Is it Art or Technology

When you step back and take a look at how we all have learned dental technology it is easy to see why many of us think of ourselves as “artists”.

Consider the following learning curve: The brand-new technician enters the laboratory for the first time and begins waxing a lower first molar.

He is trying to coordinate the application of wax onto a die, the various waxing instruments, the temperature of the electric waxer, and the anatomy of the tooth, all the while he is looking over someone’s shoulder, or looking at a picture of the tooth in a book.

The technician struggles through all this trying to coordinate all these things, asking questions, observing the different techniques of other technicians, and finally comes up with a rough crown that is “fixed-up” by an experienced technician.

What is the exact procedure this technician has followed? There isn’t one and, in fact, he is hard-pressed to remember exactly what procedure he used when he has to wax his next molar four or five days later.

But, again, he will struggle through the procedure, desperately trying to remember what he did before, asking questions, getting different answers this time, and somehow forge out the product.

Now, if you follow this technician over the years you will see he has developed his own “style”, through repetition, for waxing a crown based on a number of random factors; and now not only is his procedure unique, but the anatomy of this crown is also unique because, like his procedure, it has no standard reference point.

It is a random pattern formed by habit.

When you step back and look at this learning curve is it any wonder this technician would think of what he does as “art”?

It is very difficult to teach to anyone else, and it doesn’t look quite the same as anyone else’s work. The only way to justify this, is to call it art. But, the truth is, 90 percent of all the steps involved are mechanical: only 10 percent could really be considered art.

Art of Technology?

What is wrong with “art”? Art does not produce a consistent product. How artistic can a technician be when he is really trying to copy a natural tooth?

If you were to extract the teeth of 100 people and lay them out, you would see there are certain similarities among all the anterior and posterior teeth. These reoccurring features are really not open to artistic interpretation, not if the technician hopes to produce a natural looking tooth.

This is primarily a mechanical function, a technology.

Now, let’s look at how this concept of the “art” of dental technology affects the laboratory and the doctor.

The doctor has a habitual, visual reference point of natural teeth. Because of this, he intuitively knows when a crown looks natural and when it doesn’t. He may not be able to precisely articulate what is wrong with the crown, but his visual experience of natural teeth, over time, tells him something is not quite right.

He cannot really explain to the technician what is wrong because he and the technician are not using the same reference point in looking at a tooth.

The doctor’s reference point comes from reducing the tooth structure of natural teeth. The technician’s reference point comes from recreating the tooth structure.

These reference points are learned by habit, over time, and because they are different, a chronic communication gap is created between the doctor and the technician.

The doctor is frustrated by not being able to get consistently natural looking teeth from the laboratory and not being able to explain exactly what is wrong with the teeth he is getting.

The laboratory manager is frustrated because he feels he doesn’t know exactly what the doctor is looking for, and when he does it right he has difficulty doing it consistently.

When you take this situation and multiply it by the number of technicians we have, it is clear this is an industry-wide problem, and it has been going on for a long, long time.

The Bottom Line

What does this really mean for the laboratory that wishes to survive and prosper in the coming years?

First of all, it means this: As long as there is group agreement in the laboratory that their work is “art” there can be no standard for the work coming out of that laboratory.

Art is unique and based on individual interpretation. Therefore, “art” does not produce a standard and cannot produce consistency.

This creates a situation in the laboratory whereby the “technology” is completely unmanageable. The doctor’s complaint of “You have changed technicians on me.” should really be “You have changed artists on me.”, because really, a technician follows a technology, a scientific methodology that doesn’t vary.

With no standard reference point for a procedure that produces natural teeth, the laboratory manager loses productivity, quality control, and customers. He gains chaos and alienated doctors.

The laboratory manager who can go to the doctor and say “I have an exact procedure in my laboratory to consistently produce the anatomical features of natural teeth that you are used to seeing,” and the manager who can really deliver on that statement, will surely dominate the market in his/her area.

Must Know Anatomy

The key to making this a reality is to have each person in his laboratory have a complete understanding of all the basic anatomical features that you routinely find in all natural anterior and posterior teeth.

Anatomy is nothing more than a series of concavities and convexities with the concavities strategically placed to create convexities that will reflect light and make the tooth appear natural to the eye.

When s/he has achieved this, the laboratory manager will have finally acknowledged that there is a technology, a mechanical step by step procedure that will recreate a natural looking tooth. And, only 10 percent of that procedure could really be considered “art” By recognizing this fact, he establishes his own laboratory standard; gains control of his laboratory’s quality and productivity, and can now really communicate with the doctor.

This manager has taken a giant step into the next century of the dental laboratory industry.


Technology: 1) Applied science; 2) A technical methodology for achieving a practical purpose.

Art: 1) The conscious use of skill, taste, and creative imagination in the production of aesthetic objects.

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