Street Map Wood Inlay




About: I'm a Research Engineer at Adobe. Previously, I was a grad student at the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT Media Lab. Before that, I worked at Instructables, writing code for the website and iOS apps and m...

I saw these wood map inlays online and wanted to make my own using the laser cutter at Techshop SF.  I found a street map of seattle and used it to generate a vector file, which I then laser cut and stained.  Eventually I would like to glue this map together and use it as the surface of a coffee table.

Teacher Notes

Teachers! Did you use this instructable in your classroom?
Add a Teacher Note to share how you incorporated it into your lesson.

Step 1: Design

Unfortunately you cannot export vector files straight off of google maps, and I couldn't find a great alternative anywhere else online (of seattle specifically).  So I went to and used their online map generator to create my own map.  I took a screen shot of the final map and imported it into photoshop.
A word of warning here- I spent waaay too many hours getting this map right in photoshop.  It's mostly my own fault for being a perfectionist, just be aware that it will take a lot of tweaking to get the results I did (you can download my eps file below).
Basically my process was to compile the screenshot from woodcutmaps with a few screen shots from google maps (for extra detail), and use the magic wand tool to extract three layers- water, street, and land from the images. I used the "refine edge" option of the magic wand to make sure I was generating smooth, high-contrast edges.  I also ended up using the line and rectangle tools to draw in a fair amount of the streets by hand.
Eventually I ended up with three layers of color (fig 7).  I exported each layer as a png and imported them in illustrator.  I used the live trace function in illustrator to generate outlines of the shapes and export as eps (attached below).

Step 2: Laser Cut

I laser cut the map out of 0.25" birch veneer ply on an epilog 120W laser cutter at Techshop SF.

Step 3: Stain

I used minwax cherry 235 stain to stain the "land" areas a medium color, and the "water" areas dark (used two coats of stain).  I left the "street" areas unstained.  I removed each piece and stained them individually so that I maintained very crisp color contrast at the edges of adjacent pieces.  Unfortunately, not all of my pieces could be removed for the staining process (the ply was slightly warped, which causes trouble for the laser cutter), so I had to rely on painter's tape to keep stain off some of the "street" sections, and there were a few places where it bled through (if you look closely at figure 5 you might be able to find it).  All in all, it looked pretty good.
Once I find the right sized coffee table, I will glue down the pieces to the surface of the table and finish it with a thick clear coat to seal everything together.

Woodworking Challenge

Participated in the
Woodworking Challenge

Make It Real Challenge

Participated in the
Make It Real Challenge

Be the First to Share


    • Furniture Contest

      Furniture Contest
    • Reuse Contest

      Reuse Contest
    • Hot Glue Speed Challenge

      Hot Glue Speed Challenge

    9 Discussions


    7 years ago on Introduction

    Every time I see an awesome techshop post like this, I wish there were one here in Orange County. So many projects I could do. Great work.

    2 replies

    5 years ago on Introduction

    Check out the link below on how to kick out vector graphics of maps from an internet repository. Try the different layer selections to reduce the amount of information that gets kicked out. There will be cleaning up to be done, but it is a very good start.

    1 reply

    6 years ago on Introduction

    So cool! I'm making one of these for my family but with our zip code. The zip code ended up being a little nicer in terms of boundaries than our neighborhood demarcation. Also, at this level of zoom, and also because we have no waterfronts and only a river, the lines are nicely behaved (nothing really squiggly). I've got a design in progress. The border of the piece will be approximately the boundary of the zip code, rather than have a square piece. I don't want to do inlay so instead I have been experimenting with how the etched line creates a barrier to the wood stain passing between areas. It seems to work pretty well with the materials I have and the depth of line I've picked, so I will just use a fine brush for the piece. There will be an engraved symbol of olive trees over our family home (there is an old olive grove there). I'll post pictures when I finish it, which might take a month or so...

    1 reply

    I use Inkscape for all my laser jpg to vector. Its free and also the only free example i could find. the one cool this you can generate vectors using multiple scans on either colour, or edge detection making it very quick to make a file like above. Search google for the link, once installed you click "path" on the top row and then trace bitmap.
    Hope this helps