ArcGIS Pro

How to make those cool wood-cut terrain models

What a time to be alive. Humans have harnessed the laser. Without question the single greatest application of this profound new technology is its incorporation into consumer grade arts and crafts laser cutters. Naturally, geographers have a thing or two to add to this wave of glorious maker energy. Here is a wood-cut model of the Island of Hawai’i.

Laser cut wooden terrain model of Hawaii

But how? Here’s a snapshot of the work in process. Just a bit of fun in ArcGIS Pro with contours, some rearranging in your graphic design tool of choice (optional).

ArcGIS Pro contour creation

Then it’s just a matter of feeding the SVG file into a laser cutter. In this example we’ve used a Glowforge but there are lots of options out there. Please comment if you have a laser cutter and what kind you have, we’d love to hear about it and if you try this out.

Here’s how it looks before human fingers and super glue come into play. The darker lines are cut through and the fainter lines are etched as an assembly reference for stacking these little wooden pancakes up.

Laser cutter with contours cut and stacking reference lines etched.

If you have a laser cutter and want to try this template out, you can download it here (both SVG and Illustrator formats):

How To

Here’s the gist of a workflow to take a Digital Elevation Model and generate files ready for a laser cutter…

ArcGIS Pro
o Get your Digital Elevation Model (DEM) image all set.
o Blur DEM to generalize (statistics raster function).
o Create contours (spatial analyst).
o Turn off all layers except the contours and export to SVG (or AIX).
Illustrator (or whatevs)
o Simplify paths, remove tiny islands.
o Group paths of equal elevation, name them.
o Duplicate contour paths to new layer for assembly reference (Glowforge calls this “etch”).
o Delete lowest contour reference path.
o Arrange contour (and upper reference contour) to fit with no overlap. Rotating is ok as long as the contour and reference are rotated together. Scaling is ok as long as all paths are scaled equally.
o Save as SVG file and feed it to the laser cutter (in the SVG save dialog, make sure the “decimal” value is set to 3 or more. Illustrator does weird things otherwise).

You should be all set to send the file to your laser cutter. Set the contours to cut and the reference layers to etch (or similar). We only tried this on a Glowforge though, so it might be different depending on the machine.

Here is a video walking through all these steps in detail…

Have fun, geo friends! If you start cranking these things out we hope you share the results in the comments or show us on social media. That would be unreasonably rewarding.

Happy Lasering! John and Chris

About the authors

I have far too much fun looking for ways to understand and present data visually, hopefully driving product strategy and engaging users. I work in the ArcGIS Living Atlas team at Esri, pushing and pulling data in all sorts of absurd ways and then sharing the process. I also design user experiences for maps and apps. When I'm not doing those things, I'm chasing around toddlers and wrangling chickens, and generally getting into other ad-hoc adventures. Life is good. You might also like these Styles for ArcGIS Pro:


Chris Cappelli

Christopher Cappelli is a computational geographer and corporate director at Esri. His passion for helping people and organizations apply geographic concepts and technologies has taken him across six continents in his 30 years with Esri. Now, Chris focuses his energies on working with executives and GIS teams at utility and telecom organizations, helping them transform their network management system and gain more additional business value from using GIS across the enterprise. He embraces the title of GeoNerd and enjoys using and pushing the boundaries of our tech. Chris is usually in his garage woodshop or training on his road bike when not working.

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