(Pier 9 AiR) Inside the Box (how to Etch and Display Multiple Drawings on Transparent Acrylic)




About: Artist, medical illustrator, bibliophile. Interested in visual storytelling and random nonsense. Make stuff in my free time. In this little corner of the internet you will find some of my DIY projects as wel...

Consider the motto think outside the box. "Live outside the box." "Do something outside the box."

Outside the box. A pithy little phrase implying that everything interesting exists beyond us, beyond everyday life, beyond what's already there in our heads.

What about inside the box, I thought.

For my main Pier 9 residency project I used light-refracting acrylic, neopixels, 3D printing, and a series of anatomical drawings to illustrate what we might be missing out on when we disregard what is already inside there waiting for us.

(editors' note: This Instructable is epic.The project was too. If you want short'n'sweet I suggest checking out the automatic nose-hair-clipper in DIY hygiene)

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Step 1: The Stuff Inside (drawings or Images to Etch)


In 2014 I spent a short time working at the Bodyworlds Plastinarium in Guben Germany. I was responsible for 'restructuring' the vasculature and nerves and internal structures of a human head that had just undergone the plastination process. Although you would assume the result of this process (executed on a not-yet-dissected human cadaver) would yield the most realistic and true-to-(erm)-life result of the anatomical structures of the body, the reality is that a lot of stuff gets shifted, damaged, and stuck in the wrong place and few things end up where they originally were.

I was given a head and a stack of text books and told to make the former as close to the latter as possible. This I found ironic: that even in science we need to turn to art (in this case medical illustration) to ensure the most studied accuracy possible. But I digress.

The upshot of this is a project where I did a series of anatomically researched and rendered drawings isolating the different systems in the human head to see what they would look like on their own. It was at the Pier that I decided to take that project one step further and see what I could do with the drawings, which looked to me like surreal organic landscapes floating on paper. "Etch them." I thought. "On transparent acrylic of course."

On the Instructable front, then, you will need some drawings to etch. Ones you would like to see superimposed upon each other. Anything will do.

Step 2: Hippocampus (3D Model)

One of my other goals at the Pier was to learn more about and play around with 3D modelling and printing, and at first I was not sure how to incorporate this into my project. A random conversation with a fellow AiR yielded the answer. We were talking about the area of the brain associated with memory, and marvelling on how such a small and slippery thing (the hippocampus, pictured above) could have such a profound influence on the thoughts and behaviour of an individual. What would it weigh? How does it fit all those memories in there? What is its worth?

This became my chosen object - the one solid structure in the floating transparent world of organic matter inside the head.

Modelling the hippocampus

I started with visual reference material, making a very basic geometric mesh to encompass the hippocampus. I used a basic spline (drawn along the 'spine' as it were of the original shape) and a basic polygon, which were then combined in a sweep command to create the surface of the model. I brought this mesh into Mudbox to digitally sculpt in more detail. The finished model was brought into Meshmixer, mirrored, and the two sides bridged together (because the hippocampus extends on both sides of the head) I had decided that I wanted the one solid object made of two interlocking parts joined through a hole in one of the pieces of acrylic, so that the object would be one, as opposed to being bisected by the transparent acrylic.

Step 3: The Box (part 1): 'practise' Boxes (small Prototypes)

Initially I thought, neophyte that I was, that the box would be the easier part of the project. I was sorely mistaken.

I wanted the box to be approximately the size of a human head (given its future contents.) I had to account for four sheets of etched acrylic and the width of the hippocampus object, and space in between to give the layers room to breathe. I wanted the acrylic (a special acrylic called Endlighten with light-refracting properties) to be lit from beneath, and so needed my box to accommodate electronics at the bottom, without having them be overtly visible. I decided on a clear box with a wooden frame, which would house the neopixel lights and arduino setup, and in which the box would also sit.

In measuring, I had to account for the kerf of the lasercutter (that is, the material taken away when the laser cutter cuts). I had to account for the thickness of the material. I had to account for potential mistakes in measuring, and for the fact that I was using a see-through material (which won't hide your mistakes.)

I made prototype after prototype. I made boxes of cardboard, boxes of acrylic, 1/8", 1/4", plywood, 1/2 size, 1/4 size, actual size. Each time thinking I had the measurements right. Usually making smaller iterations is advisable: saves time and saves material. Unless your smaller iterations result in decreasing measurements down to fractions with 4 decimal points, where you can't possibly tell if that 1.3456 is actually 1.3475, because the human eye, alas, is not that precise.

People, making a box takes time and practise. Making an accurately measured and elegant looking box is a bloody great miracle not to be underestimated.

Seen from another perspective, the greatest merit to remaining outside the box is the fact that you don't necessarily need to build one!

Step 4: The Box (part 2) Measure Out Dimensions and Cut Acrylic

Eventually I decided that the environment was not going to tolerate another bunch of acrylic and cardboard prototypes finding their weary way to the recycling bins outside. One of my goals at the Pier was to learn more about digital 3D modelling so by gum, I sat down and taught myself to model a 3D box.

Basic shapes and measurements are easy enough, but it took an afternoon to finally understand the principles of snapping objects in a digital 3D model (tip: you need to move your axis to the edge/face/point you want to snap to, fix it there, and then go back into move object mode to snap one object to another.)

I used Cinema 4D for this task: take advantage of the four screen perspectives (most 3D software has it - MMB click in C4D) to see where your objects are relative to each other from the top, right, front, and 3D mode. Remaining just in perspective (3D) mode is asking for trouble, because while a point may look like it's right next to another on the X axis, it could at the same time be miles away on the Y or Z axis.

This modelling feat thrilled me to no end; I got to feel very clever and digital and accurate in my modelling, and I got measurements that were correct when translated to real life. I took the measurements of each face of the box from my 3D file, input them in Adobe Illustrator as flat shapes, and laser cut those flat shapes to get my box faces.

I added textures with basic colour and transparency to be able to see what the hippocampus would look like relative to the slats inside the box as well.

Step 5: The Box (part 3): Gluing the Outer Box Together

Gluing the outer box together presented a lot of unforeseen considerations, the obvious ones being the importance of not making any mistakes, since they would all be visible in the final piece, but also dealing with the slightly melted edge caused by laser cutting acrylic, which is uneven and therefore does not glue correctly.

To counter this problem I laser cut my four slats (front, back and both sides - bottom and top would be done last) with an extra .125" which would then be cut off on the table saw or routered off, creating a rough but even edge which glues well with acrylic cement.

Another interesting fact, acrylic cement is not in fact glue (who knew?! the intrepid shop staff at Pier 9 did, thank goodness.) It is a solvent which in fact melts acrylic to itself. Which means you have about 3 seconds from application to gluing to get it positioned perfectly, and any drops on the acrylic surface will be, yes, you guessed it, visible. So much of the frisket was left on the acrylic until the last minute to avoid drippage and damage.

The gluing process involved one sheet at a time, very slowly and deliberately (two of my favourite words, I type with only a slight hint of sarcasm), and using a heavy metal hold down clamp device/heavy metal thing (see picture) to stabilize the sides while they were drying. Both sides were glued on leaving a .125" allowance, which was then cut off with the table saw and then made flush with the front/back slats via the router (one of my favourite shop machines.)

Step 6: The Wooden Stand/frame

I decided on a wooden frame for the most part because I really wanted an excuse to learn more in the wood shop.

Wood is amazing. If I stroked my own ego as often as I stroked that freshly sanded walnut, by gum, I imagine I wouldn't be able to fit my head out the door.

The frame also seemed simple enough - four sides, two inset pieces to support the box, bob's your uncle, right?


Let me list the steps involved in creating this little frame of wonder:

1. Rough cut of the piece (at this point one long piece of walnut) on the chop saw.

2. Jointing the piece to create two completely smooth and even sides (one surface and one edge)

3. Running the wood through the planer to even out the other two surfaces.

4. Making the actual cuts (from one piece to four pieces) on the table saw.

5. Using the router to create an inset slot (in the side pieces) for the two support pieces for the box itself.

6. Gluing and screwing the four pieces together.

7. And my little luxurious project apogee: the wooden screw caps.

It seemed so philistine, so unsightly, so (shiver) amateur to spend so much time on these four pieces of wood and then just screw them together like a cheap fling in a night club, so I decided I would be sophisticated and cover the ironmongery with little cork-like bits of wood, which I would then glue in and sand smoothly so they integrated completely with the surface of the wood.

The amazing Mei (at Pier 9) showed me how, using a special drill bit, you can in fact drill your own little wood plugs, pop them out of the wood (!) with a screwdriver, and then glue them in on top of the inset screws in your box.

But one of my screws didn't inset properly! Have no fear, the humble dremel was here. I used a metal bit on the dremel to effectively sand down that stubborn screw to make room for the plug, and then glued it in. After fully dry, I sanded all the surfaces of the frame mit inset plugs (in a contrasting wood to the walnut) and they looked like all the same piece.

Immensely satisfying.

Step 7: Etching the Drawings

22 hours (including testing). Dear Gods I could have laser cut my way around the world if air miles had been involved.

First the drawings.

I took the original drawings (see step 1 of this Instructable) and made them b/w in photoshop, then brought them into Illustrator, where I did a live trace of them and created raster files. Dealing with each system separately, I then simply etched them onto the Endlighten acrylic, running each laser etch five times to ensure a nice deep groove in the outlines that the light from below would run up the acrylic and shine out of.

Laser etching

Before starting the actual etch I did tests to make sure I would get the desired effect. I tried different speeds, powers, focus levels, to see all the possible outcomes of my laser etching. Interesting to note is that slow speed/high power resulted in an etching resulted in a melting effect within the lines of the raster image which was too smooth; it was necessary for my purposes to have as close to a 90° angle on my edges so the light would travel out of the acrylic and light up the rastered area.

I also liked the texture produced with slower, less powerful etches, but of course this meant that each etching took much longer. I also hadn't realized that leaving the protective blue (in this case plastic) coating on the Endlighten resulted in melted blue bits throughout my raster. I had to remove it and glue paper frisket before etching to protect the acrylic from scratching.

Even after hours of testing, the unexpected reared its troublesome head; issues with slight buckles in the acrylic (from the heat of repeated etching) resulted in the focus changing mid-etching, changing the texture at different points along the way. This was solved by pausing the lasercutter periodically and checking/refocussing (a heavy object to even out the acrylic was also an option but conflicted with the moving of the laser), and through the use of a dremel.

The dremel was the first tool I got to use in this project where I suddenly felt myself to be in familiar territory, because it is like a pencil (I have a background in illustration). Where the texture was missing within the raster etchings, I just retextured it with a dremel. And it was good.

Step 8: Stay Excited.

This step applies to the whole project or any project you may take on as a result of reading this Instructable.

Stay excited. Even when you've glued your acrylic a tiny bit crooked you think and it's late at night and the Open Studio is tomorrow and there are air bubbles which you can never fix and maybe you should have done it another way but you didn't really know because YOU'VE NEVER DONE ANY OF THIS EVER BEFORE and what-did-you-pick-this-project-for-anyhow you-don't-have-the-patience-to-do-22-cardboard-mock-ups-of-a-dumb-old-box-where-the-hell-is-my-pencil-and-sketchbook-ANYHOW.

Stay excited. You are Making Art. And you are learning so much and it's gonna look really cool and after all THIS IS THE BEST THING YOU COULD BE DOING WITH YOUR LIMITED TIME ON THIS PLANET REALLY.

Step 9: Gluing the Etched Panels Inside the Box

Etched panels were glued to the bottom surface of the box, after which the box was assembled by sliding the sides around it and gluing them to the bottom.

Patience is involved, and spacers (to support the panels as they dry), and here's a tip realized unfortunately after the fact: It is at this point (before gluing the slats) that you want to remove your frisket, unless there is enough space between the slats to comfortably get your hand in to pull the frisket off. I ended up rubbing the frisket of each slat off with my fingertips, causing my fingerprints to disappear from my fingers and end up on the slats. It's all too possible I may have to bring this box with me through customs when I travel to prove my identity in the future.

So. Remove frisket.Glue one slat at a time, add spacer, proceed cautiously. And make sure to add your hippocampus (or any other whimsical 3D object you may decide to incorporate into your box) to the last slat before gluing, let stand.

Step 10: Lighting/electronics

'Nuther favourite part of this project: learning about electronics.

I took an intro class to electronics and arduino to be able to wire up some neopixels to light my acrylic. This involved soldering. Soldering involves a soldering iron, which also look suspiciously like a pencil, and takes a steady hand, both of which are familiar territory for me. (Glee!)

The wiring was relatively easy in retrospect once I got the basics down; just run the four rows of neopixels together with the wiring in the right direction, hook up an arduino with a basic program and go. But soldering took practise. I cut up one line of neopixels into single lights and soldered one to the next to the next, probably about 20 before I was able to get a good solder that a current would run through.

But when I got that current going, by gum, was it cool. It might well have been the only light on at the hour I made it finally work, but after that it was all easy (ish) sailing.

I created a tray for the neopixels to the same measurements of the slats, to ensure that the lights would light the edge of the slats directly, and cut a hole in it to run the wiring to the bottom, where I affixed the arduino and the batteries. I then set the tray in the wooden frame, and was ready to light my box. I made an inset in the tray by gluing 1/8" acrylic together where the lights weren't, to leave some room for heat from the neopixels to escape.

Step 11: Final Touchups (and the Late Night Horror)

It cannot be said often enough that when you take something on that is completely new, it will take longer than you thought, it will be harder than you thought, and it will result in mistakes that may make you weep momentarily. Dear Instructable-ees, as with life, also with art.

My box was complete, and it was glued together, and my wooden frame and electronics sat on the sidelines waiting, and my podium was set when I approached the hitherto revered router machine to router away and even out the bottom of the box with the front and back surfaces.

Instructable-ees, something happened. The router betrayed me. (Well, that's what I like to think.) Actually the most likely cause of the 'something' in question was me using too much pressure when running the box along the router edge to smooth it out. A common mistake for me. The result was an unsightly gash in the acrylic right on the front of the box.

I taped it off and sanded and buffed as well as I knew how for three hours or so, which got rid of the gash, but replaced it with a mottled and scratched up surface that almost looked worse than the gash itself.

I was, it can safely be said, not amused.

But, salvation came later in the name of Josh at the Pier 9 wood shop, who showed me how to use acrylic scratch remover and a buffing machine, and the gash is no longer - the box has returned to maximum transparency.

I'm including this step for two reasons: because you two might scratch your acrylic and need to fix it, or you too might be prone to forgetting to be gentle with projects (and yourselves!) when you've been at it for a long time. When you are doing something new, plan double the time you think you need, and then double that again. This will ensure you get sleep and time to seek advice for whatever unexpected circumstance your project might throw at you as it makes its way to life.

Step 12: Your (erm, My) Masterpiece - a Head in a Box

My masterpiece. A head in a box. With that little hippocampus tucked away between the lines.

Giving 'outside of the box' a run for its money, I think.



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35 Discussions


1 year ago

What a monumental effort, and by that I mean the effort to put together this instructional of all your hard work. That photo at step 8 was awesome, many thanks for taking the time out to educate me... Take it easy from desertwalker --->Western Australia


3 years ago

Thank you Steflenk! :D this is EXACTLY what I was look for to mount my perspex and Diode light artwork.


4 years ago on Introduction

Thrilled to see this has inspired so much feedback, thanks all!


4 years ago on Introduction

Brilliant but a lot of hard work . I wonder if this could be done by printing or molding a model in hard wax and then by using the process of embedding casting in fibre glass resin , to cast layer upon layer unto the whole model is embedded . By covering the surface of each layer with a release wax , this would ensure that each layer can separate . Once the resin has cured , simply split the layers from each other and polish and clean them before mounting them on the board . I reason that this will give you exact alignment of the final finished product . By roughening it a bit with sandpaper , this would allow light to be trapped and show up the model inside . But still , very well done and congratulations on your dedication . Must have been interesting working with the plasticized cadavers .


4 years ago on Introduction

Good day to you, Steflenk! "My masterpiece. A head in a box." Yes it is a Masterpiece. You have just nudged me back to the real world of ART! Thank you.

"Consider the motto think outside the box. "Live outside the box." "Do something outside the box."

Outside the box. A pithy little phrase implying that everything interesting exists beyond us, beyond everyday life, beyond what's already there in our heads.


How bout just outside and just inside the box. Yes,do something with the the box.

It is good that you are a happy sole.


Thank you so much, Steflenk! I haven't made this, and will never be able to make this the way you did, lacking access to lasers, etc. However, having worked with acrylic years ago and with woodworking tools, you have sparked so many creative thoughts of making a low-tech version of something completely different based upon what you've done. I really appreciate all the photos, detailed instructions and humor!


4 years ago on Introduction

Another comment about the etching. I think you would be better off using carbide router tool for the etching, rather then the laser etcher. (A circuit board rapid prototype machine with its cutting tools would be ideal.) First, you want to be sure to etch from the back side of the plastic. (Get some plastic scrap and experiment with etch depth/cut speed/front, back, etc.) Wide features (such as a large blood vessel) would be better done by outlining it with narrow V-cuts from the back side. This will allow you to see the features behind the front planes better. If a shape must be "filled in", I would suggest closely-spaced narrow cuts. A 90 degree V-cut (it need be only 5 to 10 mils deep) will throw the light "forward" by total internal reflection, toward the side opposite the cut. You want the cut surfaces to be shiny; you achieve this with a slow rotation speed (2000 RPM) and a slow feed rate.

Early day's digital number displays were made this way with 10 sheets stacked, a number engraved on the back of each one, and separate lights illuminating the edge of each sheet.

You might be better off covering the edges of the sheets to prevent excess light escaping there (and would be easier to make as the edges are hidden), or painting them black. You could also use the metal tape that is used on the edges of stained glass lamp pieces. In addition to blocking light escaping, the tape would reflect light trying to escape back into the sheet from the top, making the top of the display brighter.

Years ago I saw an artist do this, except it was a 3 x 10 foot piece with over 7 layers, for a seafood restaurant.


4 years ago on Introduction

Revanchist beat me to the punch, but I would suggest using EL wire embedded in the base tracks with colors representing current theme IE red arterial, blue Veins, green for nervous system, amber for...

The electroluminescent wire is rather inexpensive and cool in operation (it doesn't heat up)

In the military we used similar techniques for status boards and light colored grease pencils for annotation. You didn't see the light on the polished portion of the panel, but the light colored grease marks would illuminate, as well as scratches.

I would use a strip of aluminum foil under the EL wire to reflect the bottom side back up through the wire to maximize the intensity, which is a little low to begin with, but should work well for your project.

Unfortunately it is monochromatic in nature unlike your drawings, but if you separate the colors on different plates, you could illuminate a pair or so to get the proper effect.

Nice work.



4 years ago on Introduction

I love it... you might want to consider setting an RGB set of LEDs instead, to change as a mood light... or different colors for different 'layers'... or functionalities of the brain... red: blood vessels, blue: nervous systems.... etc...

love it really... I would love to make it one day


4 years ago on Introduction


Thanks for this:


As another artist in the 30+ set, it's a wonderful comment, and your art is wonderful. When/Where is more of your work to see?
Your instructions are clear, concise & entertaining?!? Still laughing at your photo. You look like a mad scientist about to scream "It's ALIVE!!!"

1 reply

Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

well, the rest of my work looks Nothing like this, but steflenk.com is where it lives on the internet. Or tinkertailorsteflenk.tumblr.com for diy stuff. Thanks! :)


4 years ago on Introduction

I hope people who don't know your reference to Bodyworlds Plastinarium look it up and see what's done there. It's brilliant I commend you and can see where your technical and artistic skill comes from. Brilliant and beautiful.

1 reply

Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

thanks so much. Yup, I think the premise of Bodyworlds is pretty amazing. But, well, human bodies are Pretty Amazing so it kind of works.


4 years ago

Bravo! Bravo! I toss virtual roses at your feet! Bravery beyond the call of duty to open your kimono and let us see the process, naked, as it were! Again, bravo!


4 years ago on Step 12

Wow, very well done and exceptionally beautiful. Your post was very well done, informative and entertaining. Thanks for taking the time to document all of the steps, it's an incredible piece of art and your passion is reflected in your work. Again, well done!


4 years ago on Introduction

topographical maps turn out quite nicely too - I had some lunar ones etched onto sheets of glass a few years back and you end up with a 3d map of cool craters :-)


4 years ago on Introduction

Very cool project! Have you thought about giving each acrylic sheet (each drawing layer) a different LED color? It might have an interesting result ;)

1 reply