Chris Bathgate: Machinist Sculptor

Published Date
January 31, 2019 - 02:45:pm

As a special guest presenter at Okuma America's recent annual winter showcase, Baltimore native Chris Bathgate illustrated the commonalities between manufacturing and art as he shared a wide range of insights gleaned from his journey as a machinist sculptor.

The pursuit of beauty and art "has a lot to do with our relationship to technology and the influence it has on the work we do," Bathgate explained. "While the tools may not be exactly the same [as those he uses], exercising creativity is exactly what is required to be successful in manufacturing, no matter the process and no matter the scale."

If done correctly, he continued, creating art and creating a utilitarian good often look the same from a process perspective. From a financial perspective, however, the industrial process traditionally has been out of reach for the typical artist. 

Fortunately for the rest of us, Bathgate was able to scale industrial processes and bring them into the realm of artistic experimentation.

"To say it another way," Bathgate observed, "machine tools are expensive; artists are often poor. And so we rarely get to play with [machine tools] for the purposes of creating art."

Bathgate's first machine shop cost less than $2,000. He began with a basic welding setup. At the time, Bathgate said he was interested in the contrast between hot working steel verus cold working steel, and how the two produced organic versus geometric forms.

That interest, he added, naturally led to machining, and the acquisition of a small milling machine to aid in creating geometric shapes. "Once I started researching machining, and had my first real introduction to what it was capable of, it was nothing short of an artistic awakening for me."

"Although the look of my work changed immediately, my approach did not," he continued. "Each new machine process I wanted to master became its own aesthetic experiment in the form of a sculpture. I started simple with boring operations, creating overlapping holes in geometry to try and create complexity."

He proceeded to incorporate radius turning, press fits, and threading, evan as other conceptual elements began to reveal themselves.

"The tools themselves suggested interesting compositions, and their design hinted at possibilities for sculpture," Bathgate observed. "Learning different ways to build workholding setups, [and] modifying the tools themselves became the inspiration for many elements within my work."

After a few years, Bathgate said he outgrew the constraints of manual machine work, so he turned his attention to CNC machining, albeit cautiously.

"I wasn’t interested in leveraging new technology simply to make my work easier," he explained. "I wanted to do it in a way that was consistent with my values as a sculptor. I wanted to be sure I was embracing new technology in order to amplify my abilities and add complexity to the work, and to broaden my knowledge base."

In 2004, Bathgate recalled, a confluence of new moton technology hit the market that made automation and machine building an affordable reality for hobbyists and enthusiasts. In his pursuit of sculpture, Bathgate became an early adopter of many of the tools and technology that would later evolve into the Maker movement, which has defined itself as an effort to simplify and scale existing tools and processes for the purpose of making them available to a wide audience.

"I set about the long process of learning how to build CNC tools using newly available, off-the-shelf mechanical components and electronics," he recounted. "I learned to do so by mining machinist forums, reading technical manuals, and engaging with a very small, but growing number of crude websites dedicated to home shop automation."

Bathgate built his first CNC milling machine for about $6,000. He continued to build his studio shop one tool at a time, adding two CNC lathes while further customizing his milling machine to his needs.

"While the tools I was building would most certainly be considered low-tech from an industry and capability standpoint," noted Bathgate, "for an artist to be able to harness these tools for the sole purpose of experimentation with sculpture represents a technological milestone for machining as a craft."

While machine work became his medium, Bathgate said the constant stream of new information and the adoption of new tools and processes provided him with a conceptual feedstock from which he drew inspiration. He learned to write G-code to program his CNC tools. Later, he incorporated CAM software.

"Translating ideas into machine code gave me a new perspective on the sculptural forms I was creating," he said. "The need to write code from accurate drawings quickly brought my attention to the way in which I was producing CAD files. I realized that drafting accurate technical drawings was a discipline worth exploring."

To further his understanding of technical drawing, Bathgate purchased an old Diazo Blueprint machine that he found on eBay for just $1. After restoring the machine to functionality, Bathgate said this too inspired new works and a new appreciation for elements within his craft he had not considered before.

"My drawings eventually evolved to take on other forms, and I came to see them as an invaluable way to communicate the underlying engineering that was present in each of my works."

Throughout his 18 years as a machinist sculptor, Bathgate said his work continues to be a literal evolution of production and design.

"Problem solving logistical issues, something as simple as a workholding problem, might yield dozens of possible solutions," he explained. "In normal process development, one might only get to explore one of those solutions. The first one that worked. 

"But with my art, those extra solutions, the ones that were not used. They could be saved and re-used somewhere else."

Editor's Note: Click here for more about Chris Bathgate in "The art of machining," a blog by CTE Editor Alan Richter.

Related Glossary Terms

  • boring

    boring

    Enlarging a hole that already has been drilled or cored. Generally, it is an operation of truing the previously drilled hole with a single-point, lathe-type tool. Boring is essentially internal turning, in that usually a single-point cutting tool forms the internal shape. Some tools are available with two cutting edges to balance cutting forces.

  • cold working

    cold working

    Deforming metal plastically under conditions of temperature and strain rate that induce strain hardening. Working below the recrystallization temperature, which is usually, but not necessarily, above room temperature.

  • computer numerical control ( CNC)

    computer numerical control ( CNC)

    Microprocessor-based controller dedicated to a machine tool that permits the creation or modification of parts. Programmed numerical control activates the machine’s servos and spindle drives and controls the various machining operations. See DNC, direct numerical control; NC, numerical control.

  • computer-aided design ( CAD)

    computer-aided design ( CAD)

    Product-design functions performed with the help of computers and special software.

  • computer-aided manufacturing ( CAM)

    computer-aided manufacturing ( CAM)

    Use of computers to control machining and manufacturing processes.

  • gang cutting ( milling)

    gang cutting ( milling)

    Machining with several cutters mounted on a single arbor, generally for simultaneous cutting.

  • milling

    milling

    Machining operation in which metal or other material is removed by applying power to a rotating cutter. In vertical milling, the cutting tool is mounted vertically on the spindle. In horizontal milling, the cutting tool is mounted horizontally, either directly on the spindle or on an arbor. Horizontal milling is further broken down into conventional milling, where the cutter rotates opposite the direction of feed, or “up” into the workpiece; and climb milling, where the cutter rotates in the direction of feed, or “down” into the workpiece. Milling operations include plane or surface milling, endmilling, facemilling, angle milling, form milling and profiling.

  • milling machine ( mill)

    milling machine ( mill)

    Runs endmills and arbor-mounted milling cutters. Features include a head with a spindle that drives the cutters; a column, knee and table that provide motion in the three Cartesian axes; and a base that supports the components and houses the cutting-fluid pump and reservoir. The work is mounted on the table and fed into the rotating cutter or endmill to accomplish the milling steps; vertical milling machines also feed endmills into the work by means of a spindle-mounted quill. Models range from small manual machines to big bed-type and duplex mills. All take one of three basic forms: vertical, horizontal or convertible horizontal/vertical. Vertical machines may be knee-type (the table is mounted on a knee that can be elevated) or bed-type (the table is securely supported and only moves horizontally). In general, horizontal machines are bigger and more powerful, while vertical machines are lighter but more versatile and easier to set up and operate.

  • threading

    threading

    Process of both external (e.g., thread milling) and internal (e.g., tapping, thread milling) cutting, turning and rolling of threads into particular material. Standardized specifications are available to determine the desired results of the threading process. Numerous thread-series designations are written for specific applications. Threading often is performed on a lathe. Specifications such as thread height are critical in determining the strength of the threads. The material used is taken into consideration in determining the expected results of any particular application for that threaded piece. In external threading, a calculated depth is required as well as a particular angle to the cut. To perform internal threading, the exact diameter to bore the hole is critical before threading. The threads are distinguished from one another by the amount of tolerance and/or allowance that is specified. See turning.

  • turning

    turning

    Workpiece is held in a chuck, mounted on a face plate or secured between centers and rotated while a cutting tool, normally a single-point tool, is fed into it along its periphery or across its end or face. Takes the form of straight turning (cutting along the periphery of the workpiece); taper turning (creating a taper); step turning (turning different-size diameters on the same work); chamfering (beveling an edge or shoulder); facing (cutting on an end); turning threads (usually external but can be internal); roughing (high-volume metal removal); and finishing (final light cuts). Performed on lathes, turning centers, chucking machines, automatic screw machines and similar machines.

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