Dental Laboratory Technicians

Explore a career as a dental lab tech in today’s job market…

Who is it who makes crowns and other dental implants? Chances are it’s not your dentist. Dental laboratory technicians, or lab techs as they are sometimes called, are the crafts people of the dental world. Their work contributes to people’s health and comfort (as well as the beauty of their smile). As people age, they often lose or damage natural teeth. Dental laboratory technicians make a variety of restorative dental pieces. They do more than just make pieces that are the right size; they also imitate the imperfections of natural teeth.

The work begins when the dentist sends a prescription. Traditionally, the prescription was accompanied by a mold or physical impression. Now it’s sometimes sent in digital format. Once the laboratory assistant receives the prescription, she’ll have a series of steps to go through. These may include making a model out of wax, pouring a mold, building up layers of porcelain, polishing and smoothing, and checking the bite.

Dental lab technicians also make orthodontic wear (braces and retainers). The process can include bending and soldering.

Some dental lab work is reparative. Responsibilities can include rebuilding denture linings and repairing retainers. In some settings, a dental lab tech may create and repair many different types of appliance. Many dental lab techs, though, have more narrow duties. Laboratory technicians may specialize in bridges and crowns, porcelain work, orthodontic appliances, or partial or full dentures.

Work setting for dental lab techs

According to the American Dental Education Association, a majority of dental laboratory technicians work in small dental labs. Often there are only two or three employees. Some technicians work in large labs, and others work directly for dentist offices.
The military is another possible employer. An experience technician may find unique options. A dental technician employed in a correctional institution might train inmates in dental lab work. Business is another option. Some dental technicians go on to run their own dental labs.

Required Education

Dental laboratory technicians may learn the trade on the job or through formal education. Programs are typically two years in length, though this varies. Courses may include dental anatomy, denture making techniques, and inlay casting. There’s a lot of lab work. There may also be classes in industrial safety and professional legalities or ethics. Degree programs also include general studies classes as prerequisites or co-requisites.

Dental technician certification is available through the National Board for Certification in Dental Laboratory Technology (NBC). Certification requires technicians to pass three separate tests. One of the tests is comprehensive. Laboratory technicians must also complete practical and written exams for at least one of the specialties. Some technicians ultimately pursue testing in multiple specialties.

Some employers prefer to hire certified candidates. Others ask for formal education or previous work success. Three states, Texas, South Carolina, and Kentucky, require labs to hire at least one certified technician.

Dental laboratory technician salary and career outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted 14% growth in dental laboratory technician jobs during the decade between 2008 and 2018. Total jobs were expected to go from 46,000 to 52,400. Job growth is driven not only by an aging demographic, but by increasing interest in cosmetic dentistry.

The average dental lab technician salary in 2010 was $18.26 an hour or $37,980 a year. Wages are highly variable. The lowest paid 10% made less than $20,940. The highest paid 10%, though, made above $58,560. As with most careers, experience is a factor. There is also some regional variance with DC, Alaska, and Montana laboratory technicians earning average salaries above $50,000.

Work setting is another factor in determining earnings. A majority of dental laboratory technicians are employed by medical equipment manufacturing companies, and they make very near the average. The highest paid dental lab techs are those who work for the federal government (for example, Veterans Affairs). These jobs are fewer and harder to come by.