Meet 'extreme hobbyist' and CNC master maker Nick Berchtold
Here is another in a series of features for Maker of the Year presented by Carbitool, where we take a closer look at the creations of some of our amazing entrants.
World category entrant Nick Berchtold lives in Chicago, USA and has a Masters in Architecture on top of 20 years woodworking experience, inspiration for which he credits his father. His day job is running the model shop for AS+GG Architecture and his passion is producing complex works that push the boundaries of his explorations into CNC artistry. Linda Nathan, Wood Review editor took the opportunity to ask Nick a few questions.
US woodworker and CNC master, Nicholas Berchtold
The builds you show on your social pages often feature items with intricate CNC patterning. Your website states you specialise in functional artworks. What do say to people who challenge the artistry of CNC technology versus the ‘authenticity’ of hand tool work?
I am a proponent of “using the right tool for the right job". CNC Machines don’t make anything without a programmer, just like a pull saw doesn’t cut without a puller. I acquire and deploy the tools that get me to what I consider the best results in the most time efficient manner. I usually argue that what I make is made by hand when it is my hands that do all the designing, programming, and making.
All my projects are completely designed and built by myself in my workshops. My process starts in the form of a 3D model, which I create using my hands guiding a mouse on the computer, and no project ever goes on or comes off a CNC without some kind of “handwork”, though I do try to CNC mill my projects as finely as time allows so the parts require the smallest amount of sanding before finishing.
I design all my pieces with functions while trying to remain artistic. For me making art just to make art was never that fulfilling, so I have made it a goal of mine, that everything I make will have some sort of function regardless of if it gets used in the intended way or not. Through architecture design school I had theory classes and we were always taught not to make something just because we thought it looked “cool” but more akin to form follows function. This always stuck in my head after university – which has led to what I am now calling functional artwork.
Intarsia FishTank, an early woodworking project by Nick Berchtold
How long does it take to reach an advanced level as a CNC technology craftsman? How did you learn your skills? Can you tell us a little about your background as a woodworker?
The artistry of my CNC programming has been a long journey to get to where I am now, starting in my home workshop, then university workshops and now my professional model shop. I’ve been running CNC machines for about 15 years and woodworking in general for about 20 years. I got started on a scroll saw building intarsia pieces in my dad’s basement woodshop when I was in high school.
After high school I went to university to study architecture and with my background in woodworking I really thrived in the physical model making portions of my coursework, that led me to landing jobs working for my professors and running the university’s architecture woodshop and eventually running the university’s CNCs, lasers and 3D printers. I really taught myself how to program the machines through reading the manuals and then trial and error (all before YouTube).
As a professional, what does most of your work comprise? Do the art CNC builds bring in most of your income, or do you take on bespoke work as well? How hard is it to make a living as a woodworker in Chicago?
Architectural concept model created by Nick Berchtold with CNC for AS+GG Architecture
I work as a professional architectural model maker and I am currently running the model shop for AS+GG Architecture in Chicago, that is my main source of income. As a model maker I use all kinds of traditional woodworking and digital fabrication techniques that now have blended into my personal work. I wouldn’t really call myself a professional woodworker – I like to call myself an extreme hobbyist. The commissioned projects I choose to take on outside of my professional work are generally heavily based in digital fabrication, as that’s where my interests currently lie.
The Tufted Table, the Maker Mallet and others – all seem to be made with incredibly complex processes and a wide range of tools and equipment, not to mention materials. You’re obviously not scared of maths – what drives your fascination with complexity?
Nick Berchtold’s Tufted Table with honey locust root burl slab top. The solid walnut base is composed of 165 mitred segments in 17 stacked rings precision 3- and 4-axis CNC milled. "I pulled out every single tool in my shop to fabricate this table all the way from roughsawn lumber to the polished table in this post."
My fascination with complexity has come from working in the architecture field for about a decade. Working alongside many talented designers in the field pushes my work to new levels all the time. I do have a masters in architecture, so I am not afraid of complicated computer designs and the math it takes to generate these parametric designs.
I acquire the tools and materials I need to do the jobs I am interested in. A project like The Tufted Table couldn’t be made on one machine alone and it did go through many design iterations on the computer and then physical models and mock-ups leading up to the final piece. I have made many objects with tufted patterns all of which led up to making the final tufted table. Making the tufted table base was an exercise/experiment for me in combining 3- and 4-axis CNC milled parts into one seamless table base. Every machine has its limitations and for me part of the fun is pushing those machine limits to their extremes.
The CNC-milled Maker Mallet depicts the faces of 80 makers and has a resin coating.
The Maker Mallet was a passion project of mine where I wanted to mill 80 different maker faces on one sculptural object. 3DDIYDave had travelled the United States 3D scanning woodworkers from the online community including a Chicago maker meetup where I too, got 3D scanned. I downloaded all his 3D scans (including myself) at the time of the build and compiled them into one maker mallet which I documented in a YouTube build video.
Another of Nick's mallets – this one features the CNC-created tufted motif.
Chainmail and spinal patterns, skulls and the ‘tiddy’ (!) motif – I’m guessing you have a great sense of humour and like to tease people a little? Where do you get your inspiration from?
I like to think I have a good sense of humour. I started designing/making skulls, chains, spines, tufts and tiddies (everybody loves tiddies!) on everyday objects as a way for me to generate interest in my work from people outside of the woodworking community. Sometimes I like to incorporate what I consider funny things into my work that ultimately bring joy to the end user. I started by making patterned vases and mallets as a quick way to bring my ideas to life and to see if the patterns generated at a smaller scale would have potential to be used in larger scale works.
Nick Berchtold, Garrett Harpers Veiled Virgin Client Chair
I get most inspiration from historical artworks, nature, industrial objects, and other artists. I love tattoos and have had the opportunity to work for some of the most talented artists in Chicago.
Tiddies aside, what are your favourite things to make? What do you love most about woodworking?
I get a huge amount of satisfaction from overlaying three-dimensional patterns on top of 2D patterns. The results are sometimes unpredictable and that is probably my favourite part. I have been working on a series of 4-axis segmented vases for the past five years and I have produced 43 to date.
Segmented turnings by Nick Berchtold's father on the left, and a recent creation by Nick on the right.
Attached is a picture of my favourite vase, pattern was inspired by the pattern my father created on a more traditional segmented bowl. My dad was the reason I got into woodworking, and he makes some wild segmented bowls. The thing I love about woodworking the most is trying new things and building my skillsets.
Photos: Oscar Sobolewski
Enter Maker of the Year presented by Carbitool at www.woodreview.com.au/moty2023