Lithophanes: An Introduction for 3D Printing

Photographs are an amazing way to capture a moment in time in your life to hold as a keepsake for generations. One plus of the modern digital photo era is the sheer quantity of photos that we all carry with us each day on our smartphones and laptops.

With the advent of better cameras and larger sizes of flash drives, this number is bound to go up even more!

What if there was a way to bring a photograph to life as a conversation piece in your living room? To make your photograph a visual piece of art that you can touch?

In recent years, thanks to 3-D printing, you can now make lithophanes of your favorite pictures on your 3-D printer. It’s a striking way of displaying your favorite photographs as living breathing art additions to your home decor.

What are Lithophanes?

Lithophanes are thin 3-D renderings of designs or photographs that allow for light to pass through them to display the image. If you can visualize how a screen-printed logo or design gets printed onto a shirt or a vinyl record sleeve, then you can visualize how a lithophane is made because the methodologies are quite similar between the two.

A Brief History Of Lithophanes

There is debate whether lithophanes were first used in ancient China or in 1800’s France, but the general accepted origin story is that they were first introduced in France in 1827. The first iterations of lithophanes were hand-carved porcelain of floral images and artistic paintings. The advent of using molds out of wax and plates of glass was conceived not long afterwards as artists successfully made plasters out of wax to replicate lithophanes for production purposes.

The very word lithophane is taken from the Greek words “lithos” which means stone and “phainein” which means “to appear”. Taken together, the word lithophane means “appearance in stone”.

Screen Printing

Just as a refresher for those who may have forgotten their art classes back in high school, screen printing starts with a block of hard clay or rubber material. Over time, bits of the material are carved away to showcase detail as the block gets ultimately whittled down to the final image which is reversed from what the final image will be.

Once the block is finalized, the block gets saturated with the colored ink of your choice and is pressed through with a scraper to bleed through to the target vehicle (shirt, paper, album cover, etc.). This block can be re-used as many times as needed as a safety block or master block will also be created as a backup.

Lithophane Printing

Using the above as a reference, lithophane printing could almost be viewed as a “reverse” screen printing process. The 3-D printer slowly creates the raised parts of the image to showcase depth and detail, while the thin parts of the lithophane will be the most translucent, letting light pass through.

Almost all lithophanes use white colored composite material as that’s the color that is most translucent. The best vehicle to make the lithophanes come alive is to house a small-wattage light inside the lithophane and have it illuminate the piece in a dark room. Once you’ve seen the power of lithophanes in that environment, you’ll want to produce more of them!

Which Material To Use?

When it comes to lithophane production, the most important component to the process is the material that will be used. Use the wrong material, and you won’t get the desired visual effect or even worse, the lithophane image won’t come out as you intended which is a waste of material and money spent.

As to which material will work best? Trial and error will usually be the best teacher, but there are good places to start which we’ll cover below.

PLA

HATCHBOX PLA 3D Printer Filament, Dimensional Accuracy +/- 0.03 mm, 1 kg Spool, 1.75 mm, Black, Pack of 1

PLA or Polylactic Acid is known for its translucency and its overall usefulness in printing lithophanes. The one drawback to this filament is the fact that you can’t use a high-powered light bulb to illuminate it. The reason for this is due to the glass transition temperature of the material as it’s rated at only 140 degrees Fahrenheit or 60 degrees Celsius.

You have a couple of options to illuminate PLA lithophanes, you can use a very low-wattage bulb (10-25W) to keep the internal temperatures low. The other option would be to use an LED light which can shine brightly and put off very little in the way of heat or energy.

PETG

PETG or Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol is a good secondary choice for lithophanes due to its strength and heat resistance. You will have no problems lighting up a PETG lithophane with an ordinary incandescent bulb.

The drawbacks with PETG is that the material is more difficult to print and capturing some finer details of a lithophane simply won’t be possible with this material. You would also need the addition of a heated bed to print the lithophane which isn’t needed for PLA prints.

Gizmo Dorks 1.75mm PETG Filament 1kg / 2.2lbs for 3D Printers, White

 

NYLON

Nylon can definitely take a licking and keep on ticking in the heat resistance sweepstakes as nylon lithophanes can stand temperatures up to 194 degrees Fahrenheit or 90 degrees Celsius. Nylon also has a higher degree of translucency than PLA, but the tradeoff is in the printing process itself as it’s quite difficult.

Nylon material isn’t cheap and your settings and atmospherics have to be perfect to get a good print. You also need to purchase a hot-end which will produce higher heat than a normal nozzle as printing Nylon material needs a very high temperature (nearly 500 degrees Fahrenheit) to print correctly.

ABS

ABS or Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene is one of the most popular plastics around and is used almost everywhere you look. The heat resistance of ABS is ideal for making lithophanes, but the opaqueness of the material isn’t and therefore ABS should not be used for lithophane printing purposes.

The Process

Using a high-quality J-PEG image, you can import the image into your computer software of your choosing or an online software tool that can produce an STL or Stereolithography CAD file. If you’ve ever worked on CAD machines and software before venturing into 3D printing, you’ll be quite familiar with STL files.

One thing to remember when setting up the printing job and the slicer software is that you should set your percentage of infill to 100%. This way, the print will fill in all the available space within the material, and you won’t end up with a lithophane that looks too thin!

Once you have your STL file locked in and your material set, you can then set your printing job up within the 3D printer and then go have a few sandwiches because it’s going to take a while to finish printing. Once your lithophane is finished printing and completely cooled, you can then take it out of the printer, and you’ll have successfully printed your very first lithophane!