Thomas Thwaites: How I built a toaster — from scratch


Thomas Thwaites is a designer “of a more speculative sort”. He has written a book on ‘The Toaster Project’, and more information is available here


It takes a whole civilisation to build a toaster. Thomas wanted to build one from scratch – from the rocks and sludge of the earth, through to raw materials, through to the form of a toaster. He bought a toaster but was dismayed to find it contained 400 components and more than 100 materials. He broke it down to just 5: steel, copper, mica, plastic, and nickel.

For steel he took some lumps of iron oxide from a local abandoned mine. He tried studying metallurgy, but it didn’t suit his scale or level of equipment, so he instead smelted using an ancient method. It didn’t work, so he refined further using a method described by an online patent that used a microwave.

He took water from an old copper mine. As a mine is used, more minerals dissolve in the water, so this was concentrated enough to smelt the copper pins of the toaster.

To get mica he travelled to Scotland to chip away a fragment of mica. Mica is a very good insulator of electricity.

He wanted to make the body of the toaster out of plastic. Plastic usually comes from oil – he wanted to take a jug of crude oil from a rig, but he couldn’t get access to it. He tried using potato starch to make the plastic, but it was attacked by snails. He finally resolved to ‘mining’ a recycling plant. Once he got the plastic, he melted it, then shaped using a mold cut from an old tree trunk.

The resulting toaster looked crude. He plugged it in once for 5 seconds, but the wire was uninsulated and the element melted itself. Nonetheless, he considers it a partial success.


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