Dental lab: Readiness with a smile

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Tech. Sgt. Jacqueline Williams, the 30th Medical Operations Squadron dental lab NCO in charge, reconstructs a tooth model for a patient at the dental lab Mar 13. Dental technicians must use a combination of technical knowledge and artistic skill to create durable crowns and prosthesis. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Ashley Hawkins)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Tech. Sgt. Jacqueline Williams, the 30th Medical Operations Squadron dental lab NCO in charge, reconstructs a tooth model for a patient at the dental lab Mar 13. Dental technicians must use a combination of technical knowledge and artistic skill to create durable crowns and prosthesis. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Ashley Hawkins)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --  Tech. Sgt. Dewayne Luster, a dental lab technician with the 30th Medical Operations Squadron, inserts fake teeth into the model of a patient's mouth as part of the reconstruction process in the dental lab Mar 13. Dental technicians must use a combination of technical knowledge and artistic skill to create durable crowns and prosthesis. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Ashley Hawkins)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Tech. Sgt. Dewayne Luster, a dental lab technician with the 30th Medical Operations Squadron, inserts fake teeth into the model of a patient's mouth as part of the reconstruction process in the dental lab Mar 13. Dental technicians must use a combination of technical knowledge and artistic skill to create durable crowns and prosthesis. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Ashley Hawkins)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Jun Pablo, a dental lab technician with the 30th Medical Operations Squadron, carefully inserts artificial teeth into the model of a patient's mouth in the dental lab Mar 13. Dental technicians must use a combination of technical knowledge and artistic skill to create durable crowns and prosthesis. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Ashley Hawkins)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Jun Pablo, a dental lab technician with the 30th Medical Operations Squadron, carefully inserts artificial teeth into the model of a patient's mouth in the dental lab Mar 13. Dental technicians must use a combination of technical knowledge and artistic skill to create durable crowns and prosthesis. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Ashley Hawkins)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Tech. Sgt. Dewayne Luster, a dental lab technician with the 30th Medical Operations Squadron, inserts fake teeth into the model of a patient's mouth as part of the reconstruction process in the dental lab Mar 13. Dental technicians must use a combination of technical knowledge and artistic skill to create durable crowns and prosthesis. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Ashley Hawkins)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Tech. Sgt. Dewayne Luster, a dental lab technician with the 30th Medical Operations Squadron, inserts fake teeth into the model of a patient's mouth as part of the reconstruction process in the dental lab Mar 13. Dental technicians must use a combination of technical knowledge and artistic skill to create durable crowns and prosthesis. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Ashley Hawkins)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- People are lined up at tables in a brightly lit room, creating miniature pieces of art - porcelain that must be shaped, polished and colored just right, molds that have to be perfectly cast. Their customers hope for perfection, and these Airmen expect nothing less from themselves.

This is the scene in the dental lab as the technicians of the 30th Medical Operations Squadron's dental flight toil to create a perfect smile for those who may be without.

Some people hate smiling because they have a multitude of dental problems, said Tech. Sgt. Jacqueline Williams, NCOIC of the dental lab element.

"A doctor may take a patient whose teeth may not be perfectly straight or somebody who's just not happy with their teeth period," Sergeant Williams said. "As a lab tech, we're helping to change all that. Instead of them covering up, they're able to smile."

It takes a lot of work to be able to create natural looking porcelain teeth. Dental technicians start with a six-month technical school at Sheppard AFB, Texas. The school teaches them how to make almost every product a typical lab puts out. By the time they finish, the technicians have knowledge and skills comparable to a civilian who has completed a two-year degree in lab work.

"They get to work on perfect cases in tech school, but when you come out into the field, now you're going to have people with teeth missing all over and their jaw's not perfect," said Tech. Sgt. Dewayne Luster, assistant NCOIC of the dental lab element. "They definitely have to have a lot of artistic abilities built in."

It's a combination of technical knowledge and artistic skill that allow these technicians to create aesthetically pleasing products for the patients.

First, a technician will take a case based on priority. Each case includes the doctor's prescription, explaining exactly what the patient needs, even down to the shade of the patient's teeth, and an impression of the patient's teeth.

The technician then mounts the mold on an articulator, which is a device that mimics the movement of a human mouth. If a crown is needed, they use wax to make a mold of the needed tooth. Then, an investment, which is a type of cement, is made around the wax mold.

Next, the investment is placed in an oven to melt out the wax, leaving the crown shape in the investment. The hot investment is then placed in a casting well, which uses centrifugal force to pour the molten gold into the investment.

Once the gold has cooled and solidified, the investment is broken and, viola, a gold crown is made.

Of course there's a lot more work afterward, with the technicians making sure the crown is level with the patient's bite and that the crown fits between the surrounding teeth. And, if porcelain is involved, they must get it colored just right to match the patient's other teeth.

"When patients need crowns or prosthesis at the very front of their mouth, aesthetics becomes a very big issue," said Capt. (Dr.) Varun Narula, a clinical dentist with 30th MDOS. "It is important having a technician with this expertise here."

In fact, a dental lab collocated with a dental clinic is not common in civilian practices. Having the two together is important, however, to both dental readiness and quality of care.

"From a dental readiness perspective, we're able to fabricate crowns, dentures, any type of prosthetic usually within two weeks or less," said Capt. (Dr.) Mike Savidan, the dental lab element chief here. "Also, if we need to make any chair-side adjustments, shade modifications to crowns, or adjust the bite or fit of a prosthetic, we have four capable technicians that help do that."

From helping people chew to giving them back their pearly whites, the dental lab techs here said helping others is what makes them smile.

"We keep patients from having to walk around with no teeth," Sergeant Williams said. "Being a part of that is very rewarding."