Though bikes are commonly used for commuting in Nao Tomii’s hometown of Niigata, Japan, it wasn’t until after the artist moved to Boston for college and later connected with the cycling community there that he was struck by how similar bike frames are to sculptures. While working for a sculpting company that produced everything from bronze statues to fiberglass dinosaurs, Tomii, now 42, started experimenting with making bikes. He founded Tomii Cycles in 2012 and, tired of the cold, moved to Austin two years later. His workshop offers a custom option as well as two stock models, all of which are handcrafted with high-end steel tubing. The process is spiritual, Tomii says, adding, “To build bikes, I have to be happy.”
Texas Monthly: How did you get into cycling and building bikes?
Nao Tomii: Around 2006, I bought a cheap bike just for fun, cruising around the Boston area. I started riding bikes, and then I started meeting bike people. Boston’s a very cold place, but there’s a big cycling community. There are many bicycle builders also; I met those guys and saw their bicycles and I thought, whoa, this is just like a sculpture. So I wanted to make my own. Some frame builders taught me the basics, and then I started from there.
TM: Tell me about the first bike that you built.
NT: The first bike was my personal bike. It was just a simple road bike. I made that for me because I wasn’t sure if my first bike was good enough or strong enough, so I wanted to test it myself.
TM: Can you talk a bit about how your background in sculpting affects how you build bikes?
NT: Before I started making bicycles, I never had metal skills. Yes, we were making metal statues [at the sculpting company], but we made the actual sculpture using clay and then from there, you make a mold and then it’s cast in bronze. The metal casting process is done by a different company. So I was doing the sculpting part—I never had the metal skills. But I learned a lot of techniques from the sculpture company.
TM: You quit your sculpting job and started Tomii Cycles in Boston in 2012. What made you move to Austin two years later?
NT: The weather! The main, big reason was weather. Also, for a change. My wife is also Japanese, but we met in Boston and we had been there for a long time. We didn’t have [family] there. At that time the kids were little, so [it was a] a good time.
TM: Has Austin affected your designing?
NT: Yes, Austin is definitely a great cycling city. I’ve heard there’s more than sixty bike shops in town, and there are a lot of people cycling. But still many [aren’t familiar with] handmade bikes—it’s a very niche market.
TM: What’s biggest differences between a custom bike and one that’s manufactured or just bought off a shelf?
NT: The biggest difference is fit. When people start riding bikes and they get serious about it, then they want a perfect fit. There’s a lot of bike shops they offer what’s called a bike fit. That’s when you can bring your bike and they check everything and then adjust your bike to fit better. That’s fine, but if you want a much better fit, you have to change your actual bike frame size, which is kind of difficult because the big companies only make certain sizes. So for my bike, I start from body measurements. Many people care about like a two-millimeter difference. Also for my bikes, I try to use very high-end steel tubings, which are expensive.
TM: How long does it usually take to build a custom bike?
NT: It depends [on] what kind of bike, also what kind of details, but usually some bikes take two weeks. Some bikes take months. So it all depends.
TM: Do you have favorite cycling routes in the city?
NT: I live in North Austin. I usually go either west or east and then go south and go around the city and then come back. Right now my friends are doing gravel biking—it’s very popular. A gravel bike is like a road bike with a bigger tire made for unpaved roads. So a lot of my friends go to the countryside for long gravel rides. I really want to try that too.