Introduction: Laser Cut 3D Map

About: Mechanical Engineer,

Ever since I first saw one of these Laser cut 3D maps, I’ve wanted to make one. I purchased a 60-watt Laser Engraver this year, so here are the steps I went through to produce my map. The finished size is 15" x 17". The size is only limited by the laser engraver that is used. The map is comprised of 3 layers of thin plywood (water, land and streets). I wanted the main and minor roads on the same layer and I didn’t want any text engraved other than the city name.


Laser Engraver

Dremel sander

Adobe Photoshop or comparable software

Adobe Illustrator or comparable software for vector file generation



2.7 plywood or .125” Baltic Birch

Acrylic or glass

Wood glue

E6000 glue

Wood Stain (for the land layer)

Solid wood (If you decide to make your own frame)

Some sort of blue stain or acrylic hobby paint (for the water layer)

Polyurethane or varnish

Frame hanging supplies

Step 1: Step 1: Map Design

Decide on the city or area to create your map. Part of the challenge is finding the map data with the right features. I wanted to be able to separate out the water from the roads. Go the map link above and load the JSON (attached to the this Instructable) and load the style. I couldn’t determine how to eliminate the real small roads or walking paths. You can further edit the filters, but it may be difficult to get exactly what you are looking for. You can toggle on “Fullscreen view” to make your captured area larger. Scroll to the zoom level you desire and take screen shots of the area of interest. I pasted the screenshots into Adobe Photoshop. I panned over to the next area being sure to overlap the last screenshot and capture another screenshot and paste it in Photoshop. Collect all the areas to complete your map.

In Adobe Photoshop, I removed the unwanted areas of each screenshot. I then aligned all the shots. Pick the image for the top left corner, and lock the layer. Pick the adjoining layer and align it to the first. To help align them, I put the layer’s blending mode to ‘difference’. When the overlapping layers are solid black they are perfectly aligned (see photo). Change the layer’s blending mode back to ‘normal’ and lock the layer. Be sure not to include the zoom icons or your cursor in the cleaned-up layers. Combine all the layers in this manner. Unlock all the layers, crop the final image to the desired area and merge into one layer. Make a duplicate layer of the map image as a precaution. It’s best to resize the image to the desired output size at this time.

Step 2: Step 2: Separate the Water From the Streets

You should now have one layer with the combined water and streets. Next, we need to separate out the water layer and put it on its own layer. Use (Select>Color Range) and pick the water, adjust the threshold if necessary and paste the selected area onto a new layer and label the layer ‘water’. With the pencil tool, fill in with the same color all the missing areas due to bridges. Clean up any other areas. Take some artistic liberties to join thin areas or widen waterways.

Follow to same procedure to create a new layer for the streets. The street clean-up was more time consuming. I eliminated the footpaths and any unattached roads. With the pencil tool, clean up any thin roads or intersections. Add a new layer and create crosshairs in opposite corners in a clear area. This will assist you in making sure the multiple layers are aligned.

Hide all but the water and alignment crosshair layers and save as a .png file, labeled ‘water.png’. Hide all but the streets and alignment crosshair layer and save as a .png file, labeled ‘streets.png’. Be sure to review the attached 'screenshots of process' file for additional process aids.

Step 3: Step 3: Turn the .png Files Into Vector Files and Create a Border.

Launch Adobe Illustrator and import (File>Place) the ‘water.png’ and ‘streets.png’ files. They should be perfectly aligned, if not adjust their position. I’m still learning Adobe Illustrator, so this may not be the most efficient approach, but it worked. I’m using version CS5, so your commands may be different. Hide the streets layer. Select the water layer and create a vector path of the water by choosing: “Object>Live Trace>Make and Expand”. Delete all the ‘empty’ layers. Make a duplicate of the water group layers, we’ll use it later for identifying where to paint the water.

Hide the water layers and select the imported streets image. Again, create the vector paths by choosing: “Object>Live Trace>Make and Expand”. This will create many layers. There will be a lot of empty layers depending on how many streets you have. Depending on how clean the streets image was, there may be a lot of ‘loose’ road layers. There should be one layer that shows the majority of the roads. There may also be roads coming in from the perimeter, you’ll want to keep these also. Clean up (delete) any other roads or empty layers that are not important. I set the paths with no fill and stroke width of .25pt, color black. Depending on the image size, the roads may too narrow (or fragile) to laser cut. I wanted the roads to be about 0.090” (2.3mm) wide. I choose the road layer and expanded them with (Effects > Path > Offset Path). I used 0.015”. Expand each layer with roads.

Next, I created the border around the image. The streets will have to overlap the border so they can be combined into one layer. I show the rulers and set up guides for the border. The inner guides need to overlap (or touch) the road paths. I created a 1” border around 3 sides with a 2” border on the bottom. Create 2 squares to create the border frame; one along the outside border guides and one along the inner border guides. Put the smaller square in front of the larger square, then subtract the opening from the outer border (with the Pathfinder window: Minus Front command. Don’t move the border into the same group as the streets. If you do, it will implement the ‘Offset Path’ effect. Now, choose the streets layers and the border layer and combine them into one merged layer (with the Pathfinder window: Shape Modes: Alt – Unite). Add the city name or any other text to the bottom border in your desired font and convert the text to vectors: (Type>Create Outlines). Hide the streets layer for now.

Next, we will make the land layer by removing the water. Draw a rectangle along the inner border guides and select all the water group and the rectangle. Double check that the corners of the rectangle are exactly on the guide intersections. Trim the water outside of the inner rectangle (Pathfinder window: Crop). Now draw a rectangle around the outer border guides (no fill, stroke 1pt) and put the layer in the same group as the water.

Finally, we will make the water (bottom layer). We’re going to etch into the plywood where to paint it and then we will cut the final size later. Select the water group layers and expand it about 0.5” with: (Effects > Path > Offset Path). Draw a rectangle around the outside border (no fill, stroke 1pt) and don’t place it in this group of layers.

You can now delete all the layers with the alignment crosshairs. Assuming that your laser engraver program accepts .ai files, save the file as an .ai file.

Step 4: Step 4: Prepare the Wood and Cut Out the 3 Layers With the Laser Engraver.

You should have 3 vector groups in the file to import into your laser writing program: the back layer with the expanded outline of the water, the land layer the water cut out and one for the streets. Each one an identical size. Be careful moving the images to not offset the alignment. Review the expanded water layer and make sure any overlapping vectors are merged together. I started with 3 sheets of the 2.7mm plywood, sized larger than the final map. I laser etched (do not cut it) the bottom board with the expanded water outline and outside border. Set the power setting to only etch the plywood, not cut through it. One of the issues with laser engravers is the ‘burn’ stain it leaves from the laser. To make it easier to clean up the burn stain, I pre-stained and applied a polyurethane finish to each sheet before the final cutting. The polyurethane finish complicates gluing the layers together, but I opted for this approach. I stained the land layer with a dark reddish-brown stain. The street layer was not stained because the plywood provided a nice contrast to the land layer. I stained the water layer with a blue stain in the etched area. You can use a hobby acrylic paint or stain of your choosing. Allow the stains to dry then coat the 3 sheets with 2 coats of polyurethane finish.

Upload the vector files to your Laser cutting program and set up the parameters for cutting through your material. Once the polyurethane is dry, cut the 3 sheets with the laser. The water layer should only need the outside perimeter cut. Cut out the water and street layers. Be careful to save any cut parts that need to be glued back into the map (like the middle of letters, islands in rivers, etc.). I also saved the cut part around the saved part. It can be used for alignment (i.e. I saved the cut out ‘A’ so I could align the center part of the ‘A’- see photo). There is still some burn stain after the cutting, but it cleans up easily with cotton balls and white vinegar.

Step 5: Step 5: Pin and Combine the Cut Layers

It is important that the 3 layers are perfectly aligned before gluing in the missing loose pieces (middle of letters, islands). One problem is that wood glue doesn’t work very well with polyurethane on the boards. I sanded off the polyurethane with a Dremel sander at numerous locations on the water layer, I put a drop of wood glue on all the spots and taped the water and land boards together. I placed a plywood board over them and put some weight on if to flatten it while the glue set. I glued in the loose ‘islands’ with E6000 glue to the water layer. Next, I aligned the 3 layers and drilled holes in the 4 corners for a .125” dowel. The pins were mostly covered by the frame. I glued in the dowel 4 pins. Be sure the pins do not protrude above the top layer when the 3 layers are combined. I put dabs of the E6000 glue on the back of the streets layer around the border and placed it on the pins, covered it with plywood and added the weights. Once the glue sets, glue any flimsy streets and the missing letter pieces (“A’s”- see photo) using the letter as a guide. Tape them in place as the glue sets up.

Step 6: Step 6: Frame It, and Hang It Up.

I chose to make my own frame to mount the map in. I created a frame out of solid cherry wood. I didn’t want the street layer touching the acrylic face so I added extra depth to the frame. I made it deep enough for an acrylic protective piece, a ¼” spacer and the 3 layers of the map. I stained and polyurethane finished the frame. The spacers were cut to fit snuggly and I mitered the corners to avoid them from shifting out of position. I didn’t bother gluing the spacers together, the mitered corners hold them in place. Insert all the layers, glue or pin in place and add hanging hardware. You’re all done! Hang it up and admire your new artful map. Thanks

Maps Challenge

Second Prize in the
Maps Challenge