Introduction: Travel Map Wall Art

About: I like photography, woodworking, homebrewing, and whisky.

My wife and I decided to do Christmas gifts differently this past year. I don't know about other husbands, but I worry if I only get my wife a few gifts- and they miss the mark- I will have ruined Christmas! So like any rational, loving husband, I hedge my bets and end up buying all the things, hoping that one of them is bound to be a home run. This of course leads my wife feeling pressured into also overbuying for me, and we both end up spending a lot more money on each other than either of us wanted to. And we're actually both really easy-to-please people, so this was just very silly behavior.

For this year, we decided we'd narrow presents down to three gifts each:

  1. Something they want
  2. Something they need
  3. Something homemade

It was a lot of pressure at first, but adding the homemade component really made it exciting for both of us. Ultimately I think it ended up being the best gift exchange we ever did. We were both way more excited about what we were giving than what we were getting (which is the point, right?).

So, every year we try to take a unique vacation. This particular year we were headed to Idaho celebrate a family member's 90th birthday. We decided since we were already out there to make it a real adventure. We flew into Denver and drove through Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Craters of the Moon, and the Dinosaur National Monument. It was an absolutely unbelievable, once-in-a-lifetime experience. I knew immediately I wanted to do something that related to this trip, and something that had to do with woodworking (which is one of my hobbies).

While working on Google Maps, I realized that placing pins at locations as visual representation for travel would translate well on a physical map. I decided a map showing our adventures together would be the perfect gift.

I toyed around with a few ideas on how to do this. Ultimately I felt that creating a sort of "puzzle piece" map gives the effect I was looking for, particularly with the borders. While I wouldn't exactly say this project was "easy" (it was more tedious than anything), I would classify it as a beginner project. This was my first time ever using a scroll saw, which is a fairly inexpensive and easy to learn tool. I figured if someone with no previous experience could make this on their first try, it might make for a good Instructable for others!

Step 1: What You'll Need

  1. Scroll Saw or band saw. You can find a new scroll saw for around $80. I found a used Craftsman on Craigslist for $75.
  2. Scroll Saw Blades. I bought an assortment pack from Home Depot for $12 and ended up using the 15 tooth blade.
  3. Plywood.I used 1/2" Baltic Birch, although if I were to do this again I might use 1/4" for the cutouts and backer board. You could probably use a cheaper plywood like Sande for the backer board, especially if you're going to stain it dark. But I would definitely use Baltic Birch for the map cutouts, since it's a superior plywood with an attractive grain. All that being said, some of these cuts are very intricate. Using 1/2" plywood on states like Alaska came in handy for the extra sturdiness.
  4. Spray Adhesive. I used a big can of 3M because I knew I was going to be doing a lot more scroll work in the future, but you can get a smaller can. You'll need this to attach the template to the plywood.
  5. Painters Tape. You'll use this to cover the plywood first before you cut anything.
  6. Stain. I bought little cans of Special Walnut, Colonial Maple, Espresso and Ebony.
  7. Template (attached). Because I wanted it to be a large piece, I went to Staples and had them print out a couple of copies for me. It only cost a couple of dollars.
  8. Wooden Push Pins. I bought mine at a local Michael's, but I didn't see any on their website so I'm linking to Amazon.
  9. Thread.I think this was what I bought, but I'm not positive. I was looking for thick, sturdy thread or twine.
  10. Sandpaper (Optional). I recommend sanding the plywood, although this is optional.
  11. Finishing Wax (Optional). Again, not required, but it does give a nice finish and added level of protection.
  12. Picture Hanging Kit
  13. Wood Glue. I used Titebond II, but any wood glue will work.

Step 2: Printing the Template

I had Staples print out two copies of the template for me. One for the cutouts, and one for the backer board which will be a guide to glue the cutouts on. The canvas size for the template is 22.067" wide by 20" high.

Step 3: Cutting the Plywood

24" x 24" for cutout

One of the first things I needed to figure out was how big to make everything. The smaller the piece, the harder it is to cut. Alaska's shape is a very intricate cut, for example. So the bigger we make the entire piece, the easier it will all be. I decided to make the cutout section 24 inches by 24 inches, although the actual height of the template is 20 inches.

22" x 39" for backer board

Next, I needed to figure out how big the backer board should be. I decided to use a 16:9 aspect ratio. Knowing that the template height is 20", I added an inch of space on both the top and bottom of the backer board, giving a total height of 22". That leads to a width of 39" to maintain a 16:9 ratio.

If you bought your plywood at Home Depot or Lowes, they can cut it to size for you, which I find extremely handy and highly recommend!

Step 4: Sanding (Optional)

This step is optional, but I do think it will make for a nicer finished product. It's also easier to sand now than when the piece is finished. Use very fine grit sandpaper on plywood (I find 400 grit best), especially on the Baltic birch. If you sand too deep, you'll go through the grain and expose the under layer. For the backer board I used 220 grit and an orbital sander. This was a very light sanding to smooth everything out, especially the edges that were cut at Home Depot.

Step 5: Taping the Plywood

Once the cutout section of the plywood is cut to size, you'll have to tape it on the top and bottom sides with painters tape. The top side is taped so you have a surface to spray the adhesive to that doesn't affect the wood. The bottom side is so when you stain the pieces later, the stain doesn't get into that side of the wood. Wood glue doesn't adhere to stained wood very well, so we want to make sure this side stays free of stain.

The painter's tape comes off very easily and actually helps lubricate the blades on the scroll saw, and minimizes tear out.

Step 6: Spray the Plywood

Spray the board evenly and let it tack up for about 10-15 seconds. Then apply one of the templates you had printed out by starting from the top, and gently roll it down, smoothing out as you go.

Step 7: Prep the Backer Board

I measured the backer board to find the center and taped the second template down. I then traced the outline using a heavy marker, so it would seep through the paper and transfer to the plywood. It didn't seep in very much detail, but that's okay. It was just as a guide. Once all the cuts are made, we really just need to find the edges.

Step 8: Start Cutting!

I won't go into too much detail on operating a scroll saw in this Instructable. The essentials are to make sure you have adequately tight tension on the blade and are using a moderate cutting speed. One rookie mistake I made- make sure you attach the blade facing the correct vertical direction! You want the tearout to be on the bottom on the cuts, and if the blade is upside down, it will be on the top. You'll know if it's upside down by the amount of sawdust. In the correct direction, it all falls out the bottom. If it's piling up on the surface, the blade may be upside down.

The first step in the cutting is just to trim away all the non-used space. The board will likely be too big to navigate around the scroll saw table. Most scroll saw openings are only 16", and this is a 24" piece of plywood. After cutting away all the edges, I found it was easier to work by making two smaller pieces, dividing it into the U.S. and Canada.

Step 9: Canada

Canada was the easier piece to start with in my opinion. You just cut along the lines of the template, focusing on one province at a time. It actually goes relatively quickly. Alaska and Nova Scotia was challenging, so go slow and carefully. You'll also notice I didn't include any islands (this project is ambitious enough, especially for a first time on a scroll saw!).

Two helpful tips:

  • When you're completely finished with one piece, label it on the back. That will help come in handy later when reassembling and staining.
  • The bigger the piece is, the easier it is to navigate a cut. You might feel tempted to start dividing up the pieces into even smaller areas to work on. That will actually make it more difficult. If you trim away too much extra space, you'll be left with a piece too small to navigate near the blade. Try to leave the easiest, straightest cuts for last.

Step 10: U.S.

The U.S. is relatively easy until you get to the east coast. I started with the west coast first because it was easier (especially the midwest, nice square states!). But as I mentioned in the last tip, it left me with more intricate cuts and less space to maneuver with. If I had to do it again, I'd start with the east coast first.

The Great Lakes were also challenging. My best advice is to go slow, especially around turns. I've found that even stopping the saw to make some turns is helpful, if you can. There were a few time where I was trying to spin the board to make a turn and the blade took off in a straight cut.

Another piece of advice- don't worry much about little mistakes. You'll make a lot of them! What I like about the scroll saw is it's very forgiving. People only see your finished product, they don't compare it to the template you worked from, thankfully!

Step 11: Staining

The colors used for each state/province is based on the Four Color Theorem, which states you only need 4 different colors to ensure no two adjacent pieces share the same color. I played around with different states being different colors and this was what I thought looked best, but you can obviously change it to however you best see fit!

I separated each state and province into different piles, based on their corresponding color from the color sheet I created. This is where labeling each piece after cutting came in handy! The lightest color I actually left unstained, which I thought was a nice contrast to some of the darker areas. The stains were:

  • Espresso for darkest
  • Special Walnut for second darkest
  • Colonial Maple for least dark.

The stain goes on very easy and dries quickly. I just dipped a piece of paper towel into the stain and wiped it on the surface of each piece. It's important to keep everything very separate from each other, including wearing different gloves for each stain. Accidentally touching an unstained piece becomes a pain to sand off.

Once all the pieces are stained and drying, you can begin staining the backer board. As you can see from the picture, I left ample space where the cutouts were going. Again, if you stain the entire area, the glue won't hold as well later. For the backer board I used Ebony stain. At first I thought about doing a more wood-colored stain, but decided an extremely dark background would make the cutouts really stand out.

Step 12: Glue-up

Once everything is dry, you're ready to start gluing. Go one piece at a time. I started with Alaska and worked my way southeast. Peel off the back piece of painters tape and apply a small amount of glue on the back. I used my finger to rub the glue around the back of the piece. You don't want there to be too much glue near the edges, because you don't want it to seep out the side. We are going to stain the blank area afterwards, but if glue gets on there, it won't stain very well and will look blotchy.

Once the first piece you're gluing is thoroughly covered in glue, line it up in the outline you made on the backer board and press down firmly. Hold the piece down for at least a minute. Wood glue cures harder than wood itself, but needs a fair amount of pressure to make good contact. You also don't want to push down too hard, because you don't want the piece to slide around and off of its outline.

After about a minute, I would very gently push against the piece to see if the glue has started to bind. If it moved, I would give it more time. If it didn't, I would get the next adjacent piece ready to go.

Repeat for all the pieces.

Once all your pieces are glued down, let it thoroughly dry. Titebound says it's good after an hour, although I let it sit overnight.

Step 13: Staining the Edges

After everything is dry, fill in the spaces we didn't stain earlier. For this I actually used a paint brush. That made it much easier to get into the tight corners without accidentally getting any on the surface of the cutout pieces. If you are worried you'll drip some stain on any of those pieces, you can tape them again with painters tape.

This part actually went very quickly. Ebony doesn't need many coats, thankfully!

Step 14: Adding the Frame

I added a border frame to the whole piece (for some reason the picture crops) made from 1" x 3" red oak, which I also stained in ebony. Again, Home Depot or Lowes can cut these pieces to size for you.

If you are new to woodworking, you should know that even though finished boards are labeled (in this case) 1", it's actually 3/4". I know it doesn't seem to make sense. At one point, boards are actually their stated sizes, but after drying, planing and jointing, they end up slightly smaller. So instead of saying you want a 1.5" x 3.5" board, it's easier to refer to it as a 2x4.

Another tip that I think some beginners may overlook (myself included), is to account for the thickness of the framing boards when you're cutting them to length. The backer board is 39" wide. But since we're also adding two framing pieces to the sides that are .75" each, the total length for the top and bottom frame is going to be 40.5". I only needed to make that mistake once!

Step 15: Add Push Pins and Thread

I decided to use the wooden push pins because they fit the theme perfectly. I used thick black thread, although twine would work nicely too.

Next, I placed a pin in each city we visited. Our trip out west involved flying into Colorado and driving, so the thread follows our travel path, rather than an individual thread from CT to each different state.

To attach the thread, I would wrap it around several times in our home state, then tightly wrap it around the destination pin. I found that if I cut it there, it would loosen up and start drooping. So instead I tightly threaded it back to the home pin. To secure it, I'd leave the final loop around the pin loose, and thread the end through and pull it tight. If you're a guitar player, it's very similar to changing strings. Just trim the left over string.

A note about the push pins- they were somewhat difficult to actually push through the plywood. I ended up pre-drilling a small shallow hole, which worked well. You could also probably use a self-tapping screw if you don't have a drill to get the hole started.

Step 16: Wax Finish (Optional)

I finished the whole piece by buffing on a coat of finishing paste wax. Shellac or Lacquer might also be attractive, but I wanted to avoid a glossy finish and let the wood stand on its own. This gave it a nice shine and a layer of protection without looking too reflective.

Even if you don't own an electric buffer, all you need to do is wipe a small amount of wax on with a clean dry cloth and let it dry for 15 minutes. Then buff it out using even circular motions. The only downside with using wax is it may get inside the cracks between the states. I was able to blow it out with an air compressor, but you may also be able to heat up the wax before applying it.

Step 17: Hang It Up!

I screwed in a couple of eye hooks at the top corners and tied a piece of picture wire to it. It's moderately heavy, so I would recommend securing the picture hook on the wall into a stud.

This was definitely my favorite gift I've ever given someone, and my favorite one to make. And of course most importantly, my wife loved it!

That's it! Best of luck if you try it, and thanks for reading!

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