The world is an interesting place, but it's fascinating up close.  Through the lens of a microscope you can find details that you would otherwise never notice.  But now you can.

This instructable will show you how to build a stand for about $10 that will transform your smartphone into a powerful digital microscope. This DIY conversion stand is more than capable of functioning in an actual laboratory setting. With magnification levels as high as 175x 375x Edit:  with the addition of a second lens magnification can be as high as 375x, plant cells and their nuclei are easily observed!  In addition to allowing the observation of cells, this setup also produces stunning macro photography.

The photos in this instructable were taken with an iPhone 4S.  

Watch the video below for a quick overview of the project!

Step 1: Materials and Tools

The cost of this project is just $10 (not counting the smartphone), and it only takes about 20 minutes to build. You can be viewing cells with your smartphone within the hour!

Materials required:
3x 4 ½” x 5/16” carriage bolts
9x 5/16” nuts
3x 5/16” wing nuts
5x 5/16” washers
¾” x 7” x 7” plywood  -- for the base
⅛” x 7” x 7” plexiglass  -- for the camera stage
⅛” x 3” x 7” plexiglass  -- for the specimen stage
Scrap plexi (~ 2"x 4") for specimen slide (optional but useful)
laser pointer focus lens (use two for increased magnification)
LED click light (necessary only for viewing backlit specimens)

Assorted bits


Lights: http://www.amazon.com/FTmall-Pocket-Portable-Keychain-Flashlight/dp/B008O2KKYW/ref=lh_ni_t?ie=UTF8&psc=1&smid=A2B8SF4TS2YZYV
Lenses: If you don't have a laser, these lenses have produced comparable results:  http://www.aixiz.com/store/product_info.php/cPath/46/products_id/374/osCsid/37cabc139b4f03b0e0a522178defae7e

Step 2: Getting the lens from a laser pointer

The focus lens of just about any laser pointer will act as the macro lens on the microscope stand.  Don't waste money on an expensive model; the lens from the $2 laser is fine.  EDIT: To achieve higher magnification (up to 375x), use a second lens!  

To get the lens from the laser pointer start by unscrewing the front cone and the back cover of the tube.  Remove the batteries.  Using the eraser end of a pencil, push the innards out of the front of the tube.  The front of this assembly (the side without the spring to contact the batteries) is where the focus lens sits.  Unscrew the small black piece of plastic in front of the lens and the lens will come free.

Step 3: A few notes on the lens...

The lens, when viewed from the side is not symmetrical. You’ll see a thin translucent strip (~1mm) on one side of the lens.  That side must not be adjacent to the camera.  You can determine the correct orientation by sticking the lens between the prongs of a hairpin and taping the rig to the back of a smartphone.  The correct orientation will provide you with a larger field of view.

As it is, you can take reasonably good macro photos with this lens and smartphone. This simple rig is limited; not to mention, it’s extremely hard to keep the phone steady when taking zoomed in photos. That’s why we need to build a stand!

Step 4: Drilling the bolt holes

Make a mark with a Sharpie on the front two corners of the plywood base ¾” from both the sides and the front edges.
Put a sacrificial piece of wood beneath the plywood base before drilling.  You don’t want to damage surface of the bench! Stack the plexiglass camera stage (7” x 7” piece) on top of the base.  Then stack the specimen stage (3” x 7”) on top of the camera stage with ¾” of the stage extending off the front of the base. 
Drill through the entire assembly.   The bolts that stick up through the base must be countersunk in order for the stand to sit flat.  Flip the base over and counter sink the holes with a spade bit.

EDIT: A few tips on NOT cracking the plexiglass when drilling…First, go slow.  Let the drill do the work and DO NOT press down hard on the drill.  Use a sharp bit and press gently on the drill.  You can also put a piece of tape over the area that you wish to drill through.  It will reduce the chance of cracking the plexi.

Step 5: Embedding the lens

Find a drill bit that is the same size as or smaller than the diameter of the lens. Remember, you can always take more plexi away; adding extra plexiglass after drilling is not an option.

¾” from the front of the camera stage (in line with the bolt holes) drill a hole for the lens. 

If the lens doesn’t quite fit, file or use sandpaper to enlarge the hole.  Be sure to do this slowly and test the fit often.  It is easy to overshoot and make the hole too large! 

When using the stand, it is important to have the lens as close as possible to the camera.  If you don’t plan on having your phone in a case when you use the stand, make the lens flush with the stage.  Otherwise, leave the top of the lens slightly exposed (as is done in the image) so that the lens will rest closer to the camera.

EDIT: If you are using TWO lenses, stack them on top of another.  Insert one lens from below the plexiglass and the second from above.  

Step 6: Drilling the hole for the light source

It is important that a hole for your light source is directly below the focus lens.  The best way to mark the placement of the light is to slide the camera stage (without the lens) down to the base, mark with a pencil where the hole is to be drilled, and drill a shallow hole to rest the light in.

Step 7: Assembly

We are ready to assemble!  Start with washers and nuts to hold the bolts tight to the base.  Then add some upside down wing nuts and then washers to the two front bolts.  Place the specimen stage on top of the washers and add a nut to each bolt. Lower them about 1/2” and rest the camera stage on top of these nuts.  A level is handy here to make sure that the stage is actually flat.  If you don’t own a level there are plenty of free level apps for a phone!  When the stage is level both front to back and left to right, tighten down the final nuts.

Step 8: Explore!

Go take some pictures! Or video! With $10 worth of materials and a smartphone, you just made a digital microscope!

Plant cells tend to work best for this particular model, but feel free to experiment. That’s what this is all about, giving you the freedom to explore.

I am a major proponent of making home science more accessible.  My goal in designing and building this phone to microscope conversion stand is to provide an alternative to overly expensive microscopes. This set up is a viable option for underfunded science classrooms that would not otherwise be able to perform experiments requiring a microscope.  But more than that, this device will allow people to rediscover the world around them.

Please contact me if you have any questions or suggestions regarding this project!

Special thanks to:

The folks at Grin City Collective for all their creative guidance and support.

Luke Saunders for videography

Step 9: Troubleshooting!


As you have questions I will do my best to address them in this section!

Lens won't focus!
I have heard a lot of folks responding and saying that they are having trouble getting the lens to focus on the object.
This is most likely because the object is not close enough to the lens.  If you still can't focus on the image and the nuts under the camera stage stop the specimen stage from being raised higher use a scrap piece of plexi as a slide.  This will raise the object into focus.  

Cracked plexiglass!
I touched on this briefly earlier in the instructable.  The big thing here is GO SLOW.  Let the weight of the drill do the work and DON'T PRESS HARD.  Use as sharp a bit as possible.  Taping over the area you need to drill also reduces the chance of cracking.

I don't have the tools to make the cuts!
Not to worry!  Most hardware stores have a shop and will charge a small fee for cutting the wood and the plexiglass down to size.  

Help!  I can only buy plexiglass in huge sheets!
Many hardware stores will have scraps.  I purchased a large piece of scrap to make 8 microscopes for a fraction of the price of a full sheet.

Aaaaaaah! I can't find the same LED light!
Pretty much any LED light will work.  Ideally it can stand up straight with the light pointing vertically.  If your light is tall, it might raise the minimum height that your specimen stage can be.  This of course can easily be fixed by using longer bolts.  
Love the simplicity of this and will definitely be taking inspiration. One question: how have you worked out the level of magnification you are getting?
The magnification was determined by using calibration micrometer slides and comparing the images obtained by this apparatus to the images from a digital microscope of known magnification.
<p>You don't need a calibrated digital microscope if you know the object size. Just measure a known size object on the display (that you claim the magnification for). For example, if a 1mm ruler mark is 100mm, measured on the screen, you have a magnification of 100. You can also use common objects, such as human hair, which is about 0.002 inch diameter as your &quot;calibration object&quot;.</p>
The LED light that is used in this instructable: <br> <br>Diamond Visions Inc 08-0775 Crazy Colored Stubby Keychain Led Flashlight
<p>You can get the led light at <a href="http://www.dx.com/p/109083" rel="nofollow">Dealextreme </a>too.</p>
<p>I understand that you can use others as well?</p>
<p>I made this but I made it into a compound microscope.</p><p>Here's some useful links to anyone wanting to build a compound microscope. I used an apochromatic (I think) lens from an old camera as the objective.</p><p><a href="http://www.funsci.com/fun3_en/ucomp1/ucomp1.htm" rel="nofollow">http://www.funsci.com/fun3_en/ucomp1/ucomp1.htm</a></p><p></p><p>http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/geoopt/micros.html</p><p></p>
<p>I made this with my son using two lenses but the magnification is nowhere close to showing a cell. Not sure what the issue is? Both lenses appear to be oriented the right way, the camera lens is right atop them...any notion of what I'm doing incorrectly?</p>
<p>Showcasing the brilliant simplicity of technology. Why it shouldn't cost the preposterous amounts of money that it really does, when simple builds like this cover the general purpose needs of the public. </p>
<p>I made it with my 10 years old son. I bought the lenses from AixiZ LLC</p><p>1 x 10 Pack of standard acrylic lenses for 12x30mm modules (AIX-LENS-123) = $10.00</p><p>and the distance from the sample to the lens is quite small, so the configuration of the bolts has to change but it works.</p>
<p>I made it with my 10 years old son. I bought the lenses from AixiZ LLC</p><p>1 x 10 Pack of standard acrylic lenses for 12x30mm modules (AIX-LENS-123) = $10.00</p><p>and the distance from the sample to the lens is quite small, so the configuration of the bolts has to change but it works.</p>
<p>I made it with my 10 years old son. I bought the lenses from AixiZ LLC</p><p>1 x 10 Pack of standard acrylic lenses for 12x30mm modules (AIX-LENS-123) = $10.00</p><p>and the distance from the sample to the lens is quite small, so the configuration of the bolts has to change but it works.</p>
<p>I did it! :) Made entirely of plexiglass except the bolt offcourse. I used one central wheel for focusing instead of two. I made pretty cool images with it. You can see spider's &quot;skeleton&quot; and mosquito's hairy leggs. Amazing idea, but I'm not sure about magnification because I used CD ROM lens, I doubt it has 375X but it's just fine. And I used LED strip instead of flashlight.</p>
<p>First of all, brilliant build. Thanks for posting your well-document instructable.</p><p>I have a question and some suggestions:</p><p>What household chemical can one use to stain the specimens?</p><p>One can make the stage less wobbly by using larger washers and by hot-gluing the washers to the wingnuts.</p><p>One can set up two lenses side-by-side: one single and one double (stacked) lenses. To change mags, all you gotta do is slide the phone left or right.</p><p>Lighting with polarized light can yield some interesting features of the specimen. To do this, scavenge polarized lenses from a broken pair of sunglasses or from 3D cinema glasses. If one were to place the lens on top of the LED light and rotate the lens, one can vary the polarization of the light hitting the specimen. If one were to stack two polarized lenses or films on top of each other and rotate one of them, one can accurately dim the light output from the LED light source.</p><p>Using UV LED light can bring up some interesting colors of the specimen that would otherwise not be visible. Needless to say, one would need to take precautions not to stare at the UV light or wear UV-blocking glasses. Let the camera do the staring.</p>
<p>Watch out using 3D cinema glasses for polarizers, as they are usually <em>circularly</em> polarized. You want <em>linearly</em> polarized lenses, which are in some sunglasses. You should use 2;: one to polarize the (usually through) illumination, the other to &quot;analyze&quot; the light from the specimen. You should set them crossed, or nearly so. You will need a lot more light.</p>
<p>Thanks. I'm going to try that.</p>
<p>Hi Alcurb, could you please tell me which lenses did you use? I got a pack of the ones that come with a black casing. Can I stack those withouth removing them from it?</p>
<p>I don't know how to answer that. I guess it depends of the dimensions of the casing. Did you experiment by manually holding it in front of your camera? The lenses that I was referring were two laser lenses stacked on top of each other to increase the mag.</p>
<p>alcurb,</p><p>I guess the real problem is in what you want to stain. Different stains have specific purposes. I have used methylene blue (from the aquarium med section of any store) for general cell staining. Dilute it 1:1 with water to make an approximately 1% solution. Iodine (betadine worked fine). Same dilution as M blue.</p>
<p>Which lenses from AIXIZ does this use?</p>
<p>Some wood with fungus on it and a bees face. I glued the laserpointer lens inside my iPhone enclosure. I also made the microscope version with PE and plexiglass but I like the portable version better. Some soap in the sink: </p><p>https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pYYHmx8p3j0</p>
<p>with my CNC router I just fabricated 72 kits which a friend gave away to children at the Portland makers faire. [ignor extra holes in base of prototype]</p>
<p>Oh wow that&acute;s actually quite amazing. Keep up the great work.</p>
<p>thanks you sir this is very nice ....i salute to your concept</p>
<p>My son and I want to build one of these, I have located everything except for the LED flashlight. I see them offered by some places but in the 24 pack unit only. Do you have a suggestion for an alternative lamp that can be found and purchased in single units? </p>
<p>Here is the original light and a less expensive one too...have fun.</p><p><a href="http://www.amazon.com/FTmall-Pocket-Portable-Keychain-Flashlight/dp/B008O2KKYW/ref=lh_ni_t?ie=UTF8&psc=1&smid=A2B8SF4TS2YZYV" rel="nofollow">http://www.amazon.com/FTmall-Pocket-Portable-Keych...</a></p><p><a href="http://www.amazon.com/Super-Compact-LED-Flashlight-Keychain-Super-Bright/dp/B005CYV9OU/ref=pd_sim_23_5?ie=UTF8&refRID=11EASX032EVWJHQ64NGF&dpID=410L0bQUHUL&dpSrc=sims&preST=_AC_UL160_SR160%2C160_" rel="nofollow">http://www.amazon.com/Super-Compact-LED-Flashlight...</a></p>
<p>This looks like a great project, my son and I are going to build this. I have tried to find the LED lamp you specified but can only find it as an entire display box, not a single unit. Any idea where I can get only one? </p>
<p>This is really neat. BIG Thanks for sharing. </p>
<p>How about using a 1W LED and series resistor, powering the assembly from USB cable?</p>
<p>oh yeah.....habr&aacute; que intentarlo</p>
<p>Which lenses exactly make the best microscope then? Would a dollar store laser lens be equivocal to what you find in say a petsmart laser pointer? Also getting a linking problem on the page, it takes you to some acrylic lenses on both links. I got one to work! Very fun, I think I need to make the stage less wobbly and it was hard to drill through the plexiglass, since it is so polished and the bit just won't start so it cracked where I put in my microscope lens. A little rubber cement will hold the lens if it drops through! </p>
<p>How to use 2 lenses? Plexiglas have place only for 1, how you connect 2nd?</p>
<p>Greetings from Australia! Love the simplicity and versatility of this project, had to make my own. Shown is a 5 cent coin. Thanks for sharing! : )</p>
<p>great Idea!!!!</p>
omg this is the best instructables i ever found
<p>Bloody brilliant! I will be making one and talking to the local school. This is good even if you have some microscopes. Far less fiddle to set up and move for introductory labs. If you have any more great ideas please publish them.</p>
<p>Great ible. Thank you!</p><p>I use my iPhone camera to make pics of ID cards, etc. This device could be used for that as well by simply turning the camera 180&deg;. If there were a fixed reference for the phone to sit in and a grid for placing the object to be photographed, the device would be greatly improved.</p><p>I suggest it to you instead of doing it myself because I think you should have the credit for the improvement.</p>
<p>This is a terrific project, I plan to try it with my iPad, it should be the same principle.</p>
<p>Yes! Make your stage larger, though. You need to have your iPad sitting flat on the camera stage for best results. I have found that the size as described in the instructable is most suitable for phones/mp3 players with smart cameras.</p>
You are correct that a larger stage is necessary. I am mostly concerned with the lens arrangement and not so much with the rest of it. I do, however, have a very nice piece of acrylic that would be more than adequate for the size of my iPad. Thanks for the suggestion.
<p>this is simply brilliant. I have to try this out for my kids and myself. Thanks a lot</p>
<p>Thanks! Lets us know how you get on! Please post photos that you take!</p>
<p>does it work with any phone or camera or do you need an iphone willc it work with a blackberry or ipod 4 </p>
<p>This stand will convert and smart device with a camera, whether that is an mp3 player, tablet or phone, into a digital microscope. </p>
<p>$10 phone or your iPhone? Additional lens or not? I'm not convinced.</p>
<p>Yes, I realized after posting the instructable that its name is misleading. The $10 refers to the cost of the stand itself. The stand can convert any smart device with a camera, whether thats an mp3 player, phone or tablet, into a digital microscope. </p><p>Still not convinced? Try it out! Also, there are dozens of photos in the comments section taken by other users. </p>
<p>Awesome project! What if I try to use a lens salvaged from a CD player or CD-Rom drive? I assume it should be of a higher quality, but I don't know if it is of the right geometry.</p>
<p>I have heard multiple reports of people using those lenses. They all seem to work as well as the laser lenses. Give it a shot and let us know how it goes!</p>
<p>No real good reason to make the phone shelf out of plex--it doesn't need to be clear.</p>

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