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

About: Huur... derrr.

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

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.

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'.

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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