Making a Laser-Cut Topo Map: The Build Phase

So you’ve followed the steps to design your topo map by reading through the post detailing the design phase. Time to cut it out and build it!

The build process:

  1. Gather supplies.
  2. Get your wood cut.
  3. Apply blue stain for the water layers.
  4. Glue everything together.
  5. Apply wood sealer.
  6. Frame it up.

Pretty easy – once you cut the wood it shouldn’t take more than half a day, most of which is waiting for stuff to dry.

1. Gather supplies

You’re going to need a couple things to put this map together:

  • Wood sheets, as raw material to cut out of. I used 12″ x 24″ x 1/8″ sheets of birch plywood. Obviously if you’re ordering from a company you can skip this.
  • Wood glue.
  • Clamps – the more the merrier.
  • Sandpaper.
  • Some blue wood stain, if you have water layers. I used this one off amazon. Make sure it’s water-based so you can dilute it.
  • Some clear wood sealer or shellac.
  • Some cheap brushes to put on the stain and the sealer.
  • A frame, if you want it. I ordered a black metal frame from and it worked perfectly. Make sure you get the right thickness for however thick your map is along the edges.

2. Get your wood cut

Either you have access to a laser cutter or you sent it off to a company to get it done at the end of the design phase. I was running out of time before Christmas to have it done, so I found a local company (Engrave Colorado) that was able to do it on short notice. Either way, in go raw sheets of wood, and out come your engraved pieces.

Fresh out of the laser cutter, and stacked up for the first time. A huge relief that it came out (almost) perfect on the first try.

At this point you should stack up all your layers to make sure that everything is there and that you don’t have any major mistakes. You did triple check the files beforehand, right? Sandpaper should clean up any splinters or chips in the wood.

You also may notice that there is some discoloration along the cut edges of the wood. A damp cloth will rub that off if it bothers you.


3. Apply blue stain for the water layers

I wanted the water to get darker the deeper it was, and I think it was the right approach. Get your stain and test it out on some of the leftover scrap wood to see how blue it is at different dilution ratios (e.g. 1 part stain to 2 parts water). This is also a good time to cover your table with something to protect it from stray drops of blue stain.

Once you figure out what you want, sketch out on the wood where you need to apply stain and brush it on. When in doubt you can start with the darkest and keep diluting it as you go up layers. Remember too that you can always go too light and add more later to darken, but you can’t take away color. Wait for it all to dry before making the final call.

I’m pretty happy with the way the coloring turned out.


4. Glue everything together

You’ve all glued stuff before, so I’ll skip the preamble and just leave a few tips:

  • Clamps are your friend here.
  • Clamps also squeeze out a lot of extra glue, so you probably need less than you think – especially near edges.
  • If you need to apply pressure in the middle and clamps won’t reach, use a scrap piece of wood to span across the top and clamp that.
  • Build up layer by layer – having layers at different levels makes the above method difficult.
  • Make sure your positioning is perfect, since this thing isn’t coming apart. Aligning the outside edges is probably most important.
  • Tightening clamps can cause pieces to shift or twist. Be careful.
I’m pretty sure this is the only time I’ve ever used these old textbooks.


5. Apply wood sealer

Brush on your sealer (I used shellac), let it dry, and you’re done!


6. Frame it up

If your map turned out anything like mine, the outer edges aren’t perfectly aligned and have dried glue crusted on them. I was originally going to leave mine bare, but the guy at Engrave Colorado recommended getting some cheap black metal frames to finish it up (link to the supplier up in the list of supplies). Which was a really good call – it hides the imperfect edges and makes the whole thing look really polished in the end. Plus you won’t have to worry about chipping off small edge pieces when handling the map.

The back during framing.
The finished product. This took me about 3 weeks of evenings after work, but that includes all the research it took to figure out how to do this.

Congratulations! You’ve finished up a one-of-a-kind piece of art, and hopefully it’s turned out well. I’m still pretty astonished how well mine came out on the first try,  even though there are a few things I would improve if I were to do it again.

I hope this how-to guide was useful, or at least interesting to read through. If you end up making your own topo map, please let me know! I’d love to hear about it. And if anyone has a laser cutter they’re not using any more and that they’d be willing to part with for ≤$2k, I’d love to hear about that too.

Check out some glamour shots of the finished map!


This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Lloyd

    This is amazing and inspiring. Well done. What were the final dimensions?

    1. Scott

      About 11″x21″ in the end, the wood sheets were originally 12″x24″.

  2. Thomas

    Beautiful project! Seriously thinking of making one of my home town. Can you give an indication of your total costs?

    Seriously, good work.

    1. Scott

      About $50 for materials (wood, glue, varnish, and stain), $300 for laser time, $40 for frame, a lot of clamps, and a ton of time.

  3. Monica Eskridge

    This is a really beautiful project!!! Great idea! My brother is going to want one. Thankfully we live somewhere really flat :). Check out my gingerbread Eiffel Tower I laser cut… @paperflourink on Instagram.

  4. Stuart

    Great post Scott. I had been planning something similar but your post gave me the impetus to get to work on it!

    Here’s what I managed.

    Now I’ve scaled the vectors up and done a few tweeks so I plan to make a bigger version with a few changes.

  5. Todd

    Great stuff Scott! Thanks for sharing.

  6. Jenny

    Former cartographer here- am excited to make one of these for both my father and for my husband. Huge respect for your tutorial, many thanks!

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