Last modified: Saturday, January 6, 2001 6:20 PM

The Unimat has a sort of legendary status as the great grandpappy of hobbyist supertools. I think it's been out of production for a while, and in the meantime other products have come to fill the void. The Dremel line is probably the most accessible & popular, but there are other small companies that make mini lathes & mills, like Sherline. MaxNC makes a computer-controlled milling machine that's quite economical.

I'd considered purchasing the MaxNC-10, but once I started calculating the cost of the CAD & CAM software, plus the learning curve for those, I was a lot more hesitant. It's probably a fascinating study, and the learning can only do you good, but it requires the sacrifice of time in addition to the money. So when I saw an ad for the new Unimat 1 (having heard of it long ago), I plunked down the money-- it was considerably cheaper than the Sherline, and had the advantage of being a modular tool instead of being dedicated to one function.

When it arrived, I thought, "Gaaaaaa! This is a frickin' TOY!" And it does look like one, with plastic & aluminum parts, sort of like an Erector set for junior machinists. It's got one of those horrible instruction books from Europe (it's produced in Austria), printed in six different languages that's incredibly hard to follow, and devoid of much technical discussion. Seeing the dinky motor & the set of plastic collets didn't do much to fill me with the manly pride of having acquired a new tool. Jimbob's Folly?

It took a lot of courage to begin unpacking the thing and making some use of the raw parts which can be assembled in a bazillion different ways. The first downer was finding out that the motor wouldn't attach to the gear unit with proper tension on the belt. I've come up with a Jimbob-rigged solution, but I'm still puzzled by that one. (Quite possibly, they included the wrong belt since there are two setups for two different gear ratios. From the instructions, that's hard to determine though.)

After a couple of hours of assembly, I started to feel better about my purchase. It was an entertaining time, and I gradually began to understand the design philosophy of the thing. The heart of what you get is an infinitely configurable workspace, where you can clamp down your work and precisely control its path along several axes with turn cranks to intersect with the rotating bit. Dremel bits fit the machine, so you can attach sanding drums, cutting wheels, cutters, etc. In addition, there's a mini jigsaw attachment which can be linked to the motor via an eccentric cam. You can use the motor & gear unit as a hand-held assembly for freehand drilling, sanding and routing. As I said, it's infinitely configurable-- you can also set it up as a mini lathe and with the purchase of optional parts, set the unit up to copy shapes, or produce gears.

This isn't a powerhouse-- the motor is dinky, so you're limited to rather soft materials like wood, plastic, and soft metals like aluminum. However, this has its place, since you don't use a jackhammer on a thumbtack. For small parts it's quite suitable. The plastic construction means that this isn't as precision a tool as the Sherline. (A full turn of a hand crank advances the table 1 mm.)

At this point, I'm just experimenting with it. I've taken some sheets of styrene and milled along the edge, making it thinner. I've also cut some parallel lines in plastic, and the results are fairly precise, despite the fact that plastic tends to melt when it's cut. Doing these things by hand would be extremely difficult. I suppose that you could liken this to an "Etch-A-Sketch" in three dimensions, where straight lines are easy to produce, but free-form shapes are much faster and easier to do by hand. Nevertheless, it's a "Cool Tool", an awesome gadget, and a fun learning experience. Right up my alley. The manufacturer claims that it's also suitable for children, and I agree-- it would be a great learning experience for a motivated child, giving him the feel of the beefier tools which are out there, and the intuition to deal with problems of mechanical systems. While it's possible to get hurt by rotating blades, an Exacto knife can do much more damage far more quickly.


05/15/99 FOLLOWUP

(I should have done this sooner, but I kept forgetting about it... 'Scuse me. This is one of my responses, slightly edited, to an e-mail from someone who was considering buying one.)

Well...now that the novelty of the thing has worn off, my first observation has to do with tools like this, in general. I quickly discovered that I much preferred the immediacy and freedom of a freehand tool like the Dremel! I think that's because of the type of work that I do-- most of the time, there's very little need for perfect symmetry and precision. If you sculpt and you've ever worked with a 3-D design program, you have an idea of the issue (you wanna reach inside the monitor and wrestle that sucker into shape!)... and know the frustration of trying to do through a machine what takes so little effort to do by your own hand.

Setting up these types of machines takes time, since you have to figure out the configuration of the machine (if you don't use it very often, you forget!), and how the piece will be secured before you can mill it. If it's something odd-shaped or large, that's a problem. Then there's the limited travel of the geared platform-- that can be a problem if you're doing a large piece. Finally, manually, you can only control very simple operations at one time. For example, there are times when you want to cut in all three dimensions-- this is how you use a handtool, like the Dremel. To accomplish that on a manual mill, you'd need three hands, working with computer-like coordination. Of course, that's what they have computer controlled systems for!

I believe that the most useful part would be the lathe. That's a specialized function that can't easily be done by other means, except maybe a drill (Dremel would be too high speed for this). As delivered, the Unimat doesn't come with a freely rotating endstock, so you'd have to buy their optional accessory. Again, you'd be limited in the size of the object you could make: I couldn't make my knight's lance with it because the lance would be too long. For a Panzerfaust head, it would probably work fine, but you could probably do this by hand-sanding, as I did, or use a drill (with far less setup effort).

This kind of tool does have its uses, I'm sure-- but I haven't found one that I couldn't do by other means, with far less trouble. If you were working with metal, it would probably be a necessity. In that case, I'd recommend the Sherline models since they appear to be a lot beefier and are dedicated to a single purpose: it's neat to be able to assemble modular machines, but if you just want to quickly use it for a specific purpose, that's a pain in the ass.

So overall, I'd say that the most important things to consider before buying a tool like this is the type of work you do, how you like to work, and the level of imperfection that you can live with.

(It's still a neat toy, if you like Erector sets!)