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How To Care for Your Microscope

Two researchers in a lab working with a microscope
Credit: iStock

A microscope is a key piece of laboratory equipment, yet it can be underappreciated, misused and sometimes neglected.

If you walked into a classroom laboratory you would probably see a cupboard full of microscopes, used maybe just a handful of times a year, old but still in good shape, clean and ready to go. Then walk into a working academic lab; a microscope is usually tucked away in a corner, maybe a little dusty and with visible oil smudges, not covered – the light may even have been left on! And where are the supplies: the lens wipes, mineral oil, extra light bulbs – where is the cover!? So why the difference in microscope care?

In a laboratory classroom, the instructor hammers home the importance of caring for the expensive microscope: how to carry, use and clean it properly – there may even be a quiz on microscope care. On the other hand, academic laboratories can be more like a family, with staff relying on oral histories from one person to the next on how to use and care for the microscope – in fact, you may never really know the “truth”.

This guide will provide a few reminders and “must-dos” to keep the basic laboratory microscope in good working condition; why not pin it up in your laboratory or put it in your laboratory notebook as a reference. It’s also worth saying that, although no one wants to be the microscope police, a gentle reminder may be required every now and then when you see misuse.

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Handle with care

If the microscope must be moved, carry it from the base and support arm, if picked up by stage or eyepiece holder it can become misaligned.

Keep covered

Every time you use or clean the microscope be sure to cover the kit to prevent dust and other contaminants from reaching the apparatus. If you cannot find your cover, order a new one from the manufacturer or find a suitable substitute, such as a large plastic bag.

Store safely

Keep the microscope in a draft-free, dry place, where it won’t get bumped, pushed, wet and where things will not fall on it. Make sure the microscope is level to the table/bench.

Keep area clean

  • Keep the area clean, organized and ready to use for the next person, even if that’s you: throw away used lens paper/wipes, cover any bottles, wipe the counter clean and place essential items within easy reach for the user.
  • Keep the stage clean with lens paper to remove dust and particles, you can use a little alcohol to remove oil and other dirt if needed.
  • A small soft brush or canned air can be used to dust off the microscope – use carefully.
  • Do not prepare or stain samples next to the microscope.

Keep the lenses clean

  • Clean off the oil immersion lenses with lens paper after each use. This should be done routinely after every use with no exception because oil gets sticky and attracts dust and dirt. Some labs may use a solvent to remove oil, others use a bit of alcohol, but always use manufacturers recommendations.
  • Only use lens wipes/lens paper. Do not use a tissue, paper towel or any other types of wipes – they will scratch the lens.
  • Don’t forget to clean the ocular lens in the eyepiece, it can become dirty from eyelashes, makeup and fingers. The objective lenses will also need to be cleaned periodically, again follow the microscope manual or have it done by a professional.

Take care of bulbs

  • Turn the microscope off after use. Do not keep the light on all day as this will shorten the bulb’s life.
  • Always have extra bulbs handy, not just one but at least two. You don’t want to turn on the microscope to look at your oh-so-important cells only to find a blown bulb, you then try the new bulb and it’s bad, ugh. Believe me, it can happen.

Refer to the user manual

  • Keep the manual right next to the microscope: hang it on the wall, place it in a drawer, just have it readily available. Important numbers to have handy in this manual are lightbulb reorder number and microscope technician phone number.
  • If new to the lab read through the manual at least once – this is essential, especially if you do not want to rely completely on oral history.

Maintain your microscope

It is a good idea to have the microscope checked once a year. If your institution does not have an in-house microscope technician, consider investing in a professional contract to maintain your microscopes – they will check all lenses, moving parts, plugs and lights.

A well-cared-for and maintained microscope will last a long time – a very long time. Above are basic tips that every microscope user should adhere to; but do remember, each microscope will have its own quirks, so read through the manufacturer’s manual and take note of specific recommendations. Like with any type of expensive lab equipment, take care of it and it will take care of you!