Why a Master Machine Artist Picked Up 3D Printing

3D Printing & Imaging CNC & Machining Craft & Design Workshop
Why a Master Machine Artist Picked Up 3D Printing

DQ image 1

Chris Bathgate has been making incredibly detailed and finely machined sculptures for several years. When we saw him, we were immediately infatuated with his work, and have kept an eye on him since. Recently, he has been exploring new methods such as 3D printing, and even creating works of art from his blueprints.

Since the last time we saw you, you’ve gotten into 3D printing as well. Why?

It has been interesting watching the tools of maker culture spill over into the fine arts. Seeing 3D printers, Arduinos and other motion technologies pop up in museums and galleries all over the world has been an exciting development for me as an artist. There has never been a better time to be a technology-driven sculptor. Seeing new tools and technology finding their way into the hands of people who would use them not just for their practical utility, but also as a vehicle for creative expression, is inspiring.


Personally, my move into 3D printing was a fairly seamless one. I have spent the last 12 years experimenting with machine tools and machine design. I learned to build my own CNC milling machines and metal lathes in my basement and have used those experiences to develop sculptural ideas around their use. I have an interest in exploring manufacturing processes for the visual feedback they provide, and so it was a natural move into 3D printing.

Like many artists, I get a lot of ideas for my work from the fabrication method I am utilizing; a simple fixture or clamping arrangement can suggest surprisingly elegant ideas about form. I like to take those initial kernels of an idea and expand on them, layering on other ideas I am working on, until they become full-blown sculpture concepts. I really enjoy the idea of taking aspects of one’s craft, and raising them to a conceptual level, using process as a direct catalyst for expression, rather than simply as a means to an end.

3D printing is just one more way for me to expand my creative toolset and see what creative insights it might yield. It has its quirks just like any other process, things it does well, things it does poorly, and that can suggest all sorts of ways of thinking about design. It is another source of domain knowledge that I can incorporate into my thinking about sculpture as a whole.

Why did you build your own 3D printer instead of buying?

In full disclosure, I did buy a small kit printer first. I did this so I had an opportunity to understand how it worked a little better and see where I might construct things differently before embarking on building my own printer. A little upfront research goes a long way when entering new territory. But it is a great question, and my answer as to why someone might want to build their own printer has two parts.

3D Printer pic

Firstly, I have adopted the mind-set in my creative life that if I am going to truly own a tool, and be able to use it to its fullest potential, I need to know everything about it, so that I can tinker with it, improve it, or alter it when necessary to perform a new task. This can certainly be done with off-the-shelf equipment, but not always. When you build something yourself, you are guaranteed that it can be modified, and the education about the tool and its operation is baked right into the act of making it.

Secondly, there are creative reasons; I get inspiration for my sculptures from the act of engineering and fabricating them. Tool building is not that different from making one of my metal sculptures. Designing my own 3D printer afforded me an additional opportunity to learn and notice things about what I was building, that may later translate into something visually compelling.

Building a tool from scratch also provides context for the objects that I will later make with it. It allows me to see the equipment and the product of its operation as a continuous creative act. In my work, one sculpture often leads to the inspiration for the next. In this same way, the act of building a tool provides inspiration for how I will implement its use. If I were to simply go out and buy a tchotchke factory, one that only required me to plug it in and hit the start button, I feel like something important would be lost.

Tell us some stats about your 3D printer

I designed my printer to be a multipurpose platform. As a stand-alone printer, it is way over-built. I used heavy rails and feed screws instead of the relatively light duty belts and rails that most kits and DIY’ers use. I also operate it off of Mach3 software, which is a multipurpose CNC control software that can be modified to run a wide variety of tools and equipment; it is what I use on my CNC mills and lathes as well.

I did all of this because I wanted to be able to adapt the tool to other uses later, to be able to mount new accessories to the platform, such as a laser for etching and cutting, or maybe a small engraver or router. I wanted it to be easily modified to suit any future idea I might have that would be served by a 3-axis CNC motion rig. That is the kind of flexibility I try to build into all of my CNC projects.

The frame of the printer was constructed out of an old treadmill. My home was struck by lightning a few years ago, and one of the electronics casualties from that event was my old running treadmill (the power surge fried the speed control board). Not wanting it to go to waste, I repurposed a bunch of the steel, wood, wiring, switches, and even one of the fans out of it. I sourced the rest of the motion parts needed from various suppliers and eBay.

The heated build platform is 24″x12″x12″, but this is flexible as I can modify things to get a taller build if need be.

The extruder is an ongoing project. To get things going, I started off using an extruder directly from MakerBot as my base. I had to modify it from the start to get it to work off of AC power (which is my set up). From there, I just kept tinkering with it, and have completely rebuilt the entire thing several times now and continue to experiment.

Currently, I am using the aluminum tensioning system that Printrbot makes as my filament feed. I am using my own heating cartridge design at the hot end. It has a .4mm nozzle at the moment, just to keep the print times reasonably fast.

What are the main differences you’ve discovered between working with the two methods (mill vs printer)?

For starters, there is the most obvious difference that milling and turning are subtractive processes (removing material from a solid block), while 3D printing parts is an additive one (building material up from nothing). But there are other distinctions between the two that can play out in interesting ways in the context of design.

I have always been attracted to working within constraints. I feel that most people are more imaginative when they have to think of solutions within a set of parameters. (Psychology has evidence of this as well.) This is one of the things that initially attracted me to machine work (both manual and CNC).

The restriction machining metal puts on your work requires you to be incredibly knowledgeable about the mechanics involved in the task you are trying to achieve. It forces you to break your concept into smaller parts that can be reasonably crafted on the tools that you have. You must think four-dimensionally to stack processes in an order that will allow you to fabricate and assemble the parts your design requires. You are in a constant state of reconciling what you would like to build with the physical limitations of the tools and materials you have at your disposal. Work holding, machine limitations, tool size, and rigidity are just a few of the things that must all be managed while you plan your work. It is incredibly technical and infinitely inspiring to operate within the dynamic that machine work produces.

3D printing however removes a lot of these constraints when it comes to the variety and types of shapes you can create. It removes many of the logistical barriers inherent in machine work, while imposing limits of its own such as material options and print resolution. It also shifts the act of making from a dynamic back and forth between virtual ideas and doing physical preparatory functions, to an almost entirely digital process. In a lot of ways, the act of actually fabricating the printed object is a much more perfunctory experience. Of course this is provided you have a perfectly functioning printer and all goes according to plan.

Although I primarily use my printer to make small tools and model concepts in advance of actually machining them out of metal, the impact 3D printing has on removing design constraints is very interesting to me. As a machinist, I have spent so long working with so many constraints, that I am in a lot of ways, completely at a loss for what to do with my printer outside of that primary function; If only for the reason that when nearly anything is possible, you don’t always know where to begin. I find this freedom both frightening and exhilarating at the same time.

What have you learned from 3D printing specifically?

An interesting thing that I found about 3D printing is that it really accentuates the relationship between the conception of the idea, and the inevitable, imperfect, execution of that idea. This relationship is present in all forms of making, but 3D printing simplifies things and puts this dichotomy in high relief.


On one side you have your idea, in the case of 3D printing it is your perfect digital render or object file. This file (provided you are building something quantitatively definable such as a geometric shape) represents a perfect conception of the object you would like to make.

On the other side you have your 3D print, which at its best, is only an approximation of the digital ideal. The 3D print is imperfect; on hobby printers it can be painfully so, with blobs of plastic on corners, visible layers, or other imperfections that the process of printing imparts.

This gap between conception and execution forces us to do one of two things. We must either embrace the imperfection inherent in the process and make it part of the work, or it forces us to expend extra energy, time, and resources to improve the end result until those qualities are diminished to an acceptable level.

Both of those approaches have something to teach us about the act of making. I think 3D printing is a powerful way to teach this important concept. These are things all makers struggle with, but 3D printing forces us to confront it almost immediately.

Your blueprints themselves look like works of art. Tell us a little about that.

A detail from one of Chris' blueprints
A detail from one of Chris’ blueprints

The blueprints are another example of how I have approached a traditional process (drafting) and started mining it for its visual value. Before I taught myself how to use CAD, I used to do a lot of rough sketching in advance of building a sculpture. Final drafts were made on graph paper by hand. This was a more emotive freeform way of working, but it was tricky to troubleshoot tolerances and angles. Distances needed to be calculated mathematically as opposed to being visually laid out. The finished drawings while serviceable, were also not much to look at visually speaking.

Eventually, necessity drove me to using CAD software, which was more constrained than freehand, but highly accurate. Dimensions could be laid out visually and distances directly measured. Once I became proficient with it, I began to see that it was just another tool, a way of creating visual objects not that different from my machines. I began to realize there was visual currency in this way of drawing and that a blueprint could be a quasi-creative medium like painting or sculpting.

Being an artist that is concerned with ideas surrounding craft as concept, I decided that while It would be interesting to explore the possibilities of schematics as a means of expression, it was important not to abandon the basic tenants of that particular trade. Drafting at its most basic is about conveying real information. While it would be easy to go crazy using CAD software to sketch impossible, fictional things, I felt I needed to set as a constraint that the drawings must communicate real information. I wanted my schematics to be visually compelling, but they also had to be faithful to the subject they were meant to convey

In pursuing that goal, the drawings became an accompaniment to my sculptures and a way to tell a story about each of them. The engineering of a work, the push and pull of aesthetic choices and logistical constraints is an integral part of what moves me as a sculptor. However, it is an aspect of my work that is largely hidden from view in the finished piece. The drawings serve as a way to bridge the gap between the pure conception of the sculpture, and the actual execution of the design. They illustrate the relationship between the impossible ideal and the workmanship that created the finished object. It memorializes a part of what is fundamental to my way of thinking about art that might otherwise be lost.

What is the next tool you’re looking forward to playing with?
I have been looking at laser engravers and various other laser cutting tools over the last year. I am interested in how they can be used to etch into surfaces, to create patterns, texture, and details. I see some technical barriers to being able to use this for the compound shapes and uneven surfaces that I create, so more R&D is definitely warranted before I move forward with such a project. But it is at the top of my list as a future project.

Where can people find you to learn more?
My website is my main portal to the world, www.chrisbathgate.com. I keep a blog of my current projects as well as post announcements for museum and gallery exhibitions. I also have an email newsletter that you can sign up for.

I can also be found on the usual suspects, Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook (I’m even on Ello).

In addition, I am going to have an exhibition of my work at the Baltimore Museum of Art this coming September, details for that will be announced a little later this year, on the blog.

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I get ridiculously excited seeing people make things. I just want to revel in the creativity I see in makers. My favorite thing in the world is sharing a maker's story. find me at CalebKraft.com

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