Fossil-preparation basics: what adhesives are best to use?

How does a fragile eroded rock turn into a scientific fossil specimen? Fossil preparation - the processes carried out to make fossils useful for research and exhibition, either mechanical or chemical extraction of surrounding matrix, shapes how fossils are studied and interpreted.



Fossils gluing process in cambrian strata
Fossils gluing process in cambrian strata

So to understand how paleontology is done, we must understand the roles of preparators and their work, but we are not gonna go in detail about this in the post, because we don’t want to bore you, the post is too long already, and all depends on each fossil, state of preservation, type of matrix, etc., etc. In example, fossil bones or plant fossils require a different preparation approach as fossil fish or trilobites, or in example even different trilobite species or similar species of trilobites from different locations (different sediment) require different techniques, etc., etc.


Techniques used by today’s preparators have changed little since 100 years ago. Nowadays however, there are a multitude of tools available specifically for preparing fossils and a wider range of adhesives (glues, apoxies, resins) and consolidants available.


While everyone talks about best or cheapest tools used to prepare fossils, what about the adhesives used in fossil preparation?


A short way to answer:


Different purpose glues available at trilobiti.com

We’ll compare cheap airscribes vs. more expensive in another post.


To answer the question in a long way, we need to say there are many things that need to be considered before any preparation takes start. In example, if your fossil has any cracks in it, or if it is fragile, or if it sits on soft shale, it might need consolidation or stabilisation during prep - best done with Starbond EM02, which will penetrate the thinest cracks and porous matrix with a stronger bond as Paraloid. Do not try to brush matrix off with water nor use tools that would transfer too much vibrations to the specimen before stabilization.


The tools, adhesives, methodology and techniques are highly dependent on the properties of each fossil and the surrounding matrix. The wrong approach can lead to damage or destruction of the fossil. Even with the understanding of different techniques and properties of different fossils/matrix, preparation is often not without risk, takes time, experience and patience. Usually a sample experimentation on less good preserved examples might be in order, if you are not familiar with preservation/preparation of fossils from a certain site.


Tools used for preparation range from a simple dental pick, scalpel, steel and carbide needles to mini-jackhammers, a multitude of air-scribes and micro-sandblasters. Sometimes all it takes is a toothbrush and water. Be careful however, some fossils, i.e. plant fossils, are a mere carbon film which could disintegrate if scrubbed with a brush.

Needles to say, if we don’t have experience and suitable tools for preparation, the best option is to leave fossil unprepared or ask more experienced preparators for help. It would be a shame to over-prep a good preserved fossil specimen only to destroy it trying to clean it up.