What are the limits of human dexterity? How small can a carving be made using only hand held tools? I was curious. As a robot builder, see: https://www.instructables.com/id/Building-Small-Robots-Making-One-Cubic-Inch-Micro/ who is interested in learning how to make micro-machines, I wondered what could be done entirely by hand. What are the limits of hand held precision? At what point do we need to resort to computer controlled micro-machines or photo etched computer chip technology?
So I carved and painted a small sculpture of an instructables robot that was small enough to stand on the head of a pin.
While the result is obviously not even close to the state of the art of microscopic carving and painting (see step 4), some of you might find the techniques used interesting and maybe even useful.
The art of miniaturization may also have interesting parallels to the art of ecology- (step 5).
Step 1: Tools and Materials
I experimented with dozens of hand tools and dremel tools trying to find the ones that worked best on small scale carvings.
The tools I found most usful that are available from Micromark.com and/or Walmart:
#2 or #11 x-acto knife blade (pic 2c)
x-acto knife blade holders
#14346 .01" micro saw (pic 2b)
#60937 hand vise (pic 2a)
needle file (pic 2d)
#81838 3.7x binocular headband magnifier (pic 3)
10x magnifier (Pic 3)
3x magnifier taped to adjustable light pic-x (pic 4)
Milliput modeling epoxy putty or 1/16" circuit board
Clear five-minute epoxy
Dremel tools I found useful:
#105 1/32" round engraving cutter
#113 1/16" square end engraving cutter
Step 2: Micro-Carving
I eventually ended up carving three versions of the robot. They ranged in size from 3.5mm to 5mm high. Two of them I carved using 1/16 inch thick fiberglass circuit board material with the copper etched off. While they carved fairly easily, they were hard to get very smooth. The first one took about three hours as I was trying every small carving, cutting, or sanding tool I had at hand. The second one took about two hours and the third took about an hour.
Since I was working on a scale more than twice the size that the masters of this art (step 4) can do, I was able to do the simple carving fairly fast. The masters can take a week to a month to do single carving or painting that is considerably smaller. They also put much more detail in them.
The last carving I did using Milliput modeling epoxy. It is an epoxy putty that has some kind of filler that makes it set up like a very hard plastic. It was very easy to rough shape with dremel tools. I was then able to carve details with a sharp knife and then smooth it by scraping with the knife or rubbing with sand paper. I highly recommend the Milliput. If you want to go really small, you can use a grain of rice or a seed glued on to a support base.
Pic 5 shows the finished carving still attached to its base. I found that it is fairly easy to hold the carving in a handle vice with that hand resting on the workbench. You can then put your two hands against each other to reduce shake while carving or painting. It turns out that for micro-carving it is fairly easy to have very precise control of the tools which can result in very small details.
I started out by roughing out the sculpture with the two dremel tool bits. If you do not use too much pressure, a small #67 drill bit can also be used for roughing out. I then used the knife to cut in details and then scrape the thing smooth. I then drilled a hole well below the legs to allow for the micro saw to fit in and cut the slot between the legs. If you do not have a micro saw, a broken lenth of jewelers saw blade can be put in a knife holder and used to cut the slot.
pic 6 shows the sequence of carving.
Leave the carving atached to the base until after it is Painted. Once the painted sculpture is detached from the base it becomes very difficult to even pick it up without damaging the paint job. The very last step is to cut the carving off the base and glue it with a very small drop of clear epoxy to a pinhead that has been sanded to rough up the top surface. Be advised that the glue joint is very delicate. I accidentally knocked off the smallest sculpture I had made and it disappeared forever in the dusty floor of my shop.
Step 3: Micro-Painting
Artists oil paints
#2 exacto blade or very fine (.0015") wire for use as a paint brush
Hair from a fly for use as a brush (optional)
Choosing the right magnifier
I found the 3.7x headband magnifier to be adequite for carving but not enough for painting. So I taped a 3x magnifying glass to a flexible light (pic 4) and used that along with the headband magnifier for painting. A 10x magnifier was also used to check the smallest details. The masters, I suppose, do everything under a stereoscopic microscope.
Choosing the Right Paint
It turned out that for me, micro painting was considerably harder than micro carving. At first I tried using standard oil based paint used for models. It was a disaster. It proved almost impossible to create really small dots and lines. The problem is that when using really small amounts of regular solvent based paint they tend to bead up and skin over in a matter of seconds. This makes it almost impossible to create thin lines and small dots. I then tried using acrylic based paints and got similar bad results.
I finally tried artists oil paints. I have never liked this kind of paint because it can take weeks or even months to dry out. But for this application they are almost perfect. However, If you do not want to wait a ridiculously long time for the paint to dry, I would recommend using a drop of Japan Drier to a small blob (about the size of a pencil eraser) of oil paint. This will make the paint reasonably dry in a day or two.
You may also have to thin the paint with linseed oil. At this scale, if you put it on too thick as I did, you will obliterate many of the details of the carving.
Pic 7 shows the robot after painting. After it was painted I epoxied a human hair to the back of the head to create the ear antennas. The base that the sculpture is attached to makes a good palette for the oil paints.
Choosing the Right Brush
Willard Wigan, one of the masters of micro-carving and micro-painting, is said to use a hair plucked from a dead fly as a paintbrush. I tried it and found the hairs to be thin enough but too short to be easily used.
You will need to find the thinnest strand of something in order to paint at the microscopic level. Human hairs work but are too thick at .1mm to create small enough lines and dots for micro painting. Because of the thickness of the paint on a hair, to create a line the width of a human hair, a smaller thickness than a human hair is needed.
After trying a strand of a human hair, fly hair, .004 inch nylon thread, and thin paper cut to a sharp point, I finally settled on a single strand of copper wire that was .0015" thick. This works fairly well. In the end, I also used a #2 x-acto blade as a brush as its very sharp point was easier to control. It turns out that precisely placing the tip of the paint brush exactly where you want it is not that hard. What is extremely hard is to get the right consistency of paint and control how it comes off the brush (knife edge or wire). Only a few times was I able to create lines or dots thinner than a human hair.
As you can see from my very crude micro-painting results (pic 8), to do micro-painting well, most likely requires years of practice.
There are artists (see step 4) that are painting complete miniature scenes on canvases the size of my robot sculpture.
Step 4: Masters of Microscopic Art
To show you the scale that the best micro carvers are carving at: Pic 9 is a computer drawing of one of Willard Wigans sculptures "The Thinker" on the head of a pin.
Here are some links to some of the mind boggling carvings and paintings that people have done using hand held tools:
Willard Wigan from Great Britain is one of the masters of microscopic art. He has carved figures that stand in the eye of a needle or are dwarfed by the head of a pin. Some of his sculptures are less than a millimeter high. To reduce shake, he says he puts on the paint in between heartbeats using a fly hair.
Here is a Russian who has carved a camel caravan that fits in the eye of a needle:
And a chessboard with pieces on the head of a pin:
Heres a Chinese guy Jin Y. H. who has painted portraits of 42 presidents on a half inch length of human hair. The faces are the width of a human hair.
More paintings on a single hair: http://www.worldartmiracle.com/Micro_painting_English.htm
Here are some of his larger paintings, around the size of my robot carving.
Step 5: Small Is Beautiful
What is green about carving a robot on the head of a pin? Nothing much, although it can provide days or even months of challenging entertainment using simple tools and almost no materials.
But the techniques and principles involved in the minimization and miniaturization of anything is, I believe, the essence of true ecology. There is a natural and unavoidable tendency of humans over the long run to find the most efficient and economical way to to anything and everything. This natural evolution of products and services may be slower than we want or expect, but it is unstoppable. It is called doing more with less. One of the best examples of this is the electronics industry.
Here we can see devises getting smaller and more efficient while at the same time becoming more inexpensive. Why are we not doing that with our houses and cars?
Here are the basic principals of miniaturization and true ecology:
1. Make it Smaller.
Electronics is the most obvious example of things becoming smaller and more efficient. The same thing could be true of houses if people would simply build smaller. The architecture of boats and RVs is a fine example of how much can be efficiently done in a small space.
2. Reduce the Energy Used.
A reduction in size also causes a reduction in the energy required to create and maintain.
3 Keep it Simple
Leave out everything that is not necessary. Too much ornamentation and time is lost. Less ornamentation requires less time and space. Too much complexity and reliability is often lost and the cost goes up. Also, simpler designs usually require less energy to create.
If such basic principals are followed, we will not only reduce pollution, we will lesson our impact as much or more as using wind power, solar energy, or burning bio fuels.
Those that are truly worried about our impact on the planet will eventually recognize that small is beautiful and begin to learn how to voluntarily reduce the consumption and complexity of their lives.