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.

Pros

  • Very affordable

  • 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

Cons

  • 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! 

fossil prep engraver

Ferrex Electrical Engraver from Aldi -fits the same tips as the Dremel 290

fossil prep engraver dremel

Dremel 290 Electric Engraver

Record Power Electric Engraver (used to be known as the Burgess engraver)

a.

Brennenstuhl Sinograph electric engraver. Similar idea to the Record Power. 

Other electric engravers found in use include the Record Power Engraver, as well as some engravers (similar to the Dremel 290) found in Aldi and Lidl (we have tried the Aldi one which is remarkably good!). The Record Power engravers have been phased out, and so won't be available for much longer. This style is more prone to overheating than the Dremel 290, and whilst they offer a bit more power they are less comfortable to use with the weight distribution and added vibrations (these are essentially the same as the Burgess engravers - a name no longer used). The Sinograph engraver is along the same lines as the Record Power Engraver. We do make custom tips that fit the Record Power Engraver, and whilst these might give you more power, they vibrate more and are more prone to overheating. If you're looking at the different engravers, check that they are reciprocating and not rotary.  


Bear in mind that every 'standard' engraving tip is poorly suited to fossil preparation - even if they are made from tungsten carbide, it will be a metalworking grade that doesn't last long. They are usually too fat or the wrong shape to cut through rock efficiently. The best results are achieved by using our specialised ZOIC PalaeoTech stone-grade tungsten carbide fossil preparation styli. 


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. 

Shock Absorption

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 

fossil prep electric engraver

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. 

fossil prep

Unprepped Asteroceras from Lyme Regis, UK

ammonite fossil prep dremel dremmal dremmel dremal

Prepped Asteroceras from Lyme Regis, UK

Only push with slight force. Let the tool do the work. If too much force is used there is a risk of breaking the tungsten carbide or jolting forward and damaging the fossil. As the Dremel is an electric tool, it does not have the power to remove too much matrix so go slowly and carefully. Hold it confidently, but don't push too hard.  The short stylus will give you the most matrix removal power. The long stylus will give you a bit of extra reach if the front end of the Dremel is getting in the way, but this comes with a loss of power. The chisel stylus is suited to matrix removal in softer rocks, and matrix smoothing in harder rocks.

Work as close as you can to the fossil without actually touching it. If you touch the fossil you will get an irreversible mark or scratch on it - this damage can be concealed reasonably well but is permanent. Move the fossil around as you work so you always have the most comfortable and safest approach towards the fossil. Work at low angles for matrix removal, and higher angles only when removing tiny bits of matrix. High angles can be used when there is a risk of touching the fossil and damaging it if a lower angle were to be used. 

Bear in mind that a Dremel can't prep everything. You may find that the vibrations are too much for more fragile fossils, or you may find a piece of rock too hard. You can do a lot with a Dremel, and they represent exceptional value for money, but pneumatic tooling will win any competition between the two. And there are also plenty of fossils that will never prep up no matter how skilled you are - with experience, you'll be able to pick up the fossils that will give you the best results and leave the rest. 

You can always ask for advice in "Fossil Preparation Tips, Tricks & Boasts" on Facebook. If you're wondering exactly how to go about prepping an ammonite, you can read our blog post here! 

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. 

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