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I recently completed my first fossil prep. Woohoo! As a novice, I did a lot of reading and research; trying to piece together exactly what I was supposed to do. How exactly I was supposed to "prep" the fossil and what that process entailed. While I found a wealth of information here on TFF, and other avenues, that information took a while for me to uncover and assemble into something useful. Not that the information itself wasn't useful, but uncovering a bit of info would often cause even more questions to arise. Consequently, it sometimes felt like taking 1 step forward but 3 steps back at the same time. So here is a novice guide, written by a novice, for other novices. It is intended for someone trying to figure out how to get started in Manual Fossil Preparation. The following information is what I feel is the basics of getting started in prep work based on my observations, research, and very limited experience. A quick guide to help get someone started who has been wondering what to do, but hasn't quite figured out where to start yet. Hopefully this will open up the wonderful world of fossil preparation for a few more people. :) 


 

What is Fossil Preparation? Fossil Preparation is the name given to the process of cleaning and repairing fossils. Making them more presentable for display, and revealing more diagnostic detail for study and research. Preparation at it's most basic form, is cleaning. Simply using a brush with water could be considered preparation. However, when most of us discuss fossil prep, it typically involves removing matrix. There are basically 3 ways to remove matrix from fossils. Using hand tools is generally referred to as manual preparation. Using power tools that require an air compressor, or electricity, is referred to as mechanical preparation. The third option is chemical preparation. Which, as the name implies, is using chemicals to prepare a fossil. Typically by dissolving matrix. Most people use one, two, or a combination of all three methods.


I chose to focus on Manual Preparation. In my opinion, it is the cheapest, easiest, and the most forgiving form to start with. This is where most people tend to begin their prep journey.

 

The process is pretty much the same with mechanical means. The more aggressive tools just make it go much faster. Which can lead to quicker results, but also quicker damage if done improperly. I figured it was better to cut my teeth on the cheaper, slower option, then upgrade tools if I liked it. I typically see “starter kit” recommendations for mechanical prep in the $800-$1000 USD range. You may get by with spending a little less, but it will still cost hundreds of dollars to get going. I spent less than $50 USD on my manual prep “starter kit” and you can get by with spending much less.

 

Chemical prep can work well, and can be fairly cheap. A gallon of vinegar doesn't cost much... but it can VERY easily damage the fossil if you are not careful and don't know what you are doing. Proper precautions will need to be taken as well. Most chemicals used in fossil prep pose some sort of health hazard. Also, not all chemicals will work in all situations.


 

What tools do you need to get started in Manual Prep? Anything that is sharp and can dig into the matrix that you want to remove. Seriously... Anything! There are people on TFF who started prepping with a wood nail, drywall screw, a push pin, and even a steak knife!


 

That being said, there are definitely tools that will make life easier. Listed below are ones that I found the most helpful and personally used.

 

  1. Pin Vise*

  2. Magnification Lamp

  3. Dental picks

  4. Razor Knife**

  5. Brushs

  6. Sewing Needles

  7. Scribes (Sometimes referred to as Scribers)

  8. Scratch Awls

  9. Water


 

*A word on Pin Vises... These are handy little gadgets, who's name is somewhat of a misnomer. While they are very useful for holding pins/needles and the like, they are typically sold as small hand drills, and can come with an assortment of micro drill bits. You will not need these drill bits for fossil prep, and if you can find a pin vise without the bits, it will usually cost less. They are sold by many hobby stores, or can be found online very easily. Simply put, they are handles with collets or chucks, used to hold very small things.You don't need a pin vise, but if you do purchase one, I would suggest a range of 0-.125 (1/8) inches or 0mm-3mm. This way you can hold the smallest of needles, and things up to the size of a standard rotary tool bit. Which is 1/8 inch or roughly 3mm.

 

What you put in your pin vise will vary depending on what you are prepping, but I found that a scrib(er) or engraving tip for removing bulkier matrix, and a larger sewing needle worked rather well. They come in double ended forms, or you can usually find them cheap enough to buy more than one for quick switching between tips if you desire.


 

**A word on Razor Knives... These are also known as hobby knives and are commonly referred to by a brand name that is rather “exact”. ;)  I had read people recommending to use these and how great they were to have around. I thought “Why use a razor blade on rock?” I didn't fully realize their use in fossil prep until I actually broke down and tried it. The tip of the knife can be used similar to a dental pick or needle and can slide between the layers of rock to pick it away or split it. I found that it could also be used to sculpt the matrix around the fossil. Sure it will dull quickly, but replacement blades are cheap, and it actually cut and planed the soft shale I was working with pretty well. I am sure there are more uses that I need to discover. Very handy and cheaply purchased.


 

So... How do you actually prep? Well... You remove matrix without damaging the fossil. Things can happen, but this is the ultimate goal. First you use a larger tool to remove the bulk of the matrix. Depending on the size of excess matrix, you may be using a hammer and chisel for this, or you may use something like a scratch awl. My first prep was on a brachiopod valve so the scratch awl method worked well for me. I used the awl to pick and scratch at the matrix. Removing as much as I could, as quickly as I dared.

 

Use a brush to get dust and debris out of your way. I used a small paint brush. Something that puffs air or even a little water can also work.

 

Once you start to get closer to the fossil you will want to use something finer. When I got down fairly close, I switched over to a smaller scribe tip. When I was right next to the fossil I started using the sewing needle and dental picks.

 

When you are right up against the fossil you will want to be very, very careful. Hopefully their will be a small gap between the matrix and the fossil. You can slide a dental pick, sewing needle, or tip of a razor blade in this gap and pick away the piece. Lifting it away from the fossil will hopefully cause it to flake off. If the matrix is more “sticky” you may need to painstakingly pick it off grain by grain.

 

OK. Now you know how to prep, but what do you actually prep first? My advice is...Don't start with a nice, expensive, rare, or scientifically important specimen. Don't grab the one that you have just been dying to see revealed and start poking at it. There is a learning curve to prepping. The concept is simple, but in practice it is difficult. You WILL mess up. Especially on your first try. It happens. The needle slips and scratches. That piece of matrix that looked like it was going to break away cleanly took a piece of valve with it. Practice. Build up your skills and technique, then tackle that nice fossil. Your results will be much better and you will be happier with the outcome.

 

Also, don't grab that big hash plate. Get something small that will give you a sense of completion in a few hours. A hash plate may take 10s or 100s of hours to complete. Starting with a small piece will give you a sense of completion and a much needed reward for your hard work and first try.

 

If you collect fossils, I suggest getting something that is common to the area. Something that you might even currently pass over because they are everywhere. If you purchase your fossils, look for the same type of thing. Something that is common and not too expensive. Something that is a dime a dozen. Maybe even a fragment of a larger specimen that isn't worth much monetarily because it is broken.

 

I would also suggest something that is relatively simple. Something with a lot of bones and pieces might throw you for a loop.


 

 

Here are some Tips and Tricks that I learned just in my first few hours of prep work.

 

Take your time! This is probably the most important tip I can give. Don't rush it. This process will take hours, not minutes. Even on something small like a brachiopod valve. I didn't time my first prep, but it took at least 4 hours. If you are tired, stop and give yourself a break. If you are frustrated with a piece that just doesn't seem to want to come off, move to another section to work on, and come back to it later. Rushing and frustrations cause mistakes.

 

Magnification is very helpful. I would even say necessary. I used a magnification lamp. The magnification and light combo worked great for letting me see what I was doing. Especially when working close to the fossil. I have seen others who use those magnifying visors, or even a microscope.

 

Keep your tools sharp. It sounds crazy I know. You are pushing these things into rock, and they will dull quickly, but they do work better when sharp. There is a noticeable use of less force when using a sharp tool. To borrow a philosophy from knife use... A sharp tool is a safe tool.

 

Good lighting is a must. This goes hand in hand with magnification. If you can't see what you are doing, you can't prep.

 

Wear proper safety equipment. Dust and flying debris is a real hazard. Even when using a tiny sewing needle. I would wear a dust mask and eye protection at the least. Gloves for protecting the hands from the errant dental pick/needle tip may come in handy as well.


 

Know the morphology and/or anatomy of what you are trying to prep. You need to know what you are trying to dig out of the rock and what it looks like to avoid damaging the fossil or digging into the wrong place. The pieces and parts may not be where they are supposed to be, because of the nature of the fossilization process, but you need to have a good idea of what you are looking for.

 

I wet the fossil from time to time. This isn't always an option depending on the fossil and matrix, but in my situation it helped wash away dust, bring out detail so I could better see what I was doing, and softened the matrix slightly, making it easier to prep.

 

Stone is like wood, it has grain. Look for it and use it to your advantage. Picking and poking with the grain will typically yield better results that digging across or against it.

 

Some things are not worth prepping. There I said it. Sometimes things will take way to long to prep, or are too delicate. You need to realize, and be ok with the fact, that some fossils, or part of a fossil, is better left alone. 

 

 

I'm sure I'll think of something else after posting...


 

I hope this quick little guide will encourage other novices to try fossil prep. It is an enjoyable and rewarding aspect of the fossil obsession. Seeing something revealed for the first time in millions (sometimes hundreds of millions) of years has a distinctly wonderful feeling.


 

Thanks to all those who helped get me going with their comments and suggestions in various threads. A special thanks to those that I PM'ed and asked questions of. You know who you are. ;) Your knowledge and expertise were invaluable and greatly appreciated! Comments, corrections, and constructive criticisms are always welcome! Best of luck! :)

 

 

Here is a link to my first prep that I referenced...

 

 

 


 


 

 


 

 

 

 

 

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  • Fossildude19 pinned this topic

Wayne, 

This is a great topic!

I've pinned it so that newbies should be able to find it more easily. 

Well done, sir!

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Very good, I found it informative we’re I’m thinking about trying it on some of the old fossils I found from when I was little. Thank you!

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An excellent exposition on low tech prep. One additional safety caution occurs to me - Don't wreck your hands! The repetitive movements encountered in using hand tools for prep can quickly lead to hand strain. This hazard can range from mild stiffness to serious strain that impacts function. The excitement of prep progress can cause a prepper to be distracted from early discomfort. The remedy is simple, be mindful of hand stress and take frequent breaks.

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1 hour ago, Fossildude19 said:

Wayne, 

This is a great topic!

I've pinned it so that newbies should be able to find it more easily. 

Well done, sir!

Pinned?! Awesome! Hopefully it is informative enough to have other newbies take the leap. :thumbsu:

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1 hour ago, Arlie said:

Very good, I found it informative we’re I’m thinking about trying it on some of the old fossils I found from when I was little. Thank you!

I’m glad you found it informative! Good luck on your prep should you decide to attempt it! 

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56 minutes ago, Ludwigia said:

Well done Wayne!

Thanks! I hope it helps others. :) 

36 minutes ago, Pagurus said:

             Thank you for this, Wayne!

You are welcome! :) 

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16 minutes ago, snolly50 said:

An excellent exposition on low tech prep. One additional safety caution occurs to me - Don't wreck your hands! The repetitive movements encountered in using hand tools for prep can quickly lead to hand strain. This hazard can range from mild stiffness to serious strain that impacts function. The excitement of prep progress can cause a prepper to be distracted from early discomfort. The remedy is simple, be mindful of hand stress and take frequent breaks.

Very good point Snolly! I often took breaks to give my hands, back, and eyes a rest. 

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Fantastic! Thank you!! I've been hestitant to really do any kind of prep aside from some hammer and chisel.....this is actually making me want to try my hand at some detail work!  Thank you!!

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48 minutes ago, JamieLynn said:

Fantastic! Thank you!! I've been hestitant to really do any kind of prep aside from some hammer and chisel.....this is actually making me want to try my hand at some detail work!  Thank you!!

You are most welcome! I think a lot of people feel as you do. I’m glad I could give you a little encouragement. :) 

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Wonderful composition - and you've been pinned too.  :P  Congratulations.:yay-smiley-1:

Tom

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6 hours ago, snolly50 said:

An excellent exposition on low tech prep. One additional safety caution occurs to me - Don't wreck your hands! The repetitive movements encountered in using hand tools for prep can quickly lead to hand strain. This hazard can range from mild stiffness to serious strain that impacts function. The excitement of prep progress can cause a prepper to be distracted from early discomfort. The remedy is simple, be mindful of hand stress and take frequent breaks.

I also have hand exercisers on hand to use during breaktime.  I don't know if they are keeping injury at bay, but so far so good.

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1 hour ago, Randyw said:

Great posting! Easy to read, easy to understand, excellent job! :default_clap2::default_clap2::default_clap2::default_clap2:

Thanks Randy! That’s what I was going for. :) 

 

1 hour ago, grandpa said:

Wonderful composition - and you've been pinned too.  :P  Congratulations.:yay-smiley-1:

Tom

Thanks Tom! I’m hoping it’s helpful to others thinking about trying to prep. The pinning is icing on the cake.  :D
 

26 minutes ago, Malcolmt said:

Nicely done...

 

Thanks!

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1 minute ago, FossilNerd said:

I’m hoping it’s helpful to others thinking about trying to prep. The pinning is icing on the cake.

Now see what happens when you get sent to your room till you learn your lesson!  :D

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1 hour ago, grandpa said:

Now see what happens when you get sent to your room till you learn your lesson!  :D

:heartylaugh:

It looks like I actually learned a little something this time...

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  • 2 months later...
On 1/20/2020 at 12:06 PM, Fossildude19 said:

Wayne, 

This is a great topic!

I've pinned it so that newbies should be able to find it more easily. 

Well done, sir!

Thanks!- this is what I was looking for!- So many topics on the forum- well done!  Bone

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  • 6 months later...
Tony6Whiskeys

Nice description and full of useful tips. I'll have to look up just what some of those tools are - thank god for Google :DOH:

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On 10/27/2020 at 4:04 PM, Tony6Whiskeys said:

Nice description and full of useful tips. I'll have to look up just what some of those tools are - thank god for Google :DOH:

Glad you found the thread informative. Yes, a quick google should clear up any tool confusion, but if you still need help, don’t hesitate to ask! :) 

6 hours ago, Chuck W said:

Great post!  It gives hope to some of us newbys!:fingerscrossed:

Glad to be of help! :) 

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  • 3 weeks later...

Adding link to @LabRatKing 's informative post:

 

 

 

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  • 6 months later...

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