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How to Make a Laser Cut City Map

Learn how to make a laser cut city map using Lightburn! These maps combine the water, land, streets and highways in layers for a 3D effect!

how to make a laser cut city map

Ever since I got my first laser, I've wanted to make these 3D laser cut maps. I found a few tutorials online, but they were soooo confusing! Even when I followed them step by step, my maps never turned out quite right.

I spent countless hours watching YouTube videos and reading everything I could find on this topic. In the end, I combined a few different techniques together into this method for making laser cut city maps using Lightburn.

I'll go over the basic steps here, but I'll be making a mini-course with detailed instructions and video soon!

Don't want to make your own file? You can download mine from the shop here!

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Download the map layers

All these 3D map tutorials start at the same spot: SnazzyMaps. It uses Google Maps data that is displayed in various styles to create your own custom design. I'm using the Glowforge Laser Map Profile.

screenshot of SnazzyMaps Glowforge Laser Map Profile

Click the magnifying glass at the top right corner to search for your desired location. Once you have the area you want, DO NOT MOVE THE MAP! This will keep all your layers aligned.

You can customize the features that are shown on your map. First, I turned off everything except the water. In the green menu bar, select download image. Increase the pixels to 1000x1000, and the scale factor x3.

screenshot of settings to download the land and water layer of the laser cut map

Then go back to the map, turn off the water layer and turn on the highways layer. Save it the same way, then repeat for the arterials layer. You can add other elements if you like, but I wanted to keep mine simple.

Don't want to make your own files? Head over to my shop and purchase the laser-ready files instead!

Create the laser files in Lightburn

Lately, I've been using Lightburn to create files to use on my xTool P2 laser. You can download a free trial of the software for this project. When the file is ready, I export everything as an SVG and move it over to xTool Creative Space to do the actual cutting.

Don't have a laser yet? Use the code VINETA80 for $80 off your xTool purchase of $999 or more! Click here to check them out!

Image trace the layers

You need to turn those three images from SnazzyMaps into vector files that your laser can engrave and cut. Lightburn has an image trace feature that will do this for you. Adjust the sliders to smooth out the lines and eliminate tiny cuts like these onramps.

image trace of city map for laser cutting in lightburn

Change the color for each of the layers so it's easier to see the difference. I made the water layer aqua, the arterials layer dark blue and the highway layer red.

Create the frame

You could just score the roads, engrave the highways and cut the land out of one board. Then you stick it on a blue background and call it good.

But I wanted to make the highways their own layer. Seattle is surrounded by water, and most of the highways are either elevated or a bridge. You'd lose a lot of those details if you just engraved the highways onto the land areas.

Don't want to make your own files? Head over to my shop and purchase the laser-ready files instead!

But a highway layer on its own is fragile and difficult to align correctly. I tried it on my first attempt and the ends were too floppy. Creating a frame for the land layer prevents smaller pieces at the edges from becoming "islands" that can fall off.

first attempt at 3D map without a frame attaching the layers together

I researched a bunch of tutorials on how to make paper shadowbox designs, and applied what I learned to the map. Basically, you merge the outer edges of the map with the inner rectangle, so the ends of the fragile roads are held in place.

screenshot of Lightburn with ends of the highways attached to the frame

When you create the rectangle for the frame, make sure that it's smaller than the maximum cutting area of your laser. Once you have the files ready, it's time to cut!

Cut and engrave your map layers

I'm cutting the land and highway layers out of ⅛" Baltic birch plywood, and the bottom water layer out of ⅛" MDF. Thin plywood has a tendency to warp when painted on one side, so MDF will keep the map flat.

I recommend masking the land layer before engraving and cutting. This will eliminate char marks on the surface, so you don't have to sand those delicate pieces. Just make sure to press it down firmly so it doesn't curl back up and get caught on the laser!

applying masking to plywood before laser cutting

I saved the files from Lightburn as SVGs, and imported them into xTool Creative Space. The roads are set to score instead of engrave, which takes less time and makes the highways stand out more. The land and frame are set to cut.

settings for laser cut city map in xtool creative space

This map just barely fits in the cutting area of my xTool P2. I plan to make larger versions using the conveyor, which I'll be sharing soon!

cutting the land layer of the laser cut city map with the xTool P2

The highway layer will be stained, so I didn't bother masking it. Just be careful when taking it out, because those thin pieces are easy to break!

cutting the highway layer of the laser cut map

Finally, cut a rectangle the size of the outer frame for the back water layer. You can do this before or after painting the MDF.

Prepare the layers for assembly

Getting all that masking off can be a little tedious, especially the scored roads. Heavy duty duct tape helps peel all those little pieces away in one swipe!

peeling off masking from laser cut map with duct tape

Although peeling the roads away by hand is oddly satisfying...

peeling away masking from roads on laser cut map before assembly

You can apply a clear finish over this layer if you want, but I just left it raw. I recommend a spray finish instead of using a brush so you don't smear soot around.

I used Varathane Briarsmoke wood stain for the highway layer and frame. Just dab it on with a paper towel and let it dry.

staining the highway layer of the laser cut city map

For the water layer, I used Foxy Hues paint in Cunning Cobalt blue. I have the whole set of their colors, and this one was the perfect blue for the water! It needed two coats for full coverage.

painting the water layer of the laser cut city map blue

Once everything is fully dry, it's time for assembly!

Glue all the map layers together

It's really easy to assemble this map because the frames line up perfectly. Just squeeze a bead of CA glue over the back of the land layer. I like Starbond thick because it doesn't run or drip like the thinner version.

applying CA glue to the back of the land layer before assembling the city map

Then flip it over and line up the frame with the edge of the water layer.

aligning the water and land layer of the city map

Gluing the highway layer is a little trickier. I dabbed glue just on the wider intersections and the frame to avoid dripping all over the lower layers. In the future, I'll use 3M double sided adhesive on the back of the board before cutting it with the laser.

assembling highway layer of the laser cut city map

I cut the Seattle lettering out of birch plywood with 3M adhesive on the back and painter's tape for masking. The letters broke between the E and the A, but I was able to salvage it!

peeling the masking off the Seattle label on the laser cut map

Display your new laser cut map!

You can pop your laser cut map into a shadowbox frame if you sized it to fit. I plan to just stick some Command strips on the back and hang it on the wall! I love how it turned out!

laser cut city map

My husband has a few maps hanging in his home office already, such as this push pin world map that keeps track of all our travels. This 3D Seattle map is a nice addition, and I'm already working on a Vancouver and Portland version to round out the Pacific Northwest collection!

close up view of laser cut map of Seattle

Want to make your own? You can purchase the laser cut files for this map in my shop!