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Making a 3D Printable Terrain Model: Home

This guide describes how to make a terrain model suitable for 3D printing


3D Printing Terrain

There are two methods I suggest for printing 3D terrain models: first is using an app and the other is using a plugin (DEMto3D) in the open source software QGIS. Both of these methods produce .stl files for 3D printing.

Recommended software:

QGIS and plug in DEMto3D

For .stl editing:

Meshmixer: a free 3D model editing tool from Autocad

Meshlab: this is another free editing tool, less oriented for printing and more towards making digital 3D models, but very useful for converting between file types

First: The easy method, use an app

  1. Go to this website: (another app that works in a very similar fashion and has better bathymetry capabilities is TouchTerrain

Here we will select an area for our terrain model. Zoom to a place you want to map or enter your desired latitude/longitude in those fields.

You can then place a box which will be your terrain .stl file. There is no way to change the shape of the box, but we can trim the resulting stl in editing software. The box can be moved/adjusted for size.

Put 2 in the first blank for water drop, and zero in the second for base height (this is a suggestion, default usually works okay too).

Then take a screen shot of your selected place – if you hit the alt key with print screen it will just take a photo of your active window. You can then paste this in a word doc or other program for reference. This will be a reference to orient your final product.

When you have it set how you like, hit Create STL File and then DOWNLOAD. An stl file is a file that can be 3D printed. 

Then SAVE FILE. The .stl file will then wind up in your download folder.

  1. You should find the .stl file in your download folder and move it to a workspace (desktop, whatever). Notice the .stl file name is the Latitude, Longitude, and the Box Size in arc-seconds (an arc-second of longitude equals 30.87 meters * 0.6561 (cos 49°) or 20.250 meters). You can rename the file if you want or keep the reference information in the file name.
  2. This file is ready for printing - but you will want to test it in Meshmixer for watertightness and make any needed edits. 

Second, the more difficult method: QGIS

QGIS is open source GIS software. You can download the software here.

We also have a lib guide with QGIS tutorials and resources.

For this method, you will need to load your own Digital Elevation Model into QGIS. For suggestions as to where to find DEM data, please see the DEM guide.

The steps for this method are as follows:

1) Go to plug ins in QGIS and add the DEMto3D plug in.

2) Load your DEM data into QGIS (Layer -> Add Layer -> Add Raster Data) 

3) If you have more than one DEM to include in the model, use the Merge tool to combine them (Raster menu -> Miscellaneous -> Merge)

4) Run the plugin, it will be under the Raster menu labelled DEMto3D.

5) Enter the specifications of the model you want into the plug in. The values in the tool pop up are explained here:

6) Save and export your model

Generally exports from this tool are ready for printing and do not need editing.

GIS Librarian

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Amanda Tickner
(517) 884-9432