Easily Create 3D-Printable Terrain Models!

A terrain map is actually a topographical map which is relieved in the Z Axis (vertically) to the match the terrain. In the past it was rather complex to create one as you would need to go to the USGS site, select the area you wanted, download topo-map and import it into Blender software and perform a merid of voodoo moves on it, import it into Fusion 360 and so. However today that is all changed with several web sites offering nealy turn key solutions and two of them for free!

The first and our personal favorite on the list of three sites is TouchTerrain as first and foremost it’s free and second, its provides the largest number of modifyers to allow us to customize STL’s prior to download which is import and they are large files and post-process is near impossible. This last part is something to keep in mind as the topography is comprised of a crazy number of triangles as its a testlated model and therefore hard for many programs to manage. So in short, you want you output STL to be spot on!

touchterrain.geol.iastate.edu/

The other nice aspect of TouchTerrian is if you want to run it locally you can too! Yes you read that right, as the author has made the code available (click here) on a GitHub site.

My second favorite is Terrain2STL which is also free and does nice job too with a more refined user interface, however at the cost of some finer controls of the STL’s which it produces. If you want to do mountain ranges or topologies with a larger contour difference this will work well. However if the area rather flat you will want to use TouchTerrian.

jthatch.com/Terrain2STL/

The next on the list is The terrainator.com/Terrainator and unlike the prior this a paid for service and I don’t too big a gripe around someone making a buck, however don’t like you have to provide your e-mail and get a Magic Link (it took me three tries to get a Magic Link which worked) , in addition the user interface while seemingly more polished seemed a little “Strange” to me and the resulting was 5 UK Pounds or around $7 bucks USD which to me for something I can get from two other sites for free just didn’t ring of value for me unfortunately. As don’t get me wrong I actually like for service as they have a means to be around for as free sites tend to disappear, however in there also needs to be a measure of extended value.

terrainator.com/

In short we have been having a lot of fun 3D printing these maps as they great for educational purposes and frankly work best when printed on a large scale printer such as the Alfawise U20 or Creality CR-10 which are both have a bed size around 300mm x 300mm and easily allows a 200mm x 200mm print.

Here is a sample PLA print of a rather flat aera from TouchTerrian using a 3x vertical modifier and frankly the results were amazing! So if your have been looking for an easy way to 3D print topographic maps, there are at least two which will help you become the science fair hero for the kids or even create some neat desktop art to share or sell!

As far as print setting go, the infill can be turned way however please keep in mind two things:

  1. The lower the infill, the more the bridging which will occur and this can affect the surface quality of your print
  2. Additionally, because the vast surface difference especially exaggerating the Z depth, the surface layers might not cover the infill cells leading to printing issues

As with all things, you need need to balance these two being infill verses detail for best results.

Hint: If you your slicer provides for it, use a far higher speed for the base infill and then slow it down for the surface area to both speed things up as well as keep quality high!

The next thing to discuss is layer height and my two cents is this has little effect as most of the detail is horizontal and not vertical. So nozzle size will make a bigger difference for detail then layer height. However keep in mind this could add greatly to the print time!

The next thing is surface layers and you want around 4 to 6 for best effect as the terrain will be stepped so the more [surface] layers the better the overlaps will be and therefore you will achieve the best over all result!

Hint: If you are going for the lithophane look then the more surface layers the better as this will both create a better contrast diffusion as well as obscure the infill structures improving the look!

Now you may also ask what type of material? Well this is a big flat piece of plastic and unless you are into pulling your hair I would suggest PLA (we use and recommend: amzn.to/2SXcIzU ) as its good at printing large flat surfaces with little wrapping and that is what you want.