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After patenting the removable axle, Kuhn started making No-Jives in the basement of his San Francisco apartment and selling them through catalogs and novelty stores. Business boomed. To meet demand, he soon had to hire help. He also rented a workshop, a two-room, stucco-walled facility that is now cluttered with calibrators, tools, bundles of string and boxes, bags of screws and parts, spools of string, and yo-yos in various stages of assembly. As he sits at his drafting desk in the workshop, Kuhn seems to have the world on a string.
"There's a quality about yo-yos that captivates me," he says. "Playing with them is a delightful release."
Although he has a dental practice, Kuhn, who's known to his fellow enthusiasts as Dr. Yo, devotes half of his work time to his business, Tom Kuhn Custom Yo-Yos. In 13 years, he has built a firm that employs half a dozen workers and cranks out 20,000 to 30,000 yo-yos a year. He makes 15 models, with such funky names as the Diamond Special, Mandala Lasercarved and the Flying Camel. Their prices run from $3.50 for a beginner's model to $18 for the No-Jive to $40 for his first long-spinning yo-yo, the Silver Bullet, SB-2's forerunner. (Most good mass-produced yo-yos go for $2 to $10.)
His production can't rival Duncan's, which comes to about 10 million yo-yos annually, but Kuhn's products take a backseat to none in quality. "His are the best on the market," says Lowe, the 1932 world champ and renowned spokesman and showman who has tried nearly every kind of yo-yo that has come along. "But Kuhn's prices are high," he adds.
Kuhn is rarely without a yo-yo. "I feel naked without one," he says. And he's usually looking to play with it, even between patients' appointments. Repeated practice over the past 14 years has honed his skills to the point where the yo-yo seems an extension of his arm as he spins through his repertoire of tricks. When he yos, he grimaces and his body contorts. He seems to be laboring; but he's enjoying something he calls the state of yo. "It's a meditative state," says Kuhn, who studies yoga and t'ai chi. "In it, you're completely focused on the gyro's interaction with the string as it moves through space. You're actually playing with physical laws. It's another realm of consciousness of being. It's akin to when Jack Nicklaus hits a golf ball. He's so attuned to the ball that he can stretch time and make minute changes in his swing." When Kuhn waxes philosophical, it's easy to see why he's called a "yo-yo guru" by his star student, Smothers. "He brought me up from a clumsy guy to a higher level," says Smothers. The comedian, who has been using a yo-yo in his comedy routine for years, was so smitten with the No-Jive 3-In-1 that he asked to meet its maker. They hit it off, and he asked Kuhn for pointers. And he has had Kuhn perform on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and in nightclub shows.
The past decade, however, hasn't been all fun and games for Kuhn. His quest for the perfect yo-yo has led him to try more than 100 axle prototypes made from all sorts of materials, including various kinds of wood, brass, nylon, Teflon and Oilon PV 80, a high-tech polymer. To better understand the mechanics of yo-yos, he went to NASA in Houston to huddle with an astronaut conducting zero-gravity motion experiments with a yo-yo. Along the way, in 1979, Kuhn built the world's largest yo-yo, a 256-pound wooden monster that was lowered on shipping rope from a 120-foot crane.
Three years ago, he determined that wooden axles couldn't be made thin enough to achieve both optimal spin times and playability without breaking. So he turned to ball bearings. A year ago he zeroed in on the SB-2, which features a class-3 shielded bearing (the kind used in computer disk drives), a metal axle and slightly tapered, [4/5]-ounce aluminum halves that can be tightened as the string wears.
The SB-2 isn't the first long-spinning "gimmick" yo-yo. Yomega's Outrageous spins for 30 seconds, and its new Raider is said to sleep for a minute. The Outrageous has fared well, and Kuhn hopes the SB-2 will, too.
It is targeted for top-string yo-yoers who want to "achieve the ultimate," as well as for less-skilled players who welcome the chance to practice tricks without having to stop and rewind after running out of spin. But Kuhn also envisions the SB-2 sparking a new activity: yo-yo choreography. "You'll do a trick and then say, 'Geez, there's more spin,' " says Kuhn. "You can do an around-the-world, go into a man-on-the-flying-trapeze, flip into some pinwheels, land the man back on the trapeze, work to a brain-twister and end with a double skin-the-cat—combinations never done before."
SB-2's design is ideal for tricks that emphasize spinning, but it is a poor performer for tricks that don't require long spins. "It's not the perfect yo-yo," admits Kuhn. So he's still shooting toward that goal like a speeding silver bullet. For more information on the SB-2 and other designs, write to: