Dental Equipment

Buyers Guide: Dental Handpieces

Buyers Guide: Dental Handpieces

Your highspeed dental handpiece may be one of the most important tools in your office. Over the years we have seen some amazing advances, especially with the improvements seen in electric handpieces. This Buyers Guide will help bring clarity to what is out there, as well as help you understand how to integrate a new setup into your existing workflow.

How they work

Air driven handpieces essentially work by forcing compressed air through the handpiece. That spins a fan-like turbine, which in turn spins your dental bur. Electric handpieces use an internal motor instead of a turbine. Dental laboratory electric handpieces have a pedal that ramps the speed up and down. In the operatory, electric handpieces are most often are backwards compatible with your existing delivery system. One of your air hoses attaches to a control box, and when you step on the pedal, the control box senses how much air is coming through and the electric motor in the handpiece spins the dental bur at the corresponding speed.

Dental Handpiece History

  • 1864 – British dentist George Fellows Harrington invents a clockwork dental drill named Erado

  • 1868 – American dentist George F. Green invents a pneumatic dental drill powered with pedal-operated bellows

  • 1875 – Green patents the first electric dental drill

  • 1914 – Electric dental drills reach speeds of up to 3,000 RPM

  • 1949 – Air turbine handpiece is patented by John Patrick Walsh in New Zealand

  • 1957 – Bordon Airotor air turbine handpiece is commercially manufactuered and distributed in the U.S. by DENTSPLY

  • 1973 – StarDental introduces the first highspeed handpiece with integrated fiber-optic illumination

What I Need to Know


Air vs. Electric

When considering an air driven handpiece vs. an electric one, the comparison is not really based on which one is better. Each one can fulfill a different need in your practice and which is the best option really depends on you, your practice and the type of procedures you perform.

  • Speed – An air driven handpiece will often be able to reach higher speeds because the RPMs are governed by the amount of air coming through. Electric high speed handpieces tend to be capped at approximately 200,000 RPM.

  • Constant Torque – A dense material, such as gold or zirconia, will slow a handpiece down. An electric handpiece experiences no drop in torque, and maintains constant power no matter what material you are cutting.

  • Feathering With Electric – Because you can control the electric motor with your foot pedal, you can feather the speed similar to an air turbine. The difference though, is that you are able to keep constant torque, even at that low speed. In some ways it eliminates the need for a second slowspeed handpiece for procedures such as caries removal.

  • Concentricity – As a turbine spins, it experiences wear, and eventually will not be as concentric or spin at the same rate. An electric handpiece uses gears that allow the bur to remain more concentricity and to potentially provide smoother preparations.

  • Noise – An electric handpiece tends to operate more quietly than an air driven handpiece.

  • Weight – Considering there are more components in the handpiece, electric motors tend to be a bit heavier. Newer electric models are shrinking the size and weight down to avoid fatigue throughout the day.

  • Grip & Finish – The difficult balance that must be achieved with a handpiece's grip is to make it rough enough to hold with a gloved hand but smooth enough for easy cleaning. The important thing here is that it works in your hands, with the gloves you normally use. Options can include satin, high-gloss or coated finishes.

  • Attachments – The highspeed portion of an electric motor is technically an attachment to that motor. What this means is you can also potentially attach other handpieces, such as a straight nose-cone or a contra-angle, for procedures such as interproximal reduction or denture adjustments.

  • Variable Torque – Some electric handpieces allow you to change the torque settings. This allows you to do other variable procedures with the same unit such as endodontics.

Questions to Ask

The Questions to Ask

  1. What is the head size on the handpiece and will I be able to use it on a small child?

  2. What is the torque available on the handpiece? (Measured in Newtons per centimeter)

  3. What is the noise level of the handpiece? (Measured in decibels)

  4. How heavy is the handpiece? (Measured in grams)

  5. What is the access angle?

  6. How many spray ports does it have?

  7. What type of bearings does it have in the turbine? (Ceramic bearing are more resistant to wear than stainless steel bearings)

  8. For air driven handpieces: Is it compatible with my existing coupler or hose system?

  9. For electric handpieces: Does the electric motor allow attachments and/or variable torque for other procedures such as endodontics?


Chuck – The specialized type of clamp that holds the bur tightly but allows it to spin.

Concentricity – The tightness of the burs rotation in relation to the center of the handpiece head.

Coupler – The connection between the handpiece and the delivery system, this must have the correct configuration of ports for air, water and light in order for the handpiece to function properly.

RPMs – Revolutions Per Minute, a measure of how fast or slow the handpiece spins the bur.

Scallops/Knurling – Patterns of bumps and indentations on the handle designed to add grip without trapping bacteria.

Torque – The rotational force of a handpiece. Torque describes how powerfully the bur can be spun, and thus how much force can be applied to the object being cut.