Introduction: Copy Stand - Cheap and Easy to Build

I collect lots of documents as part of my work; recently I decided I should let the sheets of ‘tree stuff’ return to the environment and clear up my living space and office by scanning everything I could. I had recently got rid of a flat bed scanner; it was far too slow and I hardly ever used it. I needed something that was convenient and fast; it didn't need to make ultra high fidelity scans, just readable would do.
For some time I had been photographing some documents instead of scanning them; it was quick and convenient, but hand held was slow and a bit ‘hit and miss’. Photographing documents is nothing new:
(and many more)
Most of these setups had some convenience problems for my use; I needed a more or less permanent compact setup that I could pump a few thousand documents through quickly to catch up with the backlog, and then handle the day to day accumulation. Some of the links above refer to the use of commercial copy stands. Many of these are now surplus from old darkroom enlargers. eBay had quite few copy stands for sale but they were too big, too expensive (postage) or not quite right for A4 pages. I decided to make one myself preferably using bits and pieces from around my house (yes I am a hoarder).

Step 1: Materials and Tools

Even if you buy all the materials you could build this copy stand for under A$30 and take less than an hour. Like me you will probably find most of the materials around your house or well stocked workshop.

To make one you will need:
(This list looks long but it is very comprehensive; mostly nuts, bolts and washers.)
A camera (preferably >3M res. or greater)
A remote shutter release (optional but a darn good idea).
Power adaptor for the camera (optional but a darn good idea).
Optional USB cable for the camera.
A flat base board 2 inches bigger in width & length than the pages you want to scan.
3x 8mm threaded rods (length depends on camera, see below)
1 x ¼” threaded rod length roughly enough to go halfway across the width of the board
3x lengths of ~1” aluminium angle extrusion, (length depends on base board, see below).
1x ½” long ¼” round headed screw with nut and two washers (pivot)
7x Rubber Tips to suit the 8mm threaded rods.
1x 8mm round head bolt screw ~1” long
13x nuts to suit the 8mm threaded rods (lots of nuts = lots of adjustability.)
14x washers to suit the 8mm threaded rods
4x nuts to suit the ¼” threaded rod (one of these can be a wing nuts for convenience.
1x 2”long ¼ “ 20 TPI bolt to suit your camera mount thread.
1x Bottle cap ~1” diameter.
1x Washer for the camera mount
1x Bicycle rear view mirror – as cheap as you like but easily adjustable.
1x ~4” piece of tubing the right diameter for the bike mirror.
1x 5” long ¼” round head bolt. I used a ¼” coach bolt.
1x nut to fit long bolt.
2x washers to fit long bolt; one should be the same diameter as the tube if possible.
2x desk lamps with little diffuse spot light bulbs
or a single desk lamp with a reflector. (see below).
Some scrap corrugated cardboard or similar page centring stops.
Masking tape.
Fabric book binding tape or thin rubber tape if you can get it.

A square
A saw to cut the aluminium extrusions
A tape measure and pen
A file and/or emery paper
A drill and drill bits
Adjustable spanner or a couple of spanners the right size
Screw driver

Optional tools: Drill press, small pipe cutter, gauge block, scissors, deburring tool, centre punch, craft knife or scalpel.

Step 2: Construction

The construction of the stand is fairly obvious from the pictures in this Instructible. You just cut your aluminium to length, drill all the holes and then bolt it together. So I will just offer a few tips and then the following steps will explain some of my design choices:
It is best to start by marking out the board ready to drill 4 holes - one in each corner. Then before you drill the holes transfer the hole markings to the aluminium angles. This will ensure that the hole spacing on the board perfectly matches the top frame.
I always use masking tape to protect the surfaces of already finished items; it is easier to mark out on too. Use a drill press if you can; this helps to keep the rods perpendicular to the board. I used a centre punch when drilling the aluminium and I also drilled pilot holes and then expanded them out to the rod size for best accuracy.
Round all the cut corners on the aluminium parts with a file to avoid painful snags.
When assembling mount all the legs on the base board first and get it level before putting on the frame.

Step 3: The Base Board

The flat base board or panel has to have enough space to mount the 3 threaded rods and still have room for the pages you want to scan. About 2 inches (1” margin) is just enough for the rods, for me in Oz with typically A4 pages at ~8 ¼” x 11 ¾” this means a board ~ 10” x 14” or bigger.
I have made two copy stands one uses a polypropylene kitchen cutting board (office) and one a laminated bamboo kitchen cutting board (home). You can use practically anything for the base board as long as you can drill holes in it and it is strong and thick enough to provide stability. If it is less than say ~10mm thick it might not provide enough stability. If you can find something with a ferro-metal top eg a magnetic white board, then you have the added bonus of being able to use magnets as page hold downs or centring blocks. You can get great magnetic strips from old refrigerator door seals.
Warning: If you grab an old cutting board from the kitchen you will possibly have an angry wife and the smell of onions while you work. :-)

Step 4: The Short Leg

There are 3 long legs and one short leg. This leaves a big window for easy access and high speed copying. You should first decide where you are going to place the finished copy stand as this will decide which corner has the short leg. I have the stand on my desk to the left so the short leg is on the front right. If you are planning to have your stand on the right perhaps you should look at the photos in a mirror. It is very easy to mirror the design; in fact a few extra holes and it could be made a convertible. The short leg is attached by a nut and washer. This leg defines how high the base board stands above your desk so install it first.
The rubber tips are to stop the ends of the rods from scratching your desk and also to prevent the stand from sliding around when doing vigorous copying. I also put rubber tips on the the tops of the rods to protect against ripped sleeves. I guess you could as an option use cap nuts here instead.
I used ¼” tips on 8mm threaded rods, a bit tight but they screwed on nice and firm.

Step 5: The 3 Threaded Rod Legs

The 3 threaded rods I used were 8mm diameter but this is not critical. The length of the rods will depend on the distance the camera has to be from the document to just frame it perfectly. The best way to determine the distance is to measure it. Use a test document with the largest length, width and smallest text you are going to work with, set the camera for the widest view and the right focus range. Move as close as possible to just frame the whole document, keep as steady as possible and take a few test shots. Remember the page should be in portrait mode so turn the camera to suit - don't waste any pixels! Check your shots have a good focus and readability. Once you have the settings worked out get someone to measure the distance from the camera mounting screw hole to the test page when you are at the right distance to suit your camera.
This distance plus about 2-3 inches to allow for the other components, is the minimum length for the threaded rods. You could add a bit more to allow for photographing documents a bit bigger than A4 like I did; I ended up with rods 18 ½” long.
The rods are held onto the base board with two nuts and two washers.

Step 6: The Top Frame - Overview

You can see from the photo that the top frame is "L" shaped with a pivoting arm attached to the shorter leg of the "L". The 3 lengths of ~1” aluminium angle extrusion should have a reasonable wall thickness 1/8” or greater. You could possibly substitute hardwood here but I have not tried it.
One piece of the L frame will be as long as the width as your board and the other piece will be as long as your board.
The pivot arm has to be long enough to support the base of your camera and also place the lens right above the middle of your board and stiil have some extra length for the adjustment screw and wing nut. The FZ20 has the mounting hole offset with respect to the lens axis and many cameras have similar idiosyncrasies. So measure and calculate carefully.
You can of course drill additional holes to allow you to use other cameras on the same stand. I eventually added another hole in the pivot arm to suit my FZ50. I had to move the wing nut to the other end of the pivot arm screw to give the FZ50 more clearance; keep that in mind when cutting your pivot arm, be generous.

Step 7: The Pivot for the Pivot Arm

The pivot point for the pivot arm is a short round headed screw, I used ¼” dia. but it is not critical. The position of the pivot point is critical though; mark the middle of the shorter aluminium angle of the L frame and then mark for drilling the camera arm pivot offset to this. The offset is the distance from the base to the centre of the camera lens, plus ½ the width of one of the outer faces of the aluminium angle. See the diagram:

Step 8: Pivot Arm Adjustment and Locking

The pivot  arm is adjusted and locked in aligment with a ¼” threaded rod about half the width of the board long. You can use a wide range of threaded rod diameters here; even the same dia. as the legs.
Despite the wingnut I seldom adjust this so you possibly could get away with a nice looking cap nut.

Step 9: Camera Mounting Area

I covered the area where the camera is mounted on the pivot arm using fabric book binding tape. It works, but thin rubber tape might work better if you can get it. It is a good idea to cover this area, not only is the camera held more firmly because of the increased friction,  it also protects the base of your precious camera. I used a scalpel to cut the hole in the tape.

Step 10: The Camera Mounting Screw

The camera is held in position with a  2” long ¼” 20 TPI bolt combined with a bottle cap, 3 nuts and 2 locking washers. You will need to have one locking washer under the head of the screw and one under the opposing nut and do it up tight to make sure the cap does not free wheel. 
You could just use a short screw to mount the camera and tighten it with a screw driver but it is much easier to mount and unmount the camera with my bottle cap kludge.

Step 11: The Mirror

By now you are probably busting to know what the bicycle rear view mirror is for!
The  mirror allows you to see the back of the camera while the user is seated; this allows easy checking that the copying is going OK. It also shows if the camera has been left on inadvertently, very important if you are running from batteries.
The mirror is mounted on a short piece of tubing the right size for the bike mirror. I used a scrap of tubular steel broom handle; it was white vinyl coated and looked good. I cut it with a small pipe cutter so the ends were already square and finished.
The tubing is held in place by long round head bolt down the middle (I used a ¼” coach bolt). I found a washer to put under the head that was the same diameter as the OD of the tube. This makes it easier to put on the mirror. If you can’t find a washer the right size then put on the mirror before you mount the tube.

Step 12: The Camera

Chances are you are going to press your precious personal digital camera into service on this stand and that is fine; more than likely it will exceed requirements for this project.
I have indicated that the camera should preferably be greater than 3 Meg in resolution. My reasoning for this is as follows. For an A4 page size field of view, the pixels per inch are given by approximately 105 times the square root of the camera resolution in megapixels. For example a 4M camera would be 105 x 2 = 210 PPI. This is just a bit better than a fax machine, by the time you take into account a little noise and focus blur I don’t think a camera much less than ~3M (182 PPI) would work well enough. So forget about webcams and that cheap digicam you found in a show bag.
Nevertheless if you want a dedicated camera for the stand you should be able to pick up a cheap camera of sufficient quality from eBay.  I know Samsung make several cameras with a text mode eg the S860. The S860 is quite cheap, but I have not tried it. I would welcome a bit of feedback about suitable cameras.
I used an old Panasonic FZ20, this has a 5M sensor providing images that are 2560 x 1920 pixels; so assuming an A4 page goes right across the image this gives a resolution of 1920/8.25” ~= 233 pixels/inch. I also have a Panasonic  FZ50, this is a 10M camera and provides ~332 PPI on A4 paper. This extra resolution is occasionally a good thing but the files are much bigger too.

Step 13: Lighting

I better say something about the lighting to use; if you go through Daniel Reetz's link:

and other links off that one, you will find a lot about lighting for this sort of copying. As a professional photographer I have to say everything that I read from Daniel about lighting is absolutely correct. If you are archiving books for the future you have a responsibility to get some good lighting, so read up what Daniel has to say.

For my purpose I only have to be able to read the text on an LCD screen; it is the content of the text I am after not a perfect and accurate rendition of the document or book.
I first tried bed-head lamps clipped on the legs but they gave lots of reflections on shiny pages. Two desk lamps with little pearl spot light bulbs work the best when about a foot or more away from each end of the board and not too high. This solution though uses a lot of desk space. Currently at home I use a single desk lamp standing on the desk return at one end of the board. At the other end I have a curved foil reflector clipped to the legs with clothes pegs. Over the foil I have a translucent plastic sheet; bare foil on its own produces uneven spot reflections from wrinkles when this close to the subject.
I made the light more diffuse by taping a folder tissue over the lower half of the desk lamp. (See the photos)
At work I use ambient lighting, a mixture of daylight from windows and the dreaded fluoros. Occasionally I get reflections on shiny pages so I either block the direct light with a plastic bag or turn off some of the lights.

The only trick I use is to make sure I set the white balance on the camera before I start.

Yes I get lots of various shades of colour toned grey instead of white and lots of noise but I find for me this reduces eyestrain when I blow the images up for reading. (I should mention here I normally wear reading glasses, it is great to be able to blow the images up and screen and read them strain free.) The colour variation is actually helpful to find particular pages in the thumbnails.
If I was to get into my photographer’s ivory tower I would point out that at for black text on white a lot of the noise is generated by the camera’s jpeg compression. So when shooting for art sake I get out the studio lights and shoot RAW.
Nevertheless ultimately the lighting is up to you and what works for your needs is all that matters.

Step 14: Centering the Original

I tried various ways to centre the pages on the board while still allowing rapid changes. The best method I have found so far are 4 strips of scrap corrugated cardboard held down with masking tape:

(At work you could place your “in tray” on the board as a page guide and use the recycle bin as your “out tray” ;-) .)

Step 15: Using the Stand

As I mentioned earlier, set the cameras white balance to suit the lighting with a white (or pref. 18% grey) page. Set your camera up to have the right focus and possibly macro setting. I also find it a good idea to have the shutter sound switched on. When rapidly going through a pile of documents the audible feedback becomes very important so you know you have the picture.

Depending on the quality of the camera you may get some pincushion or barrel distortion. This is usually not a problem for me because it does not affect the readability of the text. There are plenty of lens distortion correction applications, if you need to have your image perfectly undistorted.

For fastest throughput go through your originals and get them ready to go first; right way up; in the intended order and stacked in a position with easy access. I sometimes put a small object (coin, blu-tak) on the board in the corner facing me so that the page does not lie perfectly flat; this makes it much easier to pick up the page after copying.

When the camera is not being used for some time I put a business card over the LCD to stop dust. I also have a piece of paper dangling from my lens cover so I don’t forget to remove the lens cover before I start shooting.

A peculiarity of the FZ20 is that you have to unmount the camera to access the memory chip and battery. I have found it more convenient to have a USB cable connected to the camera so I can just run the pictures straight into the computer. It takes longer but it is far easier. So I have all 3 sockets on my FZ20 in service = Power, USB and Remote.

I have also found the stand useful for macro photography, enlarging small instruction books, business cards and saving all those little scrap paper notes with miscellaneous data. I wanted to get the maximum use out of this design so later I might get my daughter to sew up some white rip lock nylon to go over it as a light tent. I made an extra full length leg to occasionally replace the short leg; this will support the 4th corner of the light tent later on.

The copy stand is very sucessful, I can archive about 3000 pages on a single DVD; so far the only “thumbs down” has come from the evicted silverfish that used to live in my office.

Digital Days Photo Contest

Participated in the
Digital Days Photo Contest