3D Printing Topographic Maps: Guide & 15+ Downloads
This world of ours is a strikingly beautiful place, and it’s common for us to decorate our homes with keepsakes and vistas reflecting this beauty.
While landscape photos and paintings are a common way of keeping a little bit of the world with you, 3D topographic maps are a novel and insanely cool way to always have a bird’s eye view of your favorite place.
Topographic maps on Google Earth show the elevation of any given terrain, giving an accurate impression of the layout of any given place on Earth. I think we can all agree that they look pretty good and even invoke a sense of wanderlust that may not have been there before.
Photos and paintings are nice, but there’s something to be said about printing your own 3D topographic map of a favorite place that holds either fond memories or is on your bucket list to visit.
This process isn’t as complicated as you might think. While accuracy is important for capturing the look of a real place, there’s not much to it. And even if you don’t have a 3D printer or are otherwise not confident in making your own 3D map, there are services out there that will do it for you.
Let’s take to the skies and look at how you can get started on making your own 3D topographic map as well as a few personal favorite examples of 3D maps that will blow you away.
How to Print a Topographic 3D Map
3D maps are easier to make than you’d think, and the results should speak for themselves if you go about it right. Here we’ll go over how to make a 3D topographic map of wherever you want.
Decide Where to Print
Before you really begin, you’re going to need to decide on exactly where you want to print. While mountain ranges and canyons are likely the first things to come to mind, 3D maps can be of any place you like.
Don’t think you need to limit yourself to the tallest of natural structures, you can print regions, states, and even entire countries if you like.
Get Your STL File
Satellite technology has really changed how we go about cartography, and 3D rendering makes these maps so much more detailed. Topographic maps are easy enough to find online via government websites or Google.
If you have the means, you can convert these online maps to STL files for 3D printing, you just need to make sure the scale is correct and unaltered.
However, if you’re going after somewhere well-known like the Alps or a full country, there’s a good chance that someone out there has already created and shared an STL file of a 3D map.
I’ve found STL files for topographic maps of Zimbabwe, Mozambique, British Columbia, and Hawaii with less than a minute of searching. So if you have a specific place in mind, try seeing if someone else has already made and shared their map before opting to make your own.
If your desired place isn’t available as a pre-made STL file, then you can use one of many online services to generate one for you. Here’s a map of the mountains by my hometown that I had generated from The Terrainator.
It’s as easy as finding the location as you would in any other online globe, use the rectangle tool to select your desired area, and boom, you’ve got yourself a 3D topographic map ready to convert to an STL. The Terrainator even has data for the moon and Mars!
Don’t limit yourself to only natural landscapes, though. There are plenty of prints out there for your favorite skylines like this one of Chicago or this miniature 3D map of London. Mountains and valleys may be cool, but cityscapes can be beautiful too.
If you’d rather do it yourself, you may be surprised to learn that plenty of slicers like Cura can add height to 2D pictures if you enter the correct data.
Of course, this will take some research to get the areas right, but this is pretty useful for 3D printing your local area with only a few photos. Not everyone has access to a 3D scanner, after all.
Do It All Yourself
The most challenging option, but perhaps the best for those of you who want a long-haul 3D printing project, is to make a map yourself from scratch. Using reference data, you can design 3D maps of anywhere in the world using only your CAD software and a lot of fact-checking.
Acquiring elevation data from government sites is a snap, and you can always use some simple research to fill in the rest. Measurements of places like the Grand Canyon and Kilimanjaro are easy enough to find, all you need to do is scale them down to match your 3D printer’s size.
Of course, this option is necessary if you’re planning on 3D printing a map of a fictional place. While this may seem a bit out of the box, mapmakers like Dewi Hargreaves make some of their living by creating maps of other people’s fictional worlds.
While well-known fantasy locales like Middle Earth, Mos Eisley, and Hyrule are all available as 3D maps already, you’d be hard-pressed to find locations like The Mask of Shadow’s Mina anywhere online.
Don’t worry, though, as you’re not going to be literally moving mountains. It may sound daunting, but like any creative pursuit, it can prove satisfyingly rewarding and even give life to a hobby you never knew you wanted.
Printing Your 3D Map
Once you’ve got your map as an STL file you’re happy with, it’s time to get printing. After double-checking the scale and measurements, you can confidently send your file to print.
The main thing to keep in mind here is that it won’t always look the way you want. Unless you have a 3D printer that can print in multiple colors, what you initially print will just look like a bumpy mess. This is where post processing comes into play.
Post Processing and Painting
Once you’ve got your map, it’s time to make it look like a real place.
While sanding and smoothing are ideal for most prints, you probably don’t want to do it too much with a 3D map. Real terrain isn’t so smooth and level, so keeping some roughness (and even creating your own) is a good way to make it match the real thing.
Painting is the most important part, and it can also be the most fun. Of course, which paints you use rely entirely on what kind of scene you’ve gone with. While snow-topped mountains are a standard, and look pretty, they would be quite out of place on the Grand Canyon or Machu Pichu.
Choose your colors carefully and use reference material where possible if you’re wanting to create an exact copy of your chosen location.
Read more: how to finish your 3D prints
Cool 3D Printed Topographic Maps
I’ve already shared a few 3D printed ranges I’ve found, but here we’ll take a look at some very cool examples of 3D printed maps and ranges to inspire you to make your own.
Remember that these are just examples. With enough work and imagination, you can make your own map of wherever you like! So don’t be afraid to print out wherever is special or important to you.
There’s something about mountain ranges that really awakens a sense of awe and wonder in us, so it’s no wonder that these ranges are the most commonly thought of 3D printed maps.
Mt. Fuji is my personal favorite, and this detailed design includes the nearby Urui river to make for a lovely and serene map that would make a fantastic decoration or centerpiece.
If you’d rather stick to the Western Hemisphere, then Oregon’s own Mt. Hood by the same designer. At its original scale, it would fit anywhere in your home, or make for excellent wall art if you scale it up. Just try to hang it high enough so you don’t poke your eye out.
If you were as lucky as I was to grow up with a view of a mountain range, why not design your own to recapture those childhood views?
That’s right, you can 3D Print topographic maps of entire countries!
Of course, I couldn’t talk about 3D printing topographic maps of countries without showing off this 3D print of my native Ireland. It’s a lot bumpier than you’d think!
As discussed, some fandoms are so involved that they could navigate their favorite fictional worlds as easily as they navigate our real one. I could navigate Spira or Kanto with little difficulty, so 3D printed fictional maps like this full map of Hyrule from the original Legend of Zelda is really cool to me.
If you have a favorite but can’t find it anywhere, why not celebrate your favorite fictional place by making your own? This is especially fun if you take some liberties from the source material and make it your own, just the way you imagined it.
While we’ve focused mainly on topographic and accurate maps so far, they’re not the only way to go. 3D maps come in all forms and smooth ones are still pretty cool if you want something a little simpler or otherwise not so flashy.
These maps are excellent as decorations or as learning tools. If you print out this map of Central and South America using different colored filaments, for example, you can use it as a sort-of puzzle for education.
For the adults, there’s also this bottle cap map of America that makes for an excellent keepsake for your next road trip or vacation by including slots for each state’s signature beverage.
Of course, nothing really compares to the classic world map. This rendition is my personal favorite because it’s a simple print for a wall decoration that still has each country’s borders accurately outlined for a very cool map that anyone can enjoy.
Can you 3D print a map?
Absolutely you can! 3D printed maps are common household decorations and learning tools that are simple to print and fun to paint.
Can you 3D print Google maps?
As of writing, there’s no simple way to download an STL file straight from Google Maps. There are other workarounds like using publicly available satellite photos and online terrain-rendering software.
How do you make a 3D topographic map?
If you’re making a 3D topographic map from scratch, you’ll need accurate height information from research, and then you’ll need to stay true to the height differences when scaling. From there, it’s simply a matter of double-checking your print and sending it to the printer.
How do you 3D print street maps?
Sites like Touch-Mapper are great resources for 3D printing maps of localized areas. Simply enter the address and confirm the area like you would in any digital map and voila!