The Toaster Project

By Thomas Thwaites

Building an Electronic Device from Scratch


The Toaster Project
The project began innocently enough, "a desire for toast and the fulfillment of that desire is totally reasonable," Thomas Thwaites said, "yet the enormous industrial activity required to manufacture a device for making toast is absurd. At the same time, any romantic notion of returning to some kind of self-sufficient, pre-industrial past is equally absurd."

The Toaster Project is one man's attempt to get under the skin of slick-looking objects and see if he could replicate global-scale manufacturing with his own labor and skills. The artist Thwaites turned temporary electronic hobbyist, embarked on a nine-month-long journey from his local appliance store to remote mines in the UK to his mother's backyard, where he created a crude foundry. Along the way, he learned that an ordinary toaster is made up of 404 separate parts, that the best way to smelt metal at home is by using a method found in a 15th century treatise and that plastic is almost impossible to make from scratch.

Separate Parts An ordinary toaster is made up of 404 separate parts.

Is it still possible, in the 21st century, for one person to create an everyday household object from scratch? A graduate student at London's Royal College of Art, Thwaites was determined to find out. He selected the toaster, one of the most commonplace consumer goods, and documented all his minor failures and major triumphs in his book.

What does "from scratch" mean? What tools could he use? Thwaites decided that he must do all the work himself, but he could get advice from experts. The first ally he enlists is an enthusiastic professor at the Royal School of Mines who calls the project "utterly fabulous" and sketches out the principles of backyard metallurgy. At a mine that had produced iron for more than two millennia (but is now a tourist attraction decorated for Christmas), a miner dressed as Santa allows Thwaites to take home a suitcase full of iron ore.

In western Scotland, Thwaites finds a helpful, if slightly drunk, local who draws him a map to an abandoned mica mine. When Thwaites tries to get petroleum to manufacture plastic for the toaster's case, a skeptical BP press agent informs him that no, he can't just take a helicopter out to an oil rig and fill up a jug. ("If you wanted a tanker full maybe we could help, but...")

Working with materials that humans have used since the Bronze Age, Thwaites quickly learns, "the smaller the scale you want to work on, the further back in time you have to go." A 16th century text provides the instruction he needs on making steel and to cast his toaster parts he hand-carves molds out of wood and cuttlefish shells.

Author hand mining micaThwaites Hand Mining Mica
Metal MeltingMicrowave Metal Melting
Suitcase Full of Iron OreSuitcase Full of Iron Ore

After nine months of travel and work, and more than $1,700, Thwaites succeeded in making a homemade toaster, a strangely beautiful object that works, if only briefly. Thwaites is forced to admit that it's really no longer possible to make things "from scratch, not in any practical sense. The items we use every day are still made from rocks and sludge that come out of the ground, but the process by which they are transformed into useful products has become too complex for any one person to master."

In the end, Thwaites's homemade toaster cost 250 times more than the toaster he bought at the store and involved close to 2,000 miles of travel to some of Britain's most remote locations.

Thwaites Thwaites' strangely beautiful object in a department store.

Learn more about Thwaites.

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