Maps, Laser Cutters, and Bathymetry: The Amazing Wooden Charts of Below the Boat

By Wesley Fenlon

How map lovers came together to bring these beautiful laser-cut wooden pieces of art to offices and living rooms in the US.

Robbie Johnson loves maps. I know this because he tells me, but also because he speak about them with that mixture of excitement and wonder that infects our voices when we get to talk about our favorite hobbies. "One of the books I'm reading right now is Ken Jennings' Maphead; it's awesome, it's like maps meets trivia meets, you know, geeking out about maps," Johnson says, as he geeks out about maps.

"[Jennings wrote] about a pretty cool thing that I hadn't tied together. It's the value he places on fantasy literature that's based on a map. When you open a really good fictional novel, like Lord of the Rings, the maps portrayed in there are so detailed and so inspiring, that's what a lot of the stories draw on. This other world that is a fantasy world but really for the sake of the story it exists because a map of it exists, and you're drawing on real places and real things."

A few months ago Johnson stumbled onto a new reason to appreciate maps. Suddenly maps weren't just fun--they were business. In December of 2012, he took the helm of a small self-made company, founded with his wife Kara, that specializes in selling breathtaking wooden charts; like fantasy maps, these oceanic charts, laser-etched and hand stained, reveal a world we've never seen before. Their website is called Below the Boat.

"These charts are beautiful works of art that do something...that shows you how cool what's under the water is," he says. "That's really powerful. The point of art is to reveal something or excite some sort of emotion or wonder. So this art basically peels back the water and allows you to see the underappreciated world beneath the surface."

"This art basically peels back the water and allows you to see the underappreciated world beneath the surface."

It's hard to look at one of the charts without immediately wanting one (the website capitalizes on that with bold photographs of each chart). In fact, that's how Below the Boat was born. Johnson was walking through a bookstore last year when he spotted one of the wood-carved chart on the wall. He liked it so much he got in touch with the couple from Michigan who made and sold the charts--just to share some of that maphead geekery--and discovered they had no online presence. He happened to have a background in ecommerce. They teamed up.

The rest of the story plays out like a convergence of entrepreneurial smarts and maker movement passion, the former helping the latter reach new ports of call across the ocean that is the Internet. It's a story starts, of course, with maps.

"All the charts are designed in Michigan by a couple of professional cartographers," Johson says. Each piece of art sold on Below the Boat begins life as a bathymetric map. Bathymetry, Johnson explains simply, is the underwater equivalent of topography. "I think of it like, when you start at sea level and go down it's bathymetry, when you start at sea level and go up it's topography," he says. "You basically take the lines of relief at different depths and cut out different layers of wood that represent each of those zones. If you broke up 300 feet of water every 60 feet, and end up with five layers of relief, that shows you the contours of what goes on underwater. That's how you go about making a chart."

But before the wood comes into play, the cartographers simply create maps. They study the bathymetry of an area, determine how many layers the map should be divided into, and add flourishing touches like labels for islands, harbors, parks, and channels. Some of their designs even include descriptive text; the Lake Michigan chart includes the bit of trivia that "Michigan" comes from the Ojibwa Indian word for "great water," "Mishigami." Johnson estimates this process takes a few weeks per chart.

When the map designs are finished, they're sent across the world--all the way to China, in fact--to be carved. That's a bit surprising, given Below the Boat's homey vibe (the site says charts are made in a "family-owned shop overseas") and the fact that each chart looks like a one-of-a-kind hand-crafted work of art. But Johnson assured me the production is nothing like a Foxconn factory pumping out iPhones on an assembly line.

"[The shop in China] only makes these charts. It's not like a mass-produced sort of thing. It's a team that does this...exclusively. That's something that I think is pretty cool. I've had a lot of friends and a lot of contacts who are product people, and who are inventing things...and going out to manufacture things. One thing that a lot of them have had to learn: when you make something overseas, contracting with somebody to build something or manufacture something, it's really important to find people who--whatever you're making falls really well into their line of work. Something they're experts in and that they are passionate about doing."

The Chinese team assembles each bathymetric chart out of layers of Baltic birch in what Johnson describes as a fusion of old world and new world processes; the wood and maps themselves wouldn't be out of place in the 15th century, but the laser cutter used to carve each sheet of wood is decidedly modern. The delicate details on the surface layer are also etched in with a laser.

The greater the depth variance in a chart, the more sheets of wood it takes to put together. After a sheet is cut, it's hand-stained a rich blue-green. All of the layers are then glued together and encased in a wood-and-plexiglass frame.

The final products vary in cost between around $130 and $300, with many of the larger pieces measuring 25-inches by 31-inches, close to the size of a movie poster. Some are more unique sizes, like the 14-inch-by-43-inch Baja California Peninsula.

This entire process was already in place before Johnson set up Below the Boat to sell the bathymetric charts online. "The biggest part of the business, really, is this distributed network of brick and mortar shops," he says. The maps are sold in boutiques, interior decorator shops, bookstores--imagine a tourist shop in a small coastal town or a trendy design shop in a city, and that's where the charts show up. The localized approach makes sense for localized art: Where better to sell a chart of the Florida Keys than in the Florida Keys? Who but the residents of Martha's Vineyard would want to buy a wooden replica of coastal Massachusetts?

Taking the business online, though, offers a different advantage: Interaction.

"By listening to people and taking suggestions online, we were able to map out what the next 10 charts are people really want," Johnson says. "We're helping with that process and creating new charts for areas people really want to see." A popular location doesn't always guarantee a great chart, though. There's a challenge in balancing art and reality: what if the bathymetric map isn't very interesting?

"Crater Lake is one example," Johnson explains. "Crater Lake in Oregon [is] the deepest lake in the continental United States, super popular area, and we don't have a chart for Oregon yet. Wouldn't it be cool to do Crater Lake? Well, it doesn't have that rich of contours, on a first pass. It's just deep. It's a circular deep lake with kind of a cone in the middle. So it's not that it's boring, but on the pass that we're doing through now, we haven't figured out how to make it super interesting yet."

A poll on the Below the Boat Facebook page asked fans to pick what charts they'd most like to see next, and the website proper has a simple request form for mapheads to write in their lakes or coastal regions of choice. And while plenty of people ordering the charts online are buying what you'd expect--the chart of the San Francisco Bay Area sells best in San Francisco, unsurprisingly--that's not all of their business.

"One of the overwhelming messages we've gotten from people is that [the chart] represents something that they knew that they missed or didn't know that they missed, but when they see it, it connects," he says. "That they have or had a really strong connection with where they live or used to live...the really cool thing is when we get a ton of feedback from people just saying things like 'oh, I'm so glad that I have something that shows San Francisco Bay, cause I moved to [somewhere landlocked] and I really miss the Bay and I really miss the water, and this really reminds me of where I grew up..."

"Even if they don't buy one of our charts, we want them to be able to make that connection and go 'oh wow, there really is neat stuff going on under the surface of the water.'"

The Below the Boat website ultimately can't capture the full detail of the charts, the texture or scope of seeing one up close. They direct customers to local stores, if possible. And in the next few weeks, Johnson plans to update the site to better convey what the charts are meant a evoke: a real connection with the water.

"People who are really into the oceans or the lakes get it, on first pass, so what we're doing is trying to help people who see it as cool [and] novel make a connection," Johnson explains. "This art shows this whole world that's right in front of us that we travel over and brings our world together, but nobody really knows what it looks like...So the new stuff that we're doing [is] showing the link between... somebody above the water with a piece of artwork that they're hanging on the wall--the link between them and the cool stuff going the water, and the cool stuff going on on the bottom. Just tying those things together. Even if they don't buy one of our charts, we want them to be able to make that connection and go 'oh wow, there really is neat stuff going on under the surface of the water. Maybe this chart isn't for me, but I'm going to start thinking about that the next time I'm thinking about water conservation or water quality or overfishing.' "

If business continues to grow, there's a chance, or at least the dream of a chance, that the charts could eventually branch out into the world of art, leaving behind the true-to-life contours of the ocean floor. At the very least, new charts could depict wonderful parts of the ocean far away from coastal towns and lakeside getaways. Johnson and I bring up the Marianas Trench simultaneously, but I like the last idea he throws out even more.

"If you're going to do the Marianas Trench, what's the little boutique tourist shop that would carry it? It would get a little tricky," he reasons. But "for our store online, there's a huge draw to creating the wonders of the undersea world. It'd be fantastic to kick out the Marianas Trench, and the Great Barrier Reef, and I don't know, Atlantis, all these kind of iconic places that make a lot of sense and we'd love to see."

What maphead could resist?