Introduction: Small Is Beautiful: Micro-Carving and Micro-Painting a Robot That Stands on the Head of a Pin.

Picture of Small Is Beautiful: Micro-Carving and Micro-Painting a Robot That Stands on the Head of a Pin.

What are the limits of human dexterity? How small can a carving be made using only hand held tools? I was curious. As a robot builder, see: who is interested in learning how to make micro-machines, I wondered what could be done entirely by hand. What are the limits of hand held precision? At what point do we need to resort to computer controlled micro-machines or photo etched computer chip technology?

So I carved and painted a small sculpture of an instructables robot that was small enough to stand on the head of a pin.

While the result is obviously not even close to the state of the art of microscopic carving and painting (see step 4), some of you might find the techniques used interesting and maybe even useful.

The art of miniaturization may also have interesting parallels to the art of ecology- (step 5).

Step 1: Tools and Materials

Picture of Tools and Materials

I experimented with dozens of hand tools and dremel tools trying to find the ones that worked best on small scale carvings.

The tools I found most usful that are available from and/or Walmart:

#2 or #11 x-acto knife blade (pic 2c)

x-acto knife blade holders

#14346 .01" micro saw (pic 2b)

#60937 hand vise (pic 2a)

needle file (pic 2d)

#81838 3.7x binocular headband magnifier (pic 3)

10x magnifier (Pic 3)

3x magnifier taped to adjustable light pic-x (pic 4)

Milliput modeling epoxy putty or 1/16" circuit board

Clear five-minute epoxy

Dremel tools I found useful:

#105 1/32" round engraving cutter
#113 1/16" square end engraving cutter

Step 2: Micro-Carving

Picture of Micro-Carving

I eventually ended up carving three versions of the robot. They ranged in size from 3.5mm to 5mm high. Two of them I carved using 1/16 inch thick fiberglass circuit board material with the copper etched off. While they carved fairly easily, they were hard to get very smooth. The first one took about three hours as I was trying every small carving, cutting, or sanding tool I had at hand. The second one took about two hours and the third took about an hour.

Since I was working on a scale more than twice the size that the masters of this art (step 4) can do, I was able to do the simple carving fairly fast. The masters can take a week to a month to do single carving or painting that is considerably smaller. They also put much more detail in them.

The last carving I did using Milliput modeling epoxy. It is an epoxy putty that has some kind of filler that makes it set up like a very hard plastic. It was very easy to rough shape with dremel tools. I was then able to carve details with a sharp knife and then smooth it by scraping with the knife or rubbing with sand paper. I highly recommend the Milliput. If you want to go really small, you can use a grain of rice or a seed glued on to a support base.

Pic 5 shows the finished carving still attached to its base. I found that it is fairly easy to hold the carving in a handle vice with that hand resting on the workbench. You can then put your two hands against each other to reduce shake while carving or painting. It turns out that for micro-carving it is fairly easy to have very precise control of the tools which can result in very small details.

I started out by roughing out the sculpture with the two dremel tool bits. If you do not use too much pressure, a small #67 drill bit can also be used for roughing out. I then used the knife to cut in details and then scrape the thing smooth. I then drilled a hole well below the legs to allow for the micro saw to fit in and cut the slot between the legs. If you do not have a micro saw, a broken lenth of jewelers saw blade can be put in a knife holder and used to cut the slot.

pic 6 shows the sequence of carving.

Leave the carving atached to the base until after it is Painted. Once the painted sculpture is detached from the base it becomes very difficult to even pick it up without damaging the paint job. The very last step is to cut the carving off the base and glue it with a very small drop of clear epoxy to a pinhead that has been sanded to rough up the top surface. Be advised that the glue joint is very delicate. I accidentally knocked off the smallest sculpture I had made and it disappeared forever in the dusty floor of my shop.

Step 3: Micro-Painting

Picture of Micro-Painting


Artists oil paints

Japan Drier

#2 exacto blade or very fine (.0015") wire for use as a paint brush

Hair from a fly for use as a brush (optional)

Choosing the right magnifier
I found the 3.7x headband magnifier to be adequite for carving but not enough for painting. So I taped a 3x magnifying glass to a flexible light (pic 4) and used that along with the headband magnifier for painting. A 10x magnifier was also used to check the smallest details. The masters, I suppose, do everything under a stereoscopic microscope.

Choosing the Right Paint
It turned out that for me, micro painting was considerably harder than micro carving. At first I tried using standard oil based paint used for models. It was a disaster. It proved almost impossible to create really small dots and lines. The problem is that when using really small amounts of regular solvent based paint they tend to bead up and skin over in a matter of seconds. This makes it almost impossible to create thin lines and small dots. I then tried using acrylic based paints and got similar bad results.

I finally tried artists oil paints. I have never liked this kind of paint because it can take weeks or even months to dry out. But for this application they are almost perfect. However, If you do not want to wait a ridiculously long time for the paint to dry, I would recommend using a drop of Japan Drier to a small blob (about the size of a pencil eraser) of oil paint. This will make the paint reasonably dry in a day or two.

You may also have to thin the paint with linseed oil. At this scale, if you put it on too thick as I did, you will obliterate many of the details of the carving.

Pic 7 shows the robot after painting. After it was painted I epoxied a human hair to the back of the head to create the ear antennas. The base that the sculpture is attached to makes a good palette for the oil paints.

Choosing the Right Brush
Willard Wigan, one of the masters of micro-carving and micro-painting, is said to use a hair plucked from a dead fly as a paintbrush. I tried it and found the hairs to be thin enough but too short to be easily used.

You will need to find the thinnest strand of something in order to paint at the microscopic level. Human hairs work but are too thick at .1mm to create small enough lines and dots for micro painting. Because of the thickness of the paint on a hair, to create a line the width of a human hair, a smaller thickness than a human hair is needed.

After trying a strand of a human hair, fly hair, .004 inch nylon thread, and thin paper cut to a sharp point, I finally settled on a single strand of copper wire that was .0015" thick. This works fairly well. In the end, I also used a #2 x-acto blade as a brush as its very sharp point was easier to control. It turns out that precisely placing the tip of the paint brush exactly where you want it is not that hard. What is extremely hard is to get the right consistency of paint and control how it comes off the brush (knife edge or wire). Only a few times was I able to create lines or dots thinner than a human hair.

As you can see from my very crude micro-painting results (pic 8), to do micro-painting well, most likely requires years of practice.

There are artists (see step 4) that are painting complete miniature scenes on canvases the size of my robot sculpture.

Step 4: Masters of Microscopic Art

Picture of Masters of Microscopic Art

To show you the scale that the best micro carvers are carving at: Pic 9 is a computer drawing of one of Willard Wigans sculptures "The Thinker" on the head of a pin.

Here are some links to some of the mind boggling carvings and paintings that people have done using hand held tools:

Willard Wigan from Great Britain is one of the masters of microscopic art. He has carved figures that stand in the eye of a needle or are dwarfed by the head of a pin. Some of his sculptures are less than a millimeter high. To reduce shake, he says he puts on the paint in between heartbeats using a fly hair.

Here is a Russian who has carved a camel caravan that fits in the eye of a needle:

And a chessboard with pieces on the head of a pin:

Heres a Chinese guy Jin Y. H. who has painted portraits of 42 presidents on a half inch length of human hair. The faces are the width of a human hair.

More paintings on a single hair:

Here are some of his larger paintings, around the size of my robot carving.

Step 5: Small Is Beautiful

Picture of Small Is Beautiful

What is green about carving a robot on the head of a pin? Nothing much, although it can provide days or even months of challenging entertainment using simple tools and almost no materials.

But the techniques and principles involved in the minimization and miniaturization of anything is, I believe, the essence of true ecology. There is a natural and unavoidable tendency of humans over the long run to find the most efficient and economical way to to anything and everything. This natural evolution of products and services may be slower than we want or expect, but it is unstoppable. It is called doing more with less. One of the best examples of this is the electronics industry.

Here we can see devises getting smaller and more efficient while at the same time becoming more inexpensive. Why are we not doing that with our houses and cars?

Here are the basic principals of miniaturization and true ecology:

1. Make it Smaller.

Electronics is the most obvious example of things becoming smaller and more efficient. The same thing could be true of houses if people would simply build smaller. The architecture of boats and RVs is a fine example of how much can be efficiently done in a small space.

2. Reduce the Energy Used.
A reduction in size also causes a reduction in the energy required to create and maintain.

3 Keep it Simple
Leave out everything that is not necessary. Too much ornamentation and time is lost. Less ornamentation requires less time and space. Too much complexity and reliability is often lost and the cost goes up. Also, simpler designs usually require less energy to create.

If such basic principals are followed, we will not only reduce pollution, we will lesson our impact as much or more as using wind power, solar energy, or burning bio fuels.

Those that are truly worried about our impact on the planet will eventually recognize that small is beautiful and begin to learn how to voluntarily reduce the consumption and complexity of their lives.


bowmaster (author)2009-03-24

I put the entire Harry Potter book series on one of the grooves of a dime. By hand. Of course I'm a ninja so it wasn't that hard.

frollard (author)bowmaster2009-03-27

Some dude (*world record) wrote something like (dont quote me on this) an entire book from the bible on a postage stamp. Crazy stuff.

bowmaster (author)frollard2009-03-27

I wrote the entire internet on one of my skin cells.

frollard (author)bowmaster2009-03-27

in hexadecimal? electron micrograph or its fake!

bowmaster (author)frollard2009-03-27

In braille. I used a chainsaw.

frollard (author)bowmaster2009-03-27

I did that last week, back before the recession, when the internet was bigger.

bowmaster (author)frollard2009-03-27

I used a bunch of nuclear warheads to crave an exact replica of the entire universe and the entire internet at its biggest point on a quark.

frollard (author)bowmaster2009-03-27

I did that ...also last week....on the only higgs-boson particle ever to exist since they all dissipated. It was only in existance for less than a nanosecond - but I used 2 planets which I accelerated to the speed of 'ludicrous' into each other. I predicted the angle necessary to have the resulting higgs-boson (only one) inscribed with Shirley Temple's entire repertoire played backwards to reveal the devil voice saying 'eat more cheese today'. Then I ate some bacon. All in a day's work.

bowmaster (author)frollard2009-03-27

I made a time machine and went back in time and set of a fire cracker in such a way that in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years someone will be born who's first words will be " Bowmaster is awesome".

frollard (author)bowmaster2009-03-28

....but it will be a blasphemy in the alien race's language - and the baby will be euthanized. sorry.

bowmaster (author)frollard2009-03-28

I just punched a tree so the baby will be invincible, super smart, super strong, and be very handsome.

frollard (author)bowmaster2009-03-28

"MC Frontalot - bizzaro genius baby" Anyhoo. I hope that didnt hurt ;)

bowmaster (author)frollard2009-03-28

I just kicked my dog. Now all your descendants will be cursed for all time.

frollard (author)bowmaster2009-03-28

why do ***I*** get cursed?

but mans best friend *will* hate you since you kicked it.

bowmaster (author)frollard2009-03-28

You don't get cursed. Just all you descendants. They get cursed because you made a joke I didn't get.

frollard (author)bowmaster2009-03-29
listen to the lyrics carefully, its hilarious.

bowmaster (author)frollard2009-03-29

At first I was going to uncurse you and your descendants because you let me in on the joke. Then I found out it was rap so I decided to uncurse your descendants but leave you cursed.But the awesome ending made me decide to uncurse you too! I need to go punch my mom. That is how you break the curse.

frollard (author)bowmaster2009-03-29

Nerdcore 'rap' is the only acceptable rap.

bowmaster (author)frollard2009-03-29

That's true.

robobot3112 (author)bowmaster2014-08-23

no wonder why you got a gold medal in discussions.

Surprisingly long.

 wow that was a pretty epic string  of comments

8bit (author)billybobjhonson2010-07-31

Best of instructables comments. There needs to be a way to nominate it.

I know huh?

garrett10 (author)bowmaster2010-06-24


Mr.Sticky (author)frollard2010-02-15

actually, that wouldn't be that hard if you had a really small pen...the shortest book in the bible has only 13 verses in it!   And I've seen some really big stamps....

frollard (author)Mr.Sticky2010-02-16

...its a ridiculo-tiny size, and a huge amount of text, in the thousands of characters...again I can't quote exactly, and I don't care to look it up -- granted extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof - humbly, I just don't care to do it!

mikey77 (author)frollard2009-03-29

I am working on a micro-machine that will be able to write everything that science knows for certain on the head of a pin. I think there will be room left over.

bowmaster (author)mikey772009-03-29

I did that yesterday. On a hexigedoquad. Quarks are made from those.

bfk (author)2012-02-12

Beautifully done. Instructables is having a little difficulty at the moment displaying all the photos, but as soon as they're up again, I'll revisit this.

I've never attempted anything this small, but for extremely fine work, a no.11 scalpel blade can't be beat. They're more narrow and much thinner than Exacto blades

btw... When do the fleas come in?:)

Kaiven (author)2010-02-15

I'm still looking for a video game character I can try carving with this 'ible... maybe Samus or a Halo Grunt?

Mutantflame (author)Kaiven2011-09-10

Halo grunt any day. Or Spongebob, if you're up for it.

skaldedgrifon (author)2010-12-02

Thanks for sharing your technique with us. What a neat artform, you could have an entire collection in a pill case. In this world of gig thumb sticks...where so much has gone digital... I like this 'real' and hands-on version approach for mini art. Perfect for those of us without massive studio apartments. Thanks -Scott

awoodcarver (author)2009-07-06

I have carved chains out of match sticks and tooth picks but this is well just great ...keep up the good work eyes are going cross just thinking about trying to do something this small

garrett10 (author)awoodcarver2010-06-24


thepaul93 (author)awoodcarver2009-07-30

that's awesome

JohnJY (author)2010-05-07

 Hey, could you try putting the Lord's Prayer on a grain of rice for me? Or tell me how I could try...

sharlston (author)2009-10-01

this should be featured if it hasnt anyway

Sandisk1duo (author)2009-03-23


that's small!

SuperJesus (author)Sandisk1duo2009-03-23

That's what she said. sorry, but i couldn't resist...but yea, that is pretty dang small.

JohnJY (author)SuperJesus2009-09-22

But not to me.

clark (author)SuperJesus2009-03-24

AHAHAHAHAHAH! that was possibly the best burn in instructables history.

maruawe (author)2009-03-24

unbelievable, I wish that I was able to steady my hands to do this I am amazed.. PS how did you get the fly hair?????????

mikey77 (author)maruawe2009-03-24

Under a 10x magnifier, use a pair of tweezers filed to a point to pull out a hair from the abdomen of a freshly killed fly. If the fly has been dead too long, the hairs will tend to be brittle and break easily. You can then glue the hair with a minuscule blob of epoxy or nail polish to the end of a pointed toothpick.

mikey77 (author)mikey772009-04-20

You might find this interesting.

Here is a guy carving and painting a panda on a small section of a single strand of panda hair. The results are a bit crude, but still impressive.


westfw (author)2009-03-25

I think some of the referenced "micro-paintings" play a bit fast and loose with their claims of magnification. Compare the "50000 times magnified" painting of a Panda with This wikipedia photo at "200 times" magnification.

Besides, as far as I know, optical microscopy tops out at about 1000x due to limitations of the physics involved. (wikipedia says 1500x) And a hair is about 100micrometers wide, so at 50000x magnification the image would be 5 meters wide...

Not that it isn't still pretty impressive...

mikey77 (author)westfw2009-03-25

Good point. As far as I know, color photographs at that magnification have never been done. It may just be a translation problem, but most likely it is the Chinese government doing what they do best, exaggerating and making things in their country appear to be better than they are (also called Lying). That said, I think it may just be possible to stipple (use lots of tiny dots) to create an image of a face the width of a human hair. Before I tried it, I did a fair amount of research on this. Everyone who is involved in this kind of microscopic art is very tight lipped on actual methods and techniques. The Willard Wigan sculptures (see step 4) are what convinced me the most that incredible precision is possible with the human hand. His work has been on display and someone fairly recently, paid two million dollars for a collection of his work. I can see how with a ridiculous amount of time and dedication sculptures like his can just barely be done. With my very limited experimentation, I was surprised how relatively easy it is to carve at the micro scale. You have a great deal of "feel" at that scale which begins to be more precise than magnified sight, which is quit limited no matter what the magnification. With micro-painting, however, it becomes exponentially more difficult. You no longer have two solid objects in direct contact. The feel is lost. Instead, you have your hand floating over the canvas with a minute blob of paint between the tool and the canvas that wants to follow surface tension, stiction, and every microscopic quiver of your hand. An interesting challenge.

frollard (author)mikey772009-03-27

Maybe they meant scanning at 50000 dpi...

mman1506 (author)2009-03-26

i saw on a tv show one painter he aciddently breathed to much and mary in the mary little lamb was up his nose

andrewmystery (author)2009-03-24

Woah! Awesome!

Kaiven (author)2009-03-24


About This Instructable




Bio: I believe that the purpose of life is to learn how to do our best and not give in to the weaker way.
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