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A simple program to convert a grayscale heightmap image to an STL triangle mesh.
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Heightmap to STL

hmstl is a simple program to convert heightmap images to 3D models. The output format is STL.


hmstl requires libtrix, my rudimentary C library for generating STL files from triangle lists.


Compile hmstl with:

make hmstl


By default, hmstl can be used as a filter to convert heightmap images on standard input to STL models on standard output. The following options are also supported:

  • -i INPUT read heightmap image from the specified INPUT file. Otherwise, read heightmap image from standard input.
  • -o OUTPUT write STL data to the specified OUTPUT file. Otherwise, write STL data to standard output.
  • -z SCALE multiple heightmap values by SCALE. Default: 1
  • -b HEIGHT set base thickness to HEIGHT. Default and minimum: 1
  • -s terrain surface only; omits base walls and bottom
  • -a output ASCII STL instead of default binary STL

The following options apply a mask to the heightmap. Only the portion of the heightmap visible through the mask is output. This can be used to generate models of areas with non-rectangular boundaries.

  • -m MASK load mask image from the specified MASK file. Dimensions must match heightmap dimensions.
  • -t THRESHOLD consider mask values equal to or less than THRESHOLD to be opaque. Default: 127 (in range 0..255)
  • -h as an alternative to -m, use the heightmap as its own mask; elevations below THRESHOLD are considered masked.
  • -r reverse mask interpretation (swap transparent and opaque areas)

Supported input image formats include JPG (excluding progressive JPG), PNG, GIF, and BMP. Color images are interpreted as grayscale based on pixel luminance (0.3 R, 0.59 G, 0.11 B).


Test scene heightmap

Create an STL model of tests/scene.pgm, the heightmap image above, with the following command. The -z option is used to scale height values; an appropriate value depends on dataset resolution and desired exaggeration.

hmstl -z 0.25 < tests/scene.png > tests/scene.stl

Here is the output displayed in Meshlab:

Test scene STL file

Here is a contrived masking example using the same heightmap and a compound oval mask:

hmstl -z 0.25 -i tests/scene.png -m tests/mask.png -o tests/blob.stl

Masked model

Here is a photo of a Makerbot printing of the scene-thick sample model:

Printed model of sample scene

Scale and Orientation

Each pixel in the input heightmap is output as a unit quad (1 unit extent in xy plane) comprised of two triangles. By default, Z values are assumed to use the same units; use the -z option to set the correct scale.

The upper left pixel of the input heightmap is output centered at x/y 0/h, where h is the y extent of the heightmap, with the bottom of the model at z 0. Because the output pixel quads are 1 unit square centered over the pixel coordinates, the actual upper left extent of the output model is at -0.5, h + 0.5.


Meshlab's Quadric Edge Collapse Decimation filter is suitable for simplifying hmstl output to reduce the number of faces without losing important features. Use various constraints such as Preserve Boundary or Planar Simplification to ensure original edges are preserved.


Freely distributed under an MIT License. See the LICENSE files for details.


Heightmap images are loaded using Sean Barrett's public domain stb_image.c library.

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