Introduction: "Topographic" Pallet Wood Wall Map

About: I have an unhealthy relationship with pallet wood. I make fast paced and entertaining build videos on my YouTube channel that are made for everyone, but with the ultimate goal to get the younger generations ex…

MMMMMMM maps. If I could marry one, I would. This is my interpretation of a topographic map. It's built up from strips of reclaimed pallet wood glued up into sticks 5 layers thick. Each of these sticks is 1" wide and follows the topographic profile of the state of Vermont at each 1" section. I have to be honest with you though, I call it a pallet wood map, but really it's 90% wood glue, 10% pallet wood, and 100% reason to remember my name.

Step 1: Materials & Tools


– Pallet wood

– Wood glue

– Epoxy resin

– Varnish


– Bluetooth hearing protection

– Metal detector

– Pneumatic Denailer

– Nail puller

– Glue mats

– Glue roller bottle

– X-Carve CNC

– 1/8″ End Mill

– 1/4″ Carbide End Mill

– Spindle sander

– Epoxy syringe

– Sanding sponge

– Keyhole router bit

– Mini disk sander

Step 2: Gathering Materials

Per usual, this journey starts at my "lumber yard". I pick the best pallets of the batch and bring them home to murder them, it's a sweet story really.

Step 3: Getting Slats Down to Thickness

After ripping all of the limbs off of the pallets, I gut them by pulling the nails out and checking all of the slats with a metal detector. Then I send each slat through my thickness planer to smooth down each face while also smoothing out my tutorial by ceasing the use of metaphors.

Typically for pallet wood lamination projects like this I'll just plane them down until each face is smooth and just work with the random thicknesses. For this project however, I want consistent thicknesses so I need to figure out how to make that work. I want each slat to be 1/4" final thickness, so anything that's close to that I pull out of the pile and the rest get resawn on the tablesaw and then the bandsaw to just over 1/4" so that I can bring it down to dimension with the planer.

Step 4: Rough Cutting the Materials to Size

We yet again move over to the thickness planer to plane off whatever the bandsaw left behind on the resawn boards and also bring the thinner boards down to thickness which I pulled out before. Now everything is a consistent 1/4" thickness. Are you uncomfortable yet? You should be.

The slats are then moved over to the table saw where I rip them down to just over an inch. The final width that I want on these pieces is 1", so this will give me a little bit a room to play with in the next steps and I'll bring it down to the final dimension later. After this, I use the table saw with my miter gauge and cut the pieces all down to rough length, again leaving a couple of extra inches wider than the final width of the map. You don't need me to tell you about a couple of extra inches though.

Step 5: 1st Glue-up

And then it's just glue, glue, glue, and more glue. 5 layers of wood total and then I leave one face dry so that I'll have sticks of wood later rather than one large sheet. All of these sticks get clamped together though while the glue dries just for efficiency. I actually had to do 2 massive glue-ups to have enough sticks for the map.

Now we wait, I let the glue dry for the night and then I gently remove the pieces from the clamps to make sure that I don't disturb the fragile glue joints. /s

Step 6: Cutting the Sticks to Length

Each of the sticks is cleaned up by sending them through the thickness planer to make each face smooth. I keep going, taking layers off the worst looking side until the sticks are milled down to 1" thick. The last dimension to clean up is the length which I do on the table saw. Then the sticks are ready to show off their curves.

Step 7: Cutting the Topographic Profile

I use my X-Carve CNC to cut out the curves. Now this is what I'm calling "my interpretation" of a topographic map. It's essentially just a topo map that's pixelated in one direction in 1" segments. The idea is to have a different visual to a topo map that could also be created by hand with a bandsaw if you really wanted to. I got the topo data for the state of Vermont from a model I found on Thingiverse. This model was loaded into SketchUp where I took slices vertically every inch. These cross sections were then organized and manipulated so I could export them as an SVG to be able to cut them on the CNC.

There are a total of 50 of these sticks that are cut out by the CNC so you can see why I chose the CNC for this operation in particular. The extra materials are removed on the bandsaw and I carefully label reach of them so that they won't get out of order.

Yeah robots! You can really see the state taking shape now with the pieces all laid out. Also notice how the west side of the state all lines up in a line. This is one of the modifications that I made in the drawing phase of the project to stretch all of the sides of those pieces out to the same point so that I could then have a reference point to align them to later. Once I cut the actual profile of the state, you won't even know that I cheated like that.

Step 8: Trimming the Sticks and Sanding

Last thing to do before sanding these pieces down is to refine the shape a little bit. I cut the pieces down to rough length on the table saw removing most of the excess length that the CNC didn't cut into. This leaves behind some excess thickness on each of the pieces which I just remove on the bandsaw. This again leaves a little room for error just in case the profile of Vermont extends slight passed where I had planned. (spoiler: it did... because I'm perfect)

I use my spindle sander to sand every one of these pieces. The CNC router leaves a nice surface behind when cutting with the grain, but not so much when cutting against the grain so all of these faces need to be cleaned up with the sander. At the same time, I also touch the top edges by hand with a little sandpaper just to soften the edges since I won't be able to do this when they're glued together.

Step 9: Filling in Nail Holes and Cracks

With any pallet wood project, you are left with some defects in the form of cracks and nail holes, which you can choose to leave as features of the project or try to hide them or at least ill them in. I decided in this case to fill them in to leave as nice of a surface behind as possible since the map is already pretty busy as it is. I mix together some 2 part epoxy resin to fill in these holes and cracks.

With a syringe, I can direct the epoxy exactly where to go. Before I apply the epoxy I inspect each strip and apply some blue painters tap to the edge of anywhere that I'll be filling with epoxy. This just makes sure that the strips don't get stuck to one anther with the epoxy and I can just remove the blue tape later. Once the epoxy has cured, I just touch those spots up on the spindle sander to bring them down flush and smooth again.

Step 10: 2nd Glue-up

And now the final glue-up! This time I carefully apply a strip of glue mostly towards the bottom of each of the strips. Because the top surface is the finished surface, I don't want much glue squeeze out to occur there because it will be like negotiating with a cat when trying to clean it up. Again, I clamp this entire piece up as one massive piece, but there are 2 joints that aren't glued together so that the map will stay in 3 separate sections so it will still fit on my CNC later.

Step 11: Cutting Out the Silhouette of Vermont

Once the glue is dry, I remove the pieces from the clamps and clean up any glue squeeze out that I did get (there's always some) and then clamp the pieces to the CNC. I cut the silhouette of the state of Vermont out in 3 sections because that's what I had to do in order to fit it within the cutting capacity of my machine. It was pretty easy to do this though, since each strip is exactly 1" wide, I just moved the profile of the map up by how ever many strips were in that section of the map and was able to zero it off that top corner for each one. It was fun to watch this cut through the hills and mountains too because it was mostly cutting through air at first and eventually worked it's way down.

I leave tabs to hold the map in place and those are cut on the bandsaw so I can remove the scrap pieces. Anyone ever notice Vermonts....... feature? I can honestly say that I hadn't until today. After the bandsaw, I run all of the edges over a flush trim bit in the router table to remove any inconsistencies and I also run sandpaper over the top corner to remove any burs and soften the corners.

Step 12: Attaching the Map Sections Together

At this point, I was just going to glue the 3 sections of the map together into one big map and call it a day, but I had a stroke of genius to draw out this project even longer. I'm making this map for a friend and I'll need to ship it, so I decided to find a way to keep the map at a smaller size in the 3 sections, but do it in a way that it could be assembled simply, without the need for tools. I ended up cutting 2 keyhole slots in a couple of the pieces and then installed receiving screws to the other map section that connected with it.

Now the map sections just need to be lined up and then they slide together and that's more than enough to hold the pieces together. I had some people concerned about the strength of this joint when I was posting about it on Instagram, but I'm not building a bridge, all the force it needs to support is the weight of the map sections below it so this is more than enough.

Step 13: Sanding the Back of the Map

With all of the map strips now attached to each other, I can smooth out the little bit of inconsistencies that are left on the back of the map with a belt sander and then finish sand with a random orbital sander.

Step 14: Adding French Cleat Pocket and Chamfer

Now I need to figure out a way to hang this thing up on the wall. I decide to go with a french cleat since it's super strong, will allow me to mount the map flush with the wall, and because it's snobby about cheese. To do this, I need to hog out a 1/2" deep section on the back of the map with my router. This will hold the french cleat that mounts to the map and will also leave room for the mating cleat that is attached to the wall.

Last step before finish is to put a slight chamfer on the back side of the map. I decide to do this by hand due to the funky shape of the piece, but I add the chamfer to give a slight shadow line on the back side of the map. Since this is a large piece that will be hanging on the wall, it will be spanning a fairly large distance. Walls are never perfectly flat, so this chamfer will be able to hide any slight inconsistencies between the map and the wall so they can't be picked up by your eye.

Step 15: Applying Finish

And now it's finish time, time to dim the lights, grab a glass of wine, and crank that Kenny G on the stereo.

I went with a varnish from TotalBoat called "Lust" which is the reason for the Kenny G (mostly). It has a slight amber tint to it, so it really brings all of the colors of the pallet wood out and makes them shine. Except it doesn't make them shine because it's a matte finish so there isn't much sheen to it.

I do 3 coats of finish total, with a light sanding in between just to remove any grit that got stuck in the finish (which is easier said than done with the shape of this piece).

Step 16: Installing the French Cleat and Hanging Up the Map

Once the final coat of finish is cured, I can install the french cleat into the back of the top section of the map with a few screws. You can see here that it sticks down at a 45 degree angle, this mates with the opposite cleat on the wall to hold it in place.

By hanging the top section on the wall and sliding the rest of them together, we can call this one a map! Sorry, sorry, I meant, we can call this one a wrap!

Step 17: Glamour Shots

Jackman's for scale. As always, click on the YouTube video linked below for the full Jackman experience! I'll see you there.


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