Let’s face it. All parents and grandparents know this simple truth: the best toys to buy for kids are the ones you want to play with after they are asleep. With that in mind, you can stop shopping right now because I have found the ultimate gift. Meet Unimat, the serious tool that masquerades as a toy.
To get a good handle on exactly what Unimat is, I spoke with Brian and Anne Brown, owners of S.T.A, Inc, the North American distributor for Cool Tool, the Austrian company that makes Unimat. Naturally, the first thing I asked was what S.T.A. stood for. “It stands for Scuba Training Academy,” they explained. “Originally we taught scuba diving. The name came from our former company.”
With that cleared up, I asked them to explain exactly what Unimat is, and whether it is a tool or a toy. I did this knowing full well that to most of us woodworkers, those two terms are somewhat interchangeable. “Without question,” they answered, “it’s a tool. More specifically, it is a convertible multi-tool that is both highly accurate and versatile. However, thanks to its table top size and certain safety features, some models are appropriate, and inexpensive enough, for children.
“Simply put, Unimat is a kit that contains beds, ways, motors, heads and holders, all of which can be assembled in a number of ways, and all of which can be upgraded to some degree. The ways are made of extruded aluminum and high impact plastic, making them light, strong and versatile. The heart of the system is a special connector which locks the parts together. All of the bases are four sided extruded tracks joined by the connector which lets you slide, turn or move everything in a wide range of configurations.
“While all kits can be upgraded, each starts with a variety of tool capabilities. At the bottom end in price is the Playmat, which is aimed at children and sells for 100 Euros, or about $135. The kit makes a drill press, lathe, table jig saw and sander. The jig saw is particularly appealing because it will cut wood, plastic and thin aluminum, but not flesh. That’s because the stroke is very small, and that makes it perfect for children. At shows, we put our fingers right up against the running blade to show parents that it won’t cut flesh. Last year we had our three year old nephew cutting on the jigsaw at the hobby show.”
Power is supplied by a six volt transformer, which, according to the Browns, saves hydro, the Canadian term for electricity. It is geared toward kids six and up and comes complete with plywood, round stock for turning, a manual, a maintenance kit and everything you need to get started.
“One step above that, at 200 Euros, is the Basic,” Brian explained, “which converts to a jig saw, lathe, mounted or hand held sander, and hand held drill. It sports a 12 volt transformer that powers a 12 thousand rpm motor that can be geared down to slower speeds for the lathe and drill. You can also reverse the motor direction. The lathe bed can be expanded with optional accessories to handle up to three foot long, six inch diameter stock. The kit comes with everything you need to get started, including a wood turning gouge, screw driver for assembly, and even a pair of safety goggles. You can upgrade with a host of accessories, more transformers, and even a more powerful drive for extra oomph.
“Next comes the Classic, which you can create from a Basic with an upgrade kit if you prefer. It has six tools; a jig saw, a wood lathe, a metal lathe with a three jaw chuck, a drill press, a milling and boring machine, and a sander. The drill and sander can be removed and used as hand held tools as well. Like all metal lathes and mills it has a cross slide. With various accessories, you can take this machine all the way up to a six axis mill. Not surprisingly, the Classic is our biggest seller in the US, especially among hobby builders. The only limit is that we don’t recommend it for steel, mostly because it cuts steel too slowly. However, in addition to wood it handles non-ferrous metals, soft stone and plastics with ease and accuracy.
“Powerline, the next step up, is really more an accessories package to the Classic than a kit in and of itself, and starts with a twelve volt, five amp power drive unit that puts out 66 watts of power, making it about twice the power of the Classic. It is also twice the size in terms of table and work size, and we usually use it with more than one transformer, though technically one will run it.
“This one has a circular saw and a router table in addition to all the features of the Classic, and looks much more like what we are used to seeing as a full size convertible tool. Even at that, it is still a table top machine, and like all the others, breaks down small enough to fit in a briefcase. Because they use DC power, the tools are all very quiet when running, making them the ultimate apartment tools.
“Rounding out the line is Styro-Cut 3D, a hot wire tool that cuts Styrofoam and similar synthetic materials. Styro-Cut 3D uses a common steel wire heated to 850 degrees Celsius. The steel wire is economical, has a very long life, and can be formed into any shape, allowing it to cut any profile. A lot of woodworkers use it to prototype in foam what will eventually be wood parts.”
Although it was new to me, Unimat has actually been around for forty years. “Originally the company made metal lathes,” Brian explained, “but twenty five years ago the current owner switched the company over to make modular systems. New parts and accessories keep coming out every year, so the machines are constantly evolving. Even though it is imported, I check every tool before it gets shipped to make sure everything works, and everything that is supposed to be there is in there. There is a five year warranty on everything except Playmat, which has a two year warranty.”
Brian came into this as a second career after retiring from Bell Telephone. “I had always been a hobby woodworker and this was a natural,” he told me. “When I first saw it, the size threw me and I thought it was not a serious wood lathe, but once I started using it I was impressed with what it would do. I find myself using it to make things like brass cannons, wood projects, acrylic pieces and just about anything else.
“We stock everything in house and have a one day turnaround. With all the accessories, we stock some 99 different items. At present there is no shopping cart system on the website; instead, we sell over the phone or via email. We prefer talking to customers to make sure they get exactly what they need. If they request it, I put potential customers in touch with current owners in their area, and send out a free DVD, but the Austrian website also has streaming video of all the products in use.”
“Don’t be fooled by the size of the tool,” Anne continued. “You really do have to see the tools in action to appreciate their capabilities. The small size tends to be misleading until you actually get your hands on it; then you come away impressed.”
For Anne, perhaps the best thing Unimat can do is for the next generation of woodworkers. “High school wood shops are disappearing fast,” she pointed out. “These kits are a great teaching tool to replace them, and we’d love to see schools picking up on that.”
Perhaps Unimat can help reverse what we all see as a disappointing trend.