Introduction: Laser Cut Contour Maps

About: Adventures in Creativity and Innovation, Design, Engineering, Making, Fixing, and Tinkering

This is a tutorial on creating a laser cut contour map using Ordnance Surveys OpenData. I cut the map using a K40 laser with an upgraded smoothie board.

I think the contours provide a pleasing and interesting aesthetic. The maps work best when you are featuring a section of coastline!

Step 1: Get the Data

UK Map

Head to the ordnance survey webpage to download their OS Terrain® 50 ESRI Shapefile

US Map

I haven't attempted to cut a US map but the data here seems to be in the same format as the UK data

Other areas

Contour shapefiles tend to be publicaly available through governmental scientific agencies for a lot of countries it just takes a bit of searching

Step 2: Locate the Data

Head over to QGIS and download and install their open source GIS application.

  1. Add a new vector file using the tool in the top left tool bar
  2. You now need to navigate to the specific OS50Terran file for the area you want to create. For the UK data you are looking for an AutoCAD shapefile its usually the largest file of the set. To make things easier you can narrow down the search by identifying the grid ref appended to the file name..Unfortunately narrowing down past the region is a bit of trial and error until you find the right tile.

*You can open a series of files and they will start to join up to create a larger area

Once you have your desired area we need to export a SVG over to illustrator to prepare for the laser.

1.Click 'New print composer' ignore the name box that pops up then a new window will open

2. In the new window that opens click 'Add new map' and draw a bounding box on the white space - your map should now appear on this canvas

3. Now click 'Export as SVG' in the top toolbar

Step 3: Prepare for the Laser

We are now going to prepare the file for cutting -

Open Illustrator alternatively GIMP the open source vector program.

We now need to separate into layers what we are going to 'cut' the coastline,' and what we want 'etched' the contours...

  1. >Select All
  2. >Give all paths a single colour eg Blue and reduce stroke weight to 0.01pt

We now need to create a separate layer for the coastline and move the coastline paths on to this layer and color the stroke to red.

The final step is to create the shape of the map perimeter depending on the picture frame size you use. I used a 203mm square aperture in a cheap box frame bought from ebay. So i created a 203mm box around the map, as this was a cut path i set the colour to red and stroke to 0.01pt

Your file is now ready to send to the laser cutter.

Step 4: Cutting the File

As there are many different laser machines and software that they run on i wont go too in too depth here. The file we have prepared should be suitable for most laser cutters.

I have a Chinese K40 Ebay special that i modified with a Smoothieboard to run LaserWeb 4

I cut the 3mm plywood making 3 passes for the coast line to ensure the cut and 1 pass for the contours.

Step 5: Putting It All Together

Once the map is cut i used a piece 3mm blue acrylic the same size as the map to represent the sea, and attatched it the the ply with hot melt glue.

I then located this within the box frame, covered with the backing board and your laser map is complete!