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
mri frame rendered.jpg

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.

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uldis.porikis4 months ago

Can You film the result?

sfrayne1 year ago

Chuck, this is awesome! We're doing something in my lab that you might dig: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/lookingglass/looking-glass-hologram-20 (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)

animatedfrog_lookingglass.gifct scanned foot multi view.png

Cool! :D

Chuck Stephens (author)  sfrayne1 year ago

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.

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.

jmintuck1 year ago

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 jmintuck10 months ago

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

jmitrovic10 months ago

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

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

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:


thanks, lots of creepy 3d scans.

Chuck Stephens (author)  yivanov1 year ago

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

Chuck Stephens (author)  tyler roberts1 year ago

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

American Ruin11 months ago

Very cool!

bharmer1 year ago

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.

bharmer1 year ago

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.

tominjose1 year ago



Jan_Henrik1 year ago

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

Alderin1 year ago

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 (http://www.instructables.com/id/Edge-Lit-Displays/) technique. Makes it much less of a 'lamp' and more of a 'display', but would be cool.

Still very awesome and thanks for sharing!

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

bharmer1 year ago

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.

bharmer1 year ago

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.

yivanov1 year ago

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

we still use those sometimes in our school.

JWSmythe1 year ago

... 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.

imperio1 year ago

Very nice!

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


Chuck Stephens (author)  imperio1 year ago

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.

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

szheng2411 year ago

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)  szheng2411 year ago

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_Inc1 year ago

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_Inc1 year ago

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!

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.

ehartl1 year ago

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!

vader00x1 year ago

Can I use plexiglass instead of glass?

Chuck Stephens (author)  vader00x1 year ago

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.

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)  alcurb1 year ago

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!

kjlpdx1 year ago

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.

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