Lithophane architecture. Source: tweakie.cnc/Flickr.com
Lithophane architecture. Source: tweakie.cnc/Flickr.com

Lithophanes were once the high tech home decor of the day. They were used as candle shields, fireplace screens, even bottoms for beer steins and tea cups. Deceptively bland until backlit, the technique was kept a closely-guarded trade secret for many years but has recently seen a revival thanks to 3D printing.

The word “lithophane” translates from its Greek origin as “to appear in stone”. In the Western world, lithophanes were first created by porcelain craftsmen about the 1820s but there is some dispute over who first created the process it. Some historians place France at the head. Others site Prussia as the leader. There is also a theory that lithophanes were invented in China almost 2,000 years prior to their appearance in Europe. This is based on historical records of “paper thin ceramics” with hidden designs embedded within. Perhaps Western artists were inspired by this Chinese achievement and sought to capitalize on its charming character. This is common for ceramic arts but at the moment we can’t be sure.

Regardless of its origin, lithophanes were a huge hit in Europe and then America. Despite their creator’s careful protection of the creation process, dozens of manufacturers in almost every country sprang up and began producing lithophane porcelain. By the mid-1800s, hundreds of thousands of lithophanes were made each year— just in the top 3 porcelain firms alone! This is an astounding especially considering that about 60% of the molds started cracked and became useless during the firing process.

Like any valuable technology, lithophanes quickly spread in popularity and also its permutations. The straightforward and simple early design of window plaques and candle shields quickly spread to include large fire screens, beer steins, matchbook covers and even doll house ornaments. Likewise, the motifs conveyed in lithophanes varied from the religious, to the erotic; the artistically gifted to plain, tourist knick-knacks.

More recently, the lithophane’s popularity has seen a resurgence due to 3D printing. A simple search on Thingiverse will reveal many free files, ready to print. All that is required is a 3D printer, a light source and maybe some patience. If you choose to create your own, customized lithophane, you will need a bit more skill and maybe some specialized software to accomplish the task.

As a 3D printing service company, WhiteClouds prints our lithophanes on a Connex 500 3D printer which has amazing resolution (each layer is one-fifth the width of a human hair). This means we can get photo-like quality, capturing even the most delicate detail with ease and enabling the lithophane’s translucency to come through brilliantly. Whereas most lithophanes need a bright source of light to reveal themselves, ours come alive with simple ambient light, right on your desktop.

Upload your own favorite picture of family, friends, place or pet and we’ll 3D print your masterpiece as a stand-alone or with a customized base. Each image and base comes with space for 40 unique characters – completely your choice. We can even print different text on the image and the base.

Turn on the lights and watch the magic come to life.