In 2015, while managing projects at an art gallery in New York (i.e., mainly working at a computer all day), he started itching to do something with his hands again. That was right around the time famed artist Roxy Paine premiered Carcass, his fast-food restaurant made entirely of birch wood, including all the fryers, computers and everything else you'd find in a McDonalds or Burger King. Then there's Paine's Checkpoint piece: a life-size, wooden diorama of a TSA checkpoint.
Inspired by Paine's installations, Kaths decided to try woodworking himself, combining it with music for a unique take. The first one was a wooden version of a guitar pedal connected to cords, which looked like they were coming straight from the wall. From there, Kaths let his imagination take over, creating fantastical machines only loosely based on real-life models. "The pieces I make reference real things," he explained, like pianos and keyboards, but with a twist. For example, one keyboard looks like a Fender Rhodes or Wurlitzer -- until you notice a few important details, namely that the sharp and flat keys aren't in the right places. Kaths said he wants musicians, carpenters and other experts as well as laypeople to notice the differences.
So what kind of machines does one use to make wooden machines?
Kaths said he originally tried to chisel the wood to look like plugs and other electronics, then realized his work about work didn't need to be that laborious. Now he's hacked together a less painful process. He creates the plugs, knobs and other detail work using a router on a micro lathe he built after watching a YouTube video. He uses an XY plotter from Makeblock fitted with a laser engraver to design and burn knob-level markings, design indicator marks and other patterns on to his sculptures to make them look more like real-life music equipment and other types of machines. Kaths also experiments with the XY plotter as more of an instrument of artistic expression, using the laser to create "paintings" by strategically burning paper and gesso (a white paint mixture designed to prep a surface).
Makeblock sells the plotter as if it were a children's toy, but he had to put it together himself and learn G-code to use it. "You can put a pencil, a pen, anything, and the thing will hold it like a paintbrush," he said. Meanwhile, to create the cords for his wooden sculptures, he soaks about 100 wooden dowels at a time in water for two weeks, then steaming them for a couple hours until they're "like a spaghetti noodle." Finally, he bends and shapes them until they look convincingly like the cords tangled behind my TV, though with less dust and dog fur. (He said this method has a 70 percent success rate.)
A decade ago, Kaths would have been able to bend the dowels and use the lathe easily, but laser cutting? Forget about it. The technology has only been around since the 1960s, and Kaths would have had to seek out an expert to use an expensive laser-cutting machine. "Over the past 20 years or so, the technology has significantly become more affordable as patents have expired," said Scott Van Campen, the executive director of Makerspace NYC. He estimates that the tools cost as little as one-fourth of their former price. That's "allowed people to literally have high-tech machines on their kitchen tables. Three-dimensional printers, laser cutters, plotters and CNC routers all basically use the same technology to control the movements of the 'tool' of choice."
Using these machines, Kaths estimated that one wooden artwork takes approximately one month to make (he has always worked a day job, but nights and weekends are devoted to his art practice).