Introduction: Easy 3D Topographical Maps

Picture of Easy 3D Topographical Maps

Here's a super easy way of making a 3D topographical map of anywhere in the world: you could literally be laser-cutting a map within 10 minutes of reading this instructable. I've always liked maps like these and there are some great tutorials out there... but the complexity had always put me off. But I recently learned how to use 123D Make, a free program that slices up STL files into pieces that you can stack together and make a 3D model. So I figured all that I needed was a utility that converted terrain into an STL, and happily, there exists one in Terrain2STL.

Step 1: Select Your Area of Interest

Picture of Select Your Area of Interest

Go to the wonderful Terrain2STL utility. You will be greeted by an interactive Google map. Navigate to the geographical area of interest by zooming and dragging, and click "Center To View". Go next to Model Details, and use the Box Size slider to make the red box large enough to incorporate the feature you want. Be aware however that the larger the feature you select, the bigger the STL file you will end up downloading. To start with, I suggest you pick a box size of 1080 or smaller. Under Water and Base Settings, set the Water Drop to 2 mm (to ensure that the shore is clearly demarcated) and the Base Height to the minimum 2 mm. You're ready to make your STL file! Click Create and Download.

Step 2: Slice It

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Go to 123D Make. Launch it, and click on Import...

Browse to your downloaded STL file, and open it. You will end up slicing the model, and to do so it is most important to consider what you are going to make the model out of. Click on the pencil under Manufacturing Settings and specify the width, length and exact thickness of the material you are going to use. Under Select a Technique... choose Stacked Slices. Now, adjust the model size until you get a form that is pleasing. Very often, you will need to exaggerate the vertical scale to get interesting topography, and to get the features you want accurately displayed you may have to tweak the overall size of the model. Once it has taken a form you like the look of, click on Get Plans (the Nested option uses material slightly more efficiently) and export the plan as an EPS file.

I strongly recommend starting with cardboard - the material itself is cheap and the cutting time is fast.

Step 3: Clean Up the Files and Prepare for Laser Cutting

Picture of Clean Up the Files and Prepare for Laser Cutting

Open the EPS file in Illustrator or Inkscape or whatever vector drawing program you like, and tidy up the files. I delete the border, delete layers I don't need (often full sheets with no features on them that are generated because the feature I'm mapping is at high elevation), and improve the nesting for efficient cutting. I also delete the numbers and pinholes* from the top layers.

I then set the line thickness to 0.001" (which the Epilog lasers I was using recognize as cuts rather than rasters), and enable color mapping. Set blue up to cut (whatever setting is appropriate for that on your machine) and red up to cut but at maximum speed and a MUCH lower laser power, so it only very lightly scores the surface.

* these are added by 123D Make to aid assembly, but topographical maps are easy to put together because the shapes are all unique and there are no overhangs, so you don't need them.

Step 4: Laser Cut and Assemble

Picture of Laser Cut and Assemble

Send your files to the laser cutter (or service). Free all of the pieces from the sheet and lay them out in numbered order.

Assembly is easy and quite fun for simpler maps. Just glue each layer one at a time (you did lay them out in order, right?), using the scored lines as a guide. You pretty much can't go wrong provided you're careful to line everything up.

This example was Mt Taranaki, a beautiful Fuji-esque volcano on the west coast of New Zealand's North Island, rendered in corrugated cardboard. The vertical scale is slightly exaggerated. This glue-up took me 10 minutes. The time lapse was recorded using my orbiting time lapse rig.

Use the appropriate glue for your material. A glue stick is fine for cardboard.

Step 5: Add Water

Picture of Add Water

I really wanted a version with water that showed depth, so I got some pale blue transparent acrylic and used it to represent water. Terrain2STL does not provide bathymetric data (which would be cool!),* but for the effect you want it doesn't really need to be super-accurate. I just looked up a bathymetric map and eyeballed a few layers. You will need to cut the underwater land (I hope that makes sense) out of plywood (or whatever) and the water out of acrylic. Use more than one layer for best effect. This example was done with Tuhua (Mayor Island), a dormant volcano off the coast of New Zealand near where I grew up. It's far enough off shore that it is sometimes lost in the haze, but big enough that when it does emerge it looms enigmatically on the horizon. It's spectacular; the hiking and fishing and snorkeling are all world class.

I liked the look of the island in its raw plywood + blue acrylic form, so didn't bother finishing it.

* I've corresponded with the author of Terrain2STL on this topic and got this reply "As for bathymetry - do you know of a good global bathymetry data set? I've looked into it a bit in the past but I haven't found a good, global map for ocean depth. Do you know of any? I'd definitely be interested in looking into adding it to the site if we can find a good dataset." Anyone?

Step 6: Experimenting With Finishes

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I tried making the area around where I live (Saanich, BC) out of green stained plywood and one layer of acrylic for the water. This map was really fussy to make, and I strongly advise starting with something simpler. All those tiny islands were a pain in the neck. If you end up with too complex a map, consider smoothing it in Fusion360 or Meshmixer before importing it into 123D Make, or simply delete the smaller features altogether.

If you end up making a topographical map using this method, please post a picture & I'll send you a free premium membership.


ZB45 made it! (author)2017-06-30

I just made an instructable about slicing an stl file in Tinkercad. Using the Community Shape Generator: Venetian Slats. And exported the slices as svg files to lasercut.

See the instructable:

makendo (author)ZB452017-09-11

Cool! I must get around to updating this for the Fusion360 plug-in...

bisca_mulan (author)2017-09-11

if i wanted to make one of a lake, how would i go about doing that?

makendo (author)bisca_mulan2017-09-11

See step 2. Bathymetric data not available in Terrain2STL

kboehnerpace (author)2017-08-22

I love this instructable! But I'm having trouble with Terrain2STL -- whenever I import to TinkerCAD, I just get a bunch of flat looking disconnected I just not picking interesting topography? I'm trying to test this project for 7th graders who are modeling early American colonial landscapes so I've tried this with Jamestown, Plymouth, and Williamsburg and in all three my STL model comes out looking not so interesting. Do you think my problem in choosing the spot? Or does it not play well with TinkerCAD? Or just user error in general?

makendo (author)kboehnerpace2017-08-22

If the area you're looking at is small and there is not many vertical changes, yes it can look boring and blocky. Try a larger, steep area, just to check it is not the TinkerCAD export that is playing up.

Gluboy made it! (author)2017-06-03

Lake Tahoe depth map :)

makendo (author)Gluboy2017-06-19

Nice. Cut with scroll saw? Pro sent.

shadyshaun (author)2017-06-19

I would love to make this. Unfortunately 123d is no more. Can anyone advise what software I could use to replace it to do the same job? I’m new to the laser cut world so any advise would be gratefully received. Thanks!

makendo (author)shadyshaun2017-06-19

It's now part of Fusion360, and is called "Slicer". I will try to get this instructable updated when I have some spare time... in short supply at the moment! If you get Slicer working any feedback very welcome

TwelveFoot (author)2017-02-12

MeshMixer runs awfully slow when you're trying to work with a mesh that has almost 6 million triangles.

Uhh, not that I'm trying to do a whole state or anything.

Honestly at this point I'm just happy the computer hasn't burst into flames.

TwelveFoot (author)TwelveFoot2017-02-12

And yes, I should have done a size or two in between instead of jumping from a tiny map straight to this.

makendo (author)TwelveFoot2017-02-12

a whole state... yeah, ambititous

TwelveFoot (author)makendo2017-03-06

I was originally trying that on a ~4 year old PC, I switched to a ~1 year old Mac and the speed difference was like night and day. So that let me "reduce" (simplify) the model and trim off the unnecessary bits.

123D Make reluctantly opened the (still large) file and produced a stack with... 1,540 pieces! Too many tiny peaks and valleys.

My current attempts at trying to smooth the model just make Meshmixer crash immediately. So I haven't completely given up on a whole state, but it's on a backburner for now.

TwelveFoot made it! (author)TwelveFoot2017-03-06

But in the mean time...

One is my "I don't have a laser, but I can do this with scissors" attempt.

The other is "I just got a laser, let's see what happens"

You don't really notice until you see one without, but the burnt edges left by the laser really add another layer of depth to these things.

makendo (author)TwelveFoot2017-03-06

Nice! Yeah, slow computers do seem to struggle with these big files. Interesting to see the contrast added by the burning. (author)2017-01-31

This is a fantastic tutorial! My students will love it and get a much deeper understanding of topography by doing this. I've tried a few times, and I keep getting "mesh could not be imported" when bringing in the stl file into 123D Make. 123D Make has been working fine with other stl files that I have. Any thoughts?

makendo (author)amy.fish2017-01-31

Hmm, strange. Does this happen with all sizes of map? Grabbing a very large piece of terrain leads to monster STLs that 123D Make might be balking at. (author)makendo2017-02-01

Thank you for your fast reply! I did use a 1080 box size, resulting in a 5.71 MB .stl file. I successfully imported a different stl file that was 23MB (was a tinkercad sourced file). I've tried on different computers and uninstalled and reinstalled 123DMake. I very much appreciate your thoughts.

makendo (author)amy.fish2017-02-01

odd. If a big TinkerCad file works, it might be something about the stl format 123D Make doesn't like. Perhaps try opening the stl in another program (Meshmixer I used to trim the Terrain2STL files) and resaving?

Note: 123D Make is very buggy - Autodesk stopped supporting it soon after launch, and its functionality is supposedly going to appear in Fusion360 in due course. I will update this project when it does.

idryo made it! (author)2016-10-03

I did something similar, but with a different approach. I used topo maps and a drawing program to extract all the contour lines and then cut them. Here's how it ended up. This is Mt. Diablo in the SF Bay area.

Eromanga (author)idryo2016-10-03

What drawing program did you use?

idryo (author)Eromanga2016-10-03

Corel Draw X5 (author)idryo2017-01-31

I would LOVE to know how you did this with Corel Draw!

Eromanga (author)idryo2016-10-03


makendo (author)idryo2016-10-03

Beautiful! Premium membership on its way.

TomF59 made it! (author)2016-12-02

Hi Makendo, thanks for this great tutorial !!

Here's the "Puy-de-Dôme" an ancient volcano in the center of France, where I was born. No as impressive as the Taranaki which had the chance to visit, but a very beautiful place ;)

makendo (author)TomF592016-12-02

You're welcome! Looks great, I like the contouring in color. Premium membership sent.

TomF59 (author)makendo2016-12-03

thanks !!

RenatoS4 (author)2016-10-03

Great work. Thanks. Do you know if there is something like 123DMake for Linux ?

Apolo8 (author)RenatoS42016-12-02

"Do you know if there is something like 123DMake for Linux ?"

I second

makendo (author)RenatoS42016-10-03

Not a Linux user, sorry. I imagine there are other tools out there for you, though perhaps not as user-friendly.

miiplusl (author)2016-10-16

Makendo, my terain stl thing wont work and this is for a school project so yeah i was wondering if you could help me and ive been trying for 3days!

makendo (author)miiplusl2016-10-16

What's the problem?

miiplusl (author)makendo2016-10-17

nvm its working its just that new york isn't very topographically intresting

makendo (author)miiplusl2016-10-17

Try 1. exaggerating the vertical scale 2. ensuring you have a decent sized water drop.

miiplusl (author)miiplusl2016-10-17

oh and its downloading now that i refreshed my comp

miiplusl (author)2016-10-13

Makendo, you're amazing I think your really cool and I reallyy could use that premium membership but yeah it's expensive but i could 3D print it? That ok too?

makendo (author)miiplusl2016-10-13


miiplusl (author)makendo2016-10-13

OK! Thank you so much! I will make great use of it

Alex Murray-Leslie (author)2016-10-12

Fantastic Scott, you are such a prolific maker with a very fresh perspective, i'm a fan!

Thanks Alex!

TallTrav (author)2016-10-08

The Challenger Relief Map. This was the first (and favourite) topographical map that I remember as a kid. This was at the Pacific National Exhibition in Vancouver BC, Canada. It was huge and is in real danger of being destroyed. Keep up the good work!

makendo (author)TallTrav2016-10-08

It's amazing all right. Shame if it never sees light of day again

coolcash (author)2016-10-07

Does anyone know what map is that for the main image? for me it looks like Walden Pond.

makendo (author)coolcash2016-10-07

it's an island. See step 5

GregS193 made it! (author)2016-10-06

The area i live made out of cardboard.

makendo (author)GregS1932016-10-06

Fantastic! Thanks so much for posting. Premium membership on the way

nenumarokas (author)2016-10-05

i just want a laser cutter so bad

dnaman (author)2016-10-04

Can't download the pdf of this. It runs to about 90% and then stalls. been trying for two days.

About This Instructable




Bio: Analog maker dabbling in digital manufacture
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