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Starting a fossil prep lab from scratch

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So I’m on the verge of moving to a new house where I’ll be fortunate enough to have my own space for a fossil prep lab (and display room, but that’s for another discussion). This space is a completely hollowed out husk, doesn’t even have lighting installed at the moment. To those of you with fossil prep labs of your own, knowing what you know now, if you were making a lab from the ground up, what things would you suggest? Not just big stuff, but little things. What kind of overhead lighting? Floor padding you found useful? At the moment I have an air compressor and a wall mounted dust collector, my goal is to at least get an air abrasion cabinet going. Am I better off putting something together from a bunch of different pieces of equipment or just spending the money on an all in one cabinet? I’m down to DIY stuff that’s not crazy technical when it makes sense, but also understand some things are better to spend a little more on. I’ve been primarily dealing with softer shale material, but occasionally deal with limestone as well.

It’s a large question I know, but any help or piece of individual wisdom from those who do these things at home would be greatly appreciated.

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Unless you have a ton of money to spend in one go I recommend adding more pieces to your prep lab as time goes by. The key to this is to imagine ahead of time where you might put additional equipment. Equipment ends up taking a lot of space.


Some miscellaneous things:

If you have any division walls in the room you can take advantage of these and put equipment such as an air compressor on the other side. This cuts down on noise quite a bit and is nice even if you use hearing protection.


If you have a utility sink in the room you should consider placing work stations nearby for convenience. A little thing and rather obvious, but it helps.


I haven't had any problems with overhead shop lights provided you get ones that are strong enough. The cabinets have their own lights which cuts down on glare.


For the blasting cabinet I built my own out of an old cooler. I do most work in the cabinet including most scribing, splitting concretions, small cutting, and of course air abrasion. I cut out the top and replaced with a glass panel, cut arm holes, and a hole for a hose attachment which runs into a homemade water filter/dust collector and to a shop vac. It's an easy to build DIY setup that works perfectly with 100% dust containment. I have heard of lots of others who have made their own cabinets out of things such as plywood as well. As far as DIY stuff goes I'd recommend it. If nothing else you can use the money you saved on prep equipment that you can't DIY, like good air scribes.


An easy to clean floor is important. Even if you end up doing next to no prep work outside of dust containment you'll inevitably get things dusty from all the rock you bring in, transfer to your work station, etc. I hate to imagine what it would be like if my lab floor wasn't easily sweeped and mopped. This applies to the table as well.


As you're building wall mounts you might want to set aside room on the wall for drier systems for your air compressor and future air abrader. I did DIY on these out of silica gel and steel tubing. Nothing wrong functionally but if I had an air abrader when I first made my lab I probably would have mounted the driers on my wall. Currently they sit on a part of the floor near the compressor.


Last thing I can think of is imagine space for your prep microscope from the start. If you're like me this will probably come later but hopefully unlike me if you plan for the space you won't have any trouble fitting it in and mounting it over your cabinet or work station.


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Thomas gave some good points.  Since you have a "blank canvas" spend some time just looking around the room and thinking where you want things.  Think about where stations will be and what power outlets you will need to install.  If you can build a closet room to house your vacuum and compressor DO THAT.  Insulate the walls and ceiling and use rubber matting on the floor.  The room will need airflow to keep cool, but cutting down on that noise is a HUGE requirement.  Plan where EVERYTHING will go.  Heck, even go get some giant cardboard scraps and build your prep lab with correct-sized boxes to get a feel.  Trust me, just knowing the sizes of things isnt good enough to get the true feel for spacing needs.  Definitely plan for your final dream build, not just what you may be starting with.  Its easier to just put things in place than to re-build half the lab later on. 


I dont recommend combining your display space with you prep space.  Prepping is dirty, dirty dirty.  Even with vacuum filtration, dirt and matrix dust gets on everything, everywhere.  Which comes to your your floor question.  If you have a concrete slab floor, leave it bare.  You are going to be sweeping and cleaning often.  Anything you put over the top of the floor is just going to trap and hold dirt.


Lastly, I dont know the volume of fossils you have, or how much you hunt, but you need to consider your current and future storage needs.  My latest purchase is both a love and hate thing for me.  Its a metal flat-file map cabinet set.  It is HUUUGE, as in 5ft wide x 4ft deep x 3ft high.  Its stupidly heavy, and I had to re-configure my space to make it work, but the storage capacity is incredible!  Look them up, and if you think you want one (and can move one!) then look at facebook marketplace and surplus auction sites.  The prices and conditions can vary widely but with some patience and a tiny bit of luck you can find one for a good price.  Plus some good old-school metal shelving to house the bigger and jacketed stuff.


So, consider all your needs and where they will fit.  Where will your work bench be?  Where will your blast box go?  Where will your vacuum system connect and hoses (pipes?) be routed? Where will your dust trap be (and think about ease of access for emptying).  What kind of lighting do you want above your work bench?  Stationary? positionable?  Plain shop lights work fine for the main room lighting, but you will want more and stronger for the work.  Where will the microscope be?  HOW HIGH DO YOU WANT YOUR BENCH?  Trust me, stool/shop chair/etc. needs to work with your bench and work height, otherwise you will either be hunched over all the time or wind up standing.  Where will your compressor be?  Where will the moisture/oil condensers/silica drier be mounted?  Routing air from compressor - driers - distribution block - blaster  - scribes - ???


There are no fosiil prep lab kits you can buy.  You have to think about what you need and how to connect everything.  I cant count the number of times I've been to Lowes or Harbor Freight for more parts while building.  I had to thermo-form PVC pipe to make my vacuum system because I couldnt find connectors and adapters I needed. 

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One big thing is to put the compressor in a different room, or wall it off wherever it sits. And your dust collection system as well.  These two are both very noisy and will do you best being aurally separated.  

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