"It demands patience," says Donna Lopp. Like almost everyone on Fraley's team, Lopp was trained as a sculptor; her small size belies the fact that she is, among other things, a strong and accomplished welder. Her artist's instincts prove invaluable when coaxing bone from matrix. "It can be unforgiving. It demands a lot of patience and care. The stone is moody, unpredictable."
Few tools are built expressly for dinosaur bone preparation, so Fraley's team cribs freely from other fields: sculpture (wooden clay-modeling knives, double-ended carving picks, chisels, tiny spatulas, mallets), engraving (the air scribe, jewelers' loupes), and dentistry (carvers, probes, teasing needles). There are glues and penetrants for stabilizing the bones, hand-mixed resin concoctions for filling in holes, and denatured alcohols for cleaning. Two essential instruments are coffee and music. The team works with beehive intensity as an alt-rock sound track blares from a dusty boom box in the middle of the room.
After gross preparation, some of the team members moved on to the fine preparation stage of cleaning. For this, they use a microabrader, a tool resembling a corded pen that works like a very small sandblaster but uses gentler baking soda, talc, glass beads, and aluminum oxide. A finicky, labor-intensive process, it leaves the bones as smooth as skipping stones. Meanwhile, other team members began making silicone-rubber molds of Samson's bones for fabricating lightweight polyester-resin replicas. The gaps in Samson's skeletal display will be filled in with replicas of his own foot as well as the pelvis, some ribs, and parts of the tail of another T. rex.
Some of Samson's bones, including a 4-foot-4-inch-long femur and vertebrae that resemble polished coffee cans with delicate wings, are in near pristine shape. At the opposite end of the damage spectrum is a collection of more than a thousand shards that make up a jumbled three-dimensional puzzle. Most members of Fraley's team dread the sight of shards, but Tom Bugler, one of the on-the-floor supervisors, can pluck a few from a table and suddenly reconstruct the delicate arch of a rib. Bugler says it's a spatial-relations skill. "I've always been very good at packing a suitcase or the trunk of a car."
One part of Samson that Fraley and the team don't have to worry about is the skull. It is a beauty—perhaps the most complete T. rex skull ever discovered—and Fraley and Graham Lacey decided it should be prepared by a museum, where paleontologists could study it. The skull went first to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History's PaleoLab in Pittsburgh, then made a brief trip to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where scientists studied it with the same CT-scan equipment used to examine the space shuttle. But the fossil is much too heavy—close to 300 pounds—too fragile, and too valuable to perch on Samson's neck. So a cast will be made to serve as a stand-in, while the real skull will be displayed on its own eye-level mount near the animal's feet.
The most complicated stage in building a dinosaur is actually putting it all together. Early on, Fraley and his team had to decide what Samson's final pose would be. Running? Reaching? "I like to try to find a pose for the animal so that it's almost as if, within a blink of an eye, everything could change, and it could leap up," Fraley says. "That's something that has me . . . not waking up at night but definitely thinking." Samson is the fourth T. rex that Fraley has been involved in mounting, but that doesn't make it easier. Eventually, after trying out a number of options using computer illustrations, he and Lacey settled on a pose in which Samson's upper torso is slightly turned, as though he's just heard a Triceratops snorting behind a copse of trees nearby.
Samson's bones cannot stand on their own, of course. Instead they are supported by a giant metal framework called an armature—a skeleton for the skeleton—which requires precise engineering, custom welding, and plenty of tweaking. Many of Samson's ribs were significantly warped from their time beneath tons of rock and dirt. To give Samson a symmetrical rib cage, team leader Paul Zawisha will rig and rerig the ribs until they look right. A successful armature becomes virtually invisible to anyone staring up and through the monumental skeleton. The ultimate goal is to make all the mechanics and labor involved in assembling the skeleton disappear entirely, leaving the viewer with simple, slack-jawed amazement at the animal itself.
Fraley willingly admits that he is in awe of Samson and feels a special responsibility to make certain that the final mount does the magnificent T. rex justice. "The fossil begins to dictate the way that it wants to be put back together again, because it was, at one point in time, a living, breathing animal, no different from you and me," he says. "And that energy still exists—65 million years later, it's still there."