Physical 3D Relief Maps: The Ultimate Guide


3D Map - The Ultimate Guide

Welcome to the beautiful world of Physical 3D Relief Maps!

3D maps inspire travelers and landscape lovers from all over the world. They bring to life a location or terrain near to an adventurer’s heart.

This guide will explain everything you need to know about 3D Maps, from understanding how they are made to finding the perfect map as a hiking gift for the mountain lover in your life.

What we'll cover in this guide:

What is a physical 3D Map?

A physical 3D Map is a scaled down (reduced in size) representation of a physical location or terrain. These maps are sometimes referred to as “physical terrain maps”, “raised relief maps”, or “3D topography map.” Three-dimensional maps help bring your favorite locations to life.

3D Maps have a wide range of uses. From decorative art pieces (as 3D Terrain Art or 3D Topographic Art) as well as informational tools for terrain mapping, geospatial analysis or even large scale architectural models.

3D Maps usually have “vertical exaggeration” applied. This is done by exaggerating the height of landmarks between 10% - 1000%. Or simply, the mountains are stretched up to appear higher. This helps increase the visual recognition of mountains, buildings, or other notable features.

Types of 3D Maps

3D Maps come in all shapes and sizes for many different use cases. There are two main use cases for 3D Maps: Scientific & Artistic

Scientific 3D Maps

Scientific 3D Maps are used by scientists, outdoorsmen, and travelers alike. The main purpose of scientific 3d maps are to convey specific information about a location or terrain. These maps will show precise elevation locators, realistic colors of landscapes, as well as common landmark or city names.

Vacuum Form 3D Maps

Above shows a “plastic vacuum-formed map” with a terrain. This method is a common way to show vineyard landscapes or even entire states. Source: American Educational Products

Large 3D Raised Relief Map

Above shows a very large installation of a 3D map made by Solid Terrain Modeling. These are wonderful displays in museums, hotel lobbies, or prominent buildings. Source: Solid Terrain Modeling

Artistic 3D Maps

Artistic 3D Maps are widely used to decorate a home or office. They are wonderful gifts for mountain lovers, nature lovers, or anyone with a landmark close to their heart.

These terrain maps have exploded in popularity over the past years through the rise in Wooden Topographic Maps, Wood Lake Maps and Nautical Art Maps. These wooden lake maps commonly show bathymetry (underwater elevation) and are used for cabins and homes.

Lake Tahoe Wooden Topography Map

Above shows a picture of Lake Tahoe Wood Map. Check out the beautiful wood coloring representing the drop in underwater elevation

Above shows Terra Mano’s Lake Tahoe Bronze Map. Notice the beautiful detail within the bronze representing the ridges and mountains.

Where does 3D Map data come from?

In order to make a beautiful raised relief map, you need to first start with elevation data. Digital Elevation Models (DEM) are the key to this whole process. DEMs are a digital representation of terrain on the earth’s surface. DEMs are used for everything from farming, military, cell towers, and urban planning.

DEM data is captured by satellites, LIDAR, photographs and many other ways. You can download a wide range of DEM data that is publically available on the USGS National Map Viewer.

Point Cloud Digital Elevation Data

DEMs show an elevation for a physical location. Above is a “point cloud” showing buildings.

Mt. Taranaki Greyscale HeightMap

Above shows a grayscale heightmap that is used for some DEMs. The “white” pixels represent higher elevation and the darker pictures show lower elevation.

Datasets are commonly referenced by their resolution. A “⅓ Arc Second” dataset will have an elevation data point every ⅓ Arc Second, or roughly 10 meters (~30 feet). See below for common DEM resolutions.

Digital Elevation Model Resolution

Source: vterrain.org

Materials used for generating physical 3D topography

Many different materials can be used to make a 3D Terrain. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages and appeal to different audiences. It’s important to pick the right one for yourself or a gift for others.

Metal - Terra Mano - Lake Tahoe

Vacuum Formed Raised Relief map

Plastic Vacuum Formed - UZLEX

Elevated Wood Working Wood Map USA

Wood - Elevated Wood Working - USA Map

Microscape Manhatten 3D print raised relief map

3D printing - Microscape - Manhatten

Solid Terrain Modeling - Foam

Foam - Solid Terrain Modeling - Storm King Mountain

Examples of 3D Maps Locations

These Raised Relief Maps show a variety of locations. Everything from Maps of the USA to maps of your favorite National Parks and mountain ranges. The sky's the limit when it comes to what you can show on a raised topographic map

Yosemite Raised Relief Map Wood

National Parks - Yosemite - Reddit (u/3DMapArt)

Mt. Fuji TinyMtn 3D Map

Single Mountain - Mount Fuji - TinyMtn

Vacation Locations - Lake Tahoe - Terra Mano

Denver Cityscape Parametrix

City Scapes - Denver, USA - Parametrix

San Francisco Below The Boat Wooden 3D Map

Lakes/Ocean (Bathymetry) - San Francisco, California - Below The Boat

TerrainianSpaceGlobe - Moon Raised Relief Globe

Other Planets - Moon - TerrainianSpaceGlobe

How 3D Maps are made

Advances in geospatial capturing capabilities, as well as advances in manufacturing technology (3D Printing, etc.) have allowed consumers to take advantage of terrain maps.

Metal Cast

Metal Cast Bronze Map

The process of pouring molten metal into cavities or molds in order to manufacture objects has been around since 6000 BC. A mold can be made from nearly any object. This makes it ideal for producing very high quality terrains and mountain art.

At Terra Mano, we start with a 3D print (below) of a mountain and use this to create a mold which will be cast into. Check out our Lake Tahoe Bronze Cast as an example.

3D printing

Mount Everest 3D Print

Source: RCLifeOn - Youtube

3D printing is a relatively recent technology, but it is quickly becoming available to consumers. Companies like Shapeways and 3D Hubs make it incredibly easy to print any object you want, including landscapes and mountains.

The most common method of 3D printing is Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM). Think of it as a hot glue gun shooting out liquid plastic onto a flat surface. Soon as the terrain model builds layer by layer, mountains and landscapes will start to form. There are other 3D printing methods (stereolithography, etc.) that can be used, each with different pros and cons.

See a video of this process here

Computer Numerical Control (CNC)

A computer-numerical-control machine (CNC Machine) is a form of subtractive manufacturing. Using a CNC Machine, a solid block of material (commonly metal or wood) is drilled or chipped away until the final form is presented. Think of a sculpture who carves a statue out of a solid piece of rock.

Many of the companies making wood topography maps use this process to carve their creations out of wood.

The disadvantage of the CNC process for physical topography is cost and time to make each product.

CNC Terrain Wood Map

Source: ToolsToday - Youtube

Above is a picture of the CNC process carving out mountains from a piece of wood

Vacuum Forming

Finally, a very common way to create scientific raised relief maps is to use Vacuum Forming. Vacuum forming is the process of heating a sheet of plastic until it is malleable, and then pushing it onto a surface mold, via a vacuum.

The advantage of vacuum forming is the ability to easily recreate many maps repeatedly. The disadvantage of vacuum forming is the resolution, or level of detail, that you can get. Often these maps are used over large areas to show rolling hills.

See a video of Vacuum forming a raised map here

Where to buy 3D Maps

Below is a list of many different places to buy raised relief maps. Find the one that is best suited for your use case.

Have any questions or comments? Let us know at contact@terramano.co

Company Type Primary Material Notes
Terra Mano Art Bronze
Beautiful Bronze 3D Terrains
Map Sculpture Art Wood
Beautiful Wood Mountains available
Elevated Woodworking Art Wood
Beautiful Wood Mountains available
Solid Terrain Modeling Scientific / Art Foam
Awesome large scale terrain. Complex and custom jobs
Pangea Art Wood
Beautiful oceans and lakes available. Ability to customize your map location
Wooden Maps Art Wood
Custom Locations Available
goodwoodglobes Art Wood
Beautiful Wood Mountains available
3D Wood maps Art Wood
Beautiful Wood Mountains + Lakes available
The 3D Map Company Art Wood
Beautiful Wood Mountains + Lakes available
Microscape Art Plastic
Beautiful City Scapes 3D printed
White Clouds Scientific / Art Various
Made to order custom
Nautical Wood Maps Art Wood
Beautiful Wood Mountains + Lakes available
Below The Boat Art Wood
Beautiful Wood Mountains + Lakes available
3D Relief Scientific Vacuum Formed Plastic XXL Maps available
Map Shop Scientific Vacuum Formed Plastic
Many maps available, small section of raised relief maps
World Maps Online Scientific Vacuum Formed Plastic Large selection
American Educational Products Scientific Vacuum Formed Plastic Competitive pricing
Raised Relief Maps Scientific Vacuum Formed Plastic
Every state available, competitive pricing
Only Globes Scientific Vacuum Formed Plastic
Many maps available, small section of raised relief maps
1 World Globes Scientific Vacuum Formed Plastic
Many maps available, small section of raised relief maps
vW Maps Scientific / Art Various
Beautiful maps in a large size range
Geo Mart Scientific Vacuum Formed Plastic
Every state available, competitive pricing
Metskers Scientific / Art Various
3D Wood Charts available
Summit Terragraphics Scientific / Art Various
Beautiful Accurate 3D Maps
Map Uzlex Scientific Vacuum Formed Plastic Limited Selection
Maps Worldwide Scientific Vacuum Formed Plastic Large selection
Science First Scientific Vacuum Formed Plastic Limited Selection
Chisel & Mouse Art Handcrafted Beautiful & Detailed

Terra Mano creates beautiful handcrafted maps and products of Americas Favorite Landscapes