Contour Coasters : How They Are Made

I began 'of Alp & Ash' with a name, a laser cutter, and no idea what to cut. I dabbled with a few products, but it was only when I launched my Contour Coasters did I feel like I was finding my feet, and a business was forming.

They were inspired during a personal challenge to hike all 214 Wainwrights in the Lake District within a year; I was using the old school method of navigating the routes with paper maps and was fascinated by their attention to detail.
 I wondered if I could recreate them on the laser cutter in some way and set to work experimenting...

I tried different woods such as birch ply and real oak (those would have been some expensive coasters!) before I stumbled upon oak veneered plywood. I tested various speeds and powers of the laser, and used both the engrave and cut function to work out the best way to create the various details of the maps. I decided which elements of the maps to include such as only the 50m contours, and having summit triangles and a circle for a train station being the only symbols on them. I also chose to make them at a scale of 1:25000 with that being the scale walkers generally use.

Not feeling the burn
One problem with laser cutting is that it often leaves burn marks. They are uneven and unsightly and detract from the finished piece. After some searching I found a huge roll of masking tape that I used to protect my pieces of oak veneer 
before cutting. That led to another problem: the masking tape being cut into lots of tiny little pieces, separated by every single contour. Luckily my mum loves peeling all those tiny pieces of tape off and so I deposit fresh stacks of coasters in her living room and pick them up when free from tape. She is my only employee and I am yet to pay her! 

I hate glue
The most challenging part of coaster creation was how to represent the water features such as lakes and tarns - a major feature of The Lake District! I could have etched the water areas using a pattern, but I really wanted them to have a glass-like appearance. Realising glass wasn't an option, I purchased a few samples of acrylic and it was a turquoise-blue, tinted acrylic that was the most pleasing. Due to a hatred of glue (it's just too messy and I am not good with mess!) my husband suggested I try to inset the acrylic pieces. I experimented with various offsets to add on to the pieces which would ensure I could push the acrylic into place 
(admittedly sometimes forcefully with scissor handles as a hammer) and it would sit snugly, no glue needed.

With the coasters being made of wood they needed sealing to avoid beverages staining them. Danish oil does the trick with it being water, food, alcohol & dirt resistant as well as being food safe. It soaks into the wood and leaves no surface varnish. It took me a while to realise but the easiest application is to line up several batches of coasters and apply with a mini sponge paint roller!

The finishing touch
The underside of the wood isn't as attractive as the side with the veneer so it needed covering. I picked out a bright orange felt (the orange reminiscent of the colour of an OS Explorer map) and put a negative offset onto the coaster design before mirroring the result to give me the perfect file to cut on my laser. The felt handily has a self adhesive backing meaning I can just peel and stick once it's cut - no glue! 

Ready to launch
Once prototyped I developed a range of 12 Lake District coasters and launched them at a local craft fair in 2015, before getting them online in an Etsy shop. With many requests to offer other areas of the country I expanded the range to cover other popular hills & mountains in the UK and you can see all these here.

Maps hold memories
Since 2015 I have sold countless coasters and received so many kind comments about them. I absolutely love hearing the stories that often come with a purchase. Maps mark locations and locations hold special memories for people.

They have been bought because families holidayed in those locations, because someone got married there or became engaged in a certain spot. Some buy to remember a loved ones favourite mountain after they are gone, and sometimes they mark the end of a hiking challenge. I am honoured that I get to play a small part in someone remembering those special times. 

And then there are those that purchase simply because they love hiking and my coasters serve as a reminder of the hills they love when they can’t be out amongst them.

▲ Debs 

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