written by:
October 24, 2011

One of the most exciting books to come across my desk in the last while is designer Thomas Thwaites' incredible The Toaster Project: Or a Heroic Attempt to Build a Simple Electric Appliance from Scratch. In it Thwaites recounts his efforts to source and collect the materials necessary to make a toaster (and we're talking about extracting bits of mica and steel from the earth here), and then build the thing. The result is a hilarious, wonderfully wrought account of how hard it is to really make anything from scratch, much less an electronic device. I asked Thwaites a few questions about the book whilst he was in transit to the Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine. His answers were revealing. His book is even better.

Here's what you need to construct your average toaster. One of Thwaites' first conundrums was how much he could leave out.
Here's what you need to construct your average toaster. One of Thwaites' first conundrums was how much he could leave out.
Courtesy of 
Copyright:
2 / 4
Our man on the hunt for mica.
Our man on the hunt for mica.
Courtesy of 
3 / 4
Perhaps the most incredible image in the book: the toaster Thwaites built on a department store shelf alongside the commercially made models. Note the disparity in price.
Perhaps the most incredible image in the book: the toaster Thwaites built on a department store shelf alongside the commercially made models. Note the disparity in price.
Courtesy of 
4 / 4
ToasterProject cover 4

Can you parse for me what your definition of "made from scratch" means? Having been through the process of making a toaster now from scratch, would you amend that definition at all?
I think I adjusted my definition of "from scratch" several times in the project! So the apple pie recipe of Carl Sagan begins: "To make an apple pie from scratch, first create your universe...," this first step is fortunately not within my power. So I decided that from scratch in this case would mean that I would have to go to the "ultimate" source (at least in geological time) of all the materials in toasters, that is, holes in the ground. I also thought that making it myself would mean that I would have to transform the rocks and sludge myself, using only tools that were available in pre-industrial times. Well, I began by getting a train to an iron mine, so that immediately caused that definition to be, um, revised. And in the end, I ended up using plastic "mined" from a rubbish dump. In having to break my own "rules" about what from scratch meant, I think I realized how inter-reliant everyone is. There is no from scratch, for anything. Even if I had managed to walk to the mines, dig everything up myself, and process it in entirely pre-industrial ways, well, I was using knowledge from Wikipedia and text books. Would I have had to have done the whole project when I was a toddler to really make a toaster from scratch?
Why a toaster?
A toaster, like no other object, says "progress"; additional modicums of convenience at ever lower prices.  The early electricity companies developed toasters in the early 1900s to stimulate domestic demand for electricity, as they weren't selling enough power in the mornings and evenings (in fact 1909 is considered by those in the know to be the centenary of the first commercially successful toaster).  So 100 years on and toasters are remarkably cheap and mundane, our lives are filled with convenience (which is nice—I appreciate not having to light a fire every morning for a start), but perhaps the realization is growing that convenience and price aren't all there is to it.

Here's what you need to construct your average toaster. One of Thwaites' first conundrums was how much he could leave out.
Here's what you need to construct your average toaster. One of Thwaites' first conundrums was how much he could leave out.

Considering it cost you some 1200 pounds to make yours, have you sorted out how a department store can sell one for as little as five pounds? How would you bring the cost of your toaster down if you were to make one again?
Ha! Perhaps go in to production and make 10,000 at once!
Which materials you sought out was the hardest to work with or the hardest to source?
Steel, which I had assumed wouldn't be too hard given the fact that it's ubiquitous in our civilization, I thought would be within my means—that the methods and techniques for making it would be so refined and available. However, not on the scale at which I was working... In fact, even Iron, a sort of pre-cursor to Steel, proved extremely difficult... Thus I wasn't even able to make a spring to make a pop up toaster.
Our man on the hunt for mica.
Our man on the hunt for mica.

Any plans to make another common appliance? An eggbeater maybe?
Well, weirdly, I was contacted by a TV production company asking much the same question. And so I am currently making a short TV series, where I will be attempting to make: a lightbulb, a hover mower, and a pair of trainers... We'll see how it turns out.
Perhaps the most incredible image in the book: the toaster Thwaites built on a department store shelf alongside the commercially made models. Note the disparity in price.
Perhaps the most incredible image in the book: the toaster Thwaites built on a department store shelf alongside the commercially made models. Note the disparity in price.

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

content delzresidence 013 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 29, 2016
abc malacari marwick stair 01 0
A simple set of stairs is a remodel’s backbone.
June 28, 2016
Design Award of Excellence winner Mellon Square.
Docomomo US announces the winners of this year's Modernism in America Awards. Each project showcases exemplary modern restoration techniques, practices, and ideas.
June 27, 2016
monogram dwell sf 039 1
After last year’s collaboration, we were excited to team up with Monogram again for the 2016 Monogram Modern Home Tour.
June 27, 2016
switch over chicago smart renovation penthouse deck smar green ball lamps quinze milan lounge furniture garapa hardwood
A strategic rewire enhances a spec house’s gut renovation.
June 26, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent coralie gourguechon treviso italy cphotos by coralie gourguechon co produced by isdat planche anatomique de haut parleur1
Coralie Gourguechon's paper objects will make you see technology in a whole new way.
June 26, 2016
green machine smart home aspen colorado facade yard bocci deck patio savant
Smart technology helps a house in Aspen, Colorado, stay on its sustainable course.
June 25, 2016
Compact Aglol 11 television plastic brionvega.
The aesthetic appeal of personal electronics has long fueled consumer interest. A new industrial design book celebrates devices that broke the mold.
June 25, 2016
modern backyard deck ipe wood
An angled deck transforms a backyard in Menlo Park, California, into a welcoming gathering spot.
June 24, 2016
dscf5485 1
Today, we kicked off this year’s annual Dwell on Design at the LA Convention Center, which will continue through Sunday, June 26th. Though we’ve been hosting this extensive event for years, this time around is particularly special.
June 24, 2016
under the radar renovation napa
Two designers restore a low-slung midcentury gem in Napa, California, by an unsung Bay Area modernist.
June 24, 2016
Exterior of Huneeus/Sugar Bowl Home.
San Francisco–based designer Maca Huneeus created her family’s weekend retreat near Lake Tahoe with a relaxed, sophisticated sensibility.
June 24, 2016
light and shadow bathroom walnut storage units corian counter vola faucet
A Toronto couple remodel their home with a special emphasis on a spacious kitchen and a material-rich bathroom.
June 24, 2016
Affordable home in Kansas City living room
In Kansas City, an architecture studio designs an adaptable house for a musician on a budget.
June 23, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment oak vertical slats office
By straightening angles, installing windows, and adding vertical accents, architect Aaron Ritenour brought light and order to an irregularly shaped apartment in the heart of Athens, Greece.
June 23, 2016
kitchen confidential tiles custom cabinetry oak veneer timber house
A modest kitchen addition to a couple’s cottage outside of Brisbane proves that one 376-square-foot room can revive an entire home.
June 23, 2016
feldman architecture 0
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 22, 2016
Blackened timber Dutch home
A modern dwelling replaces a fallen farmhouse.
June 22, 2016
hillcrest house interior kitchen 3
Seeking an escape from bustling city life, a Manhattan couple embarks on a renovation in the verdant Hudson Valley.
June 22, 2016
angular
Atelier Moderno renovated an old industrial building to create a luminous, modern home.
June 21, 2016
San Francisco floating home exterior
Anchored in a small San Francisco canal, this floating home takes its cues from a classic city habitat.
June 21, 2016
modern renovation addition solar powered scotland facade steel balcony
From the bones of a neglected farmstead in rural Scotland emerges a low-impact, solar-powered home that’s all about working with what was already there.
June 21, 2016
up in the air small space new zealand facade corrugated metal cladding
An architect with a taste for unconventional living spaces creates a small house at lofty heights with a starring view.
June 21, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent marjan van aubel london cwai ming ng current window
Marjan Van Aubel makes technology a little more natural.
June 21, 2016
urban pastoral brooklyn family home facade steel cypress double
Building on the site of a former one-car garage, an architect creates his family’s home in an evolving neighborhood of Brooklyn.
June 20, 2016
Modern Brooklyn backyard studio with plexiglass skylight, green roof, and cedar cladding facade
In a Brooklyn backyard, an off-duty architect builds a structure that tests his attention to the little things.
June 20, 2016
the outer limits paris prefab home living area vertigo lamp constance guisset gijs bakker strip tablemetal panels
In the suburbs of Paris, an architect with an eco-friendly practice doesn’t let tradition stand in the way of innovation.
June 20, 2016
amaroso40040
When a garage damaged by termites had to go, a studio emerges.
June 19, 2016
the blue lagoon iceland geothermal spa hotel water visitors
The famed geothermal spa outside Reykjavík, Iceland, is entering a major new phase—paving the way for the area’s first five-star hotel.
June 19, 2016
heaven on earth maya lin topography what is missing california academy sciences wood video
A new monograph by Rizzoli explores the memorial project by the renowned artist.
June 19, 2016