Harnessing Openstreetmap, Automation, and Industrial Laser Cutters to Engrave City Maps onto Wood

I've spent the last 12 months developing a personal project of mine to create maps on wood. When I recently became interested in wood as an art medium, I discovered trending new art concepts such as pyrography and laser engraving/cutting. Some artists have even made maps of both real and fictional places with these new techniques (see right).
Last year I decided to try my hand at laser engraving/cutting, while taking advantage of my GIS & cartographic skills. I signed up for classes at a local Philadelphia makerspace and got certified to use their industrial grade laser cutting machine. They are very powerful and precise tools, but require loading an Adobe Illustrator file to "read" the vectors-- the laser follows the vectors (or raster image, but we'll get to that later) and cuts and/or engraves onto the material, in my case, wood. In my first attempts, I downloaded data from Openstreetmap and manually edited & geoprocessed the data in ArcMap to make it just right for laser cutting. By lots of trial and error, I eventually started making wooden maps of various US cities I felt proud enough to post on social media. The GIS editing work however, was very manually intensive and making a single laser-ready map took me 8-12 hours. At the beginning of things, I had the distant idea that I could possibly sell these on Etsy or my own website if they were good enough. Eventually they did become good enough, but spending so many hours making the ArcMap and Adobe Illustrator files every time I worked on a new city was draining, and would not be conducive to making a steady side hustle. So I decided to automate it all.

 One version of the final model in layout mode. 109 individual processes, 122 data elements, 5 months of testing, 100+ coffees drank.

One version of the final model in layout mode. 109 individual processes, 122 data elements, 5 months of testing, 100+ coffees drank.

Over six months, I built a model from scratch that would take any Openstreetmap file, convert it to a geodatabase, geoprocess the data correctly for lasering, and output an AI file that I could bring on down to the shop and laser it onto wood with. Since I wanted my maps to be dual-layered (bottom is "water", top is "land") creating a 3D effect and to be as detailed as possible, I spent a lengthy amount of my free time developing the model to generate an end result that would be just right for map production-- on wood!

This endeavor has gone further than I expected with my maps becoming quite a hit on social media. I've since launched WoodScapeMaps.com and am now putting a majority of my free time into it. Here's to another exciting year ahead! 


Here are some pics detailing the evolution of the prototype development.

 A wood burnt, or "pyrographic" of Vancouver Island by  sammmooreart

A wood burnt, or "pyrographic" of Vancouver Island by sammmooreart

 Laser engraved map of Middle Earth from Lord of the Rings, by  shawnxstl

Laser engraved map of Middle Earth from Lord of the Rings, by shawnxstl

 

In the summer of 2018 I launched WoodScapeMaps.com with the first 10 maps below, with many more to come.

New York


Boston


Chicago


Washington DC

Seattle


Denver


Portland

Philadelphia


San Francisco


Baltimore

 

Currently, I'm researching ways to transfer raster data (think elevation and relief maps) onto wood. This is a much more complex process, for the laser at least, but I've made some progress so far. Take a look: