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Dental lab techs bring smile to Osan

OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea --  Senior Airman Ruben Hernandez, 51st Dental Squadron lab technician, checks finished dentures at the dental lab here Thursday. Dental lab technicians must complete six months of technical school, learning how to make everything from sports guards to bridges. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Rojek)

OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- Senior Airman Ruben Hernandez, 51st Dental Squadron lab technician, checks finished dentures at the dental lab here Thursday. Dental lab technicians must complete six months of technical school, learning how to make everything from sports guards to bridges. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Rojek)

OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea --  Senior Airman Jeni Bamford, 51st Dental Squadron lab technician, fabricates a nightguard in the dental lab here Thursday. Dental lab technicians make everything from crowns to dentures. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Rojek)

OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- Senior Airman Jeni Bamford, 51st Dental Squadron lab technician, fabricates a nightguard in the dental lab here Thursday. Dental lab technicians make everything from crowns to dentures. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Rojek)

OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea --  Examples of work that 51st Dental Squadron lab technicians do every day, including gold crowns, dentures and nightguards. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Rojek)

OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- Examples of work that 51st Dental Squadron lab technicians do every day, including gold crowns, dentures and nightguards. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Rojek)

OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea --  Staff Sgt. Kevin Franklin, 51st Dental Squadron lab technician, uses a face shielf while working on a set of removable partial dentures. Lab technicians must use different protective equipment depending on what they're doing. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Rojek)

OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- Staff Sgt. Kevin Franklin, 51st Dental Squadron lab technician, uses a face shielf while working on a set of removable partial dentures. Lab technicians must use different protective equipment depending on what they're doing. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Rojek)

OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- 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 51st Dental Squadron lab technicians 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 Senior Airman Ruben Hernandez, 51st DS lab technician.

"We strive to make everything look like it's not fake teeth," said Airman Hernandez. "So, after we're done, (the patient) is smiling the whole time."

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.

"But civilians specialize in one part of the lab," said Airman Hernandez. He explained that a civilian lab technician will focus on making gold crowns or retainers, while an Airman in the same job will "make everything from dentures to mouth guards."

Technical knowledge and artistic skill combine to create products for the patients.

First, a technician will take a case based on priority. In the case will be the doctor's prescription, which explains exactly what the patient needs, even down to the shade of the patient's teeth, and a mold 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 patients other teeth.

"It takes a bit of artistic ability," said Staff Sgt. Kevin Franklin, dental lab craftsman. "It's actually pretty fun."

That's a common feeling for all dental lab technicians - job satisfaction.

"Everyone in our job loves their job," said Airman Hernandez. "Every day you learn something new. Every day is a training day."

And every day they are helping Team Osan stay mission ready.

"Our motto is 'Keeping you fit to chew,'" said Sergeant Franklin. "If we keep everyone in shape as far as their mouth goes, we keep them 'Ready to Fight Tonight!'"