Typically, a lithophane is described as thin translucent porcelain that has been etched or carved with an image and is viewed when back lit with a light source. A 3D printed lithophane embodies the same principle with the exception that instead of the image being etched or carved – plastic filament, deposited layer-by-layer from a nozzle, is used to form the image. The parts of the image that appear darkest are where the printer has extruded the thickest amount of filament and the parts that appear the lightest are where the thinnest amount of material has been deposited.

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3D Printed Lithophane Back lit
3D printed white lithophane that is back lit with a light source.

Filament, Colour, & Quality

The quality and color of filament chosen will affect the final outcome of the 3D printed lithophane. Various shades of white – from bright white to cool white and the subtle hues in-between – can be used to create the perfect lithophane. Although white may be the most commonly used color to generate 3D printed lithophanes, beautiful results are possible with an assortment of translucent shades. Some lighter greys, pale browns, coffee based filaments, and even some wood fill 3D Printing materials have been used to produce lithophanes.

Regardless of the chosen color, the most important variables to consider are layer height, infill percentage, print speed, and the source image. The quality of the image used along with how much manipulation is done to that image will have a large effect on the final product.

Horizontal vs. Vertical

3D printed lithophanes are generally produced using 2 different printing methods. The first method of printing the lithophane horizontal to the Z-axis is the most common method. The main advantage to using this method is that the print is laying directly on the 3D printer bed and takes much less time to print when compared to the second method. Although there are many great benefits to using this method, the quality of the finished 3D printed lithophane can be lower than expected.

Diagram displaying the axis of a 3D printer.
Diagram displaying the X, Y, and Z axis of a 3D printer.

The second method that is ever-increasing in popularity is vertically 3D printed lithophanes. This method involves printing the lithophane perpendicular to the X-axis and Y-axis of the printer bed. Depending on the 3D printer being used, it will be necessary to determine which way to position the print for stability. This is done to limit the influence that the bed and gantry will have on the movement of the lithophane as build height increases.

The Right Balance

To achieve the highest quality lithophanes, a small layer height and slow print speed are recommended. Aim for a 0.12 – 0.18 mm layer height when printing as it will provide the greatest amount of detail. Printing speed is equally important; slower print speeds mean a higher chance for success of a superior quality lithophane. Printing too fast, even by 2-3 mm/s, could result in the filament being improperly placed and potentially ruining the final product. Another important variable to remember is the infill percentage. A common misconception is to use 100% infill for 3D printed lithophanes; this is not always the best option and some testing is required to determine the right combination of settings to achieve the best results.

Design, Test, & Iterate

One of the great advantages of 3D Printing is the ability to iterate and test a design with minimal costs involved. After conducting a series of 3D lithophane print tests while achieving acceptable and repeatable results, make sure to save the optimized slicer settings for future prints. The quality of filament, cost of 3D Printing, and software applications available make 3D printed lithophanes an affordable way to treasure a photographic memory in a new light!

If you have a lithophane design that you would like 3D printed, you can upload your 3D printable file to Prototype Hubs and get an instant price from a Prototype Hubs 3D Printing Partner.

About the author:
Kennet McCoy is an author for Inov3D.  Having stared 3D Printing in 2012, Kennet’s first 3D printer was a MakerBot dual extruder printer.
Instagram: @Inov3d_printing
Facebook: @Inov3d
Twitter: @Inov3D
YouTube: Inov3D


Whether you’re a 3D Printing enthusiast who dreams about printing and sharing designs, or an engineer who’s familiar with mechanical or industrial design looking for new ways to use 3D design skills, these ideas will help you better understand how to get started with artistic design for 3D Printing.

Choosing Which Software to Use

Generally speaking, 3D modeling software programs fall into one of three categories: solids, surfaces, & digital clay. This article will focus on the first category: solids, as most engineers and designers already know and use it. More importantly, though, it’s a favorable choice for beginners.

Solid Modeling 

With solid modeling, bodies are extruded and cut from a reference surface, plane, or point. Using solid modeling for 3D Printing comes with advantages. For instance, due to their parametric nature, models are watertight (manifold) and easy to edit and customize.  A timeline of these individual steps are saved, allowing for easy editing at any previous point in time. Once a user changes something, adjustments and updates happen automatically. Traditionally, mechanical and design engineers use this type of modeling to draw parts and molds that are fabricated through traditional manufacturing methods. Solid Modeling programs include SolidWorks, SolidEdge, Inventor, CATIA, and NX, which are all professional-level programs requiring a paid license. Meanwhile, Fusion 360, TinkerCAD, SelfCAD, OnShape, and other design software can be used for free.

Surface & Digital Clay Modeling

When it comes to the engineering and manufacturing world, surface and digital clay modeling software are not common due to a lack of precision. This software is, however, better suited for organic or freestyle designs that don’t require specific measurements or perfectly straight lines. Projects that would work best under surface and digital clay modeling include characters, animals, motion graphics, animation, and scenery commonly used in video games. Popular programs that fall under this type of design software are Rhinoceros, ALIAS, Blender, Maya, and Zbrush—just to name a few.

Solid Modeling Design Process

Although solid modeling is used mostly for industrial and engineering design purposes, it is possible to use it in a more artistic way. The best starting point is to think outside the box, and to not be afraid of trying traditional design tools in unconventional ways. Using any of the solid modeling software mentioned above, first get familiar with some of the most basic extruding and cutting tools and functions, as these will be used most throughout the design process. Next, try to model a favorite sci-fi starship or city landmark with a general, roughly outlined shape. As the design starts to evolve, more detailed features can be added or eliminated using the extrude and cut tools of the modeling software. Adding details to make the final model more realistic without complex tools does not require a substantial amount of knowledge or skill. However, understanding how to use complex modeling software, along with its elaborate tools and procedures, requires a greater amount of time.

MiniWorld 3D Helsinki Cathedral Step 1
Step 1: Simple volumes with proportional dimensions.

MiniWorld 3D uses mainly a combination of SolidWorks and Fusion 360 to create free miniature models of world famous landmarks and monuments for 3D Printing.

MiniWorld 3D Helsinki Cathedral Step 2
Step 2: Extruding volumes to enhance the level of detail.

By starting with broad outlining of geometric shapes and then gradually adding smaller details, the design software is used as a sculpting tool to produce the final model.

MiniWorld 3D Helsinki Cathedral Step 3
Step 3: continued detail enhancement using both extrudes and cuts.

With a bit of patience and time, it is possible to carve the solid bodies into beautiful shapes. The majority of the operations used include both cuts and extrudes with some combinations of patterns.

MiniWorld 3D Helsinki Cathedral Step 4
Step 4: using a combination of multiple cuts, it is possible to carve the details of the object.

Complex or fancy operations are rarely used, so even a beginner with little knowledge has the tools required with free modeling software to design intricate models.

Modeling with 3D Printing in Mind

Some general 3D Printing design recommendations:

  • Manifold – Always keep models watertight, or manifold. In layman’s terms, this means it isn’t hollow, there aren’t any missing edges or faces, and there aren’t any surface holes. This is not so much a concern with solid modeling as compared to surface and digital clay modeling.
  • No Supports – Try to avoid supports and overhangs. Use 45 degree planes, chamfers, or rounds if possible.
  • Small Features – Avoid thin or micro features. If the printing nozzle is 0.4 mm, be sure to make the smallest features at least 0.6 or 0.8 mm. Otherwise, the slicing software may omit them.
  • Orientation – Think about printing orientation before modeling in order to avoid supports when possible and maximize the print bed adhesion area. Consider that the best way to print a part may be upside down, or even on its side.
  • Parametric – Take advantage of parametric software to make adjustments after test-printing a design. It’s easy to edit lengths, diameters, thicknesses, or adding ribs and fillets, etc.

About the author:
Dany Sánchez is the founder of MiniWorld 3D, a collective of 3D artists who contribute models to make the best gallery of 3D printable landmarks around the world. Check out over 100+ free models on MyMiniFactory and keep up with news and updates.
Instagram: @miniworld3d
Facebook:  @miniworld3d
Twitter:  @LDIbarra