Unfolded Dymaxion Map Art




Introduction: Unfolded Dymaxion Map Art

About: A lowly geologist who likes to build stuff.

I have always been fascinated by maps, and bothered that there wasn't an elegant way to unravel our globe onto a flat surface. We are used to the Mercator Projection showing the north upward and exaggerating the size of polar continents; Greenland looks the same size as Africa. There have been many clumsy attempts to improve upon Mercator; but the trade offs are too costly. The Dymaxion projection is quite effective at keeping the sizes and distances in a visually intriguing manner. It respects sizes and shapes fairly well, and at the same time it is unsettling in the way it separates continents we think of as close together (Africa and South America) and highlights the relative proximity of the northern countries (Canada and Russia).

The Dymaxion projection was invented by Buckminster Fuller who is probably most famous for inventing the geodesic dome (think Spaceship Earth of Epcot center). The classic shape is an Icosahedron (20 triangle shape), but it is often shown slightly altered to fit the continents more neatly. There is quite a bit of information on this projection here and here.

I wanted to decorate my new office with something a little off center and I decided to transfer a very large print of this map into 3D to make the observer reconsider the little blue orb we live on. Wrapping the print onto partially unfolded sheet metal was not an easy task, but the result stops people in their tracks.


1. Link to the original mapDiscussion about this map . I went to a print shop and discussed different finishes, sizes and cost. The final print was around 65 by 34 inches (36 inch roll) it cost around 100$.

2. Sheet metal the size that you need (plan your print to the size of sheet metal to simplify the project)

3. Tools to cut sheet metal (normal hand tools are a real pain to use for this type of cut).

4. Glue gun

5. Welder (you might get away with some rivets)

6. 3 x 36 inch sheets of tracing paper

7. Sheet metal bending tools (seamers)

7. Stationary, and various other tools.

Step 1: Print and Cut Your Map

You can find the link to the high resolution map here. You can make your own if you have some GIS skills. Go to a professional print shop and get some advice on what would work best given what you want to do. I confused the hell out of the shop I went to. The contrast between the black background and the dark blue ocean was very difficult to pick out so I traced the edge with chalk to make it easier to trace the template. I traced the edge of the ocean onto large sheets of tracing paper to use to transfer onto the sheet metal. I cut out the template and then traced around the outer edge of the template onto the sheet metal with a sharpie.

I then cut out the map; make sure that you leave an inch border around the edge of the ocean! You need it to wrap around the sheet metal... You can do some final trimming as you are gluing later, so leave more than not enough. Particularly in the negative space (entrants? or armpits?) as these cuts may show if you go too deep.

Step 2: Cut the Sheet Metal

I had initially thought of using 2" by 2" wood to make a frame and tack the edge of the canvas onto it. But once I considered partial folding I realized this would be easier with the sheet metal. If you haven't cut sheet metal before, spend some time on YouTube, there is a technique and the right tools will reduce your frustration by 99%. I have cheap electric power metal shear, this thing is a miracle if you have tried using hand shears for any long cuts.

Gloves and safety glasses required here. Very sharp edges.

I raised the sheet metal off of the table using some rolls of tape to make it easier and safer to work. Take your time at this step, it is hard to patch up after the fact. Clean up the edges with a metal file to remove burrs that could damage the canvas or your skin.

Step 3: Bend It Into Shape

I actually own a cheap metal brake, but it was practically useless for this project because it was too small, and most folds were at angles to each other. So this was an exercise in trial and error with hand tools: seamers, vice grips, rubber mallet and some swearing. To get proper creases, it was easier to fold it completely into the icosahedron shape and then unfold it. I used the rubber mallet to accentuate the crease in the hard to reach places. I went a little too big for a single 6 foot sheet of sheet metal so I had to join two pieces together. I also realized that there were no good options to mount it to the wall. So I cut some tabs with holes in them and made some ugly welds that no one will ever see (I am sorry that you had to see that).

Step 4: Stretch and Glue

This was a step that I was worried about, but was not that difficult in the end. I strongly recommend putting down a soft cloth down before staring this. You will be moving the canvas around quite a bit and you want to protect it from getting damaged. You simply find the edge of the ocean, put a bead of glue onto the canvas, and carefully wrap. After the first edge, you want to pull the canvas taught to avoid leaving wrinkles as you go. The glue and canvas is pretty forgiving, so if you screw up, you can usually peel off an edge and start over. You will want to trim the extra material before gluing, particularly in the points.

Step 5: Mounting

The final piece is rather difficult to transport (put a soft sheet down in your car), and maybe ask a friend for help. It is heavy, floppy, sharp and fragile; a clumsy and dangerous combo. I threaded some wire through two of the eyelets and hung it on a screw that was solidly in a beam (heavy).

No one sees the imperfections I know are there (lacking a bit of stiffness over Greenland and some wear marks on the canvas). All in all, I am very happy with the end result; the scientists I work with get the concept right away, the accountant need a little explanation. I use a great little magnetic model from Areaware to explain. Either way it strikes up a conversation every time.

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    3 years ago

    Whoa! I got a bit nervous hearing metal cutting and canvas maps... but your efforts really turned out great. Definitely a unique way of showing off the Earth.

    What gauge sheet metal did you use? I've also never seen a metal cutter like that before - will have to look into it, as it's definitely easier than metal shears.

    LOVE the comment about the accountants... heh heh heh...


    Reply 3 years ago

    Thanks! It is 22 gauge (typical stuff you get at hardware stores). Nothing against accountants, its just that the rest of the crew are geologists and engineers...


    Reply 3 years ago

    Great to know! Accountants ... heh heh heh heh