3D relief Map with Proofgrade Plywood

Ever since the :glowforge: came in to existance I’ve had this wild idea of making 3D relief maps of famous landmarks, particularly all the 14ers in my wonderful state of Colorado. Since my laser arrived, I’ve been working on smaller things to become more familiar with software and getting to know how this thing works.

I figured I wasn’t the first person in the world with this idea, and quick Google searches show many people making really wonderful laser cut relief maps. There’s also some good instruction out there on how to do this. I’ve followed the instructions here: http://theshamblog.com/a-wooden-laser-cut-topo-map-of-portland-me/

So I’ve been working on my own project for the past few weeks, learning about all kinds of interesting things. But first things first, a few photos of my first attempt:


Still trying to decide if I should make a frame for it, to hang on the wall. The edges are a little messy as things aren’t perfectly aligned and there’s some hardened glue leaking out

Some of the things I learned:

  • Wood Glue doesn’t stick very well to the finish on :proofgrade: Maple Plywood
  • Sanding the finish off of itsy bitsy pieces of wood is annoying
  • Cyanoacrylate does a pretty good job at bonding to the finish of :proofgrade:
  • Sometime less is more - overall I think this thing is way too busy. I just picked the area where I live, as I thought it might be fun.
  • I wished I put some “alignment holes” in the larger pieces that I could place a dowl through, to keep things aligned, or made a jig or something. Each panel wanted to rotate a little as I applied clamping pressure to the layers sandwiched between to boards.
  • Color or Contrast is good. I’m not really happy with the “monochrome-ness” of the end result. I think it also has to do with how busy this feels as well. I’m not exactly sure how to go about changing the color or appearance of already finished :proofgrade: materials though.

Next project I’ll probably work on the following:

  • Use unfinished wood so that I can color or stain it for some contrast, but not apply a “finish” such as poly or laquer or simple wood sealer until the final project is done
  • Be more sparing with glue. I had some bleed out on to a finished surface and it dried before I noticed and now its in there, all hard and impossible to remove without doing damage.
  • Spend a lot more time up front figuring out map scale and releif depth, how many layers I want, and at what evelations those layers should be. This map is 8 total layers. It was supposed to be 9, but the last layer was one little “knob” smaller than the size of a pea, so I left it off.
  • Figure out what kind of “features” to add to the map for reference, or “beauty” and figure out what can be removed to simplify things.

Wow, that’s amazing! :grinning:


People have been doing this for Board Games for some time (Advanced Squad Leader and Talisman are examples) but they have to hand-cut from XPS.
This sort of creation is what drew me to the Glowforge immediately

Your maps are exceptionally beautiful though and great of you to post the how-to, thanks


Just fantastic. WOW. You should be so proud of this!!!

I wouldn’t take anything away from this! But I appreciate what you’re saying about the “monochromeness.” If you decide to do this again, possibly consider more than one type of wood to give you some of the shading you want. Or even just an engrave of forest or something on pieces that it makes sense. Maybe even consider blue acrylic for water areas. Or just good ol’ fashioned blue paint. I dunno. You’re clearly an artist of a caliber far beyond me! I’m sure you’ll come up with something! :slight_smile:


Also side lighting could give it a deeper sense of depth?

Hey, if you wanna go full-tech, rig up a moving LED to emulate the sun at times of day.

Turn it into a massive art-clock


Hah, maybe in version 2.0 or 3.0. This one is probably going to get donated for a silent auction for my Search and Rescue team I’m a member of. Trying to decide if I want to try frame it or not. I think framing it might actually remove some of the “depth” it has, but leaving it unframe is just begging to be a dust collector… LOL.

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I think you could shadow box it and that might even enhance the apparent depth.

Nice job! I think the idea of this has definitely crossed a lot of folks minds but I think this might be one of the only ones posted here?


Here’s something to aim for… https://duffylondon.com/product/tables/console-abyss-table/


Simply fantastic!:+1::grin::glowforge:



I love it! I live on a small lake in Indianapolis now, so I’m working with a neighbor who has a fish finder to map the depth. I used to work at Ball in Golden back in High School - we lived in Boulder. Beautiful area out there! I do miss it.

Love this project! Bookmarked as my :glowforge: email has arrived and should be shipping soon!

You inspire!


This is one of the first projects that I noted in my “when I get it” notebook 2 years back. Yours came out really nice, and the documentation of your learning process is really helpful! Please keep posting!

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I’m told mdf takes paint and stain very well (aka draft board.) So if you want to spend more time fiddling about with coloring and sanding off the dark edges laser cut mdf provides there is that option.

Very nice work.

Try scraping it off lightly with a razor blade. Just a raw razor blade at an angle and scraped across it can work. Just be careful. :wink:

Really nice work on this!

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Great Job! I grew up in Arvada, CO (just outside of Golden) and have wonderful memories of that area and backpacking in the Rockies.

Now I live in IN…I wonder how you would do a 3D relief map of corn & soy bean fields :thinking:

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Awesome work! What size is the backer?

Score a grid to represent the county roads, peel off masking, done.


How did you keep track of all the little pieces. Every time I see these I want to make one but am hesitant of knocking them out of place during setup and jumbling all the little pieces.

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@caribis2 LOL… sounds like a farmer’s version of checkers!

It might be an interesting project to find out what is growing in each of the fields and etch a different image in each location to represent the different crops for that year (corn, soy beans, new housing development, Amazon HQ, etc.)

What about in a kind of SHADOW box? perhaps with some lighting to accent the depth?

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Just one woodworkers tip. You mentioned that the layers were shifting when you tried to clamp them. If you put a little bit of table salt in the glue, it will greatly reduce the “twisting” of the layers as you try and clamp them.