MapCarte 109/365: Mt McKinley by U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, 1941

MapCarte109_mckinleyRelief representation is always a challenge for cartographers. It often makes or breaks a map giving the representation realism or appearing to sit uncomfortably. The choice of method alone is cause for a headache…illuminated relief shading, hachures, contours, hypsometric tinting and a multitude of alternative approaches provide a rich palette. The ultimate goal is to create a representation that mimics the three-dimensional character of the landscape itself and which can be easily understood by the map reader. Unless you know how to read a map, traditional techniques such as contours can appear confusing despite them being blatantly obvious to the map-maker. Here then, is perhaps the most readily understood form of relief representation – the plastic relief model.

This example of Mount McKinley illustrates the pinnacle of small format plastic relief model design. The model itself is well produced. The two dimensional surface is created in a mould that warps the plastic using heat. The physical character of the landscape, its hills, valleys, ridges and depressions are faithfully reproduced and once the topographic map has been overprinted the landscape springs to life in real 3D. Of course there are problems with this sort of map. Firstly, they often require considerable vertical exaggeration to make features across a large area appear sufficiently to make the third dimension believable. Exaggeration, of course, is part of the cartographer’s generalization toolbox and applied with care can emphasise the features sensibly which this example evidences.

The Lambert conical projection gives this map its curvature but the cartographers have used the flat borders to great effect to relay the detail for the legend. Rather than orientating everything to read in the same way, the reader has to rotate the model to see different information. A nice touch that promotes the idea that the model can and should be viewed from multiple angles to reveal different perspectives. The printed map is of a high quality that helps ensure the model is pleasing to the eye as well as detailed and informative.


The main drawback to the adoption of plastic relief models is their relatively high cost of production, storage issues and the fact that the plastic degrades. Maps such as these remain collectible and sought after. They have also been used as a way of generating two-deimensional shaded relief using a camera with a long focal length and then combining the photograph with other planimetric detail. The use of LiDAR scanners have also been used to create three-dimensional point cloud of plastic relief models to allow the recreation of a computerised 3D model.

Nothing compares to the use of a three-dimensional object to show relief.  It provides a tactile representation of reality that no computer generated model can similarly achieve. This is a beautiful example of the type and as a delightful map object in its own right. Of course, a 2D computer screen cannot do this work justice but…go find a copy!

MapCarte 94/365: Wood charts by Below the Boat, 2013

MapCarte94_woodchartsPhysical models, for instance in the form of globes and vacuum-formed raised relief vinyl maps have been staple ways to depict the world for centuries. They bring a three-dimensional quality to the map that allows us to more clearly see how a landscape looks. They bring a tactile quality to the map that a planimetric sheet cannot quite match. Such maps are also extremely popular as artistic objects; objects to adorn a home and  be appreciated as much for their appearance and aesthetic qualities as their ability to deliver map-based information. In many ways the information is secondary and so much of the design is about the look and feel rather than the accuracy of the content.

A great example of this genre of mapping comes from Below the Boat who manufacture bathymetric charts using laser-cut birch wood that layers as a contour map. The Lake Tahoe example illustrates clearly the model construction where the top level is land and the contoured layers of wood sink to form the lake depths. Layers below the waterline are coloured blue to demarcate land from water and laser-etched labels and some topographic features such as major roads are added prudently.


The effect is stunning as the models take on the appearance of having the water simply sucked out of the channels to reveal the underwater world. This is map-making with an emphasis on the making. The creation of a physical model to capture the third dimension of bathymetry creates a beautifully designed map object with the attention to detail of the content as well as the construction contributing to the overall balance of the work.

More examples of Wood Charts can be seen on their web site.