My first experience with Nao Tomii from Tomii Cycles was via his old brand, 3RRR, which focused on small components like chainrings, developed in part with industrial design office 44RN. While in Boston, he learned to build bikes under the instruction of Ian Sutton, from Icarus Frames. When he moved to Austin shortly after, I began seeing his bikes pop up all over town, each beautifully constructed and specced, with color palettes so unique to the cycling industry’s normal flashy vibrancy. Nao has an eye for design, proportions, and a willingness to strive for perfection. His work is wildly underappreciated in the saturated market of handmade frames.
Japanese American Design
You might assume that his frames would attract customers from his home country, yet that is rarely the case. As he put it to me during this shop visit: “Japanese customers want an American builder…” Meanwhile, Americans have no issue buying a custom frame from a Japanese American.
While his influences come heavily from the vintage auto and moto world, there is an effortless touch to what Nao creates. His frames maintain a pleasant order, with custom racks often painted in contrasting colors and details with such intention that they feel ancient, replicated, and familiar. Yet upon closer inspection, you can really get a sense of how thoughtful and unique each moment, each bend, twist, and weld is. Nao is in the business of making a truly personal solution to cycling’s everyday challenges.
When I asked what was up with the wire maquette, he expressed, “I am a visual person yet I need to feel it with my hands. I can’t draw a rack, I need to feel it and see it in three dimensions.” The wireframe will eventually inform a very sturdy rack. I had never seen this method before.
As the tedium of framebuilding tires Nao’s cerebrum, he takes to customizing Velo Orange bells. First, he disassembles them, then he strips the hard finishing, exposing the brass. At which point he hand hammers each bell in a 360º manner before wax coating and reassembling. The bells retail for $52.00 and come in a variety of finishes.
Now let’s take a deeper dive into Tomii Cycles…
An interview with Nao from Tomii Cycles
Tell us about where you were born in Japan and what brought you to the United States?
I was born in Yokohama and grew up in Niigata, Japan. I came to the United States in 1998 for art school in Boston MA. Since I was a child I’ve always liked cars, motorcycles, and bicycles (everything with wheels) especially American hotrod cultures. It was a good opportunity to study art and explore American culture.
Japan is a place that’s immersed in the art of creating. Just about everything made there has a story tied to it and a whole legacy behind it. What drew you into cycling and more importantly, into making bikes?
I found a sculpting job after I graduated from art school. I worked for sculpting company for 12 years making sculptures, mold making, casting and restorations for old sculptures and architectures. I was also making my own sculptures and did some shows in Boston area. In 2006, I got a cheap bike and started to ride and met many cyclists and bicycle builders. I was impressed by the beauty of handmade bicycles and really wanted to make my own.
Why did you move to Austin, from Boston?
Boston is a beautiful city, but I lived there for almost 15 years. I and my family decided to make a change and try a new adventure. We came to like Austin a lot.
What’s your favorite ride in Austin and how does that inspire your frames?
My usual ride is round trip (I live in North Austin) to the city and have a great coffee. I am still new here and I have to check out more gravel road around Austin. When I ride, I always check new and old buildings, rusty cars/motorcycles, signs, murals, plants, colors and everything inspire me. I think Austin is a great city for this. Austin summer can be really hot, so night ride is my favorite. Cold coconut water tastes great!
You fillet braze and tig-weld. Not many framebuilders are able to do both. Which do you prefer and why?
I like both methods. People are always asking “which joint is more strong” but I think both are very strong. I learned different things from both techniques for metal fabrication.
If you could only build one bike for the rest of your career, what would it be and why?
Oh my, this is a tough question! I like all kinds of bicycles… Sorry, I have no great answer!
You’re going to NAHBS this year, are you excited? What was the hardest part about planning to attend?
This is going to be my first show at NAHBS. I think the hardest part was finding the right customers for the show. Hopefully, I can finish the bikes!
Nao holding a Fast Boy Cycles drop out, made by Ezra Caldwell before he died from colon cancer
What other framebuilders are you inspired by?
I have always been inspired by other builders (all the frame builders on the planet). Everyone has different skills, minds, and history behind.
If you could build a bike for anyone in the world, who would it be?
I truly love building bikes for anyone who wants to ride Tomii Cycles, and since I only have one bike I want to build another one for myself when I have a chance.
Aila and her 20-24-26 MTB
Avid readers of this website will recall this bike, when it was in the possession of Fugo, Nao’s son. Well, as children do, Fugo outgrew this bike, allowing his younger sister Aila to hop on board. This adaptive reuse of a bicycle is just one example of the cunningness that goes into each bike that Nao makes. Ok, so what about the rack and bag you might ask? Aila wanted to carry snacks with her on rides…
If you’d like a custom Tomii Cycles, Nao requires a $600 deposit, which can be made on Tomii Cycles’ website.