Electric Engravers for Fossil Preparation
Electric engravers offer an affordable start in fossil preparation. They are a great idea if you're just getting started and there's no need to invest in a dedicated workspace or an air compressor without first finding out if you actually enjoy the hobby of fossil preparation. Simply plug into the mains, and off you go (of course wearing an appropriate dust mask and safety goggles!). Air tools are considered the gold-standard in fossil preparation, offering more power, more delicacy and a much more comfortable user experience, but aren't accessible or possible to everyone.
The downside of these electric engravers is that they are really only designed for metal or plastic engraving. Being electric powered, rather than pneumatic, they don't have too much power and the stylus provided in-the-box is always going to be a poor choice for fossil prepping - it's too fat, the wrong shape and will blunt extremely quickly. We make specific fossil preparation styli that convert the Dremel 290 electric engraver into a fossil preparation tool. We also make custom tips for the Record Power Engravers.
No need for an air compressor
Very little space required
Portable and packs away easily
- You learn whether you actually enjoy fossil prep
- Lots of fossils can be prepped with an engraver
Less powerful but also less delicate than air tools
Work is slow and requires patience due to lack of power
- Not comfortable to use compared to an air pen
Vibrations may damage fossils
Motor may overheat. Regular breaks required.
Health and safety implications with the vibration
How do electric engravers work in fossil preparation?
Electric engravers have a reciprocating or percussive action, which essentially means that the movement is back-and-forth rather than rotary. You will have heard the word 'Dremel' being used a lot when talking about beginner level fossil prep, but it is not the rotary tools that people are using. The Dremel model in use is the 290 electric engraver which acts like a tiny hammer and chisel.
What type of electric engraver should I use?
We stock the Dremel 290 and make tips to fit because it is widely available in almost every country, configured to the local electrics in terms of voltage and plug type. This means that international (non-UK) customers can purchase the Dremel 290 locally and then order our fossil preparation styli separately, saving both on shipping and re-wiring!
Ferrex Electrical Engraver from Aldi -NOTE: newer versions no longer fit the same tips as the Dremel 290.
Dremel 290 Electric Engraver
Record Power Electric Engraver (used to be known as the Burgess engraver)
Brennenstuhl Sinograph electric engraver. Similar idea to the Record Power.
Prepping an Ammonite with the Dremel 290 Electric Engraver
Some tips for beginners!
Setting up your workspace and getting ready to prep
There are a few things you'll need to know and have prepared before you start prepping! The first thing you really must know is that prepping fossils creates dust. Try to pick a spot like a garden shed, or work in a contained environment (it doesn't have to be fancy - a cut up cardboard box will do!). On warmer days, you might like to work outside.
For the greatest success in fossil prep, try to use a sandbag or shock absorbing surface, and use tips specially designed for fossil preparation (in this kit!). The needle pointed shape and small diameter of our ZOIC PalaeoTech nibs are designed and optimised for fossil preparation and rock removal. You'll find that you can work more quickly and more accurately with the right kit.
Lighting and Magnification
Great lighting and magnification make a world of difference to the quality of your prep. We have a variety of all-in-one magnifier lamps available. If you are working in a cold shed you might find that the lens on a magnifier fogs up as you work, and so an Optivisor (headband magnifier
Wearing the correct PPE & being safe
When working with rocks and fossils, please always wear a well-fitting medical grade dust mask. The minimum requirement would be a FFP3 or N99 mask (higher grade than FFP2 or N95) or a respirator. A mask is required is to prevent inhalation of stone dust, which is known to cause a lung condition called silicosis. Surgical masks and cloth masks are completely inappropriate and won't afford you any protection.
You should also use safety goggles to protect your eyes from flying rock chips, and you may wish to wear ear defenders. If you wear glasses, you may want to wear safety goggles over the top of them to protect them from scratches.
Another condition to be aware of is white finger - where the nerves are affected by vibration over a period of time. The Dremel vibrates quite a lot, and so should not be used for extended periods. Take frequent rest breaks, and if you have pins and needles/tingling you've done too much. Consult a doctor if you have any questions. Using a shock absorbing surface like a sandbag can help. Air pens vibrate a lot less, and so can be used for longer periods but precautions still need to be taken.
For these reasons, we don't recommend fossil prep as an activity for children. As a parent, of course this is up to you, but please do consider that it is not a 'risk-free' activity. There are all sorts of things you can do to mitigate these risks, but finding an FFP3, N99 or other suitable respirator that will be a good fit for a child might present many challenges. If you child is desperate, and you as a parent understand the risks, sorting out a very good dust extraction system might be an option for you.
Using the Dremel 290 for fossil preparation
Most fossil preparators are self-taught. A lot of trial and error is required when you are learning! To begin with, don't go anywhere near your favourite finds. Use some scrap fossils first, and work your way up. Don't be disheartened if your first few attempts are a little questionable. You will improve with time, practice and patience.
Unprepped Asteroceras from Lyme Regis, UK
Prepped Asteroceras from Lyme Regis, UK
Finishing your fossils - getting that 'professional' look
Once you've finished prepping a fossil, it won't quite look the way the ones in the shops do! Always think about how you are going to finish your matrix - do you want to smooth it? Or stipple it?
Then you have the fossil itself to consider. It may look a little dusty. Give it a rinse under a tap, let it dry and then consider using some form of enhancer to make it look its best. Our gloss varnish is great for calcite ammonites (it hides where the shell has broken and disguises dink marks). Apply carefully and then dab away most of it with kitchen roll to get a natural look. You can also use various waxes, matt varnish or a Paraloid B72 solution. We normally recommend aiming for a 'natural' level of shine. You want to restore what the fossil originally had, rather than making it look plasticky.