How to: Build a $10 DIY microscope


Old News

Doesn’t count as a “$10 microscope” if you’ve got to start with a smartphone.

The microscope story was posted 3 days ago.

The story here isn’t the microscope, it’s the attempt to replicate the microscope.

The point is that this is a set of instructions for someone who already knows how to do stuff like drill holes in Plexiglas. Years of practice help to make following sparse DIY instructions easy.


This isn’t about the microscope, it’s about the efforts to replicate someone else’s project.

I’ve written some popular how-to’s and the first 80% of that article (the second link, not the first one everyone has so breezily dismissed) is pretty much my constant fear when I write them. Normal DIY projects are done by people who are experienced with DIY, they know how to follow instructions and troubleshoot projects, and improvise. But when your DIY project goes viral most of the people trying to build it are poorly prepared. And, as an author, you can’t put a Making 101 class in the instructions or they’ll be so long no one will read them. You make the project as robust as possible, you try to head off the most obvious mistakes, hope for the best. But still your email box fills with people who are deeply frustrated because they’ve tried it and feel like you’ve led them astray and they’ve wasted a lot of time and money and maybe you owe it to them to fix it.

It’s a pretty thankless job. A DIY author virtually never hears about the successful builds, only the failures.

I was kind of surprised that a scientist would be so poor at following instructions and intuiting the location of the lens, but it sounds like she’s going to try again, which is great. To me, the absolute worst outcome of a DIY project is that they’ll be so frustrated that they’ll never try to make anything again.


what worries me is that there was a video showing how do do stuff. Even where the lens goes and other details. How could someone fail to see the placement of each part in that video is beyond me. But as was said, it is great that people do stuff with their hands.

What if the project required you to use your hands – would you count that in the costs? I’m sure the cost on the black market for a pair of perfectly-mint newly-sawn-off hands is in the thousands of dollars.

I joke, but the point is that if you use something that is already in your possession and doesn’t get used up by using it, the cost is free. If you don’t have a smart phone obviously this doesn’t cost $10. If you do, then it does.

Have you ever tried to build something based on a video? It’s tricky. The thing you want to see in detail vanishes in a second.

Long ago, there was a company called Heathkit that made electronic kits. They were legendary for their excellent instruction manuals. The sad fact is that writing a legendary instruction manual requires legendary effort, and 99% of DIY article writers don’t have the time or the skill set to convey everything that needs to be conveyed to an inexperienced builder.

Yes, I read Bethany Brookshire’s story and I appreciate the point Maggie was making by linking to it. I was just pointing out that Brookshire’s story barely qualifies as “old news,” as timthebarbarian dismissively put it, since Brookshire posted it on Friday.

Tut tut, Bethany.

Better luck next time : )

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