Use of a Laser Cutter to Create a 3D Bathymetric Chart

Mallory Carpenter,  SA8905 Geovisualization Assignment, Fall 2015

Bathymetric, or depth data collected about oceans and other water bodies are typically displayed in one of two ways –  as a bathymetric chart, or as a depth raster.  New technologies such as 3D printers and laser cutters allow for the better communication of depth data. Laser cutters in particular allow for “etching,” which can simultaneously communicate topographic data.  This allows the viewer to better situate themselves in the landscape.  Examples of this can be seen here and here.

A fjord is a coastal feature formed by glaciers.  Typically, they contain steep vertical sidewalls, and deep basins separated by shallow sills (ridges of bedrock which rise to depths of less than 50 m).  Mapping Nachvak Fjord in 3D, located in the Torngat Mountains in Labrador, will help to better illustrate the unique bathymetric features.

The basic process is this:

  • Collection and processing of bathymetric data into useable raster format.
  • Importation of the raster data into GIS software.
  • The creation and export of contour data as vector files to secondary graphics.
  • The division of contours into separate layers, and the addition of any graphics for “etching.”
  • Different colours in the vector file are used to differentiate between etching and cutting.

The screenshots below show the bathymetric data collected between 2003 and 2009 by the Canadian Hydrographic Service and ArcticNet. The data are available for free for download from the Ocean Mapping Group website. The spatial resolution of the data is 5×5 m with a vertical accuracy of 1 m. The data ranges in depth from 211 m to 1 m.  Contours were created at 20 m intervals, smoothed and exported as vector files.
The data used for etching the topographic map on the top layer are a product called CanVec, which is downloadable for free from Geogratis. The contour interval was reduced to 200 m to improve visibility. Extraneous shapefiles such as points were removed.


The data were manipulated in iDraw (a Mac-based vector graphics program) to smooth out overlapping lines and crop to an appropriate area as shown in the following screenshot.


The laser printer has a 2 x 4 foot printing bed.  In order to save materials and cutting time, layers need to be nested in the bed space, colour coded for cutting and etching, and exported as either a PDF or SVG.  Each contour makes up a layer – with a solid rectangle for the base, and the topographic information etched into the top layer.  The following screenshot shows two cutting surfaces, each with 5 map layers.



The laser cutting was done at the Danforth Tool Library (, out of 1/4 inch Birch Plywood.  They were cleaned (the cutting produces soot), stained, and glued together with carpenter glue.


Initial plans included the use of etching to detail habitat and substrate information.  Time and finanical constraints limited the amount of etching work that could be done.  Additionally, if the project were repeated it could be worth either using thinner materials, or increasing the contour interval.  The slope on the side walls is so steep, and the fiord so narrow that the fine details are hard to see in the final version.



Creating a Vintage Bathymetric Map with QGIS

Creator: Jenny Mason, Ryerson University Graduate Spatial Analysis Student, for Geovis course project, SA8905 (Dr. Rinner)

My geovisualization, in a sense, goes back in time. Despite many data and geo-visualizations recently showing how technology has changed the way we view spatial data, I wanted to create a geovisualization that tried to replicate the roots of mapping technology. I chose to create a vintage bathymetric survey map using QGIS.

Based on the numbers of tutorials and blog posts available online, replicating the characteristics and design of a vintage map using modern GIS mapping technology is popular for GIS enthusiasts. Using a combination of these geographer’s ideas, as well as my own, I chose to replicate the timeless style of these maps.

The final map product: 

Vintage Bathymetric Map Using QGIS

Technology: QGIS offers rendering options that blend your layers (map data, elements, text and desired stain/finish) in the Print Composer. For this look, the multiply function was used.

Data source: The Great Lakes bathymetry contours data were provided by Esri Canada for educational purposes only. They come in Shapefile format and it looks as if they were vectorized from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) bathymetry grid, which is available at

Approach: To achieve a vintage map look, open a new print composer in QGIS and import a photo along with your map layers. For my design, I used bathymetric data to replicate a historic hydrographic map/survey using the contours of Lake Superior.

Anita Graser’s Blog Post on  Vintage Map Design Using QGIS suggests using Lost and Taken’s Gallery to find aged paper designs at high resolutions. The options for paper on this site are perfect for recreating a vintage style map.

Once your map and image of desired paper/texture are added as layers in your print composer, go to the rendering options for the map in the panel on the right of your screen. Change the option to multiply. You will now see in the window that the map elements have been blended with the paper texture.

With this function, the creator is able to recreate a vintage map of any desired spatial data.

The appropriate choice of text, labels, and other map elements are essential to replicate a vintage map. I found it helpful to reference existing historic maps online and try to replicate their design within QGIS. I imported a North Arrow, but all other elements are available in QGIS.