How to Make Topographical Relief Maps

Written by linda donahue
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How to Make Topographical Relief Maps
Make a topographical relief map for a school project. (Lawrence Lawry/Valueline/Getty Images)

A good school project for a geography class or for an art class is to make a topographical relief map. Making these three-dimensional maps of land masses can be challenging, if you are attempting any degree of accuracy or of maintaining a scale. Most maps will, by necessity, have some artistic license invoked as you won't be able to sculpt every mountain exactly, but you'll get across the idea of the mountain range in the appropriate spot. To make your map as accurate as possible, start by collecting elevation data from available government sources.

Skill level:
Moderately Challenging

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Things you need

  • Heavy cardboard
  • Modelling clay or paper clay
  • Glue
  • Paint
  • Paintbrushes

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  1. 1

    Collect land mass data on the area you are going to map. Go to the U.S. Geological Survey link in Resources for elevation data. This will help you develop a scale for your map.

  2. 2

    Cut your cardboard to the size you want for the base of your map. Spread glue across the surface to help the modelling clay or paper clay adhere.

  3. 3

    Cover the cardboard base with modelling clay or paper clay. Paper clay, available at hobby and craft stores, is less likely to crack when drying and you can paint it when either wet or dry.

  4. 4

    Start building up hills, mountains and other land formations by adding more clay. Pinch the clay and work it into the proper shapes, either rounded or jagged or flat-topped if mesas. Use your fingers to mould and shape the clay, or use simple tools such as a butter knife or toothpicks.

  5. 5

    Paint the map. Use different shades of greens and browns to indicate the different elevations. Or paint by feature, making mountains brown and grasslands green. Let it dry.

Tips and warnings

  • For really tall features, you might use straight pins stuck into the board to give you something to build the clay up on.

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