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  • Writer's pictureJack Nunnink

The Drill Guys guide to Dental Handpieces Types

Handpieces are used on a daily basis by dental professionals, being a primary tool for patient treatment. While many devices look very similar, there is actually great variation in their quality, function, price and longevity.

This guide is designed to give you an in-depth and no-jargon introduction to the different handpiece types, their primary use cases, how you should maintain them for optimal performance and other useful information.

slow speed dental handpieces

High Speed Handpieces

Known as high speeds in dental lingo, these are used when dentists require the removal of tissue or enamel. Employed as a preparatory step, these handpieces create a platform for restorative treatments or crowns.

Compared to slow speed handpieces, these create quite a noise! That’s not a surprise, especially when you consider that they rotate anywhere between 180,000 and 450,000 rpm. Our Ivory Silkline t501 lk for example, reaches a maximum rotation speed of 345,000. Because of the high rpm, these handpieces require a cooling element. This comes in the form of a water spray, which is internally supplied to the handpiece via the chair coupling.

Dentists will use either a smaller or larger head, depending on the situation. Smaller heads give the user more visibility and improve access, which is necessary when working with younger children. When the dentist needs a little bit more cutting power to prepare teeth for further treatment, larger heads are used.

Slow Speed Handpieces

Slow speeds are what you will be used to on your average dental visit. They’re employed in a variety of cases, including soft decay, polishing and trimming. Speeds are far lower compared to high speeds, reaching up to 80,000 rpm (although the average is usually at or below 40,000 rpm). For example, the Ivory Silkline sl411c, one of our most popular models, reaches speeds of up to 40,000 rpm.

Because the rpm is far lower than high speed models, there is no requirement to have a water attachment. However, this does not mean that all low speed models do not have one; it depends on the specific version, with some dentists preferring their low speed models to also feature a water spray element.

Slow speeds work with attachments, which one to choose depends on the use cases. Extraoral procedures, for example, call for straight attachments. Contra-angle attachments, on the other hand, are used for intraoral or extraoral treatments. These include the removal of decay, the careful adjustment of crowns, and amalgam work.


The dentist will usually employ external lighting when working, particularly when using an older or frills-free dental handpiece model. Most modern handpieces, however, now also feature an integrated lighting system. Led or halogen lights are normally used for this.

high speed dental handpieces

It’s best to pick a dental handpiece that features a quality lighting system, otherwise the value just isn’t there. In that scenario, instead of a low level light, invest the money into the best possible model with fewer features.


Couplers are used to deliver water and air to the dental handpiece, using a tubing system. There are several types, depending on the model of handpiece most commonly used in the practice.

For midwest couplers, you can get as many as four or five holes. The larger holes will have air going through the handpiece, whereas the other will be the exhaust. The remaining connections are for fibre optics and water sprays.

The other more popular coupler styles are Kavo, Nsk, W&H, Sirona and Morita. At Drill Guys, one of our favourite couplers is the Ivory Kavo type coupling, which features a 6-way connection system.

What About Noise?

Our nightmares about going to the dentist often involve the sheer noise created by some of the instruments. Dental handpieces driven by air, for instance, can create off-putting levels of noise. This is because of the compressed air that is employed in these products.

Conversely, electric handpieces will usually generate a noticeable lower level of noise. In addition to not using compressed air, the vibrations generated by electric models are far less severe than those by the equivalent air turbines.

Invest in Quality Dental Products

Our advice is to always invest in quality, rather than feature set. As we mentioned in our discussion about lights, it’s far more important to focus on a product that does what it features well.

Not only that, the amount of money you save on cheaper products will usually translate into frequent repair jobs. Or even full replacements. Over the lifetime of your product, this can get very expensive.

Dental Handpiece Maintenance

Dental equipment is expensive and requires regular maintenance to ensure longevity and performance. We have previously written a step-by-step guide on how to care for your dental handpieces, but here is a quick recap:

clean and flush - get rid of debris and prevent bacteria build-up.

clean fibre optics - use a cotton tip with alcohol to remove oil and debris.

lubricate! - perhaps the most ignored step, it’s important to lubricate after each use.

sterilise - use manufacturer instructions to sterilise your dental handpiece.

high and low speed dental handpieces

Handpiece Repairs

You can follow the maintenance steps to perfection, but dental handpieces failing is unavoidable eventually. Before you think about purchasing an expensive new product, however, consider getting a quote for a repair.

There are several signs that your dental handpiece is on its last legs:

  • excessive vibrations,

  • noises you do not recognise,

  • or slow rotation speed.

Whilst the product may still work, it is best to get it looked at before repair potentially becomes more expensive, or even impossible.

For help with dental handpiece repair, consider our services at the Drill Guys. We have over two decades of experience, and work with some of the biggest corporate dental groups, including Bupa Dental, Maven Dental, and National Dental Care.

We also offer Free on-site or off-site assessments and quotations, with no obligation.

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