Designing a Competition Grade Yo-yo

Harrison Lee
12 min readApr 8, 2021


TLDR: I have always wanted my own pro-model yo-yo. Thanks to Caribou Lodge, I am just about to release my second. This Medium article summarizes the design process and all the thought and effort into designing a modern competitive yo-yo

I released my first pro-model yo-yo alongside Caribou Lodge Yo-yo Works (CLYW, a premier Canadian yo-yo manufacturer) in 2015. Named the Orca, it was a breakthrough design in yo-yo dynamics instantly becoming a competition favorite with multiple sold-out runs, winning multiple national and international titles. On top of a stellar design, what really made the Orca standout were the unique marketing strategies to promote the yo-yo through news TV channels and even a Hollywood movie. The success of the Orca was definitely hard to live up to and when I approached Chris (Founder and Yo-yo Designer of CLYW) in 2017 to update the yo-yo, we knew how daunting of a task it would be to one-up our own design. This is why my latest pro-model has been 5 years in the making. This article will summarize the design process of my second yo-yo, The Otter.

Picture of the first-pod of Orca’s released in 2015

Note: This article assumes no to little knowledge of yo-yo design. Before we dive in, preliminary design terms have been defined, and some frequently asked yo-yo design questions have been answered so we are on the same page.

Yo-yo Design Terminology

that may or may not be important for your understanding

Responsive Yo-yo: The most common kind of yo-yo, and the typical yo-yo found at a dollar store. When you tug on the string, the yo-yo returns to your hand

Unresponsive Yo-yo: the yo-yo does not return to your hand when tugged thus them allowing for more complex tricks as they increase the “sleep time”

Sleep Time: Sleep time is the amount of time a yo-yo can spin at the end of the string

Floatiness: How light on the string the yo-yo feels

Profile: The side view of a yo-yo

Hub: The lateral view of the yo-yo

Butterfly: The standard umbrella term for the shape of unresponsive yo-yos. As the halves of the yo-yo flare out, it’s given the term, butterfly

H-Shape: A common butterfly yo-yo design shape where the yo-yo profile looks like an “H” shape

Organic: Another common butterfly yo-yo design shape where the yo-yo has minimal to no edges and is rounded to the center

Axle: The stainless steel piece that combines the two halves of a yo-yo together

Bind: Purposefully knotting a yo-yon unresponsive yo-yo forcing it to come back up

Response Pads: Silicon response pads are on either interior side of the an unresponsive yo-yo to allow it to return to your hand. When players bind, they purposefully knot the yo-yo causing the string to contact the response pads thus forcing it back up to your hand

Ball-Bearing: The part in the center of the yo-yo that allows it to spin for a super long time (> 2 minutes without re-throwing). This piece is also found in your common fidget spinner

Bi-Metal: A type of yo-yo comprised of two materials, commonly aluminum and stainless steel. The stainless steel allows yo-yo designers to adjust weight distribution of the yo-yo, allowing for some pretty interesting designs

Undersized/Oversized Yo-yo: Yo-yos have an average diameter of 55mm. Yo-yos above or below this are considered undersized or oversized respectively. Each trait has different characteristics and excels at different kinds of play

Weight Distribution: How weight is distributed throughout the yo-yo and can be fine-tuned. Weight on the outside of the yo-yo generally means the yo-yo will move faster, whereas weight on the inside of the yo-yo (closer to the ball-bearing) means the yo-yo will move slower. This is because of <short physics explanation here>, but I don’t want to bore you.

Vibe: An undesired yo-yo quality. This is when the yo-yo is off-balanced or damaged causing the yo-yo to literally vibrate. The feeling of a spinning o-yo should be glass-smooth so when you touch them during spin, they are soft to the touch

Yo-yo Design FAQ

some questions that may still be lingering — don’t want to leave you twisting in the wind :)

What are yo-yos made of?

Modern yo-yos are generally comprised of one of three materials: plastic, aluminum, and titanium. Each material offers slightly different qualities. Plastic yo-yos are generally used for beginner throws while aluminum is the most common material. As titanium is the hardest material, it is also the most expensive as yo-yo designers can create extremely thin yo-yo walls and really fine-tune the weight distribution of the throw.

A CNC machine lathe machining something … not a yo-yo

What does a good yo-yo design consist of?

This is very subjective. Yo-yo design is an art as it is a science. However, rule of thumb for modern yo-yos designed for competitions is they are extremely gyroscopically stable, but nimble enough for a player to perform their tricks quickly. This is generally hard to balance because stability comes from weight, so where that weight is put on the yo-yo is important.

The Orca ❤

How are modern yo-yo’s designed?

Modern yo-yos are designed using a program called Solidworks, a solid modelling computer-aided design software. The software allows designers to fine-tune all characteristics of the yo-yo, from shape to weight distribution to pad size, before being sent off to production. (Note: there are other 3d modelling software, but Solidworks is the industry standard)

The Otter in SolidWorks

How are modern yo-yo’s manufactured?

After designing a yo-yo in Solidworks, the designs are sent to a machine shop where manufacturers will use a CNC machine lathe to produce them. CNC machine lathes use a reductive manufacturing process wherein they start with a block of material and reduce it to the desired shape. These yo-yos have to be so precise, up to 0.01mm/0.0005in of machining error, otherwise, they will be off-balance and vibrate. To put it into perspective, the machine shops that produce yo-yos also create parts for planes and spaceships, given their precision. You can check-out this unreleased video I filmed in 2016 for a special run of Made-in-Canada Orcas. It shows how a cylinder of aircraft-grade aluminum is transformed into yo-yo halves. There are also a handful of tricks sprinkled throughout.

What is anodization?

After the yo-yo is manufactured, the halves are bead-blasted and anodized to the desired colour. Anodization is an electrochemical process that converts a metal surface to a decorative finish. You can read the more sciency and accurate description here from

The Design Process

Orca, 2014 → Orca 1.5, 2017 → Otter Proto, 2020 -> Otter Prod, 2021


Let’s start from the very beginning. When designing the Orca with Chris in 2014, I wanted the yo-yo to be the best of the best, combining elements of my favourite throws into one. The original Orca was heavily inspired by the following yo-yos:

For those familiar with how each of these yo-yos play, you can probably piece together how I took design cues from each. For example, the hub of the Orca is a cross between the Bonfire and the Puffin 2, while the profile is similar to the Septopus and the Chief. The combination of characteristics led to a solid design and quite literally a “killer whale” in competition.

Orca 2.0

The second unreleased version of the Orca was heavily inspired by the Wooly Marmot and naturally the original Orca as well. Chris and I developed the yo-yo in spring 2017 with the hope of using it for competition at Worlds 2017 in Iceland.

Picture of the un-released Orca 2.0

Unfortunately, it didn’t hit the mark — it didn’t have the same wow factor as the original Orca as we had overcomplicated the design with too many features. The yo-yo was trying to be too many things, so it didn’t know what it wanted to be. In all honestly, I struggled to define what I wanted in a yo-yo. With no clear direction for the Orca 2.0, it was back to the drawing board. Chris and I took a two year break on the design allowing me to experiment with numerous yo-yos produced from comparative brands including:

Dazzler — A undersized titanium yo-yo made by Yoyoorecreation in 2013 for Tatsuya Fujikawa, the 2011 Japan National Yo-yo Champion. Although I always had one long after the initial release, years later, this quickly became one of my favourite yo-yos because of its incredibly simple design and ability to glide along the string. My only gripe with the Dazzler is it’s too light.

Cetus — A undersized titanium yo-yo made by Turning Point in 2016 based on their ever-popular Leviathan series of yo-yos. A super solid yo-yo, it spins for a long time moving quickly on the string. At one point, it was the only yo-yo I was playing, even considering using it for a competition (don’t tell Chris).

Chopsticks Gorilla — A undersized bimetal yo-yo produced by Yoyorecreation for Hirotaka Akiba in 2020. Quite a heavy yo-yo, its small size allows for easy manipulation between string segments which makes sense as Hirotaka is popular for his complex chopstick combos.

Tundra — A collaboration titanium yo-yo between Luftverk and CLYW released in 2016 for Worlds in Cleveland, inspired by the Luftverk Evora and CLYW Chief with hints of Orca. A great yo-yo, but it lacks spin-time.

Pickaxe — A CLYW throw and undersized version of the Chief. This yo-yo is tiny. I loved it, but it was too small, slightly too light, and not stable enough.

Akita — A bi-metal CLYW throw made for Mark Mangarin. It’s a great throw, but I found it was too wide and sluggish for my combinations.

Playing with these yo-yos helped me redefine what I liked and what I didn’t like, thus determining the characteristics I wanted in a new pro-model. From my research, I wanted a yo-yo that could:

  • Match the evolution of my yo-yo style: fast and technical
  • Handle multiple wraps of string and navigate intricate mounts with ease
  • Spin for long a time to handle long combos and maintain plane throughout (remain stable)
  • Be able to quickly change direction with little to no resistance

A common thread between all of the yo-yos I actively played with between 2017 and 2019 were they were all undersized. I knew I wanted my yo-yo to be undersized for two reasons:

1.From a trick standpoint

Undersized yo-yos are easy to manipulate between small gaps making technical tricks a) a lot easier to execute and b) a lot easier to discern giving the illusion the string is longer than it actually is. I also have pretty tiny hands so smaller yo-yos fit a lot more comfortably allowing for easier catch and release.

2. From a yo-yo market perspective

The yo-yo market is supersaturated. Since I first started yo-yoing in 2011, I could probably count the number of popular yo-yo brands on my two hands. Given the accessibility of SolidWorks and the growth of CNC technology today, there are hundreds of yo-yo brands offering similar experiences in their throws. Other than the promotions, there is little differentiation between one brand’s yo-yo from another. With my next pro-model, I wanted to carve out a niche in the highly saturated yo-yo market by creating a competition undersized yo-yo. Other than the undersized yo-yos listed before, undersized yo-yos are limited in the market, let alone competition-grade throws.

Why Jeffrey?

Jeffrey is the Founder and Owner of a boutique yo-yo brand, Luftverk. Specializing in professional-grade titanium yo-yos, each design is uniquely computer optimized and highly specialized to the constraints and performance qualities of titanium. Aside from being a yo-yo designer, he is also a Software Developer, Product Designer, and Car Enthusiast.

Jeffrey Pang!

Before the Otter, Jeffrey had done a few collaborations with CLYW in the past including the Titanium Peak (a titanium version of CLYW’s first yo-yo, the Peak) and The Tundra. When CLYW and I were ready to revisit the Orca 2.0’s design, Jeffrey was in Vancouver. Also, we’re friends, so it was a no-brainer to collaborate in-person together.


Taking design cues from the undersized yo-yos I played with frequently between 2017 and 2019, Jeffrey and I sat down to redesign the Orca 2.0. We first determined parameters like diameter, weight, width, while also adjusting characteristics from the original Orca. It was a lot of: “ohhh, I like this yo-yo — how can we incorporate its x or y characteristic into the new version?” After a lot of back-and-forth (Jeffrey’s a knowledgeable guy to bounce ideas off of), we sent the design to the machine shop and I (not so) patiently awaited the arrival of the prototype.

Otter at the top of Mt.Brunswick


After playing with the Orca 2.0 prototype for a few months, I knew we had to make a handful of changes to the design before we released it to production. First and foremost, it needed to spin for longer to handle longer combos so we added more rim-weight to the yo-yo. The catch-gap of the yo-yo was also quite narrow, so we decided to make it wider to handle additional layers of string.

Raft of production Otters!

Why Otter?

After designing the yo-yo and receiving the first prototype, I knew immediately it didn’t make sense to call it the Orca 2.0: despite being similar in shape, both yo-yos plays entirely different — it doesn’t feel like a whale on the string. I brainstormed other West Coast animals (the initial inspiration for the Orca also inspired by the Vancouver Canucks) and the Otter immediately came to mind. Otters are warm, playful, and full of energy — I would like to think it also reflects my personality well while also accurately encapsulating the way the yo-yo plays. Plus, comparatively to orcas, otters are most definitely undersized.

Adorable ❤

How does the yo-yo play?

It plays exactly how I wanted the yo-yo to play, embodying all of the characteristics I wanted in the new design. It is undersized, sleeps for a long time, stable, and nimble on the string.

Who is the yo-yo for?

While I would like to say the yo-yo is for everyone, that definitely would not be true — I would only be doing you a disservice if you were thinking of buying one. If you’re a novice, I wouldn’t recommend this yo-yo. If you’ve been yo-yoing for 1–2 years and consider yourself a competent yo-yoer, then the Otter would be a consideration depending on your style.

Where the yo-yo excels

  • Technical intricate tricks
  • Slacks
  • Long Combos

Where the yo-yo falls short

  • Horizontal combos
  • Speed combos

That being said, if you are someone who considers themselves unique and playful and want a very solid EDC, then the Otter is for you!

The Otter releases at Yoyoexpert and other popular yo-yo retailers on April 15th at 10PM EST for $90. A portion of the Otter sales will go towards Oceanwise whose mission is to protect, conserve, and restore the world’s oceans. CLYW and I thought it was only appropriate we pay homage to the animal the yo-yo is inspired by. You can read more about Oceanwise here



Harrison Lee

Business and Technology Enthusiast/Professional Yo-yoer