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Not all topographical maps are created equal. Color palette and geographical location have a lot to do with how eye-catching a map will turn out. Then there’s the medium in which the map is created. Wood, plastic, foam, and even aluminum are all viable choices for this scientific artform. CAD software and CNC tools are amongst the most common modern technologies to produce incredibly accurate documentation of geographical regions that you can hold in the palm of your hand, or frame as fine art for your home or office. When you search online for “topographical maps”, there are many amazing examples. So how does the story of a single artist resonate as unique? We recently spoke with Sean Urquhart of Elevation Machine Works, a CNC artist and engineer based in Portland, Maine with a unique story behind every piece he creates.
Our fascination with Sean’s work started in the summer of 2021 when we came across some Instagram posts featuring plywood topographic maps of various locations around the world. One of these posts caught our eye as a familiar location - Cape Cod. While ShopBot is in North Carolina, a few of us here at HQ have family in Massachusetts. Reading the caption educated us on a bit of geographical history. Exploring more posts led us to fascinating stories of world travel and commissions for people with deep connections to their favorite destinations. Elevation Machine Works’ portfolio became a great topic of conversation around the office. We were hooked and had to know more about the artist and his process.
“Making the model and writing the program takes several hours, and the carving itself is usually between 2-12 hours depending upon the size of the piece and how intricate the topography of the region is. Then there's three rounds of sanding and finishing, and the epoxy pour. Lots of late nights, but the results are worth it!”
Sean considers himself a “tinkerer.” With a strong interest in figuring out how things work, it was a logical transition to working on cars in his teenage years. He went on to study mechanical engineering in college, where he learned the ins and outs of CAD and 3D design. Upon graduating, Sean entered the corporate engineering world but very quickly realized that corporate office life wasn’t for him. After a bit of international travel, it was time to return home. “I managed to carve out a manufacturing facing role for myself that led to my first introduction to programming Trumpf lasers and punches. From there I progressed to lathe and mill programming, and while it scratched the 'hands on' itch, I still found myself enamored with the possibility of using this equipment to make something 'cool' rather than just parts."
This is where things get very interesting. Sean convinced the owner of his new manufacturing job to purchase a lathe and mill with the promise of figuring out how to operate them. With a woodworking background, these goals were achieved. This got Sean thinking about what else he should get his hands on. It was time to search for a CNC tool for home use.
Sean has the ShopBot Buddy with an extended Z-Axis. The Buddy model is a versatile tool that takes up less shop space compared to a full-sized Gantry tool, but not as small as a Desktop tool, making it a great in-between size to work with for this experienced mechanical engineer.
We asked Sean if there were other tools he creates with on a regular basis and he told us that he likely has more money in woodworking hand tools compared to the CNC tool, which assures us, he’s been a woodworker for a long time! “I didn’t just jump straight from CNC into woodworking. Woodworking is something I’ve always done, and CNC is something that lets me do something I couldn’t otherwise do. [For example] I could make a carving of a mountain using hand tools, but I would never be able to approach the level of accuracy that I can achieve with CNC.”
Sean’s first home creations were gifts for friends and family. One day a friend said, “you’ve got to start selling these things!” and that’s where the topographical 3D maps came into the limelight. “I’ve always been passionate about the outdoors so being able to make topographic maps was a really natural fit for me.” Elevation Machine Works has an Etsy store with very reasonably priced maps to choose from. Of course, you can always commission Sean to create a custom map featuring a destination that holds special meaning to you. Sean plans to experiment with aluminum milling on a slightly larger scale than some of his earlier aluminum maps, as well. Keep an eye on his social channels and Etsy store for new creations and great stories that go along with them!
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