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Lithophanes: how to CNC machine a photo.

Lithophanes are artworks created in thin material, that can only be seen when the material is illuminated from the back side. The thinner the material, the more light can come through, so a picture will result. Using a DeskProto bitmap operation you can use any photo (JPG, GIF or BMP file) to create a lithophane. An easier name for this process could be relief carving, or photo carving.

1. Lithophane theory

Drawing that shows the principle of a lithophane
The trick of a lithophane is in the material thickness: the thinner the material, the more light will come through.


Lithophanes are very easy to machine using DeskProto, and they will guarantee you many admiring reactions as the effect is truly amazing. DeskProto can be used to create flat lithophanes and pipe lithophanes, see the tutorials below.
As you can use any digital photo, downloads are not needed on this page.

You can find more information about bitmap machining in Lesson 6 of the printed DeskProto Tutorial.


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2. Flat lithophane Tutorial

Creating a flat lithophane. The video explains about lithophanes, shows the DeskProto settings, the actual machining and the result   (8 min)


The Flat lithophane tutorial video teaches you how to create a lithophane using DeskProto. The photo of a dog is used, you can of course use any picture that you want.
This video does apply to all three editions of DeskProto, so even to the lowcost Entry Edition.



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3. Pipe lithophane Tutorial

Creating a pipe lithophane. The video explains about lithophanes, shows the DeskProto settings, the actual machining and the result   (11 min)


The Pipe lithophane tutorial video teaches you how to create a pipe lithophane using DeskProto: the relief is machined in a cylinder shape material (a pipe). You then can place a lamp or a candle inside the pipe.
This video applies only to the Multi-Axis Edition of DeskProto, as a rotation axis is required.
In August 2014 this video has been replaced: the process as shown in the old video (made in 2010 using DeskProto V5) no longer worked in the current DeskProto V6.


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4. Results showcase for lithophanes

The original photo of the dog
The relief of the lithophane shown
Left the original photo, right the relief clearly visible

Before you can start machining a lithophane you will need to experiment a bit with material thickness: how thick is needed to create white and black in the picture. For this flat lithophane a piece of 3 mm thick white PolyStyrene has been used, and we found that the material needed to be between 0.5 and 1.5 mm thick for a good result.


Flat lithophane, back-lit
Pipe lithophane used as lamp-shade
The same picture twice: left flat, right as lamp-shade

Also important is the choice of cutter: the smaller the cutter, the more detail. For these pictures we have used a 2 mm diameter ballnose cutter for roughing, and a 1 mm ballnose for finishing (see the tutorial videos above). We also tried a conical cutter with 0.1 mm tip, which showed much more details (for instance the hairs at the dog's nose), however in this plastic the resulting surface was not smooth enough.


Pipe lithophane with two girls, the relief
Pipe lithophane with two girls, lamp lit
Again a lamp-shade: present for a grandmother

For these lamp-shades plain PVC drainage pipe has been used: diameter 70 mm, material thickness ca 1.5 mm. Very cheap: a piece a 2 meter did cost us 5 Euro. Note that you will need white plastic: this does not work in the standard dark gray type.


Three lithophanes of Wurzen town gates
Lithophane with text Wurzen
A series of nice lithophanes, showing the German town Wurzen and it's city gates (Stadttore)

Thiele Holz from Wurzen (Germany) produces wooden articles and artworks. In addition Herr Thiele also machines artistic lithophanes, like the series above that show his home town in a nostalgic light.
These lithophanes have been machined in 2 mm thick PVC sheet material.


Seven flat lothophanes on one base place
The resulting lithophane lamp
A seven-sided lithophane lampshade, showing portrets of all seven family members

Our programmer Koen had the bright idea that it is also possible to create a lithophane lampshade on a machine without rotation axis: machine a number of flat lithophanes and use these to build the lamp-shade.
His family has seven members, so for this lamp a seven-sided polygon (heptagon) was used as base plate. The extra holes have been added to allow coolant air flow. The flat panels have been assembled on the base plate using glue, and after that the complete shade has been mounted on a standard table-lamp base by simply replacing the shade that it came with.




Email us a photo of the lithophane that you created so we can add that to the list of results !
(in case you want with a link to your website).
It will be interesting to see which machines are used, which cutters, and also which fixtures for three sided ring machining.