Laser art part 1: Cape Cod Bay

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Last year I got my hands on a Glowforge Pro laser cutter. It’s not mine (it may be cheap for a laser cutter but it’s not actually CHEAP) but I needed to learn how to use it, and what better way to do that than try my hand at making some art.

Glowforge has a whole catalog of projects you can make, as well as forums full of people showing off their own projects, but I actually got my inspiration from seeing this gorgeous thing and deciding I could make one just like it. Because, you know, I wanted to start simple.

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You can find topographical maps of just about anywhere online. The US Geological Survey has a ton of maps, both current and historical, and you can download all of them for free. You can also find bathymetric maps (that’s underwater topography) of just about any significant body of water. Yes, all of those links are US-centric, but I’m sure you can find similar repositories for elsewhere in the world. I haven’t done anything outside of the US yet. …Well, actually I have, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

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Actually cutting out the image and assembling it is the easy part. It’s making the file to cut out that takes a billion hours of tedious work. If you’re extremely lucky, you’ll find a PDF of a map that’s already mostly in vector format, although even those take many hours of cleanup before they’re usable. Mostly you just find a flat image and you have to trace it. For hours. And hours.

Eventually you start to fudge things because seriously, no one is going to look that closely and no one really knows where Dead Neck is or how many shipwrecks there really are off Provincetown. But it’s really cool to know that every single sandbar and pile of rocks off the coast has a name.

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I made SO MANY MISTAKES on this project. For one thing, the size of my project was too large to do in one go on the laser, so I had to split each layer into two halves, and I didn’t figure out a good way of doing that until after I’d finished the whole project, so there are a lot of uneven gaps and things not lining up correctly.

I didn’t notice that the grain of the wood was going in different directions until it was far too late, although in my defense there wasn’t much I could have done about that even if I had noticed ahead of time, since the wood was pre-cut into 16×20″ rectangles so I couldn’t rotate them.

Also, I hadn’t done any tests ahead of time to see what settings I would need to cut through the wood, so some places got scorched and other places didn’t cut all the way through and I had to hack at them with a knife.

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When the whole thing comes together, though, it looks amazing. You can make anything look good when lasers are involved. I like the effect of the smoke marks, although you can avoid that with masking tape.

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I did this entire project last May. Around December I decided to try my hand at it again using the stuff I’d learned, so I made two small town maps for family members. And then I thought… well, what next? What can I make for myself that will look just as cool as Cape Cod Bay?

The answer, it turns out, was Mars.

[Part 2 coming soon!]