August 1999 R/C Modeler
 Vol. 36 - No. 8
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Product Review

Modular Tool System

Col. Art Johnson

The Unimat 1 comes as the kit shown here. It can be easily assembled into any one of six different motor-driven tools. Changing from one to another is simple and fast.

The Unimat tools are produced and distributed by: Manfred Heindl Ltd., Pezzlgasse 7, Vienna, Austria 1170, email:


at U.S. shipments are from Creative Concepts, 9245 Dowdy Dr., #111, San Diego, CA 92126, phone (619) 673-4733, email:

The Unimat 1 Machine Tool Kit used in this review lists at $346.00. A Unimat 1 Basic Kit for wood working only lists at $188.00. For those interested, these companies are also the current distributors of the latest production version of the Step Four CNC Milling Machine reviewed in the April 1997 issue of RCM.

All types of wood can be turned with the Unimat 1 wood lathe. A gun fairing for a
Typhoon cannon is shown here being turned from balsa.

The Unimat 1 comes as a kit of parts that, within minutes, can be assembled into any one of a number of useful model building tools. By simple addition or removal of kit parts, the Unimat 1 can be converted into a wood-working lathe, a metal-working lathe, a jig saw, a disk sander, drill press, or a milling machine. The machine is capable of precision work on small parts useful to model builders with emphasis on small. It is at first hard to imagine that you can put this many machine tools into a standard briefcase-size package. I could certainly have used a Unimat 1 years ago when I was doing my modeling in a high rise apartment building. It is quiet in operation, easy to clean, and fun to use. The Unimat has been around since 1989 but it is only recently that we have had an opportunity to examine and test the latest version.

The Unimat 1 comes packed in a cardboard box, 14" x 18" x 3-1/2", with components separated in typical Styrofoam packing material. It has an instruction manual printed in six different languages and, of course, one of them is English. All of the included parts are identified in both photographs and in tables. Instructions for assembly are both written and illustrated.

R/C model projects turned in our tests including fairings for P-35 guns and a
Typhoon cannon. The P-43 scale spinner was at the maximum diameter for the wood lathe without adding extra accessories.

The base of the Unimat is an aluminum square grooved on four sides for attachment of
components on any side and in any position. Assembly begins by first attaching the powerful 12-volt motor to the drive spindle. A toothed belt drives the spindle, providing speed reduction and increasing power. The motor plugs into the supplied transformer which, in turn, plugs into a standard 110V AC outlet. Each component of the Unimat attaches by means of a unique clamping system which slides in the grooves of each part. A single Phillips head screw tightens the clamp. A screwdriver is provided in the kit to make sure that you have the right size for the screw heads. This is rather important as you will use the clamps for every change or adjustment.

It was simple to convert the wood lathe to the jig saw. The saber saw type blade is
handy for cutting internal shapes as shown here.

I elected to try the wood lathe version of the Unimat first, mostly because I needed some new parts for my P-35 model. The wood lathe works very well with hard woods but I wanted lightweight balsa for the aircraft parts. The drive end of the lathe is a square pyramid shape which is easy to force into the balsa. The tail stock has a sharpened pin which lets the material rotate freely. The hand-cutting tool supplied with the Unimat worked very well but I also made use of some fifty year old Sears Craftsman, hand wood carving tools to help with the long straight cuts. Making a scale cannon for a Typhoon was pretty easy as were the new gun fairings for my P-35. A scale spinner for my P-43 model came close to the limits of the wood lathe. The lathe will handle wood up to 2" in diameter and about 5.5" long with the parts that come with the kit.

The small metal turning lathe is the most complex of the machines available from the
Unimat 1 kit. The two-way table holds the cutting bit while the tail stock serves as an accurate center drill.

The lathe also comes with a face plate for turning jobs on short, larger diameter projects. I checked this out by turning a 1-3/4" diameter button press from hard bass wood for the lady of the house. It doesn't hurt to come up with something useful to help justify some of the special tools you have to have. The press worked great.

The vertical milling machine provides three axis motion for the cutter relative to
the piece being milled. A milling bit is included. Shown here milling a flat in the end of an aluminum rod. This configuration also makes a vertical drill press with the attachment of a supplied handle and disconnecting the vertical screw control.

It took only a minute or so to convert the wood lathe into a jig saw (or saber saw, as the blade is only fixed at one end). An eccentric cam drive is chucked into the motor spindle, providing the up and down motion for the saw blade. The thin strong blade is at its best with materials such balsa, ply, and phenolic in the 1/8" or a little over class. It will cut 1/4" aircraft ply and even 3/32" aluminum, but very slowly. The saw is really handy for projects that require an internal cut from a larger piece. You just drill a small hole in the material, put the blade through the hole and start sawing the internal shape - beats disconnecting the blade from a standard jig saw, pushing it through a hole in the material, and then connecting the blade again.

Shown here is a lower cost basic wood working kit with lathe, saw, sander, and drill,
for those not needing the metal-working features of the classic machine.

It took a little longer to convert the Unimat-1 to a metal turning lathe because more parts are involved. A neat little three jaw chuck is provided to give a very positive grip on metal pieces, and the jaws can be reversed to handle larger diameter stock. The chuck screws on the power spindle and is ready to go. The supplied metal cutting tool is clamped to a control assembly which provides screw jack movement of the tool in two directions. The tool came with several brass shims that can be used to adjust the tool for best centering on the material. The tail stock is mounted in the same manner as for the wood lathe and can be used to support pieces for turning or be used to drill accurately-centered holes in the material.

A neat little three-jaw chuck holds metal pieces for turning. Jaws are reversible
for larger material. Aluminum rod shown here has been turned to fit a bearing while the end has been drilled for a setscrew.

Metal turning requires a very rigid assembly of all parts if problems with chattering are to be avoided. The base parts are of metal but the slides for screw adjustment are hard synthetic material moving in V shape grooves. Unimat provides small Allen screws to adjust the tension against the grooves to get rigidity while still allowing smooth movement of the slides. For those of you who know more about machine work than I do, my master toolmaker friend called these adjusting screws, Gibbs.

The wood lathe face plate doubles as a precision disk sander. Sanding disks are glued
to the face plate with pull-off contact cement.

Once set up, I used the metal lathe to turn the end of a hard aluminum rod to fit a small ball bearing. I use this type assembly for flap control on several models. A drill in the tail stock was used to make the hole for a threaded retaining bolt. The project went well as long as I did not try to push for larger cuts. Patience has never been one of my virtues! The Unimat is recommended for non-ferrous materials such as brass and aluminum. Turning steel requires a heavier duty machine.

Assembly of the vertical milling machine requires nearly all of the parts that come with the kit. A small vise to hold the piece to be milled is bolted to the horizontal slide in place of the cutting tool used in the lathe. The base is now mounted vertically to a shorter base piece and the drive motor attached to a screw slide that will allow vertical movement of the milling cutter. We now have three-way, hand screw controlled movement of the cutter relative to the piece to be milled.

The capacity of the Unimat 1 can be increased with the purchase of extra accessory pieces.
All are attached in the same manner as the originals.

I needed a new canopy mounting rail for one of my models and chose this for my first test. The square brass tubing available in hobby shops is perhaps the most common material used for this purpose. Cutting the slot in the tubing to fit an "I" beam, screws or whatever else is used to hold the canopy, has always been a pain. The Unimat 1 comes with a set of collets to hold different diameter bits. I used a 1/16" dia. mill cutter for the slot, cutting the full depth of the brass in one pass. The square tube was 12" long so I had to move it in the vise frequently to stay within the limits of the hand screw control. Again slow and steady is the key to success.

A more typical milling operation was cutting a flat in the end of an aluminum rod to be used as a drag link for my B-26 retract landing gear. The larger mill cutter that came with the Unimat 1 was used for this job. This time, all three axis of movement were used to gradually mill the flat deeper in the rod. The job was finished by rotating the rod in the vise and repeating on the other side.

Now I needed to drill a hole in the flat for the bearing. By loosening the Allen screw in the vertical slide wheel and by snapping in the supplied handle, the vertical mill was converted to a vertical drill press with the up and down movement controlled by the handle as with any other drill press. Versatile, you bet.

For example, you can fix sandpaper to the lathe face plate, slide the tool holder table up to it and you have a precision disk sanding machine. You can remove the motor assembly and use it directly as a hand drill. It is also easy to reconfigure the vertical milling machine or drill press to horizontal operation or to mill at selected angles. The machine was designed in Austria and it took some pretty clever engineering to create so many variations with so few parts.

There are some limitations to keep in mind. The Unimat 1 is intended for precise creation of small parts used in modeling. It would have many uses for ship model builders, those making doll house furniture and other craft type projects, in addition to model airplane building. The machine will not handle the large projects common to the big "Shop Smith" type multi purpose machine tool, but then you could hide the entire Unimat tool set in the motor housing of a Shop Smith. You can turn small-scale spinners of the type common to the P-47, B-26, etc., but forget the size required for the P-51 at today's popular scales. However, even that statement requires a caveat.

The Unimat 1 is expandable for larger projects with accessory parts purchased in addition to the kit. Just the addition of a couple of base parts will let you raise the lathe motor and tool rest to turn larger diameter projects. An extra drive spindle can be added with toothed drive belts in series, slowing the shaft speed and increasing power. Many other variations are described in the manual, together with a list of parts needed. The Unimat machines have an excellent five-year warranty on all parts not subject to normal wear (don't expect them to replace the sanding disks!).

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