Introduction: The Microwave: a Color 3D Scanner for Small Objects

Picture of The Microwave: a Color 3D Scanner for Small Objects

Have you ever wanted to 3D scan a stuffed animal, or a little ceramic dinosaur, or perhaps an owl whistle? You know, to contribute to the volumetric digital repository of civilization. Well, I have good news for you - all you need is a lightbox, a cheap turntable display, a big sheet of white paper, and a phone (with camera). Or you could use an old microwave.

This rig is 10x less expensive than every monochrome 3D scanner out there - and it's in color!

Background: A few years ago I was trying to 3D scan a small ceramic owl whistle* and found out that my favorite 3D scanning rig for people and scenes (the Primesense Carmine 1.09 with Skanect) couldn't do it - the whistle was too small.

This is how to make your own Microwave -- a color 3D scanner for digitizing the small things in your life.

*If you're someone who likes the absurd joy of 3D scanning objects from the real world and then interacting with those 3D scans back in meatspace in a lightfield display -- well, more on that coming soon!

Step 1: Theory

Picture of Theory

A lot of people have used photo-stitching software. And almost as many people think it sucks. The background always seems to get blended into the subject matter being scanned, making for terrible 3D models of small objects. The problem is, the software is designed to force the photographer to walk around the subject, leading to uneven lighting and a bunch of undesired background imagery being pulled into the final 3D model.

Quite a few folks (myself included) have naively tried to take photos of spinning objects to get around this issue - I once tried to 3D scan a turkey in a rotisserrie oven - but alas, if the background is static and the subject is rotating/spinning, photogrammetry software like the now-defunct 123D Catch and even better software like Agisoft doesn't seem to work at all.

Turns out, the solution to this problem and the key to using photogrammetry to 3D scan small objects is to eliminate the background and all shadows with a trick photographers call the infinity wall.

It's insanely simple. And it works.

Step 2: Tools & Materials

Picture of Tools & Materials


  • A single large white piece of paper (A3/Legal or larger is best); if you are scanning white objects, you'll need a black piece of paper instead.
  • A turntable display that makes a full revolution in between 15 - 30 seconds.
  • A light: can be either a diffused light bulb or an LED light panel
  • A box, slightly bigger than a large microwave - in Step 3 I'll include some drawings of a lasercut plexi box that works well.
  • A phone with a camera: newer phones with "burst" mode work well. A DSLR camera will work as well or better.
  • (if you want to get fancy) Some magnets and a hairband or lobster claw rubberband


  • Scissors
  • A set of hex keys (if you assemble the box based on the plans in Step 3)
  • A little tape
  • Agisoft Professional Edition (there's a 30-day free trial version with full model download A-OK)

It's actually kind of silly to use an actual microwave for this, since the game here is to trick some software into doing something it doesn't want to do, using a perfectly monotone background, even lighting, and a small turning table. For the intrepid, a microwave will work, and here's how to get at the turntable motor and power it separately. For everyone else, this instructable will show how to make the "Microwave" 3D scanner from scratch.

Step 3: Build the Lightbox

Picture of Build the Lightbox

For the lightbox, I used laser cut acrylic with a LED lightpanel. Any box that is white will probably do - including microwaves or painted FedEx cardboard boxes. The LED lightpanel goes on top.

The box detailed here was designed by my colleague in our lab at Looking Glass, Angus - it's 18" x 16" x 16" and is made of translucent white acrylic, held together with some simple 90 degree bracket. Plans are attached to this step. This is opensource under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license.

Note: there are a few improvements to this simple ilghtbox you might want to try that make the scanning more consistent, including shifting the lightpanel towards the front opening.

Step 4: Make Your Paper Backdrop

Picture of Make Your Paper Backdrop

I used the trick that all photographers use for "infinity" photos with no discernible background -- it's just a slightly curved well-lit piece of paper behind the subject. An A3/legal-sized sheet will work fine, but any large sheet of paper cut to your box size will do.

The only important thing to keep in mind is that the paper cannot have any wrinkles or creases and it must be completely, absolutely clean. Any photographed speck of dirt or wrinkle in the backdrop will get picked up by the photogrammetry software and the image will not render.

While you're at it, cut a hole in the paper for your rotating turntable and cover the turntable with a bit of the same white paper used for the backdrop.

Step 5: Place Your Object and Take a Burst of Photographs

Picture of Place Your Object and Take a Burst of Photographs

If you follow the plans for the lightbox detailed in this instructable, you'll see there's a crossbar with some embedded magnets included. This is meant to hold a phone with an elastic band, set on a curved steel track to improve scanning at different positions from the object. This is only needed if you want to get fancy. If you've a steady hand, you can just hold your phone or camera and shoot a burst of photographs. The object should fill as much of the photo's area as possible.

Burst mode, as opposed to taking a series of photographs with separate trigger presses, will ensure your camera phone doesn't shake while the object is being scanned. That said, a burst set of photographs yields more photos than you need to make a high quality 3D model. So, select just 30-35 photos from the burst set for the base and top of your object (ideally 30-70 photos in total).

Note: rather than using "burst mode" on your phone or camera, you can also use timer software to take a photo every 0.5 - 1 second or so. Some free software I've tried is Gorillacam, but I'm sure there are loads of other options.

Step 6: Stitch Your Photos With Off-the-shelf Software

Picture of Stitch Your Photos With Off-the-shelf Software

Load 30-70 of the photos you took in Step 5 into Agisoft Photoscan Professional Edition (there's a 30-day free trial with full download of the generated 3D model). Click a few buttons and 10-20 minutes later, you will have your digitized object!

Pro tip: For objects with overhangs, you'll likely need to mask out each photo, which is pretty easy with a solid white background in each image. Also, if you are scanning white objects, you'll need a monotone non-white background.

Here's the owl whistle after I scanned it and ran the photos through this process.

I'm finding this overall method is much more reliable than the standard walk-around photo-scanning for small objects - and maybe it could work people-scanning, with a huge Microwave or backdrop.


stupidvampire (author)2017-01-05

Do you have a link to the led light panel you purchased? Like an amazon link or something?

BoboB5 (author)2016-09-15

Very wonderful idea.. :)

I only can't find a possibility to
load premade photos into the 123d Catch-App.. - Did they change the software or am I
just too ... whatever ... to find the feature.

Hoping the second possibility to be true: Please, could somebody give me a hint?

Thank you a lot*****

DonG67 (author)2016-08-27

How did you make the curved face of the microwave front?

stevealexa (author)2016-08-21

Got a kit yet? Pleeez!

stevealexa (author)2016-08-21

I want the kit

LuisR103 (author)2016-08-07

May I suggest you crowd fund the kit? I'm sure it will get a lot of attention in crowd funding sites like indiegogo... You could even manage to get cross promoted by the people at 123D Catch and that would be great enterprise. If you need help getting it off the ground, let me know.

KateGladstone (author)2016-03-15

I want a kit! I am experimenting with making plastic replacement nibs for calligraphy pens, and so far this has meant cutting things by hand ...

TheCoffeeDude (author)2015-12-23

I'm using this setup to scan and print small plastic parts for repairing stick blenders. I don't think I could have scanned them any other way as easily.

LouiiT (author)2015-11-09

I'd buy kit, I'm interested

nicamarvin (author)2015-10-16

Amazing..! thanks for sharing

ryn004 (author)2015-06-11

Is the kit available. I would be interested.

novelchip (author)2014-09-19

great instructable !

Akin Yildiz (author)2014-07-14

incredible work...

Jake Maverick (author)2014-06-26

Awesome! i want one....and still a 3d printer to go with it....;-)

got an old microwave looking to chuck actually....

sfrayne (author)Jake Maverick2014-06-26

Nice! If more than ten people are interested I'll push to get a kit's looking likely....

Jake Maverick (author)sfrayne2014-07-06

actually, another thought....LED light panels....only way i know to make them is with LED strips, and whole thing ends up abt an inch there a better way? i have made star trek style LCARS panels and i just thinking 'fake' type computer panels in general- flexible/ bendy would be even better! ;-)

Jake Maverick (author)sfrayne2014-06-27

good show! entirely wrong time at the minute...moving house and no end going on so likely microwave will be chucked :-( but i guess follow up Q.....wd you ship to uk? ;-)

vetrisepo (author)2014-07-05

Great job! The only room for possible improvement would be to use an old phone case or. 3dprinted one!

shepjour (author)2014-06-29

Got to try this.

strella (author)2014-06-28

do it, make a kit!

Oldrunk (author)2014-06-28

Does this violate Amazon's patent of photography against a white background?

Oh, and great Instructable

stach (author)2014-06-27


would you like to publish or sent plans in dxf format files

OceanLady (author)2014-06-26

I'd totally buy a kit! I'm a jewellery student and planning on selling mostly online when I'm done school, 3d imaging would be so useful to better show people what they're looking at online... but for that I'd obviously want it in color, and as a startup I'd rather spend $1000 on a casting machine or something, lol. $100 is doable for sure, though. Let me know if you do it!

sfrayne (author)OceanLady2014-06-26

Thanks, will do! Just a note though, I have a feeling that shiny/reflective jewellery will be a little tricky to 3D scan with any technique, including this one. I'm experimenting with adding a polarization filter over the camera to get rid of some reflections, but the jury is still out. What type of jewelry do you make? I'll try to simulate a scan of something similar here in my lab...

OceanLady (author)sfrayne2014-06-27

I mostly work in silver, with different color stones. I'd be interested in seeing a scan of some kind of highly polished metal so that I know what to expect. It doesn't really matter what it is as long as it's shiny metal.

desidude52 (author)2014-06-27

I wonder if you can put your camera on the turn table and 3d scan a room.

prakis (author)2014-06-27

Excellent. Simple and clever. Thank you.

Jayefuu (author)2014-06-27

Hi Sean!

It's interesting this worked so well. Last time I used 123D (a year or two ago) they highly recommended you didn't use plain white backgrounds because it reduced photo registration points. Has this changed? Did you have any problems with using a light box for it?


simotoni (author)2014-06-26

Bravo !

MichaelAtOz (author)2014-06-26

Thanks, looks like something anyone with a 3D printer will want.

From the image in step 6, do you need to take shots from different vertical angles?

Could you also elaborate re "Pro tip: For objects with overhangs, you'll likely need to mask out
each photo, which is pretty easy with a solid white background in each
image." - what needs masking out in relation to the overhang? The bit of the object under/behind the overhang?

sfrayne (author)MichaelAtOz2014-06-26

Oh, and about Step 6 - yes, it's best to take two rounds of photos with your camera in two positions - one set straight on and one set a bit elevated. That way the topmost portion of the object shows up in the final 3D model.

sfrayne (author)MichaelAtOz2014-06-26

The photogrammetry software seems to drag the white background into the 3D model if there are any complex overhangs, like in a lego castle, for instance. To get around this issue, all of the white areas on each image should be masked out/deleted (which requires a couple clicks of a mouse to select the background areas in Agisoft) for objects with holes or overhangs. Maybe this isn't always true -- experimentation continues!

joetoyman (author)2014-06-26

You've answered my prayers, thanks. I would definitely be interested in a "Kit". Let me know where and how you want payment, if you decide to pursue the kit. I have an Android, so I'll have to see what's available that is similar to GorillaCam for the iPhone. It looks like there are quite a few available, so I will do some research.

Two thumbs up!


sfrayne (author)joetoyman2014-06-26

Sweet! I'll let you know if I pull the trigger on the kit.

jmorello (author)2014-06-26

I will take a kit, let me know.

Nice work, the mesh looks really good on the small object.

Simple and elegant solution.



samalert (author)2014-06-23

Invalid Product mate ! Link on step 6

sfrayne (author)samalert2014-06-23

Got it and fixed - thanks! For some reason isn't allowing access to links without signing in, bizarrely. So I moved the model to Sketchfab.

ewilhelm (author)sfrayne2014-06-26

I think you had the model marked as private in 123D.

samern (author)2014-06-26

Are you kidding? Sign me up for a kit! Saves me the trouble of adding yet another project build to the queue, especially since I ordered a MatterForm some time ago and I'm still waiting. This is a GREAT idea! Thanks!

Mingoman (author)2014-06-24

I think many people would be interested in this. Good job.

nodcah (author)2014-06-23

Awesome project! I'll definitely consider this for the future. =)

Zaphod Beetlebrox (author)2014-06-23

If you don't have burst mode you can take a video and then follow these instructions (Step 8) to make it into a sequence of jpegs (one per frame), this will give you a ton of photos so just select the ones you need.

It's interesting that you do exactly the opposite of what the 123D Catch page says for creating a good scan. A very bland background without any marks, spinning the model not the camera, and using difuse lighting with no shadows.

Orngrimm (author)2014-06-23

Thanks for the hint with Agisoft! The thing is amazing!

bpetno (author)2014-06-23

Brilliant! I think you would find many buyers for this kit including myself!

Jan_Henrik (author)2014-06-23

Very cool!!

About This Instructable




More by sfrayne:Making of the L3D Cube: Idea to Product in 4 MonthsInto the Looking Glass: 3D Scanning Scenes 101Free Range Color 3D Scanning with an iPad
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