Cardboard 3D Topography: Favorite Places Project




Introduction: Cardboard 3D Topography: Favorite Places Project

About: I teach STEM electives (engineering, robotics, and computer aided design) to 6th through 8th graders at North Middle School in Everett, WA.

This is a fun intro to using the slicer add on for Fusion 360, which maps out slices for any STL file.

My classroom recently gained a laser cutter, so once we get a chance to get back to our physical school, this will be one of our first chances to try out the laser cutter. As we are distance learning right now, this can still be done, just requires more person power- you get to cut out all the cardboard bits!

I like this lesson as an integration between my 3D modeling elective and both geography and science classes.

For this project we are going to choose a place on Earth that we consider significant (a "favorite place"). It can be a place that is important to you or your family, a place that is historically important, or a place that you just think looks especially cool. This project works well with mountains, of course, or other features that are more "extreme".

You are going to find your place on a map, download a 3D model of the terrain into fusion 360, use an add-on called slicer to "slice" it, print out templates of your slices, cut the slices out of cardboard or other thick material, and then stack and glue the slices together.


  • Terrain to STL website
  • Autodesk Fusion 360 (free download)
  • Slicer for Fusion (free add-on)
  • Printer and paper
  • Cardboard (whatever boxes and scraps you have)
  • Cutting tools (Laser cutter= awesome, ZipSnips= great, Scissors= lots of work)
  • Glue
  • Decorating Materials (if you want)

Step 1: Find Your Terrain

This project is really only possible because there is a spectacular website that lets you download 3D model files of terrain (earth land features).

  1. Go to Terrain2STL
  2. Move around on the map until you find the feature you want to model.
  3. Click "Center to View" and a red rectangle will appear. This is the area that will be in your model
  4. Click "Model Details"- here you can change the size of your red rectangle, and a few other features
  5. Once happy with what you have in your box area, Click "Generate Model"
  6. Click "Download"

The site will download a zip folder with one STL file of your model inside.

(If you wanted to, you could 3D print some cool terrain just from this file :) Neat!)

Step 2: Get Slicer

Slicer is an add-on app for Fusion 360. It does not come automatically installed. Head over to autodesk and get yourself the app. Install it.

Step 3: Into Fusion 360 and Slicer

Open Fusion 360.

In the INSERT Menu, choose INSERT MESH. Find your file and open it.

On the TOP MENU BAR, find TOOLS. In the tools menu area select the MAKE menu, then SLICER FOR FUSION 360. This should open your model in slicer.

Step 4: "Slicer" Your Model

You can spend some time playing in here to see what different things do, before settling down and slicing this model for our topographic model.

Manufacturing Settings

I have this set to 8.5 x 11 so that the sheets it prints on fit standard printer paper

Construction Technique

(These are fun to explore and experiment with but..) For this model, choose Stacked Slices

  • If it stacks in a weird direction, you can select "Slice Direction" to change that setting
  • If it gives you an error and can't slice the model, you can try adjusting the "Thickness" under "Modify Form"

This is the time to play with settings a bit and see how it impacts the look of your model.

Step 5: Checking the Assembly

If you click assembly steps, the program will animate your model in cardboard and show how it is assembled. You can also look at the assembly reference on the right side to see how many sheets of paper and parts will be needed.

You will not necessarily need all the parts. For example, on my mountain (Mount St Helens), the model has a huge number of sheets that are just plain solid sheets that stack below the mountain. I will not print those. I will just leave them off.

Step 6: Get Plans and Print Them

When ready, click "Get Plans"

You have the option to save as a PDF (to print on paper, for example) or as a few other file types.

Print your plans!

(My classes--> if you have a printer at home and want to make the full cardboard model, keep going! In the future, when we are back at the school building, we will be able to laser cut these, but not this year.)

Step 7: Cut Everything Out.

Use your templates to cut everything out. On the template files, BLUE is a cutting line and RED is a marking/reference line.

Don't forget to number your pieces! (small, somewhere you can't see it in the finished model)

(My classes--> As you cut them out, on ONE separate piece of paper, TRACE the outline of each piece in order (starting with #1) making sure that they are lined up properly--> this is going to make a flat topographic map to go with your 3D model)

Step 8: Stack and Glue

Start with #1, It is the bottom of your model. **Note that some layers have multiple pieces**

Add a bit of glue on the bottom of the next piece (#2), then line it up and stick it down.

Keep going, stacking each piece in place as you go. Use the reference lines as needed.

You can look back at the model in slicer if needed too (remember that it has that assembly animation)

Step 9: Color/Decorate If Desired

You might want to add some color. For example, Some of the levels of one of our terrain maps are water, so we colored them blue. You could add other decorations too, whatever you like. Or labels.

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    Penolopy Bulnick
    Penolopy Bulnick

    2 years ago

    This looks like it would be fun to do with kids :)