Last June, mechanical engineering graduate student Phillip Daniel wanted to get his hands dirty with a new material: wood. At the time, he was interested in learning how to build a sea vessel from scratch. But he veered into an unexpected direction that led to a new artistic passion: mapmaking with wood.
Now, Daniel has translated his woodworking curiosity into a side venture that’s giving him valuable entrepreneurial experience at MIT.
“Art is paramount”
In scoping out ideas last spring, Daniel discovered an article about using maps for laser cutting and thought it was worth trying. "It looked too simple," Daniel remarks, "and it didn't seem to fully take advantage of the accuracy of the laser cutter." He researched more, finding a company that made wooden maps, but the company used a process that seemed to waste time and materials. "I changed the design so that complexity didn't increase the effort required," Daniel says. "After creating around 15 maps, I finally found a set of materials with complementary colors and textures, optimized the process of designing maps from GIS data, and refined my assembly techniques."
As an engineer, Daniel is always seeking to learn new skills. "By continually making things, be it for my thesis or for fun, I feel consistently ready to tackle design problems with high efficiency," he explains. Everything he does takes analysis, but also elegance and care — especially his thesis project, which involves building a robotic bluefin tuna. "I think art is paramount because the same creativity that is required to make an artistic work is required to build the elements for a robotic fish."
Daniel's maps have been featured at MIT's Graduate Students Arts Gala and at the Valentine's Day vendors sale. He is often approached by people who want to know how he makes his maps, where he gets the data, and if he would be willing to teach them how to make them. He plans to broaden his knowledge base: "I think the next map that would be cool to create would be a dodecagonal map of the globe."
Together with a friend, Daniel also built a website to market his new products, under the name EcoMaps. The site features wooden maps of MIT, Harvard University, and greater Cambridge, Massachusetts. “We are now extending our reach by offering custom maps, and hope to soon offer other additions such as custom frames and all hardwood maps,” Daniel says.
How he does it
The process of making the maps starts with downloading vector files and deleting elements such as city names and gridlines. He laser cuts the design on veneer and trims it to fit a frame. Then, he glues the veneer to a frame he has stained. Daniel uses a vacuum pump to hold the veneer in place with even atmospheric pressure that compresses against the map until the glue sets. He sands and coats it with polyurethane. The whole process takes 27 hours spread over multiple days. "The most difficult step is cutting out the maps," Daniel explains. "The pieces are intricate. Many times I will spend 20 minutes cutting out a map for it to be ruined in the last 30 seconds."
The skills that go into making art are applicable to making engineering components. "The same laser I use for maps is used to make microfluidic devices," he notes. Phillip credits the technologies that help him create his maps: "It is only possible because somebody discovered how to create lasers, cut wood as thin as paper, and formulate the perfect glue."
When asked about the role of artistic creation in his life, Daniel remarks, "Art is important because it is a way that minds can communicate without the barrier of language, and memories can be associated with it as it is experienced with all of your senses."
Daniel also recently refurbished a kayak by watching how-to videos on YouTube. The act of making gives him much needed balance and perspective. "It is quiet work that lets me express something without judgment and be introspective about what is going on in my life,” he says. “My favorite part of refurbishing the kayak was when I was sewing on its skin alone in a workshop. It was silent, too early for anybody to be around, and I was able to reflect on some hectic things that were going on at the time. The tedious work of sewing let me forget about deadlines, grades, and other things that rattle around in my head and distract me."