The Tools of Trade: Dentist Tools

Nobody really likes going to the dentist, but for some individuals, the experience can be truly nerve-wracking. For those who suffer from “dentist phobia,” much of the anxiety comes from not knowing what the dentist is doing. A good dentist should explain the procedure if asked. Some basic knowledge of dental tools can also help. Knowing what the dentist is reaching for can help alleviate the sense of helplessness, make going to the dentist just a bit more pleasant, and help maintain good dental health even in those who are scared of the dentist’s chair.

Dental Tools

The Dreaded Drill

The most recognizable and anxiety-inducing tool in a dentist’s toolkit is the drill. Much of this anxiety comes from misunderstanding of how the drill actually works. A dental drill is a far cry from the kind of drill a person would use to put up a shelf. The drill has a very small tip. Though it can be used to remove decayed areas of the tooth, it is also used as a shaping tool to prepare surfaces for crowns as well as shape amalgam and metallic fillings so as not to interfere with the patient’s bite. Just because the drill is in use doesn’t necessarily mean the dentist is boring holes.

General Dentist Tools

The drill is usually only needed when the patient requires a filling, crown, or other special procedure. There are, however, general dentist tools that may be used on nearly every visit, including routine cleanings. These include dental mirrors, air and water tips, and explorers.

Dental Mirror

Of all dentist tools, the dental mirror probably engenders the least anxiety. A dental mirror consists of a small mirror (size between nickel and quarter) on a handle the size of a pencil. The dental mirror is used to give the dentist a clear view of every surface. This is especially useful when the area under examination is on the “back” side of the tooth. A dental mirror may also be used as a tongue depressor.

Air and Water Tip

The air and water tip is the “hose” a dentist often inserts into a patient’s mouth. Though some people find this annoying, it serves a vital purpose. The “water” function of the air and water tip is used to introduce water into the treatment area so as to rinse away plaque or other debris resulting from treatment. It may also be used to remove excess toothpaste or fluoride during a routine cleaning. This keeps the patient from swallowing them, preventing illness or injury. The air function applies mild suction to remove excess rinse water and helps prevent the activation of the gag reflex as well as preventing the patient from swallowing the excess water.


The dental explorer is one of the most visually intimidating of all the dentist tools. It, like the dental mirror, has a handle the length and width of a pencil. One end holds a curved, sharpened hook while the other may be blunt or have a differently-shaped hook. In the hands of a skilled dentist or hygienist, however, the explore causes no pain. It is used to check for soft spots that can indicate early-stage cavities and removing harmful plaque from teeth. Patients who do feel pain should speak up; a good dentist will change his or her technique to avoid causing any further discomfort.


Another class of dental tools Though called extractors, they are used for procedures other than extraction (in the vernacular, “having a tooth pulled”). Though extractions, root canals and other somewhat invasive procedures are often an uncomfortable procedure, it can help to know about the dentist tools involved. These include the dental dam and syringe, as well as forceps and elevators.

Dental Dam

Of the extraction tools, the dental dam is the least scary, though it can be annoying. It consists of a thin, flexible sheet of medial-grade latex or vinyl that is placed over the treatment area. This keeps the treatment area clean and free from contamination by bacteria, helping to prevent infection. Dental dams can also be used to keep the treatment area dry for procedures – such as the placement of a crown – that can be compromised by moisture.


Of all the dentist tools used in extractions and similar procedures, the syringe is perhaps the one an average layperson would be most likely to recognize on sight. Syringes fixed with needles are used to inject Novocaine and other numbing medication so that dental procedures are not painful. Sensitive or needle-phobic individuals can ask for topical numbing medication to reduce pain. A pair of headphones playing soothing music can also help reduce injection anxiety.


A forceps is a medical tool used to grip a part of the body. Dentists use a variety of forceps during their work. They often look like scissors with elongated handles and blunt — rather than sharp — surfaces at the “business end.” Since several forceps may be necessary to complete a specific procedure, it’s not unusual to see many of them on the tray. The presence of several forceps, therefore, does not mean the procedure will be unusually long or difficult.


Elevators can be hard to recognize. The “business end” is a flat, thin piece of surgical steel with an offset “tab” on the end.Some have a sleek handle, others may have a handle that looks like that of a chisel. These tools are the “workhorses” of extraction procedures. They are used to gently raise a tooth being pulled so that it can be more easily gripped with forceps or other dentist tools.

Reconstruction Tools

The last sub-category of dentist tools is reconstruction tools. These tools are used to return the treated area to it’s pre-treatment function and appearance, or, in the case of extraction, as close to the original appearance as possible. Tools include the plugger, carver, and spatula.


The plugger is about the same shape and size as the dental explorer. The difference is the head of the tool. On a plugger, the head looks like a miniature version of the head on an old fashioned “drinking bird” toy. Pluggers are used to pack filling material — such as gold, silver or amalgam — into prepared areas on the tooth. This ensures the material will properly adhere to the natural tooth surface.

Carvers and Spatula

The carver is very similar to the dental explorer. In fact, some dentists use the secondary head of an explorer as a carver. Carvers are used to smooth and shape the surface of a filling, so that the patient can bite down in a normal, natural manner. This prevents strain-related jaw soreness and injury. Spatulas are used to mix the glue used to attach crowns to natural tooth tissue.