Contour Line Wall Art
I have always loved maps. The next best thing to actually being at your favourite place is looking at the area mapped out. I guess it was only a matter of time until I combined my fascination of maps with woodworking. The basic approach when making this contour line wall art is to include some contour lines of the area – maybe just the lake – and end it there. Adding ground contour lines, colour, roads, rivers and streams and even other manmade landmarks will give you the level of detail you’re after.
Brown started by cutting out the lake with a sharp knife, then transferring that contour line to one of the plywood panels. Brown then cut it out with a scroll saw, sanded the freshly cut edge and numbered the panel.
For the second layer Brown used his knife to cut the elevation line from the drawing, stacked the upper lake layer on top of the second lake layer, placed the cutout in the opening and traced where the second layer should be cut.
Brown kept the first few lake layers as full-sized plywood panels but eventually used small scraps for the bottom layers of the lake.
Drill Then Scroll Saw
Unless the contour exits the edge of the panel, you will have to drill a small hole near the cut line then insert the scroll saw blade to remove the waste.
Move to the Land
By removing one layer at a time from the template with a sharp knife, Brown is able to work his way through this project. Instead of working downwards, like he did to create successively lower levels of the lake, he works upwards, using the template to mark where the cut needs to be made.
As you work your way towards the top of the project you can use smaller offcuts to fill in the areas with higher elevation. For now the parts are not glued together but rather placed on top of one another carefully. You can use pencil marks to align the parts, but be sure they won’t be seen when the project is complete.
Make sure to smooth the edges of the plywood as you go.
Though it can take some time, adding colour to the edges of the land and water is a great way to add to the overall effect. There’s nothing saying you couldn’t paint the entire visible area of each layer, but be careful to leave unpainted wood so the layers can be glued together down the road.
Smooth the Painted Edge
Some sandpaper will help you create an even, tidy transition between the bare wood and the painted edge. It’s little details like this that will leave you with a much nicer finished project.
Glue It Up
Starting with the upper layers of the lake, apply glue to the back of the upper layer and use cauls and clamps to bring them together. Keep the glue back at least 1/2" from the painted edge of the uppermost layer, so no squeeze-out will be visible.
Details Bring It to Life
Though there are many ways to do it, Brown chose to add a few roads, as well as a railway line, with a pyrography pen. You don’t have to add any of these details to your project.
I opted for 1/8″-thick Baltic birch plywood, as its edges will sand nicely, it will take paint well and it was quite reasonably priced at under $15 for a 5′ × 5′ sheet. It also looks nice with a few coats of clear finish on it. Another major advantage of using plywood for this project is that it’s going to resist breaking along the grain, unless you’re really pushing the boundaries. I was able to cut pieces as narrow as 1/4″ with no fear of breakage.
The paint I used was a standard acrylic paint you can get from an art supply store. If you have young kids, they might have some you can use. You can even use any latex wall paint you have left over from your last renovation. I brushed it on, as spraying wasn’t going to give me the accuracy needed for this sort of detail, but it all depends on the finished look you’re after.
I was able to find contour lines of the lake online at Angler’s Atlas. I found land contour lines more difficult to locate, but a little digging, along with some guesswork on my part, and I had enough information to create a map. I used a piece of paper slightly smaller than the desired finished dimensions I wanted for my wall art, but I strongly suggest trying to draw the map the exact same size as the finished piece of art.
I brought the lake and land maps up on my computer screen and traced them directly onto the piece of paper. It took a bit of work to display the lake and land the correct size, but I did my best to center the lake and man-made features on the paper so it would look nicely composed when complete.
Keep in mind how many contour lines you include in your drawing. Generally speaking, each one will require an additional layer of plywood, and make your finished piece thicker. I tried to keep the finished panel under 2″ thick, as any thicker would force me to use a frame deeper than I wanted.
Start with the lake
First, I cut a bunch of panels of 1/8″ plywood slightly larger than the finished dimensions of the panel I was going to make. In hindsight it might have been even easier to cut the panels the same size as the paper template, as it will be easier to align each time. I started with the contour line that marked the shore of the lake. I taped the drawing to one of the plywood panels, cut the lake out of the paper drawing with a knife and traced the contour of the lake onto the panel. With the paper removed, I used my scroll saw to cut the lake out of the panel. A river at one end of the lake allowed me to cut from the edge of the plywood, up the river and around the shoreline of the lake. With a river I would have had to drill a small hole to start the cut. As I worked downward, I numbered the parts.
For the second panel I cut out and taped the next (deeper) contour line of the lake onto the second layer of plywood. Because the paper map didn’t line up exactly with the first piece I cut (I can’t scroll as accurately as I can draw) I placed the first layer of plywood on top of the drawing, aligned with the second layer of plywood below. This ensured the paper piece I just cut out would sit flat on the second piece of plywood, and that the line I drew wouldn’t overlap with the initial contour line. Once the line was penciled onto the second layer, I drilled a small hole and cut out the waste. When marking and cutting all these layers I did my best to stay as accurate as possible, but that wasn’t always easy. If I was off a bit I didn’t worry too much, as nobody would know except me. After all, this was art, not a nautical chart.
Continue cutting contour lines as you descend into the depths of the lake. It’s possible to use full-sized plywood panels all the way down to the bottom of the lake, but I used full panels until the depth of the assembly would be about 5/8″ thick. After that I used smaller offcuts to fill in the deeper contour lines. These smaller pieces would eventually be glued to the underside of the full-sized panels. I chose 5/8″ thickness, as that would give me enough thickness to glue the outer frame directly to the panel after the panel was cut to finished size. Layers of plywood that made up the land portion of this panel assembly would only add even more glue surface, once they were cut and assembled.
As I worked I sanded the 1/8″ thick edges of the contours with some 120-grit paper, and eased the edges that would be visible after the parts were assembled. I also made sure there were no splinters on the underside of the parts to wreak havoc during assembly.
Build up the land
With the lake complete, I did essentially the same process to create the pieces for the land, but in the opposite direction. The first few were cut from full-sized plywood pieces, but then I was able to cut smaller parts to fill in the height I needed. Every lake and area will have different requirements.
To start building up the land layers I cut out and discarded the first land contour line then taped the drawing to one of the plywood panels. I then traced the location of that contour line directly onto the piece of plywood, cut it out, and smoothed the edge. I repeated this process until I found that starting with an entire section of plywood wasn’t worth it. For me this was after two layers, but everyone’s situation is different. At this point I cut smaller pieces to fill in the remaining contour layers.
Up until now I have just been cutting the layers to shape and sanding their edges but have not been using any glue. A small number in one corner of each layer helps me keep track of everything, but I just try to keep track of where the smaller pieces go.
Add some colour
Colour adds a lot of depth to a project like this, though it does take lots of patience and a steady hand. To make my project a little different I opted to make the colour of each successive layer a bit lighter as you moved upward. I started with the deepest elevation of the lake and mixed up a rich, dark blue. Only mix up a small amount, or you will need to add a lot of white to lighten each layer. I started with about 1 teaspoon of blue paint.
I carefully applied the blue to the edges of the second lowest layer (the bottom layer didn’t get any paint), making sure to keep as much paint off the face of the layer as possible. Brush selection is crucial here. You’ll want a flat brush, with a somewhat short bristle length. Just put a small amount of paint on the brush at a time.
When the darkest layer has been painted, add a bit of white to the blue and mix it up. Start by adding a small amount, as you can always add more if needed. The change in colour should be perceptible to the eye, but not overwhelming. You also have to consider how many elevation layers you have. If you’re working on the Rocky Mountains you’ll want only a tiny change, but if your map is of the prairies, a larger step might be best.
Work your way upward, adding white along the way. Near the end I found it hard to just put a very small amount of the blue on some wood and add an even smaller amount of white to get the exact colour I wanted.
Adding the green to highlight the land works in the same way. Start with a rich, luscious green, and work upwards to a soft, light green. When the paint has dried you can use a piece of sandpaper to remove any errant paint, and leave a crisp, clean edge.
Gluing things up
I started gluing the upper layers of the lake together, as they were all full-sized pieces of plywood. I applied glue to the upper layer, as this allowed me to stay 1/2″ away from the edges to keep squeeze-out to a minimum. I glued three layers up using clamps and cauls. I was able to keep their edges aligned to within 1/16″, which worked out just fine. The lowest three layers of the lake were not full pieces of plywood, so I kept those off for now. I wanted the underside of this assembly to be flat, so I could trim the edges on a table saw.
Cut the panel to size
It took quite a few glue-ups to have all the parts together (minus the bottom few layers). At this stage there were a few overhanging layers, which I rough cut on the bandsaw. You could use a track saw to clean up one edge, or even a router and straightedge, but I chose to use the table saw. One edge of my assembly luckily sat against my rip fence nicely so I was able to rip the opposite edge, turn it 180° to clean up the second edge, then use my mitre gauge to trim the two ends. Though everyone’s project will be different, my panel ended up around 19″ × 15″.
I now added the final few pieces of the lake to the underside of the assembly.
You can get as fancy as you want with your frame, but I chose the “keep it simple” approach and went with four pieces of cherry, rectangular in cross section. My assembly was about 1-1/8″ thick overall, so I made the frame members about 1-5/8″ deep and 1-1/8″ wide.
With the frame parts cut to width and thickness, I mitred their ends and glued them all to the panel assembly one at a time. There’s not much room for error, so this approach allowed me to fine tune the final couple of frame members to fit nicely. I sanded the part, and heavily broke their edges before gluing them in place.
Roads, railways, houses and many other features can be added if you’d like. I chose to just add in the road, as that helped give the elevation layers some context. I’m sure pencil or pen would work, though I chose to use my pyrography pen to add a simple road.
Hang it high
As long as it was strong enough, a simple picture frame hook would work fine. I opted for something a bit more robust though, and routed a keyhole groove into the rear edge of the upper frame member. This way I could install a screw into the wall and hang this project without fear it would be too heavy and fall down.
Finishing it up
This wasn’t going to get heavy usage, so a few light coats of finish were all that were needed. I used an aerosol spray finish, as brushing or wiping a finish on all these layers wasn’t going to be easy.