Backlit Puget Sound topo map

This build took a lot longer than I expected, but I’m pretty happy with the results!

Almost as soon as we got our Glowforge, my son wanted to build a topographic map of the Puget Sound area (we live in Seattle). But, he wanted it backlit between the water and land layers. I thought, okay, we can do this…

I started with digital elevation data from the USGS, and processed it in QGIS to generate a series of vectors, one for each elevation contour. I brought those into Inkscape, and cleaned them up - substantially simplifying the profile of the coastline, lest there be a large number of tiny loose wood pieces all along the coast.

There are seven layers of wood here: Three water layers in draftboard (painted blue), three land layers (in basswood plywood), and a standoff layer in between the water and land. The standoff coastline profile is inset from the lowest land layer, so you can’t see it, but serves to provide a gap between the land and water for the light to shine through.

Underneath the entire map, there is a crisscrossing mesh of LED strips mounted on another sheet of plywood serving as the back of the assembly. The color, brightness, etc. can be controlled with a little remote control.

In order for the light to shine through the map, just inside the coastline there is a series of slots, following the contour of the coast, running all the way down through the three land layers. This took a fair bit of fiddling in Inkscape to get right.

The frame was not built on the Glowforge but was probably the hardest part of the build (for me) – it is African Padauk which we sawed and glued together, not without a fair bit of trial and error. (This is not stained - this is the natural color of the wood!) The map is mounted to the frame using a set of plywood tabs on the inside of the frame, and the back is held in place using a few small brass screws. Finally, both inside and outside the frame, I used gaffer tape to seal up any cracks so the lights would not shine through the assembly.

Now I can see why people sell things like this for hundreds of dollars on Etsy! I’ll write up a more detailed blog post on the build at some point and post it here.


The map looks great! I love the layers of wood, blue, and the lighting! Thanks for the write-up!

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Amazing. I’d love to see the write up to, been trying to figure these out for awhile

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Very nice effect! That takes it to another level with the appearance of the water. :slightly_smiling_face:

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All of these maps impress me, but those lights take this up a notch. Thanks for sharing the process with us.

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Love it! I’m also in the puget sound area. Really nicely done!

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Amazing. Love the addition on light to a map. This turned out epic!

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Wow, something new on my wish list to make. Very nice!

Gorgeous map! Thanks for the write up.

WOW that is impressive, Congratulations!

I think it´s wonderful that your son and you get involved in projects together that allow him to develop his creativity, and sense of accomplishment, and challenge your ability and skills to new levels.

I did this with my children with much simpler tools like paper, paint and electronics and it is very satisfying to see that now as adults they have developed their creativity in totally unexpected directions.

Please do a write up, especially on the QGis part of separating the layers, as that is the hurdle I am currently facing in a similar proyect (minus the led lighting).

Is there a QGis tutorial you followed that you may recommend?

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It’s beautiful with the lights! Wow! What an excellent project!

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All I can say is WOW!

This looks great! I definitely want to try something like this when I have lots of time to dedicate to it. :slight_smile:

Brilliant! Love the light addition!

Brilliant! I’m slowly working on a 56" tall Idaho. I assembled the ~19" prototype last night. It’s got significantly less layers. I’m using Fusion 360 which is working pretty great. I tried ArcGIS online but didn’t get very far. I’d love to hear how QGIS worked out for you. My GIS software skills are very rusty.

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