodontic technicians shape, grind, polish, carve, and assemble metal and plastic appliances. Although tooth-straightening devices such as retainers, positioners, and tooth bands are not considered permanent, they may have to stay in place for several years.
Dental laboratory technicians may work in a general or full-service laboratory, a category that includes nearly half of all dental laboratories. Or they may find employment with a laboratory that performs specialized services. Most specialized laboratories are concerned with the various uses of a particular material. For example, one specializing in acrylics is likely to make complete and partial dentures; another laboratory that does gold work will make gold inlays and bridges.
The lab's size may be related to the kinds of tasks its technical employees perform. Some large commercial laboratories may have staffs of 50 or more, allowing for a high degree of specialization. On the other hand, technicians working in a one- or two-person private laboratory may be called on to do a wide range of jobs.