Wooden engraved coaster of Vancouver
Wooden engraved coaster of Montreal. The wood was painted black before engraving so the lines reveal the natural wooden tone underneath.
Wooden engraved coaster of Toronto
Maker Fun

Wooden relief map coasters

Simon Fraser University’s Burnaby Mountain campus has an amazing maker space with various equipment: recording studios, an embroidery machine, 3D printers, and – my favourite tool – a laser engraver than can cut and engrave wood and acrylic. I took advantage of this space and made a set of 8 coasters designed with relief maps of 4 cities across North America that were personally significant. Learn more about my process and tips for making your own wooden engravings here.

Part 1: Digital preparation and design

Before you head out to the maker space you’ll be using to do your engraving, you need to spend a fair bit of time on designing your product. This was the most difficult part of making the coasters in my case, but it paid off!

First, you need to find relief maps. I chose to use maps from contours.axismaps.com, where you can search for your location and customize options around how sensitive you want the relief to be. The more sensitive the relief, the more lines you’ll end up having. One important consideration is that, especially for locations surrounded by water, you’ll want a sensitive enough relief that you will get a recognizable shoreline. For me, this meant setting the ‘contour interval’ at around 3-5 meters. This meant that I ended up with maps that had quite a few lines and in places with mountains and hills, these bunched up into thick black lines, as you can see in the image of Montreal.

My next step was to clean up this map so that it would be optimized for the laser cutter. For this, I used Adobe Illustrator. Once you import the vector from Axis Maps into Illustrator, you can use the direct selection tool to edit each of the individual relief lines. For some, this meant deleting whole lines altogether to thin out the thickest parts. For many lines, I cut the line at specific anchor points so that I could delete the segment of the line that went through the thickest areas but keep the rest of the line where the relief was more gradual. Of course, this means that the map you end up with is not going to be scientifically accurate – but you’ll get a more even distribution on your wood surface instead of having deep grooves where multiple relief lines converge. You still want to preserve the general shape of the terrain or else the map will be unrecognizable, so you’ll need to use your own judgment during this process to balance detail and practicality.

Another option for making map engravings is to use street maps instead of relief maps. Snazzy maps is a great resource for street maps and you can search for black and white versions that you can then download and use for your design. If you do use street maps, you won’t have to deal with a lot of work in Illustrator. I really wanted to use relief maps and so I was fine with the extra work, but if you’re looking for something quicker and easier to produce, having a street map design might be the way to go.

Once you have finished editing your map, make sure you crop it into the shape you want and set it in tones that the laser cutter you’re going to use will recognize. For example, the laser cutter I used will engrave anything marked in pure black and cut anything marked in pure red, and the cut line needed to be a certain width.

As you can see in the images above, some of my coasters were printed on plain wood and some on black. To prepare the black versions, I just painted the wood black and let it dry before printing. Then when the wood is engraved, it reveals the natural tone underneath.

After you’ve done this, you’re ready to print!

Montreal shown in Axis Maps with an interval of 3 meters. As you can see, there is some semblance of shoreline (which I want) but the lines marking Mount Royal are really close together, which is probably not going to show up very well once engraved in wood.
The completed design for the Montreal coaster from Adobe Illustrator. As you can see, there is more detail on the shoreline but many lines have been removed on the mountain to minimize a blurring effect.

Part 2: Physical production and hands-on work

Once you have engraved your wood, there is still lots to do to make sure your product is as perfect as you want it to be. In my case, there were two main post-production tasks: sanding and coating.

When the laser engraver cuts the shape out of wood, it leaves the edges burnt, so I spent a fair bit of time sanding these down. I also sanded the bottoms of the coasters down a bit to maker sure they were smooth, and I sanded the edges down to round them out very slightly.

After sanding, make sure the wood is nicely dusted off before you begin layering on varnish. I used an eco-friendly waterproof coating that the maker space provided and did about 5 coats on the top of each coaster. Make sure you get the coating into the relief grooves so those are properly sealed. I also layered coating on the edges and did a couple coats on the bottom of each coaster – just enough to make sure they were waterproofed without worrying about making the bottoms as glossy and smooth as the tops.

When doing the coating, an easy way to let the wood dry is to balance it on a bottle or jar cap. This ensured that if coating happened to run down the edges and drip (which didn’t happen much because my layers were very thin) it wouldn’t get the coaster stuck to the cardboard I was laying them on.

That’s it! Overall, my experience in the maker space was very positive and doing some hands-on work was a welcome break from the heavy academic lifting of my research. Remember, regardless of what maker space you frequent, safety is the number one priority. Always listen to staff and facilitators and be respectful of the space.

A photo of the coasters on cardboard, while undergoing varnishing.
My messy workspace during the sanding and coating stages. These are the coasters after a couple coats of varnish, balanced on bottle caps to prevent any dripping coating from getting them stuck to the cardboard underneath.