3 Steps for Creating Your Own Lithophanes

3 Steps for Creating Your Own Lithophanes

Josh Ajima (DesignMakeTeach) is an Instructional Facilitator for Technology in a Virginia public high school. He is an advocate for 3D printing in the classroom and was the winner of the Formlabs 3D Printing Design Awards for Education with his Hidden Figure – Friendship 7 lithophane. He holds demonstrations, presentations, and workshops highlighting methods of integrating 3D printing and technology into different educational settings.

In this tutorial, Josh (DesignMakeTeach) will be going over a simple process for creating 3D printable lithophanes. This makes use of an image to lithophane converter, but if you’d like more control and a greater challenge, check out the post on Creating Your Own 3D Printed Lithophane in Blender. 

As a maker educator working in K-12 schools, I’m always looking for ways to make 3D printing and digital design relevant to students in the classroom. Lithophanes are a quick and easy way for students to personalize a model or add relevant content. 

A lithophane is a 3D model in which an engraved or embossed image appears clearly when backlit. Traditional lithophanes were etched or molded out of thin porcelain. The thickness of each area of a lithophane determines the amount of light that can pass through. Software can convert a 2D image into a 3D model by changing the thickness of the 3D model based on the lightness or darkness of the area of the 2D image.

One of the first lithophanes I printed back in 2014 was for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day display at school. I found a public domain image of Martin Luther King Jr. from the Library of Congress and uploaded a cropped version to an online lithophane customizer to create the model.

[Rev. Martin Luther King, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing right, speaking at a rally in Crawfordville, Georgia]. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <https://www.loc.gov/item/99404332/>.

When choosing a photo for a lithophane intended for publication, it is important to have rights to use the image. I encourage students to take their own photos or use public domain or Creative Commons images. Citing the image source is also a best practice.

Lithophanes can be created in a variety of software tools but I prefer the free Image to Lithophane Converter web app by Nested Cube at http://3dp.rocks/lithophane/. The app is simple to use and has 8 different options for model types. For students, using a free web app eliminates issues with installing and learning to use complicated 3D modeling programs. The settings tab allows you to choose whether the image is positive or negative. If your photo looks ‘normal’ then select positive. You can rotate the model and check that the darkest parts of the image are thicker and the lighter part of the image are thinner.

This app makes it easy to upload a photo and download a model for 3D printing but for best results the photo should be edited. I find it easiest to convert color images to black and white first and then crop to size. 

The next step is to adjust the contrast of the image. Contrast is the difference in tone between the lightest and darkest portions of your image. Great black & white photos and lithophanes both rely on strong contrast. It may take some experimentation, but tweaking the contrast can give more detail and clarity in your final print. Optionally, you may want to use your image editing tools to erase the background or distracting elements. A strong background or wallpaper design can be distracting in a lithophane.

Example image in black and white with high contrast

There are a number of variables that can affect your lithophane including the filament used, model thickness, slicer settings and light source. You can experiment by printing multiple lithophanes and adjusting the z-height.

I created the Lithophane test card to reduce the amount of trial and error. The Lithophane Test Cards allows users to dial in an appropriate lithophane model height to reliably achieve the desired contrast under the final lighting setup.

Test cards are included at 3mm, 5mm, or 10mm test heights. These test card can also be scaled in the z-axis before slicing to fine tune the settings. The Image to Lithophane Converter allows you to select model height and other parameters in the Model Settings tab. Use solid infill (100%) in your slicer settings when printing lithophanes to prevent infill lines from showing in the image.

Lithophane Test Card showing different opacities

Teachers interested in using lithophanes in the classroom should check out my 3D Printed Lithophanes lesson plan.


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