Monday, 20 October 2014

Printed Mountains... by Phil Tarr

Here's a little blog about Phil and how he combined his IT wizardry & ingenuity with our data to make 3D printed geological models. If you also want to write a blog about how you're using our data in a novel mash up please get in touch via the 'Contribute' tab above...

Hi, I'm Phil Tarr, I'm not a geologist but I have an interest in everything to do with mountains, and rocks are what mountains are made of! I am a retired telecommunications engineer and more recently a retired academic who taught Computer Science at Goldsmiths, University of London. 

Back in 2013 I spent six months immobilised and largely confined to my home with a ruptured Achilles' tendon. I decided to use this time to start a new hobby: making 3D models of mountains. I have always wanted to make models of mountains, but lacked both the skill and patience to work with papier mâché which seemed to be the only medium available to me.   Having read about 3D printing I then realised that I could develop 3D mountain models just using my IT skills. But I knew nothing about the software applications that I would need to use.

Scafell Pike: 3km x 6km which, at a 1:50,000 scale,
is a model 6cm x 12cm in size
I decided to go ahead and taught myself (with help from a 3D designer in the US) how to use 3D design software to process elevation data (Ordnance Survey Terrain 50 OpenData). I soon realised that a large model or a completely solid model would be very expensive to print, so I had to learn how to produce a hollow model. This was not an easy task, as it meant that I had to thicken the upper surface of the model to exactly 2mm.

I wanted the sides of the model to be precisely aligned to the national grid, but the elevation data was sampled in the centre of 50m squares and not at the edges of these squares, so I had to learn how to slice through the data to interpolate the elevations along the walls of the model. For some reason, doing this created holes in the surface mesh, which I then had to learn how to re-stitch. In the interest of accuracy, I also decided not to exaggerate the vertical scale which would make the model look more dramatic.

Snowdon: 6km x 3km which, at a 1:50,000 scale,
is a model 12cm x 6cm in size
I added some text to the side of the models and a grid, a compass rose, a copyright notice and the name, position and height of the main peaks on the underside of the model. I hoped that there might be a market for these models and that, though sales, I could fund the development of further models.

When I showed some of the prototype models to my cousin, an ex-geography teacher with an interest in geology, he suggested that a geological map would also look good draped over the model. I set up a Value Added Retailer Agreement with the BGS to supply me with DiGMapGB-50 data for just three mountains (Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon) as I felt that it would be too risky to spend any more on images when I did not know how many models I could sell.

Ben Nevis: 3km x 6km which, at a 1:50,000 scale,
is a model 6cm x 12cm in size
I have now completed all three models and they can be purchased from my web shop on Shapeways. You can keep up to date with my plans to develop my models by following @MountainShapes on Twitter.  

If you have any ideas, queries or comments about my models, please feel free to contact me via


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