Introduction: Making a 3D Lamp From an MRI and Recycled Materials

Picture of Making a 3D Lamp From an MRI and Recycled Materials

After my wife had some medical tests done (everything was OK!) she was sent home with set of MRI images. I realized that I could use these 'slices' of my wife's skull to create a 3D model. After a little experimentation, including a sloppy foamcore model and a flipbook, I decided to paint each layer onto an acetate sheet and stack them in a box with LED backlighting. Here we see that original lamp with blue lights and the new one in green that I will describe in this instructable.

The basic idea is to paint each 'slice' of the MRI onto a pane of glass and stack them up in a frame. LEDs mounted in the top illuminate the layers creating a glowing 3D effect. My approach to design is to look around my workbench and scrap pile for usable stuff and make it work. Everything used in this project was either recycled or laying around my shop. My goal here isn't to teach you how to build a lamp but to show you how I built a lamp. Feel free to do with it what you will.

Step 1: Finding and Processing Your Image Set

Picture of Finding and Processing Your Image Set

If you don't have an MRI of your skull laying around ask friends and family. Chances are someone you know has a set. I found a low resolution scan online by doing a GIS. Perhaps a medical student or friendly medical professional could help you out.

An MRI basically presents a series of images of 'slices' of the body part that was scanned. Bone shows up particularly well in white. What we want to do in this step is to create and print an image for each slice of the skull which we can place under each pane and trace with paint. Each pane will be stacked in order to create the illusion of three dimensions.

In this case the MRI came on old fashioned film. More and more doctors are saving and sharing this information in digital forms. Either way we want to import these images to a computer, open them in the photo editor of your choice and make them usable for our purposes. I used a piece of white paper for a backing and scanned my MRI films with a standard desktop scanner.

I used Photoshop, but you could easily use Gimp, Corel, Paint, or any other image editing software. Specifics vary from program to program and user to user, but here's what you want to do-

1. Crop each frame of the MRI into a separate image. Each image should be the same size, carefully aligned and numbered sequentially. I create a duplicate layer, use the rectangle tool to highlight a frame, crop the image and save it. Next, use the move tool to slide the copied layer to the next frame so that it lines up to the canvas edges and save it with the next sequential number. Repeat this for each frame of the MRI.

2. Adjust the brightness and contrast of each image to accentuate the bone structure and darken the rest of the image. It may seem like more work to process each image separately, but making adjustments and applying filters to the whole image first makes it harder to align each frame properly since a lot of detail is lost after the adjustment. Use batch processing to automate the tedious task of adjusting each image.

3. Convert each image to greyscale, invert the colors and simplify it. The idea is to make each layer clear and easy to trace later. In Photoshop I convert the image to greyscale under Image>Mode and then invert it under Image>Adjustments. Automate this if possible. Now you should have a set of black images representing the cross sections of the bone. Go ahead and clean up the image, eliminating any black marks that are not bone. Take your time. Sometimes dental fillings or surgical screws cause a 'flare' effect. These spiky artifacts are kind of cool looking but they can also be carefully erased layer by layer if you choose. The more time spent cleaning up and refining your image, the better your final product will be.

When all the images are cleaned up, I use the cutout filter to smooth and simplify the image. Set the layers to '2' in the filter's options and you will get a black image of each bone cross-section on a white background. Play around with the settings to get a good balance between simplicity and detail.

4. Give each image a thin black border and a number. This will make aligning each frame to a pane of glass later much easier. Open a new blank layer. Use the wand tool to select the entire canvas area. Use Edit>Stroke to add a thin black border to the image. Copy the border layer into each image and use the text tool to add the layer number to each image.

5. Resize each image and print. Determine the dimensions of glass you want to create and resize each image appropriately. Set your printer to print in black and white only and use a low quality/draft setting to conserve ink. Check the prints and if everything is acceptable, set them aside for later.

Step 2: Painting the Glass Panes.

Picture of Painting the Glass Panes.

NOTE- Glass is sharp! Wear eye protection and gloves. Be careful cleaning your work area as tiny slivers of glass may be present. Use common sense and research any materials or tools you are unfamiliar with.

Determine how many layers you want to use. For this lamp I used 16 layers. Your mileage may vary.

I used left over glass from a friend's frame shop. Frame shops often have thin strips of glass left over and they will usually give you some. Frame shops are also a great source of matt board scraps which are very useful. I got enough scraps of glass to cut twenty 5.5'x6.75' panes.

Glass is hard to work with. It smudges easily, it has sharp edges and it's fragile. Find a clean, clutter-free area and assemble the following-

-glass panes

-90% alcohol

-clean, lint-free rags

-the printed 'slices' from Step 1

-a small cup of white paint. I recommend Zinsser BIN primer. It sticks to glass pretty well and it's affordable.

-small paintbrushes

OK let's get started. This is an assembly line process, so set up your work space so everything is available and orderly. Place your first slice printout in front of you. Take a glass pane and clean it well with the alcohol and a rag. Wear a glove to protect yourself from cuts. When the alcohol dries, place the glass on the image. Use the border of the image to align the edges of the glass.

When the glass is positioned properly, use a fine brush and trace the dark areas of the printout with white paint. Use a small flat brush to fill in all the dark areas with white paint. Be careful not to touch the glass with bare fingers or to move the glass. Take your time. Don't worry if the paint doesn't cover evenly- this is only the first coat!

As you finish a pane, leave it on the paper printout and move it carefully to the drying area. Paint each pane in turn and lay it out to dry. Be careful to keep them in order.

By the time you get to the last pane, the first one should be dry. Start over again, painting another coat on the white areas of each pane. It may take three or four coats, depending on the quality of the paint you use. You want an even color and opacity. The final image will be seen from the unpainted side, so check it from that side to judge its evenness.

NOTE- If the patient has dental fillings, surgical screws, or other metal in their body, it will cause a spiky effect on that particular layer of the MRI. See the above image. You can leave this out to get a better representation of the actual skull or leave it in. It's all up to you.

Step 3: Assebling the 'Glass Sandwich'.

Picture of Assebling the 'Glass Sandwich'.

When the panes are evenly painted and dry it's time to assemble them into the main part of our lamp. You'll want to add some kind of spacer between each layer. Here's what I used-

-black craft foam sheet

-hobby knife


-black masking tape

Use the ruler and the hobby knife to cut 1/4 inch strip out of the craft foam. Cut these strips to the height of you glass pane, in this case 5 1/2".

Take the first panel and give it a final wipe down with a lint free cloth. This should be the 'front' panel when you are looking at the final lamp. Place it in front of you with the painted side facing down. Cut a strip of the black masking tape to the length of one side of your pane, in this case 5 1/2". Place the tape along one edge of the pane, covering about 1/8" or so on the non-painted side. Do this for the other side as well.

Flip the pane over so the painted side faces up. You should have a strip of black tape sticking out from the left and right edges of the pane with the sticky side facing up.

Place a craft foam spacer strip along the side, even with the edge. Hold it in place while you carefully bend the tape up so that it grips the foam strip.

Find the next pane. Wipe it and place it on top of the other pane and foam spacers with the painted side facing up. Make sure that the panels are stacked straight and aligned properly. Add another layer of spacers and another panel. Depending on the width of the tape you are using, after 3-4 layers you should have just enough tape left to fold over and cover about 1/8" of the edge. Fold the tape over and burnish it with a smooth plastic implement like a pen cap. Don't use your finger to smooth the tape! Sharp glass can cut right through thin tape and slice your finger.

Set this bundle of panes aside and bind the next 3 or 4 panes the same way. When they are all done, combine these individual bundles with spacers between them and black tape. Be careful to keep everything in order and make sure the painted sides are all facing the same way (towards the back of the image).

Wow, now you should have something pretty cool looking! Be careful handling this bundle of glass panes. You don't want to break it now. Let's build a case to protect it and add some lights!

Step 4: Let's Build a Case

Picture of Let's Build a Case

Now we will build a case. The dimensions may vary depending on the size of your panes but there are a few things to keep in mind.This isn't a 'how to...' so much as a 'how I...' so feel free to adapt any kind of case you like.

I measured my 'glass sandwich'. I turned out to be 6 3/4" x 5 1/2" x 3". I used a scrap piece of 11/16" plywood that was 5" wide and several feet long. I cut one piece that was slightly longer than the width of the glass sandwich, here about 6 7/8. I cut two sides that were the the height of the glass panes plus the width of the plywood plus 1", or about 8 1/2". I also cut a top out of a scrap of Masonite that was 5" x 7 3/8".

To assemble the case frame I attached the sides to the ends of the base with nails and glue. I attached the Masonite top panel with nails and glue also.

Next I cut strips of 1"x1/8" pine to create a frame that attaches to the front of the frame and hangs over the inside lip of the front opening to hold the glass panels in place and hide the edges and spacers.

When everything was dry I gave it a quick sanding and started finishing the case.

Since this was intended to sit on a shelf with books, the sides wouldn't be too visible. I decided to use a faux stressed metal look for the front of the lamp. I used the aluminum duct tape used for air conditioning repair. I crumpled the tape and then smoothed it out before peeling the backing and applying it to the frame. Once the tape was applied and flattened down with a smooth implement, I applied a thin coat of grey spray paint and then wiped it off with a naptha soaked rag. I repeated this with another shade of grey and a coat of white. I then added a thick layer of green paint and wiped it with a naptha soaked rag, filling the cracks and leaving a slight green glaze. After this was completely dry I painted the whole thing with a thin coat of acrylic black, working it into the cracks, then buffed it with a soft cloth leaving an aged look. Finally, I wrapped the sides and top with extra wide duct tape.

Step 5: Let There Be Light

Picture of Let There Be Light

There are many options for lighting your lamp. The box is simple enough to modify it to accommodate various off-the-shelf lighting choices. I chose to build my own simple LED circuit that runs off of a 9v battery or a recycled wall wart. I did this because I had the parts on my workbench and I prefer to save money and recycle.

I used six 3.3v green LEDs. Usually, LEDs require a resistor to drop the incoming voltage to a usable range. Since our battery is 9v and our LEDs use 3.3v, we can run three LEDs in a row (in series) on 9v without a resistor. By splitting the positive from the battery into two separate leads, running each through a string of 3 LEDs and reconnecting them on the other side connected to the ground, we can light all six LEDs very easily. See the attached pics and schematic for more details. If the above schematic doesn't make sense to you, consider finding an off-the-shelf option.

Step 6: Let's Put It All Together

Picture of Let's Put It All Together

When the frame was done I slid the glass panes into the frame so that it faces the right way. I cut a piece of the craft foam to fit the glass panes and put it in the back of the frame. I used two small wood blocks and screws to hold the glass in place.

Next I taped the circuit board with the LEDs to a piece of matt board that was cut to fit into the top of the frame. I used a bit of the aluminum tape on the matt board to reflect the light down on the glass panes. Use a strip of tape to hold the card in place.

Next I soldered the positive lead from the battery to the switch, the switch to the positive lead from the LEDs and the ground from the LEDs to the battery ground lead. I drilled a hole for the switch in the top of the case and cut out a slot for the battery holder. When everything was in place I cut out a piece of masonite to make a cover for the back and the lamp was done.

I wanted the option to use batteries or plug it into the wall. I used an old 9v wall wart power supply and added a standard 9v battery connector. Please note that when using a (v battery holder in this way it must be soldered in 'backward'- the positive lead should go to the black wire on the connector and the ground should go to the red lead. Now the power supple can plug directly to the battery holder in the lamp.

Step 7: Final Thoughts

Picture of Final Thoughts

It was fun rebuilding a past project for this instructable. This project is open to modification and substitutions. It could be built from all new materials or from recycled and scrounged materials. My first skull lamp was done with sheets of acetate. While this worked, the acetate film sagged a bit. The glass made for a much neater image. You could also use acrylic sheets. Maybe the clear sections of old CD cases would work in a pinch. Another technique I've thought about would be to use an adhesive rubber mask on the glass and cut out the design and use a sand blaster to 'frost' each layer into the glass.

There are also plenty of lighting options. My first attempt used a string of LED Christmas lights. A small LED touch light with an external switch would work also. It would be cool to add some addressable LED strips to add movement and color changes.

The main thing is to be creative and have fun. I use recycled and repurposed materials because it's fun to make something from nothing. This project used recycled glass, scrap wood, left over paint, bits of electronics from my workbench and other odds and ends from my shop.

This project makes a great gift for that special someone. I made the first one in secret and gave it to my wife for a Christmas present. She was super excited to see her own skull glowing in a box. Have fun and make someone's day a little stranger!

Step 8: Images

Picture of Images

Wow! This was up less than 12 hours and I got 1,000 hits! This is only my second instructable, so I'm thrilled. I decided to go ahead and post the images I used. This is from my wife's MRI, so she just may have the worlds first open source head. My lamp only used the first 16 layers, but I gave you all 34 that I rendered. Go ahead and use these images, but if you do, please send me a picture of what you come up with so I can make her feel a little famous. Have fun!


darrenah (author)2016-01-19

This is too cool!

uldis.porikis (author)2015-04-28

Can You film the result?

sfrayne (author)2014-06-12

Chuck, this is awesome! We're doing something in my lab that you might dig: (these are made up of hundreds of sheets of lucite, each with a little ink on each sheet, with a couple followup steps to make for a super dense volumetric stack)

uldis.porikis (author)sfrayne2015-04-28

Cool! :D

Chuck Stephens (author)sfrayne2014-06-12

Wow! That's super awesome. I will be following your progress. Do you see a practical application for this besides a cool decorative novelty? I'd love to see 3D fractals represented this way.

sfrayne (author)Chuck Stephens2014-06-14

For sure! Check out these volumetric fractal prints from the well-known and excellent Dizingof:

re: practical applications, I see some uses in printing architectural models direct from CAD and also for medical prints, kind of like "thick" X-ray prints from CT or MRI data.

jmintuck (author)2014-06-20

Wonder if I could go to a private clinic and pay for an MRI of some of my "innerds" and make lamps from the mages? Else, if I am broke in Canada, waitup for a problem, then take it all full advantage of the situation when they DO send me for an MRI. This'd be interesting. Would like to do this.

djappe (author)jmintuck2014-10-30

Check your local hospitals for volunteer studies. I did here in Portland. Within a month I was able to volunteer for a scan.

jmitrovic (author)2014-10-19

Wow!!! Wow!!! Wow!!! You are a genius! Love it!

tyler roberts (author)2014-06-13

that would be a great Halloween decoration. now where to get a scan of someones noggin?

yivanov (author)tyler roberts2014-06-13

DICOM is a popular medical image format. There are some anonimized public repositories, like this one for example:

You might want to install something like ImageJ from NIH to view and convert them:

tyler roberts (author)yivanov2014-10-05

thanks, lots of creepy 3d scans.

Chuck Stephens (author)yivanov2014-06-13

Thanks for the link! That will keep me busy for a while.

I included the scan I used in the final step of the instructable.

American Ruin (author)2014-09-25

Very cool!

bharmer (author)2014-08-26

Are you still there? I'm getting ready to start the project, and would appreciate knowing which images (16) you used . Could you please tell me the numbers of the images you used and in which order they should be assembled? Thanks for your help.

bharmer (author)2014-08-17

Hi, didn't see an answer to the following questions:

Which 16 images did you use?

There are 2 number 6's. Please clarify.

This is an awesome piece of art, and I'm eager to try it. Will wait for your answers to begin. Thanks a lot.

tominjose (author)2014-07-30


TrollFaceTheMan (author)2014-07-08


Jan_Henrik (author)2014-07-05

Awesome, have to try it, im working as a Medical Engineer ;D

Alderin (author)2014-06-16

Very cool! You mentioned doing a cut-out and frosting the glass toward the end. That was my first thought of "improvement", which could also use the edge-lighting ( technique. Makes it much less of a 'lamp' and more of a 'display', but would be cool.

Still very awesome and thanks for sharing!

DanielGilbert (author)2014-06-14

Cool project. :) I had to laught hard at the "open source head" part, however.^^

bharmer (author)2014-06-14

Also, there are two of number 6. Do I use both? and in what order?

Thanks. It was really great of you to go to all the trouble of posting all those

images. Really appreciate it.

bharmer (author)2014-06-14

Fantastic. You said you only used 16 images, but your images are numbered

from#5 through #38. Which of these are the 16 that you used? Thanks, I love

this idea, and want to use it for a "Day of The Dead" show.

yivanov (author)2014-06-13

I usually print on overhead transparencies.Remember those? :-)

TheGrayWolf81 (author)yivanov2014-06-13

we still use those sometimes in our school.

JWSmythe (author)2014-06-13

... and people say I'm creepy.

But ... hmmm ... I did have a high res MRI of my skull done recently. And I've been wanting an excuse to get a 3d printer.

... and then I can go for my whole spine. I wonder how I should represent the extra titanium hardware.

Maybe if I asked really really nice, I could get them to do a better scan with thinner slices to make a better 3d model with.

imperio (author)2014-06-12

Very nice!

I think that, if we use (somehow) a printer instead of painting "by hand" the result should be better!


Chuck Stephens (author)imperio2014-06-12

But the glass wouldn't fit in the inkjet! Seriously though, if I was producing these on a larger scale I'd screen print the images.

julgic23 (author)Chuck Stephens2014-06-13

Try UV flatbed printers it can print on glass or acrylic.

szheng241 (author)2014-06-12

Chuck, I loved how it turned out

And the level of detail you put into the instructable was awesome.

I hate to be "that guy," but these images are from a CT study.

Anyhoo, I digress. Nice work!

Chuck Stephens (author)szheng2412014-06-12

Thanks for the heads up! I double checked the small print on the film and sure enough it's a CT scan. I'll try to correct the instructable at some point.

ST0RM_Inc (author)2014-06-12

Good job Chuck!

I love the way you 'make do' with what you have on-hand.

Though I am often impressed with people's ideas on this site, I am rarely prompted to emulate them, but you have me wanting to make something similar to this!

Thank you :-)

Chuck Stephens (author)ST0RM_Inc2014-06-12

Thanks for the kind words! I'm inspired to recycle and improvise for several reasons. First of all my grandfather grew up during the depression and he taught me to 'pinch a nickel til the Indian rides the buffalo'. Secondly, I'm self employed and the less money I spend means the less money I need meaning I don't need to work as much- more time to play and make stuff! Most importantly, I use recycled and repurposed materials to show that art and making are not economically exclusive- anyone can start doing things with what's at hand. There's no such thing as garbage!

industriald (author)2014-06-12

I thought about doing this using images from the Visible Human Project, but with the brain represented instead of the bones. Haven't had the time to sit down and do it though.

ehartl (author)2014-06-12

is someone able to make stacked slices out of a 3d skull model like this one:

i bet the results would be awesome. i think slices from the side would also look very cool!

vader00x (author)2014-06-12

Can I use plexiglass instead of glass?

Chuck Stephens (author)vader00x2014-06-12

By all means. My main reason for using glass was that my buddy owns a frame shop and I got the scrap pieces for free.

alcurb (author)Chuck Stephens2014-06-12

I wonder what your project look like with museum glass. I understand that besides the anti-reflective coating, the glass itself is ultra-transparent.

Chuck Stephens (author)alcurb2014-06-12

You can't tell too well from the photos, but each layer is slightly reflective which gives the lamp an effect similar to an infinity mirror. This can be viewed as distracting or as an added feature. Museum glass would eliminate the reflections. It also has a slightly rougher surface, which could aid in the paint coverage. There are so many possibilities with this project!

kjlpdx (author)2014-06-12

I worked at McDonnell-douglass in the 80's in cadcam. while we worked for weeks attempting 3D models of skulls for surgeons on our aircraft CAD system, a doctor took MRI sheets, cut each one from acrylic with a scrollsaw and had a useful model in 2 days. they were working on children with severe birth defects and needed a physical model to hold and discuss options. your lamp reminded me of that project.

Chuck Stephens (author)kjlpdx2014-06-12

That's a really cool story! I work with a local First Robotics team and I try to stress that innovation and tool knowledge often trumps technical prowess.

CircleS (author)2014-06-12

Love this One ! :)

imperio (author)2014-06-12

Very nice!

I think that, if we use (somehow) a printer instead of painting "by hand" the result should be better!


Chuck Stephens (author)2014-06-11

I added a new step to this instructable with the rendered images I used for my lamps. Feel free to use my wife's skull. The first skull lamp I made used acetate film. I wasn't satisfied with it. It's not stiff enough so it tends to sag a little. The glass makes for a much cleaner looking lamp. I like the idea of using reflective film. I have some of the green stuff they skin road signs with- I'll play around a bit. I also want to build one with Rustoleum's glow in the dark paint. You could wire the LEDs on a timer so they go off and on every few minutes with the skull glowing and fading in between.

alcurb (author)2014-06-11

I searchedfor a different set of MRI images of the skull or hand on the 'net and I was unsuccessful. After learning a little about the jargon used in medical imaging, I found out that the view I was after was the "coronal view" which means viewing slices from the back of the head to the front of the face. Most views I found on the 'net were from the top of the skull down towards the neck. I didn't find them as interesting as the coronal view you used.

I had considered using transparency film, the kind you use for printing with the laser printer in order to incorporate all 34 slices, the only problem is that this laser-printer film, is not 100% transparent; the minor opacity of each slide add when you stack them one on top of the other making the bottom layer very hard, if not impossible, to see. But this minus could turn into a plus because that increasing opacity could add depth to the 3D illusion.

I have also considered and adding an eerie effect by cutting vinyl retro-reflective white film and sticking them on the transparent film or glass. (This is the film used for covering traffic signs and safety equipment.) When lit from the front, they 'pop' and and seem to glow. I have worked with this kind of material before, and believe me, it doesn't take very much light to make them glow.

alcurb (author)2014-06-10

That has to be one of the coolest ways of displaying a 3D image without laser holography, lenticular lenses, or 3D glasses. Very awesome idea. I can hardly wait to make something like for myself. The one photo with the natural lighting (no LED on) for me is the coolest and the creepiest (creepy but in a good way). My scull-cap off to you. :)

caarntedd (author)2014-06-10

Awesome work! Thanks for sharing. Anyone want to try a full body scan?

Rich_Limburger (author)2014-06-10

damn awesome idea, gr8 recycling idea for the mri-scans and glass-plates.

Well done and nice executed instructable.

samalert (author)2014-06-10

Man this is sooo awesome please post a video somewhat lengthy i really want it to see the 3d effect damn its AWESOME !

About This Instructable




Bio: I build cool things from trash and recycled materials. I like noise and sound circuits. I live with my wife, a chihuahua named Monkey and ... More »
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