[Thumb]nail Portraits - (laser Etch Your Fingernails)




Introduction: [Thumb]nail Portraits - (laser Etch Your Fingernails)

About: Bilal Ghalib is interested in doing things that surprise him and inspire others. Let's create a future we want to live in together.
Throughout history there has been a hotly contested division between men of great importance. Rooted from a question pondered in their youth: beard - or mustache? Deeply concerned with their facial ornamentation, these men of highest standing were the Rogain to history's receding hairline. Dali chose the razor mustache while Monet chose a dirt-smear beard. Zappa went for a bikers long horned lip hanger while ZZ-Top chose a beard to tie their pants to. Each with their own motives and each leaving their nuzzle rubbings on the face of facial attire.

In this instructable you will learn how to do fingernail portraiture. One method involves pain and the potential for scarification, while the other pleasure (or mostly the absence of pain). By the end of this instructable I hope you will gain some appreciation for the beard and mustache and their everlasting body slam on the face of history. Or at least look at your fingernails as a place where you can express more than just a color.

Step 1: Gather Materials

If you wake up every morning looking at your hands and wondering how you can make them more expressive without taking up the exhausting art of miming, than these are the things you'll need:

1) A laser cutter
2) A good idea
3) Nail Polish
4) Nail polish remover
5) Press on nails
6) Double sided tape
7) A strong magnet

Step 2: Mustache Mafia

The title of this etching is "Clash of Titans" a nod to the epic figures on my opposing hands. One is the Mustache Mafia and the other is the Band of Bearded Brothers. These next two steps will introduce them:

The Mustache Mafia are quite a handful. Before etching them into our body let's start by getting some background information on these wildcats.

1) Stalin
We begin with little Joey Stalin. This man and his monstrous beard has featured in some awesome videos. He made it cool for communists to have a 'stache... and considering the fact that papa Marx was all about the beard it was a tough sell in deed.

2) Friedrich Nietzsche
Nietzsche's iconic mustache is often mistaken for a blow-dried rat held between his upper lip and his nose. But this image is usually propagated by his jealous enemies who are justifiably shocked by his awesome beard mustache skills. His philosophy had the same powerful haphazardly life affirming individualistic notions that one feels his mustache must be squeaking.

3) Frank Zappa
Zappa rocks and he's shown clear allegiance to the Mustache Mafia since day 1. With two love handles like that it must have been hard to beat down the women lining up offering their ceaseless butterfly kisses. This clearly has twisted Zappas mind, and comes back quite clearly in his lyrics:
A little green monkey over there
Kills a million people?
That’s not fair!
Did it really go that way?
Did you ask the c.i.a.?
Poor man died of prostate cancer.

4) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salvador_DaliDali
Dali is one greased up pig in a barrel of sausage. No one can keep their hands on this slick fox. This surrealist painter surpassed fame and was a legend in his own time. Some say this was due to his connections with the MM (mustache mafia), but it's hard to deny this man was a genius. Check out his work. His mustache also proved essential as feelers during his final years, imagine a man crawling on all fours moving long wispy antenna. Surreal... but true.

5) Chaplin
Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin was nearly shot being mistaken for Hitler. But after a quick miming session managed to silently subdue the confused American Assailant and continued his slapstick walk. Now if you don't believe in the power of a good mustache, imagine Chaplin without one. You can't, he simply vanishes into a hat.

Step 3: The Band of Bearded Brothers.

The Band of Bearded Brothers are an ancient group going back millennia. Jesus wasn't the first cool bearded guy, there was Moses before him and King Tut. Aristotle, and the genie from Aladin had beards too. Why this mysterious group emerged and what their goals are is unclear. Some believe they're a strange cult attempting to solve life's great questions in order to make it boring. Nonetheless let's meet our left hand associates.

1) Karl Marx
It's little known, but as a child Karl really enjoyed playing with his Meccano set and his parents believed he'd become an engineer. He even built the first electric guitar and started a band called K Marx the Spot. Things were looking good for Marx and his band. They had a new fresh sound and their first cafe jam was well received they left the venue with enough money for the tram back to town. Soon afterwards during plans of a country wide tour, the drummer's mom grounded him because "this music stuff wont get you anywhere in life". Thoroughly discouraged Karl set out to purify music by starting the "Real Musicians Don't Make Money" movement, which slowly evolved over time to what we would now consider the Communist movement.

2) President Garfield
President Garfield holds the distinction of being one of the four presidents who sported a beard. Current attitudes to beards would prevent a fully bearded man from spending more than an afternoon discussing oil wells at the White house. Garfield was not bearded as a youth, and became president once his beard fully matured. This is disappointing because he died six months later, thankfully we still have this nice picture saving his facial hair preferences forever.

3) Fidel Castro
May or may not be a zombie.

4) ZZ-Top
Over the top and thankfully not topless. These tip tapping horn tooters are tomorrows today. And their tintinnabulation displays the tambour of a different drummer. With beards that become bat caves and guitars that screech for scratch they are the rock of my roll. And how.

5) Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass shows us that your life may be a cup of unfiltered run off from the six street in San Francisco, but you can still be nominated as vice president to a ticket that's bound to lose - and look good while doing it. His fur was the envy of his white overseers and they often would attempt to shave him. But he escaped their treachery and grew a ferocious beard to top them all. This won him great esteem and is now on a stamp. Sweet.

Step 4: Prepare Images.

Now that we've narrowed down our candidates and have them numbered 1 - 5 on each hand. One being the thumb and 5 the pinky you need to gather some images for etching. The basic process is to paint your fingernail with a block backdrop and then etch a contrasting solid image into it. The bolder the character and the more recognizable their face is the better your results will be.

First an important step that I neglected the first time I tried to do this. Measure your fingernail for each graphic. Frank Zappa is going on my middle finger so we need the width to be .56 inches wide. [picture 1] My nails are more long than wide, so making a square this size should work.

Once you have your image open it up in your favorite photo editor. I'm using photoshop, but this type of editing can be easily done with GIMP. You'll need to open your file and change it's size to the width square of your fingernail and up the resolution to 300 at the same time. [picture 2]

Next to make sure that this image will burn away the nail polish you need to turn the file into pure black and white, you do this by thresholding it. [picture 3]

Lastly since we are removing black nail polish and showing a lighter patch of fingernail underneath we will need to invert the image in order to keep the visual effect correct [picture 4 & 5].

Step 5: Prepare Your Canvas

I have abnormally large fingernails which cover nearly the entire ends of my fingers. This provided me with a suitable area for my nail etching, but first we must paint...

Here is a video of me painting my nails for the first time, here's some tips I've gathered:
1) Don't glop a whole lot on, if it's too think just let it dry and repaint it.
2) Start from the center furthest back on your cuticle and paint one side then the other.
3) Have a bottle of polish remove handy for the little spills.
4) Don't worry if you get it on your skin, that will wash out after a shower.

Step 6: Test and Print

You begin by loading your image into your favorite laser cutter enabled program. We use Corel Draw here at instructables.com. Invert your image and and position it near the bottom of the laser cutter. Use some masking tape to cover the tray where the design should fall. This will be your guide. If you use an Epilog Mini you can should take off the cover and put a magnet where the cover's magnet should land. This will enable you to use the laser cutter with the top off. Also you need take the front grill off so you can insert your hand.

Run the laser cutter with a low powered setting to see where the laser lands. Once you are sure of the location you can then place your finger through the opening in the laser cutter right on top of the previously etched portrait. Lower the tray so the finger's highest point is in focus and set your laser's power for 50% power and 100% speed on the raster setting. This is an important number to get right because otherwise you end up with a serrated - not etched - fingernail.

You can watch the intro video to see it all in progress. Here's the youtube link:

Step 7: Etch Press on Nails

Now that we've done fingernails, I like making things that other people would consider doing. So to make this instructable more accessible, I've also done it with press on nails:

Press on nail kit
Double sided padded sticky tape.
and material list from step 1

You first need to paint the nails, this is slightly more difficult because these fingernails are not attached to a body. You can use the applicator from the kit to stick to the bottom of the nail and hold it temporarily as you fill out the nail. Apply two coats and let them dry fully.

Once you're ready to etch, the same instructions apply as in step 6 except this time instead of placing your hand into the laser engraver you should place a pad of double sided padded sticky tape on top of the temporary tape engraving, this helps the nail stay in place while the machine vibrates. When you send the file over the settings to use are 35% speed and 100% power. Two passes are necessary to get a nice clean etch.

Step 8: Bloopers

Instructables.com interns.
We make the mistakes so you don't have to. Please enjoy this video, it cost me many skin cells to make.

This concludes the Clash of Titans, or how to add life to dead hands, or Thumbnail portraits. I hope you find something interesting in this instructable, or find a way to pimp your nails in a new manner. Stencils?

March on.
The Instructables Book Contest

Participated in the
The Instructables Book Contest

Be the First to Share


    • Sticky Stuff Speed Challenge

      Sticky Stuff Speed Challenge
    • Toys & Games Contest

      Toys & Games Contest
    • Furniture Contest

      Furniture Contest



    3 years ago

    OOOhhh this just gave me a great idea.

    I have a very low power laser engraver that cannot do metal. But by using this idea I can paint on some nail polish, laser it away and it can become the template for metal etching.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    This it the best use of a laser cutter I've seen yet! Incredible! Although I don't think this would be a suitable project for me to try at school where I have access to a decent cutter. ;)


    12 years ago on Step 3

    Other good ones would have been Santa Claus, Chewie, Hemingway, Jesus, Gandalf, Chuck Norris, Che Guevara, and Abe Lincoln. :) Round 2?


    Reply 9 years ago on Step 3

    Chuck Norris would be awesome. Did you know there's no chin under his beard, just another fist?



    Very cool, but could be painful if you miss or overprint.

    Better. use an inkjet printer.



    10 years ago on Step 5

    What's with the beard insecurity? Yours is great as it is, fits your face well.Great instructable, not sure I want to do it to my fingernails though. Does it grow out? How's that work down the road?

    rocket master
    rocket master

    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    it dosent burn into your nail-it removes polish from it. this can be removed with nail polish remover


    10 years ago on Introduction

    haha you can buy that barbie nail studio, literaly the same thing but with colored ink and probably less painful.
    but other than that this is amazing.


    10 years ago on Introduction

    Hello there, that's really cool. While I am wondering how your laser cutter can so precise to not hurt you nails?


    10 years ago on Step 8

    Tried etching on the nails before putting them on your fingers?
    Maybe combine it with a camera to get precise measurements.
    Really cool idea though. kudos


    10 years ago on Step 7

    I agree with shushujoon. You could make mint selling nails like those.

    Really neat instructable, too.

    There's a reason why you shouldn't put ANY part of your body, not just your eyes, in the path of the beam. You're exposing your skin to light many many times the power of the sun thusly raising the chance of skin cancer through the roof. This is not something to be toyed around with.

    If you're going to do this do it with fake nails, not on your own nails. It's all fun and games until you get a crippling medical condition due to your own stupidity.


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    .... hard to imagine cancer resulting from etching of a fingernail, which is made of keratin, a proteinaceous extrusion of cells at the base of the nail. Keratin is what is being etched, and is not a living cell.

    Also, a laser does not have anywhere near the spectrum of the sun, so the likelihood of a frequency-tuned laser even having carcinogenic potential is questionable. Do you have a proof source?

    Switch and Lever
    Switch and Lever

    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    If you're thinking that keratin is the only thing that is being affected by the laser then you're living an illusion. The laser also travels through the material, i.e. keratin, and burns under the nail as well. Also, good luck at hitting only your nail every time and not the skin around your nail as well.

    Why is it hard to imagine that skin, after being exposed to high amounts of energy, has a higher probability of developing skin cancer than skin that hasn't been exposed to the same? It's but one of the ways, probably the most common though, that cause skin cancer. Commercial lasers emit wavelengths between 375nm and 1800nm (can't find info on the exact wavelength of the laser I'm using though). Ultraviolet light, which is but one (if the main) culprit of skin cancer, starts at around 400nm.

    If you want to be careless with your body by all means go ahead, but advocating carefulness when working with lasers is still the way to go, wouldn't you agree?


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    You keep making broad assertions but offer no proof sources, despite being asked for such. Raising unfounded objections is just as counterproductive as actually advocating the use of something which IS dangerous. Lasers are used in the treatment of skin cancer for heaven's sake. Some of these are CO2 lasers. You can't just use a broad brush and paint all lasers as being dangerous without evidence and proof sources.

    As far as I can tell, an engraving laser printer uses a CO2 laser, which operates in the infrared and has minimal penetration capabilities. So your assertion that it would pass through the keratin of a fingernail appears to be *unfounded*, despite its vehemence.

    Additionally, the IR output of CO2 lasers is NOT ionizing radiation, so they are (evidently) incapable of damaging DNA in a mutagenic fashion - so they almost certainly do NOT cause cancer. Hence their use in all sorts of soft tissue cancer treatment.

    NB - I am not a MD, a physicist, or an engineer. I just did about ten minutes of Google-fu to find this information.

    Switch and Lever
    Switch and Lever

    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    Yep, industrial laser etchers are indeed used in the treatment of skin cancer, absolutely. There's no difference in strength there either, not at all, not a single difference there at all.

    There are also different kinds of laser engravers (not a laser printer, not the same thing), some do indeed use co2 and some uses different materials, such as a YAG or YVO4 laser working at different wavelengths. Fingernails are transparent for heavens sake, it's like saying it wouldn't pass through glass that's a bit cloudy. Granted it's slightly out of focus (since the focus point, if set correctly, is on the nail) and the black takes up some of the brunt of the laser. However, set the strength of the laser a wee bit too high and you cut through the nail like it's butter.

    You don't need to damage DNA in a mutagenic fashion for it to have a possibility to lead to skin cancer. Burn wounds in general have a, if still lower than sunburns caused by UVA or UVB rays, possibility to lead to skin cancer as well. If you use laser on your skin that's basically what you have, a burn wound. If you did ten minutes of "google-fu" I'm amazed that you didn't run into that as well.

    Do what you want, stick your whole arm into the laser if you want (people have done so before), that doesn't mean it's something to be promoted as a good idea.


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    Let me, as a laser expert, clear a few things up.
    MrPumpernickel: CO2 lasers are quite unique in a few ways. Firstly, they operate in the far, far infrared - at 10600nm. No extra zeroes in there, it is really ten thousand. This gives them some unusual properties - many materials which are quite transparent to visible light, like glass, polycarbonate plastic and indeed fingernails, are completely opaque to this wavelength.
    Now, as for the idea of damaging DNA in a mutagenic fashion. There are not many lasers available which are deep enough into the harmful UV-B and UV-C regions to do this - as you stated, the lowest we usually see is 375nm and this is only 25nm into the fairly harmless UV-A region.
    Yes - you can burn yourself, but there is no evidence to suggest burns lead to cancer.

    Oh, and as for your initial statement about many times the power of the sun - well, you're just plain wrong. Although you are sort of right. It all comes down to energy density.
    Sunlight on a hot day has an energy density of around 1000w per square metre. This laser cutter has something like a 40w laser in it.
    The difference is density. That 40 watts isn't spread out like sunlight, it's all focused down to one tiny, tiny point. This doesn't make it more dangerous than sunlight, however - you can obtain an enormous Fresnel lens from a rear-projection TV with a surface area of over 1 square metre, and focus that whole 1000w down into a tiny tiny point. That can really burn stuff.

    Now, one more thing, directed at mr gingerbaker. CO2 lasers are not used in any sort of therapeutic treatment, they are simply not suited to it. Lasers used in skin treatment typically operate within the visible range, and instead of being constantly on (like a CO2 laser) they are pulsed extremely fast, to allow selective heating of one particular target without burning surrounding tissues.

    Anything else I haven't cleared up?


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    Blue Fusion - thanks for your informative post! :)

    I think you are incorrect about CO2 lasers not being used therapeutically, though, see: