Documentary - The Unicycle Factory

Hello everybody,

I used to be a regular here a few years back. I’m glad to see many of my friends are still on the forum.

I’m writing to share a project I’m working on with Tommi Miller. He is the President and Employee of the Month at The Unicycle Factory. He is also the sole employee. For those that don’t know, he is a unicycle expert. He has made unicycles of all types for his entire career. He is also an excellent rider and used to perform often on tall giraffe’s (up to 24 feet.) I could go on and on about his accomplishments, but I’ll save that for another time.

So I called him up recently and told him I wanted to order a 7 1/2 footer. Why that particular size? Because I’ve been riding a 5 footer in parades and aspire to ride a 10 footer. A 7 1/2 footer would bridge that gap. He responded by making me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Knowing that I have video editing skills, he offered to show me how to make it for just the cost of the materials. In exchange, I would make a documentary of the project and post it to youtube. The intent of the documentary is to educate potential buyers so they understand how much goes into the product.

To clarify, he usually charges around $700 for a 7 footer. Taller giraffe’s cost more than that. Most people find the prices too high. What they don’t understand is the amount of time, expertise and attention to detail that goes into them. You see, a Unicycle Factory giraffe will typically outlast the person buying it. If you know anyone who has one, ask them how it has held up.

I gladly accepted the offer and we agreed to get together once a week, usually on a Sunday. As of this writing, the frame is now complete. A small bit of cleanup is needed and it’s off for powder coating.

I’m happy to report I’ve done the majority of the work with the notable exception of the welding. Tommi offered to let me try it mid-way. I declined because so much work had gone into the frame that I didn’t want to screw it up. Tools used so far include a milling machine, lathe, grinding wheel, torch, ban saw, brake (for bending metal), vernier caliper and several tools made by Tommi himself which I will show later.

For your amusement I will post blog style pics showing the progression. Today’s teaser pic shows the frame right before welding on the steps. Feel free to ask questions as I go. Tommi said he would enjoy answering them. Do understand though that one of Tommi’s many quirks is that he shuns computers and the internet. You can either call him up on the phone, or ask thru me. I embrace computers and the world wide interweb.

Looking forward to seeing it. Always interested in unique unicycles.

“The intent of the documentary is to educate potential buyers so they understand how much goes into the product.”

If this is an attempt to get more business/convince potential buyers to purchase I cant see it going well. Mainly because there are other unicycle manufacturers who don’t shun computers and the internet who are able to build top notch unicycles. In a niche market those who embrace the internet/email/facebook to talk to clients will probably end up with the business.

Tommi is in the business for years, so I bet he can survive without Internet. And custom unicycles are very niche, so I guess if you really want one you will consider using the phone :wink:
I guess the vid is not just for marketing, but more to show people how much work it is and how it looks from inside.

Super G
Please keep us posted. That sounds like fun to watch.

Yeh I was just basing it on this interview with him from last year where he was saying how the work is drying up.

“Am I scared… yeh… I have been at this, building professionaly 30 years and it just gets thinner and thinner every year”

And yes custom unicycles are niche but there are other skilled makers who make them who reachable on facebook. Penguin Flansberrium unicycle - Album on Imgur

However I LOVE anything Unicycling and niche unicycles are amazing, there are not enough long unicycling videos especially not on subjects like design and creation. So I would be very keen to watch. Just commenting that in a market as small as unicycles you would want to be available to as many people as possible, some international unicyclists would be hesitant to work out how to phone a US number from Australia, Europe etc. You would want to make it easier for customers to find you not harder.

I think he needs to fire his boss. Been saying it for years! :smiley:

That is, Tommi’s “boss”, along with shunning computers and the Internet, also shuns having a business model. Don’t get me wrong, I love Tommi and the many cycles and parts he’s made me over the years. I just feel bad that he never seemed to want to turn it into a full time job. He could manufacture custom cycles for, but not without some sort of a schedule. He could offer a line of custom cycles sold through his own garage, but for that to really work well, he should have some already made, so people can order them and not have to wait a year.

I waited a year for my first Unicycle Factory unicycle, my trusty 45" Big Wheel. Still have it! And while the wheel has been rebuilt a couple of times and replaced once, and its gone through multiple tires, it’s still on its original (cottered) hub. Quality stuff! Because it took so long, he under-charged me.

Later I bought a little 12" uni (which weren’t available from any manufacturer), some customized Miyata frames, a souped-up Track unicycle and, collaborating with a friend, a 9’ giraffe with spring-loaded step for freemounting. Still have 'em all, except for the Track uni, which was stolen at Unicon X in China.

Tom also made me a special, one-off unicycle; a replacement for the VW logo on the front of my old VW Bus. You can sort of see that, along with some of the other cycles, on this page (scroll down to the bus).

I love the idea of doing this video. For best results, I hope you will focus on the positive; the eccentric nature of the genius, his odd unicycle-covered domain, his legacy of building all sorts of things (not just unicycles), and some demonstrations. Try to stay away from the depressing stuff about being poor, work drying up, and the unicycling community abandoning him.

He was not abandoned, it’s more like he exiled himself. As the world of unicycling has grown (and embraced the Internet and e-commerce), so has the opportunity for him to make tons, literally tons of custom cycles for buyers all over the world. All he has to do is decide to have timelines, fixed prices that are fair to him, and get things finished. A little bit of that, and he would probably have to hire help before you know it!

Then there might be a different Employee of the month from time to time. :slight_smile:

Your 7.5’ looks great in progress. Same design as my 9’ from 1985-6 and solid as hell. Giraffes are probably the easiest type of (non-standard) unicycles to hand build; Tommi is even better suited to make the more complex ones, like big wheels and other designs that are more involved. Of course those take more design and more labor, so they will and should be expensive. But there are plenty of people out there that can afford such things, if they are made available. Nobody wants to wait a year.

I have lots of old pictures I could offer to your project, though I bet Tommi has even more. Best of luck with it, and keep us posted. Maybe you can even help launch The Unicycle Factory back into the daylight, as a go-to source of custom cycles and old/obscure parts.

If I know Tommi, he will insist on having this documentary available on VCR tape.

I’m a terrible person but it’s tough to see past those nails.

He’s taking eccentricity to a new level.

I agree. I cant help but watch and think “this is why general public thing unicyclists are weirdos” sigh :frowning:

It definitely helps to have known him before the nails. Tom Miller hosted the first National Unicycle Meet I attended, in 1980. He was a short-haired, fun-loving about-to-be dad. Going to that meet was a big part of unicycling changing my life. Also I might have changed his some, with a (pretty bad) Giraffe Freestyle routine with a Rocky Horror Picture Show theme. Later he was a big Rocky Horror nut, but don’t know if there was any connection. :astonished:

Good luck on the documentary. I’m sure a lot of us will learn something about building a unicycle.

Thanks for the feedback everybody, both good and bad.

John Foss, regarding your quote:

“I love the idea of doing this video. For best results, I hope you will focus on the positive; the eccentric nature of the genius, his odd unicycle-covered domain, his legacy of building all sorts of things (not just unicycles), and some demonstrations. Try to stay away from the depressing stuff about being poor, work drying up, and the unicycling community abandoning him.”

Those were pretty much my thoughts from the get go. Since he’s willing to do this for me, I’m going to give him the best documentary I can muster.

I’ll start the blog posts soon.

7 1/2 footer project - Day 1

And the blog begins…

My request for a 7 ½ footer caused Tommi to have to modify his usual 7 footer plan. We did this, taking into account my inseam. With a plan ready, he pulled out a long piece of 1” square tubing so we could start on the lower section. The general idea was for me to do as much of the work as possible, deferring to his work when necessary – like with the welding. So I measured and cut the square tubing for the bottom pieces of the A Frame. Tommi has found this design to be the way to go for all giraffe’s up to around 9 feet. At that height, the design begins to flex some while riding. Flexing is to be avoided because the chain assembly could flex. If the chain comes off while riding, you’re coming down! Unplanned dismounts from 9’ plus giraffes are bad news. So Tommi has a different frame using 2” square tubing for 9 foot and taller giraffes.

This picture shows me starting the project. I was enthused from the start and became more enthused as the process began. Once completed, the giraffe will be a prized possession for the rest of my life. After all, I still have the first unicycle I bought when I was 15 years old.

7 1/2 footer project - Day 1

This picture shows us heating up one of the pieces so we could flatten it. The next post will show the tool Tommi made for that task - “Da Krusher.”

7 1/2 footer project - Day 1

Behold – “Da Krusher”

Sorry for the sideways picture. The picture uploading feature on the forum doesn’t seem to let me orient it correctly. The actual picture is right side up.

7 1/2 footer project - Day 1

“Da Krusher” in use. It’s not obvious from the picture, but Da Krusher is just a heavy piece of steel on tracks that you use to pound the heated steel flat. You pick it up, pound it down and repeat until the steel is flat. The documentary will show it in action.

7 1/2 footer project - Day 1

And here is what 1” square tubing looks like after a trip to Da Krusher.

7 1/2 footer project - Day 1

This pic looks like a drill press, but it is not. It is a milling machine. One of the bottom pieces is clamped in and ready to have a slot machined in the bottom. Unlike a drill press, the part can be moved sideways while the bit is drilling. Tolerances are in the thousands of an inch realm.

7 1/2 footer project - Day 1

Here we have the first piece fresh out of the milling machine. What you see around the slot is oil and bits of metal that were shaved out to create the slot. Oil is used to keep the bit from getting too hot.

After milling up the second piece, our first day was done. Stay tuned for Day 2’s pictures and commentary. If you have any questions or comments, fire away.

Great stuff. Really interesting.

Keep it coming :slight_smile:

Curious, does Tom have any sort of formal training/education? He obviously knows what he’s doing and I didn’t expect him to have a mill.