How to Restore, Improve, and Digitize an Old Microscope




About: I love making things out of discarded materials. When someone tells me something is "broken" I see it as, "it just doesn't know what it will be next!" My training is in Biology, but my interests span every...

This microscope was discarded because the lighting mechanism it came with had stopped working entirely.  Changing the light bulb did not fix the problem, and because the whole electrical mechanism had been epoxied into a solid slab during the manufacturing process, it was impossible to see which individual component had gone bad.  The rest of it, however, worked just fine.  The optics were in good shape, all of the dimensional stages worked, just no light. Because the microscope was manufactured in the 80’s in West Germany, it was unlikely that finding a replacement to the whole lighting unit would be possible or cost effective.  Not to mention that, when it had worked, it used a ton of power and expensive, extremely hot, bulbs that tended to burn out anytime the microscope was left on overnight. So I got rid of the whole lighting mechanism, which was archaic, inefficient, wired and heavy.  I replaced it with a simple housing that allowed me to plug in an LED light and power it from a cheap 3.3V coin cell battery I had lying around. 

With the lighting situation fixed, I turned to improving the current setup.  The optics worked just fine, but I wanted to be able to take pictures of what I was seeing, and while I’m doing that, why not just turn it into a digital microscope and not even bother straining your eyes looking through the eyepiece.  I had a high quality webcam lying around and liked that it has some of the best light-correction I have seen on a webcam.  But as anyone who has ever tried to line up a camera with a lens before can tell you, even the slightest misalignment produces blurred, unusable pictures.  So I designed and and printed an adapter to solve this issue.

Step 1: Items I Used

Ingredients of this project are:

-partially functioning microscope
-old coin cell battery holder from electric candle
-3.3 V coin cell battery
-3.3V White 5mm LED
-SPST Push-on Push-off button
-3D printed camera to eyepiece adapter
-Microsoft 1080p lifecam
-6 M3 15mm screws
-6 M3 washers
-6 small springs
-electrical tape
-hot glue

Step 2: Removing the Offending Lighting Structures

Unfortunately I had already removed and thrown out the electrical components by the time I thought to take pictures of it.  So there aren't any, but there wasn't a lot to look at anyway, because it was just a solid slab of black epoxy with a cord coming out of it and a couple wires going to the bulb housing (which I kept).  There were just 3 screws holding in the slab.  Once removed I simply unplugged the wires to the bulb housing.

Step 3: Finding a Light

Finding a light source was not hard... I reached all the way across my desk where I keep my LED's and grabbed a 3.3 V 5mm white LED from radio shack.  I had scavenged a coin cell battery holder from an electric candle that had a small plug already incorporated into the circuit.  This plug happened to fit the LED wires perfectly, holding it snugly, but not so tight that switching it out would be difficult.  I simply aligned the plug to hold the LED where I wanted it and hot glued it in place.

I bent the LED leads at 90 degrees so that the LED would point directly up through towards the slide holder and into the objective.  As you can see I left the rest of the housing intact as it contained a reflector behind the LED and would fit nicely into the light bulb spot without any other modifications.

Step 4: Installing an ON/OFF Button

This is fairly straightforward.  I just used a SPST Push-on Push-off button from radioshack that happened to fit through the hole where the brightness adjustment knob had been before.  Then connected the wires from my new light.

Step 5: 3D Printing Time!

You can, of course, make adapters that are not 3D printed and would serve the same purpose, but I happen to have a 3D printer, and like the ability to try multiple renditions of a piece before decided which one to use.  Plus, once you have the piece drawn up and started the print, you can go do something else while it prints.  Let the bot do all the work hard work.  This was printed on a home brew MendelMax in PLA.

You can find the settings for slicing, the .stl and .skp files here

Obviously the internal sizes of the adapter will depend on the microscope and camera you use, but hopefully the design is simple enough that if you cannot edit the .skp to meet your needs, than re-drawing it won't be too cumbersome.  It only took me a few tries to come up with this one, and I was going for simplicity.

After it is printed out, just drop the M3 nuts into the nut-traps and thread the springs and washers.  Then Screw!  I made the internal portion that fits over the eye piece tapered so it would fit snugly on when pressed in.  The design works well with this microscope because the eyepiece has a rubber coating on the outside which the adapter grips well.

Step 6:

Once I had the proper dimensions worked out for the adapter, and had assembled the spring-screws, it was time to connect camera to microscope.  If you have ever tried to line up any sort of magnifying lens situation with a digital camera before, you can appreciate the frustration and difficulty of getting it EXACTLY lined up with the viewable picture coming through the eyepiece.  But we now have six points of adjustment, so we can get it there and keep it there. 
I started by placing the camera flat on the desk facing upward.  Removing the eyepiece from the microscope means I will be able to center the viewable area before I do the initial tightening of the screws.  Then just tighten them one by one until the fit is snug and the picture looks like the one in the picture where the "circle" of light is more or less centered and the edges of it are relatively crisp.  If the edges are blurry then its not correctly aligned and won't be able to get the whole field of view in focus.  Also, there is no way that I have found to get rid of the black edges around the circle.  The viewable part of a microscope is round, and thus will always be round when you take a picture of it.  It just looks funny because we are used to viewing things on a screen that is rectangular, but square optics are hard to make... If it bothers you, you can decrease the amount of space the black edges take up by using the digital zoom on the camera, or find a round screen.

Step 7: And Now We Have a Functioning Digital Microscope

No more straining my eyes peering through the eyepiece while I move the stages around to find my target.  I can now comfortably use my computer screen to search for, and image whatever I am viewing.

Step 8: Fixing Light Artifact

There are still a few bits that need to be ironed out.  The blue light on the top of the camera is throwing some artifact into my field of view.  I used electrical tape to block the light that leaked to the inside of the camera body.

Step 9: Fruit Fly

Here are just some quick images of small things I had on hand.  A fruit fly, of the Genus Drosophila, I believe.  I don't have the entomological prowess to give you the Species name as well, perhaps Melanogaster, but I can't tell these apart from the other anyway...
With these larger samples on a light microscope like this, I have to light them from the top as well as the bottom.  Also, the plane of focus on this microscope is narrow enough that you'll notice that these bugs are not entirely within focus; just "slices" of them can be in focus at any one time.

Step 10: Ant

I happened to find a tiny ant walking along my floor as I was looking for things to take pictures of... it was this ant's lucky day, now it is famous.

Step 11: Surprise... Maggots!

So I also wanted to see what my dreaded nemesis, the housefly, looked like up close.  And since there happened to be a couple buzzing around, I took more than the usual amount of pleasure at swatting them with my electric fly-swatter-tennis-racket-wand-thingy.  (If you don't have one, get one... you will spend WAY more time than you ever thought possible swatting flies). 

However, the super-satisfying electric snap that kills the fly, did nothing, as I was soon to find out, to it's belly full of progeny who were ready and waiting to be deposited on a nice piece of poo somewhere.

When I positioned the fly on the microscope, I noticed that it had begun to move, but not in a way that the fly, as an organism, would normally move.  Rather something was moving it from the inside.  What ensued for the next few minutes was the microscopic equivalent of the Aliens movie.  Around 20 brand new larvae emerged from the fly's dead body.  It was amazing, it was grotesque, it was biology in action.  Since the fly's body had ceased to function, the stress placed on the larvae inside caused them to force their way out of their mother into the surrounding environment in search of food and a nice place to grow before morphing into an obnoxious, winged annoyance.  Unfortunately for them, when they made it out of mom, all they found was the glass of my microscope slide.

Step 12: Now for Some Cell Biology

Just to get a idea of what can be done with my new tool.  Here are some shots of a specimen of my blood, at various dilutions, lighting conditions, and magnifications.

The 100X objective is technically an oil immersion objective, but lacking any immersion oil, I used water instead, which has a decent index of refraction, but just doesn't work as well as the oil. So the "1000X" label in the pictures is only ~1000X.

Step 13: Where to Take It From Here...

There is still a lot of potential in this project that I have not yet fully explored.
Some of these things are:

-Different colored lights or filters. 
-UV light, assuming I have something labeled that will fluoresce when hit with UV.
-Software that will allow me to take full 1080p pictures and video.  The stock software that microsoft ships with this camera will not support the full potential of the sensor (only 720p), but they also won't tell you what software does... much to my irritation.
-proper oil immersion
-of course, my slide preparations leave a lot to be desired, but a home lab with basically no reagents does not give me many options.

When I am able to make upgrades or get some particularly interesting images I will update this instructable.  As always I welcome your comments and criticisms, as well as any corrections you might find.  I entered this instructable in the "Build my Lab" contest.  If you like what you see, please vote!  Thanks for reading!

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    41 Discussions


    5 years ago on Introduction

    Wonderful job, I am particularly impressed how well the 3D printed camera adapter came out, very good finish.
    You can improve the depth of field by using image stacking, there is a free program available:

    We have used CombineZ in the light-lab and it compares very well with expensive commercial systems. It does require care to avoid X,Y movement and considerable patience to take enough photos at different focal points.

    1 reply

    Reply 5 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks Light_Lab! I really appreciate your feedback and the info. I knew there was expensive image stacking software out there, but had no idea there was a freeware version. I will absolutely be incorporating this into my project. THIS is the beauty of instructables, everyone teaching each other and the ability to draw from a community pool of knowledge. Love it!


    2 years ago

    Congratulations! I was trying to build a digital spectroscope from a optical spectroscope but I did not understood why I couldn't get good pictures. You have inspired me to try again. Thanks so much!!!


    2 years ago

    Great share...this is amazing to improve and digitize an old microscope. Thanks for providing such a useful information. One can also have a look at


    4 years ago on Introduction

    This was quite inspiring and helpful, thanks! My scope burned out its lamp recently and I ended up using an Adafruit Flora and Adafruit Neopixel to replace it. I even wired the Flora up to the light intensity setting, the on-off switch, and the power plug.

    Great Project! Gives me some ideas to try out. Concerning the biology though, I would consider it very unlikely that a fly caries around its larvae. They usually lay the eggs in some food containing substance. Much rather I would think these were parasites eating their host from within. Even closer to the Alien movie than you thought...

    1 reply

    Thanks! and thank you for your comments. It is true that most flies deposit their eggs on whatever "meal" their young are to be eating as new larvae.  The eggs kinda look like tiny 1mm diameter caviar.  However there is a family of flies known as Sarcophagidae that have the interesting feature of ovolarviparous, which is essentially letting the eggs hatch while still inside the mother and then hoping they find something delicious to deposit them on shortly thereafter...
    I would only consider myself an amateur entomologist at this point (and even that is rather generous) but from what I could tell of the pictures I have found online of both the fly and larvae, it does appear to be from the Sarcophagidae family, who bear the unfortunate colloquial name of "flesh fly." 
    Most parasites that are laid into flies, such as the larvae of parasitic wasps, only emerge when they are adults or very nearly so, and look quite different.
    So I'm still pretty sure those were the larvae of the fly. If you find any evidence to the contrary please post for my, and future readers, enlightenment.


    5 years ago on Step 12

    What an exellent idea!
    Is it possible to plug second camera in order to get a 3D imagery - to 3D screen&glasses or Occulus Rift?

    1 reply

    Reply 5 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks! Unfortunately adding an extra camera to the other eyepiece would not result in a parallax, which is what is required for 3d imaging between two cameras. This is because the picture is actually split from a single light path coming through the objective, and thus the extra camera would see the exact same picture and no depth data could be computed from it. Splitting the image is done so it would be more comfortable for human eyes to stare through the eyepieces for a long time.
    It does appear to be possible to generate 3D imagery using image stacking the way Light_lab mentioned, and I fully intend to experiment with this as soon as I can get some time to do so.  If and when I get it up and running, I will post an update.   This will also coincide with my rebuilding the lighting system, as I want to have more control and options (i.e. RGB).  If it turns out being a huge deal, or very complex, I'll make a separate instructable on 3D imaging through the microscope.


    5 years ago on Introduction

    Uma maravilha, beleza de projeto
    Wonderful , nice job Thanks

    A word of caution about converting a transmitted-light microscope to LED illumination. If originally fitted with a halogen bulb, there may be a filter (or a place for one) to remove infra-red light. White LEDs often have a large blue spike (hint: it's a very good idea to investigate the LED of interest first). Blue light is the most energetic part of the visible light spectrum. Use of blue or blue light for bright-field microscopy, without a filter to tone-down the blue-end is potentially hazardous to eyesight. Dark-field microscopy is probably much less hazardous. Dichroic filters are available to remove selected portions of the spectrum, normally expensive, but bargains may be had from eBay. I recommend that anyone considering this should investigate 'blue light hazard' and decide for themselves. LED technology is changing, high CRI White LEDs (CRI is color rendering index) are increasingly available and are beneficial to photomicrography and eye-safety. If one wishes to drive the LED from the mains, LED drivers are available.

    Remember LEDs are DC devices and need a constant current drive for maximum life.
    Enjoy your microscopes!

    6 replies

    Reply 5 years ago on Introduction

    The led blue problem is all about brightness.
    Is it uncomfortably bright to look at, at low mags?
    It no worse than sun light.

    I suggest putting a variable resistor / pot in series with the led
    for a brightness control / dimmer.
    Thisll also prolong your battery life when not needing full brightness.


    Reply 5 years ago on Introduction

    The led blue problem is all about brightness.
    I'm afraid that is incorrect. The blue light hazard relates to the short wavelength = high energy combined with the intensity of blue light emitted.

    White LEDs typically have a large blue spike (this is often hinted at by the blueish tint to the light), visible in the example spectrum posted previously. High CRI types (e.g. CRI>90) are characterised by a much reduced blue output and are considered much less hazardous to eyesight.

    There is extensive research about this, it is a very real hazard.
    Cree is a well-respected manufacturer and responsibly  issue this warning, but I am confident it applies equally to all  manufacturers of LED products. I am not singling-out CREE for criticism, indeed, I posses a number of Cree products and find they function well. The blue light hazard is due to the technology and is not unique to Cree. I anticipate that most if not all LED product manufacturers make products which present a blue light hazard.

    "....Cree has engaged an independent lab to conduct photobiological testing, also known as eye safety testing, on its blue, royal blue and select white LED components. The results of this testing (explained below in further detail) show significant health risks from some of Cree’s visible light LED components when viewed without diffusers or secondary optical devices. These risks warrant an advisory notice to indicate the potential for eye injury caused by prolonged viewing of blue light from these devices. To date, the testing shows that Cree’s blue and royal blue LED components (450-485 nm dominant wavelengths) pose a higher potential eye safety hazard than its white LED components. Other colors of LED components, such as green and red LED components, do not pose as significant of an eye safety risk. Regardless of LED color, Cree advises users to not look directly at any operating LED component...." Source

    BTW, one should never stare at any bright light.

    These are very good points, TS, and I appreciate you bringing them up. I'll do a little poking around on these subjects and include a cautionary word at the beginning about using LED conversion for direct visualization. I didn't really think too much about it at the time because I was converting it to digital and wouldn't actually be looking through the eyepiece personally. However, for those considering doing this kind of conversion for their own scope that they might be looking through, such caution is warranted. Thanks for your input!

    I have a compound microscope which I have yet to convert from Halogen to LED illumination. It was during the research process that I serendipitously discovered the blue light hazard. I must really get round to it!

    This spectrum is for a CREE XP-E P4 Emitter high CRI LED and shows the blue spike for an 'outdoor white' LED versus an 85 or 90 CRI white LED. It's easy to see the huge spike in the blue region of the regular / low CRI LED. In this case, not only has the spike been substantially reduced, but what remains has been shifted to longer wavelengths, meaning less energy content. I am not endorsing CREE LEDs, this is just an illustration for comparison purposes only.

    CRI-90 spectrum.jpeg

    Reply 5 years ago on Introduction

    I was just about to raise the blue issue and I noticed totally_screwed got in before me.
    In fact some older microscopes have a blue filter to 'whiten' the light from tungsten or even halogen blubs. This can really boost that blue peak in white LED spectra to a dangerous or useless level.
    Even if you are going to go digital you should be aware that white LEDs produce white by providing a small number of spectral peaks that visually average to white light. Digital cameras break an image into 3 or 4 color channels using color band pass filters over the CCD elements. A lot depends on how the spectral peaks match up with the filters. It is possible to get big disparities between what is seen visually and what is seen by the digital camera when using white LED illumination (similarly fluorescent lighting).
    I am very glad totally_screwed mentioned that CRI LEDs are becoming more really available, I would love to know where I have looked in the past. Lately I have been checking microscope suppliers for LED systems to fix my old scope and I was about to buy an expensive system. Now I am going to look around for CRI LEDs again.


    5 years ago on Step 7

    Very nice job, very professional. Thanks for showing us.