Chemical reactions at ultrasmall volumes are becoming increasingly necessary to study biological processes, to synthesize homogenous nanostructures and to perform high-throughput assays and combinatorial screening. Here we show that a femtolitre reaction can be realized on a surface by handling and mixing femtolitre volumes of reagents using a microfluidic stylus. This method, named microfluidic pen lithography, allows mixing reagents in isolated femtolitre droplets that can be used as reactors to conduct independent reactions and crystallization processes. This strategy overcomes the high-throughput limitations of vesicles and micelles and obviates the usually costly step of fabricating microdevices and wells. We anticipate that this process enables performing distinct reactions (acid-base, enzymatic recognition and metal-organic framework synthesis), creating multiplexed nanoscale metal-organic framework arrays, and screening combinatorial reactions to evaluate the crystallization of novel peptide-based materials. © 2013 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved.