How to 3D Print Topographic Maps and Terrains

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About: Hello! I am a high school student that loves making, learning, and 3D printing! I have been 3D printing for about three years, and it is fun to keep pushing the limits of what I and my tools can do. As far...

Google "How to 3D Print Topographic Maps," and you will be met with "About 1,250,000 results (0.40 seconds)." There is even another wonderful Instructable by shapespeare that you can (and should) check out. So, this Instructable does not chronicle a ground-breaking ground-mapping procedure that has eluded the imagination of 3D printing enthusiasts for years. Rather, it is a comprehensive guide to one way that you can quickly and easily model a map for 3D printing without any fancy, expensive software. We will also take a look at slicing and printing tips that will make your 3D printed map even more impressive.

What are we waiting for?

Supplies:

  • 3D Printer
  • Slicer (Such as Cura)
  • Filament
  • Internet
  • Am I forgetting something?

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Step 1: Location! Location! Location!

This may seem like a self-explanatory step, but it's an important one. Not all 3D printable maps are created equal. Of course, you CAN make a topographic map of anywhere, hence the name of this Instructable, but it's helpful to consider a few tips:

1. Look for interesting terrain: A flat piece of plastic supposed to be the Sahara Desert does not bring the "ooh"s and "ahh"s like a 3D printed section of the Grand Canyon, for instance.

2. Scale strategically: Though the world would not, in fact, be smoother than a billiard ball if shrunk down to that size, it would be very smooth. With that in mind, do not select a huge area for which to print a topo map...unless you are willing to exaggerate the height of certain features by increasing vertical scaling.)

3. Consider your 3D printer's limitations: For example, do not expect to achieve tiny or pointy features smaller than your printer's tolerance or nozzle width.

Step 2: Using Terrain2STL

Terrain2STL is a wonderful tool to help you get a 3D model of the map you want to print.

1. Go to http://jthatch.com/Terrain2STL/

2. You will be met with several tool options: 'Location', 'Model Details', 'Water and Base Settings', and 'Instructions.'

3. Unless you know the coordinates of the area you want to 3D print, I suggest moving from the 'Location' tab to the 'Model Details' tab.

4. Here you can adjust the size of the area you want to print and move the red box to that area on the terrain map.

5. Once you have the perfect area selected, you can also scale and rotate it.

6. If the area you selected is relatively flat, consider bumping up the 'Vertical Scaling' factor.

7. If your map has a body of water in it, try increasing the 'Water Drop' value under the 'Water and Base Settings.' This will create a negative vertical offset that highlights the presence of water. (Pro Tip: Just make sure that the 'Base Height' is greater than the 'Water Drop' input.) A 5mm base with a 2mm drop looks very nice.

That's it! Now, just generate the model and download it. It should show up in your downloads folder as a zip folder that contains your .stl.

Step 3: Slicing Your Map

OK...so far, you have picked a location to print, generated a model of that location, and are now dying to get the final product into your hands to show everyone. Well, hold on...we have one more very important step.

Before printing, we must convert the .stl file into a .gcode file that your printer can read.

Here are the settings you need to tweak to print a beautiful topo map.

Scaling: Open your slicer of choice, (I use Cura), and upload the .stl you just generated. The model may be way too big to print on your machine, so just scale down each axis uniformly so it fits on the build platform and retains the correct scale.

Orientation: Now that the file is imported into your slicer, you need to decide whether to print the map vertically or horizontally.

Printing the map vertically may seem like a strange idea, but it allows you to achieve features equal in width to your finest resolution. Also, ridges and curves are much more accurately represented.

Printing the map horizontally will result in less detailed contours. However, if protruding features (in this case mountains) are steeper than 45-degrees, in relation to the base of the model, it is the only possible way to print without supports, which would make an unpainted topo map look horrific.

Temperature: Setting the nozzle temperature 5 degrees hotter than normal will make the print shinier. If you would rather shoot for a matte finish, try decreasing the print temperature.

Speed: If you are printing your topo map vertically, speed is a very important setting. Fast printing speeds will cause ringing, vibration, or even the eventual failure of the print. I printed my map at 30mm/sec.

Build Plate Adhesion: Select brim regardless of the orientation of your map (20 lines is best). This ensures that the base does not warp (when printed horizontally) or fall of the build plate (when printed vertically).

Step 4: Printing

Ladies and Gentlemen, the moment you've all been waiting for...is finally here! We are ready for printing. Nothing too special here, just a few quick tips:

1. If you are printing the map vertically, watch the first layer to make sure that it sticks firmly to build surface. If not, the map will likely tip over or shift, causing a catastrophic ball of extruded plastic strings.

2. If you are printing the map horizontally, make sure your printer's bed is perfectly leveled. It would be a shame to have an amazing 3D printed topo map that is ruined by the poor quality of its base. If you need some help with bed leveling, check out this article about printing the perfect first layer.

That's it!

Step 5: Show It Off!

Now that you know how to 3D print topographical maps you can give them as presents, sell them on Etsy, or just show them off to friends.

The map I printed for this Instructable depicts the San Fransisco Bay. It made a fantastic present for my dad as a fun piece to remember our trip to Bay Area Maker Faire 2019.

I hope you have fun with this project.

Have a fabulous day and HAPPY PRINTING!!

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    11 Discussions

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    CraigA60

    10 days ago

    Hi -
    Thanks for writing this. I followed your directions and they
    work great, but when I load the .stl into Cura the area I selected is
    only 3cm on a side. I tried blowing it up by 500%, but (and this just
    might be Cura doing a poor job of rendering) it looks like I'm going to
    end up with a low-poly 3D version of the area around my town. If that is
    what's going to happen, is there a way to make terrain2stl render the
    terrain larger?
    Thanks

    1 reply
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    TobySpartanusCraigA60

    Reply 10 days ago

    OOOH! Interesting problem!

    I replicated your issue by selecting the smallest possible area I could in Terrrain2STL...got your same problem. I ended up with a low-poly topo map - not very exciting! However, I did select the area around my town (which is a very small town) and the topography showed up fine. Hmmm... I would try again. I think a box size of 120 is too small. I would not go smaller than 360, using the "Box Size" slider in Terrain2STL. Worst case scenario, you end up with an awesome model of your county instead of just the town.

    I gave a quick look at a few other tools (OpenTopo and USGS Data...helpful i'ble here:https://www.instructables.com/id/Make-3d-Printed-Topo-Maps-of-Anywhere/) They may give better results. The author of that i'ble says that some data sets even capture cars and trees!!! Be sure to give it a look. Let me know if the results are better! (if you try it)

    Using those tools is a very involved process though. A more straightforward tool is cadmapper.com. It has contours ever 4 meters, which is pretty dog gone good. But if the selected area is greater than 1km^2...it'll charge you.

    I hope this is helpful! I am sorry that your first attempt didn't work well. I guess makers get used to that pretty fast tho :)

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    Billnparker

    Question 13 days ago on Step 2

    I love the idea, I don’t have a printer, but this would the one reason for me to buy one. Couple questions. 1) can you use USGS topo maps? 2) if so and to zoom in on scale, can you print several maps and attach them together? 3) one guy talked about color, how difficult is that to do? If all three are yes, sign me up.

    1 answer
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    TobySpartanusBillnparker

    Answer 13 days ago

    1) YES! The process is a bit different (I chose to talk about Terrain2STL bc its simpler). Here is the national map view by USGS: https://viewer.nationalmap.gov/basic/?basemap=b1&category=histtopo,ustopo&title=Map%20View. And Shapespeare has already written an i'ble about how to use this tool. Be sure to check it out! https://www.instructables.com/id/Make-3d-Printed-Topo-Maps-of-Anywhere/ (This link is also at the beginning of my instructions.
    2) Most definitely! You can select a large area, and cut it up into smaller sections that can then be printed on a small 3D printer.
    3) I know next to nothing about full-color 3D printing. However, if you only want to use a few colors (like grey for mountains, green for grass, blue for water, white for snow caps.) You could buy a Prusa 3D printer with its multi-material upgrade. Prusa has instructions on how to make multi-colored prints. I have also thought about switching from grey or black to white on my single-color printer to make it look like the mountain tops have snow. Paint is always another option...just a bit more involved.

    I hope these answers are helpful!

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    sumjar

    Question 13 days ago

    Mind if I ask for clarification of something you wrote? Could you explain '...protruding angles are greater than 45-degrees' (regarding H vs. V printing).

    1 answer
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    TobySpartanussumjar

    Answer 13 days ago

    Sure thing! In 3D printing, overhangs can be difficult. That's why supports are often necessary. However, if the overhang angle is < or = 45-degrees, supports are unneeded. I wrote an article (https://all3dp.com/2/cura-support-settings-optimize-your-supports/#do-you-need-support) for All3DP about support settings. Check out the "Do You Need Support" section for some more in-depth explanation.

    Thanks for asking! I'll try to make sure that is more clear in my i'ble.

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    matti04_electronics

    16 days ago

    cool Instructables! I literately wanted to do the same thing =D you gave me some useful tips, i planned to make it in multi color. would you mind if I also participate in the contest but with the MOON?! I will of course credit you

    2 replies

    Great minds think alike! (We are both teen makers :)

    I don't think you should participate in the contest if you just want to do a multicolor version of this...I think that is too similar.

    But, I think making an instructable about how to make a 3D printed moon would be an amazing idea, and a perfect entry in the contest. Good Luck! (You're gonna give me a run for my money :) )

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    seamster

    16 days ago

    Very nice results. This is something I would like to do at some point. Thank you for the steps and details!! : )

    1 reply
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    TobySpartanusseamster

    Reply 16 days ago

    I am glad it was helpful! Thank you for the feedback.