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Local lab helps put a smile on your face TOOTH MAKERS
For 35 years, Greg Gray has practiced the art of dental ceramics at his Southern Gray Dental Lab in Spotsylvania

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Date published: 1/19/2008


Hundreds of Fredericksburg-area patients have their smiles repaired each year in a converted Dress Barn retail store in the Southpoint shopping center in Massaponax.

Greg Gray and his employees make dental ceramics there at the Southern Gray Dental Lab.

Dentists from across the region contract with Gray to fashion substitute teeth for their patients.

His work is a combination of high-tech wizardry and hand-crafted precision. He and his technicians are "fixer-uppers," he said, replacing teeth lost to accident or decay.

As Gray described it, "We can make you a smile."

At his workbench recently Gray sat under bright lights, a pair of magnifying glasses resting on his forehead. Within reach were two small furnaces, no bigger than coffee pots, in which he was firing porcelain crowns.

His task at the lab is to create replacements that exactly match the shape, length and color of the patient's other teeth. To guide him in the recent job, the dentist sent a photograph of the patient, smiling broadly.

The photo showed the patient with perfect white teeth, save for a yellow tooth among the uppers.

"See how dark that one is," Gray said, pointing to the photograph.

One of the new crowns will cover the yellow tooth. To make it match, Gray mixed porcelain powder and water in a small dish to make a bright white liquid. Using an artist's brush, he carefully dabbed the liquid onto the crown.

"I'm close but I'm not white enough," Gray said, adding more porcelain. "Everything is real precise now."

Gray has operated the lab for 35 years, first in Northern Virginia, then in the Fredericksburg area.

His is one of about 12,000 dental labs in the nation. Some are factory labs employing hundreds of technicians. But most are small operations like Southern Gray, which employs six people. About 40 percent are single-person shops, according to the ADA study.

Gray said he can't compete with the prices charged by the factory labs, so he offers special services, such as pick up and delivery or consultation with the patient.

Gray has customers in Norfolk, Maryland and as far away as Utah, but most of his business comes from Fredericksburg-area dentists.

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Southpoint shoppers walk by the storefront for Southern Gray Dental Lab without realizing that a small manufacturing plant is inside.

Such is the fate of U.S. dental labs.

In 2005, when the American Dental Association studied the nation's dental labs, it concluded that the industry was vital to dentists but invisible to patients.

"Patients do not know who makes their crowns, veneers and dentures," the ADA said. "When they report for their appointments, the restorations simply appear from somewhere."