Introduction: Making Custom Wood Carvings From Topo Maps

About: Tinkerer with a garage, tools, and time to kill...

I got the idea for this project when I was brainstorming how I could make a special wedding gift for my brother. With his big day coming up soon, I decided that a way I could capture that moment for him and his wife would be to make a carving of the place where they will be getting married.

This project relies a lot on 3D modelling software, topographical survey data, and CNC coding/ I realize that it won't be as accessible to everyone as other projects might be -- however, I hope you are able to get inspired from this instructable! I've included a YT video showing the overall build process but here I will be going into much more data to try and clear up the process for all y'all.




3D modelling software

CNC Cam software

CNC machine and bits

Sand paper

Table Saw

Miter/chop saw



.75" plywood (used for the actual carving)

Wood for the frame ( i used african mahogany)


Epoxy die (I used carbon black powder)

Wood Glue

Wax Finish

Step 1: Find the Area to Model

As I mentioned before, I started this project in order to create a unique wedding gift for my brother and his wife -- so the place I was going to carve was pretty well set from the beginning.

I used google maps and google earth to get a feel for the area and terrain. While google maps is good for quickly finding a place of interest, Google earth has a helpful feature that allows you to view the surrounding terrain in 3D. That allowed me to mentally "frame" the area I wanted to include in the carve. By panning around the area and viewing the Snake River from various angles, I was able to finally decide on the area I wanted to highlight in the carve.

Step 2: From Satellite Image to 3D Model

So it's a rather involved process to create the 3D model for this. I really struggled at first and attempted to build the entire model out of nothing more than a 2D topographical map.

That QUICKLY fell apart.

So I was soooo happy when I came across the instructable made by "Shapespeare" outlining how he creates 3d terrain models for printing.

His instructable is very well put together and also includes YouTube videos that do a great job of demonstrating the process. I will link them here:

Instructable -- Make 3d Printed Topo Maps of Anywhere

YouTube Video -- Making Miniature Mountains: 3d prints from DEM data

So Shapespeare did a great job of explaining the process, so I'm going to let him do the explaining in the attached links but I'll give you an idea of the steps it takes:

1) Use USGS National Database to find topographical data for the area of interest

2) Download elevation data from the database

3) Use QGIS to create an elevation map

4) USE 3DEM to visualize the elevation map

5) Use Accutrans 3D to create a 3d mesh from the data output from 3DEM and do any editing required to frame the model how you want it for the carve

6) Use Blender to import the 3D mesh and create a solid model file

Like I said, It's a process... but thanks to Shapespeare, I was able to navigate from 2D topo to 3d model. All the software used in the process is free or open-source so anyone can get the required tools to re-create the process.

Now I am ready to add some customization and make tool path codes

Step 3: Getting Ready to Machine

For this step, I used Autodesk Fusion 360 to tweak the model and prepare to carve using their built-in CAM tools.

While the previous step gave me a 3d terrain model, I wanted to add a few more details to balance out the composition of the design. This included an infinity heart (marking the actual location where the wedding would take place), a compass rose, and some text.

Once I completed the design It was time to program the tool paths.

My tool path called for 4 different tools:

1/2" flat end mill (for facing the stock down to size)

1/4" flat end mill (for roughing out the shape)

3/16" ball end mill (for finishing passes on the 3D terrain)

1/16" tapered ball end mill (for carving the text details)

When writing tool paths, it is important to consider the material being cut, the bit being used, and the limitations of the machine. The speeds and feeds used in the programs will vary quite a bit depending on the setup so it really is up the the machinist to understand the critical variables that will ensure a good quality cut.

One thing that you DEFINITELY want to do before cutting anything is run the CAM simulation. This simulation allows you to watch the machine movements and catch any bone-headed mistakes you may have made BEFORE you end up snapping a bit.

If the simulation looks good then it's time to move on to the next step...

Step 4: It's Alive, Igor, It's ALIVE!

When I bought my CNC, the first thing I did was to name it IGOR... just so I can say things like this every time I turn it on.

Anyway, my dutiful servant Igor did a wonderful job progressing through the tool paths I created. Once the sawdust had settled, I had the general shape carved out.

For this carve, I wanted to use plywood because I figured that the alternating grain-lines from the different plies would give it a layered look. The idea was to pull a little of the topological map aesthetic into the carve. Overall I think it was a nice touch.

Step 5: Now STOP!....Epoxy Time

With the carve done, it's time to add some epoxy into the lettering details.

I used 5 minute epoxy, with carbon black powder mixed in to get a good black color.

Let me just make a disclaimer here:

It you're not very familiar with epoxy, then 5 minute epoxy isn't a great choice because you will be needing to work against a very tight schedule to get it all mixed and applied in time. I fact, I had to apply the epoxy in a few installments in order to cast all the lettering before the epoxy would set up. I personally would have preferred using a 1-2 hour set time epoxy just to make the whole process less stressful... but I used what I had on hand.

When mixing coloring into epoxy, typically the best way to do that is to mix the coloring into the EPOXY until all the powder is absorbed. After mixing the powder into the base epoxy, then it's time to combine the mix with the HARDENER. After taking some time to fully mix the hardener into the epoxy, the epoxy is ready to use.

I used a toothpick to spread the epoxy as I poured it out over the wood. I then used the toothpick to work the epoxy down into the bottom of each letter. In that way, I was able to free any air pockets that may have been trapped in the contours of the lettering.

Also, in order to control the mess, I framed the areas where I would be pouring epoxy with painters tape. That's just a trick I came up with a while ago to reduce the amount of sanding I need to do after the epoxy had cured.

Step 6: Sand, Baby, Sand!

Time to turn on the tunes, break out the sand paper, and GET TO WORK.

The first thing to do is to smooth off and remove the excess epoxy. I like to use hand sanding for this, as I don't want to be too aggressive and take off too much epoxy or "wash-out" the details of the lettering by over-sanding.

As I progress through the sanding paper grits, I periodically wet the surface of the epoxy and surrounding wood with a damp rag. This allows me to see how the epoxy is looking and make sure there aren't any voids or high spots that I may have missed.

While I was at it, I took some time sanding the carved regions as well. This gave me the opportunity to remove the machining marks left over from the carving and smooth out the overall look of the piece.

Step 7: Working on the Border

OK let's take a break from the carve...this thing is gonna need a frame to add a little depth/contrast to the piece.

Since I used a plywood for the carve, I wanted to frame out the light wood with a much darker one for some contrast. For that I used some african mahogony.

First, I cut off four 2" wide x 1" thick strips of mahogany to form the frame.

Next, I set my tablesaw blade height to 0.75" so that I could cut on the underside of each strip along their full length without cutting them in half. The reason I did this because I wanted to make a central groove cut on each strip. This groove would be .75" deep and as wide as the thickness of the plywood (around .75"). The plywood would sit in the groove as the frame comes together around it.

Continuing with the groove cut, I marked the edges of the groove on each piece and set the table saw to first cut just inside one mark, and then the other. With those 2 cuts made, the width of the groove is set, but there is still a fair amount of material that needs to be cut.

I used the tablesaw to clear most of the material in the groove by making a pass within the region of the groove cut, then indexing the blade over a bit and cutting again. I kept doing that until only thin strips of wood were left between each of the cuts. I then used a chisel to break out the the remaining pieces of wood in the groove.

I repeated this process for each of the strips then took them to the miter saw to cut each to length. (remembering to make sure each strip had a clean 45deg angle cut)

Step 8: It's Been FRAMED!

With the groove cuts in place, the assembly of the fame is pretty simple: just slide the frame segments on their respective edges of the plywood and clamp them together.

I did a quick dry-fit to make sure everything looked good, then opened the clamps and filled each of the grooves with wood glue and closed it all up again.

There you go. Frame? Check.

Step 9: Finishing and Glamour Shots

Once the glue is dry, the project is essentially done.

I used my chisels to break away excess glue and then sanded the frame and miter joints to clean everything up. Then I used some wax to coat the wood to bring out a little contrast and luster.

Once the wax had a chance to harden, the project was finished!

Thanks for following along!

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