Making a toaster from scratch, mining the raw materials

Wagner James Au sez, "There's probably easier ways to illustrate our disconnect from the consumer products around us, but none this crazy:"
Thomas Thwaites is trying to make an electric toaster, from scratch. Beginning with mining the raw materials. And yes, that means extracting oil to make plastic and even processing his own copper (to make the pins of the electric plug, the cord, and internal wires), iron (for the steel grilling apparatus, and the spring to pop up the toast), mica (around which the heating element is wound) and nickel (for the heating elements!)...

The only known deposit of Nickel in the UK has long since been exhausted. In Finland however exploitation of a huge deposit has begun. I'd very much like to go and bring back a lump of nickel ore from this remote industrial area, and make it in to an element for my toaster. I'm also trying to negotiate a helicopter ride to an oil rig in the North Sea to collect some oil from which I would try (and certainly fail) to make plastic.

The Toaster Project (Thanks, James!)


  1. Experiments of this type are fun, but this one (like most) are fairly arbitrary. Microwave oven smelting? Helicopter rides to mines on the continent? Offshore oil rigs?

    If the purpose is to show the disconnect between the individual an the technology being used, then I suggest the individual make a greater effort to disconnect himself from all the other ancillary (and far more technological) innovations that he is surrounded by.

    Suggestions: barter for nickel ore on the island, smelt in a ceramic crucible using coal and forced air, isolate oil from a plant such as soybeans in your plastics attempts. Better yet, use wood or metal, both far more reasonable materials for an experiment of this sort.

  2. So the total cost of the toaster in time, real currency, and carbon offset? While interesting, it seems irresponsible. How about the bent coat hanger over an electric coil, a la Elwood Blues?

  3. This is WONDERFUL. Arbitrary? Irrelevant. I used to wonder what would happen if you wanted to make a pencil from scratch. How would you mine the, er… black stuff (leading to the question, what _is_ the black stuff? Not lead, surely, even though it’s called “lead” pencil, sometimes.) How would you mine the graphite? What if you had to make the machines for mining graphite?

    Would the project eventually involve EVERYONE IN THE WORLD, including the person who wrote the insurance contract to enable the lubricant manufacturer to grease the axles of the truck that delivered the spare parts to run the mining machine?

    Wow, this makes me want to pick something totally arbitrary and attempt to make it from scratch.

  4. He must, of course, find some way to generate his own electricity to power the thing once he’s built it. And only use home-baked bread…
    But I utterly fail to see how this supposedly “illustrates our disconnect to our consumer products”. Quite on the contrary, it shows how intrensly connected and dependant on each other we are in a myriad of ways, from the oil rig driller to the local toaster salesman.
    Do not misinterpet this experiment. If the object of this exercise was for a man to reach the end result of toast, then he could just grill it over an open fire.
    And, of course, the net carbon footprint per toaster is much smaller when you mass-produce than when you build the same stuff individually.

  5. I agree with number 5, this is a wonderful task to undertake…absolutely in keeping with the best British eccentric tinkerer tradition. Wallace and Gromit would be proud.

  6. #6:
    “But I utterly fail to see how this supposedly “illustrates our disconnect to our consumer products””

    When man first used tools, he made them largely by himself. A good branch and some sinew, and you have a bow. The parts were all found within a few miles of home. That’s the “connection” the author is referring to.

    Now, we buy tools made by robots (which were themselves built by other robots) using materials from every corner of the globe. A man’s personal involvement in the creation of the tools he uses is now nonexistent.

    You’re absolutely right that the modern method of production requires an intensely connected network of businesses — you’re just looking at a different aspect of “connectedness” than the author.

  7. I’ve been to an old graphite mine in New Hampshire where you could easily pick up enough of the stuff to make a pencil or ten out of. Or you could make some charcoal pretty easily and use that instead.

    Of course equivalent goods in ancient cultures weren’t made from scratch by single individuals any more than they are today. Division of labor has been around for all of recorded history and trade even earlier than that.

  8. A cool project, and it definitely does illustrate something. But I agree with #6 about what it’s actually illustrating. Probably hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world have unconsciously collaborated to offer you a toaster for *several orders of magnitude* less expense and effort than it would take you to make “from scratch” yourself, and, as #1 points out, this guy is even cheating! Big time!

    This will probably be an unpopular thing to say around here, but I think what it really illustrates is the awesome power to improve lives of the free market.

  9. On a practical note, why use plastic at all? A good many toasters were produced before the advent of plastic.

  10. Say you transported a bunch of smart, determined people to a planet exactly like Earth, but gave them no tools or resources aside from what they found on that planet. Lord of the Flies / Mad Max scenarios aside, how long would it take them to build a hammer? A computer?

  11. It’s less about a detail being nitpickey and more about the overviews to me. Though obsessive detail can be nice too. There were several SF writers who used the plot McGuffin of a single person recreating technology from their memories and skills unassisted. Or taking a low tech situation up to Starships. The SCA folks have been evolving subelements applying Serious Compulsive Accuracy to newer tech. Envision an organized attempt to recreate a Bessemer process steel town.

    Which is enticingly in line with this toaster project. Though a home process for making Bakelite would foster a new wave of “Faux Art Deco” artifacts…

  12. The installation re-creates the first attempt by the designer to melt mineral and turn it into iron using hair dryers. He later tried with a leaf blower and then used his mother’s microwave and china to finally obtain iron.

    I know a certain conceptual artist who’s going to be in big trouble when his mum gets home!

  13. @#14- Let’s see…if you’re not too picky about what constitutes a hammer, I’m going to go with about thirty seconds after they find the first good-sized rocks for that one.
    As for the computer…it’s probably going to be more than one lifetime before they need more than an abacus. Best to sketch out the principles so their descendents have a head start and leave it at that.

  14. I don’t think it’s really irresponsible from an
    environmental perspective because it’s one man
    making one toaster.

    What’s much worse is that so many toasters and other
    appliances will be thrown in the garbage instead
    of repaired.

    It’s a really interesting project. I think I’d skip
    the plastic making, though, since plastic is more suited to mass production. I’m sure a reasonable substitute for it could be found.

  15. He needs to make plastic because the toaster Argos sells, which he is trying to replicate, contains plastic. That condition unfortunately rules out his making a steampunk toaster.

  16. Even though a lot has happened in the past 50 years we’re not that far away from the days when people did a lot more themselves. A lot of people still do.

    I was on a sled ride (strangely enough, drawn by a horse) this weekend and heard my father in law and another fellow talking about the old days, and how any spare parts they needed for tools, carriages and later cars had to be hand-forged. There was no parts store back then.

    My mother grew up in a sod hut my grandparents built in Manitoba during the second world war. You might imagine a dank cave, but it looked just like a modern mobile home.

    I know turning our inter-connected world back to a bygone era would be near-impossible, but it’s ridiculous to think we are slaves to our technology and cannot make choices to do things more simply.

    My point is we-re not talking about caveman days; Even in developed countries there are people who have these low tech skills. If we’re concerned it’s up to us to turn off the computer and go learn some of them, or at least stop complaining about it.

  17. I re-read my post.
    Sorry if it came out kind of bitchy. I wasn’t directing it at the experiment, nor at any of the posters, just at the silly fatalism we seem to have sometimes about our society.
    I actually think the project is an interesting, if impossible, exercise.

  18. However, part of making something from scratch is being sensible about the materials already at hand. If he made a circa 1910-1920 toaster, or earlier, he wouldn’t need to make plastic

  19. You can make plastic out of skim milk. People have been using it in buttons and combs since the middle ages (or viking era, in my part of the world).

    Oh, somebody already mentioned latex from soy. But it hardens incredibly slow without access to some rather hard to make chemicals.

    Most plastics are rather flammable without addition of some kind of flame retardant.

  20. @#9:

    I’ve made a solar oven, and made much food in it, but I don’t think it would work for toast.

    To me this seems like a delightful undertaking, even if he can’t articulate exactly what he hopes to show before he’s done it, and even if it is impossible. Seems like the discovery would be in the journey. Best of luck to him!

  21. There’s a simpler way to make a toaster:
    Get some sticks and wood
    Build a fire with most of this
    use a remaining stick to spear the bread and hold it in the heat

  22. Smelting the copper? $$$$
    Mining the ore? $$$$
    A helicopter trip to a oil platform? $$$$$$$$$$$$$

    And you wonder how the US government could spend $400 on a coffee pot? Maybe they made it from scratch…!

  23. He’s going about it all wrong. all he needs to do is built a fabber from scratch, and then fab the parts from his fabber. A toaster just gives you toast. A fabber gives you everything.

  24. Thomas Thwaites is trying to make an electric toaster, from scratch.

    Wait, he’s using a microwave??? Is that what they call “scratch” these days?

    I’m starting to think he needs to build all the tools that he will use to build the toast. And if he’s taking a helicopter to an oilrig, well, he ought to build his own helicopter, learn how to fly it, and drill his own oil well.

  25. I know a lot of people are like “WTF? why?”, but I LOVE this concept! I often dream of living off the grid, and eventually mining and hammering enough stuff together to build a water-wheel powered pulley workshop in a stone room, all from raw materials, and continue the chain upwards with handmade tools, making better tools, and using those to build precision machine tools.

    It’s not so far removed from antique/restoration watchmaking. Watchmakers 100 years ago, and still now, used to take raw metals, and build their own tools. I don’t mean hammers, I mean really precision items, like fusee engines and wheel-pinion cutters, out of hand filing brass blocks for years.

    This concept is deeply inspiring to me, and I’d love to see it somehow coalesced into a full-time blog, complete with instructables-like steps saying how they did it. Bravo!

  26. Blobs of oil wash up on shore many places. Ah, brings back childhood memories of the Santa Monica beach. But might be easier to make plastic from other sources than oil. Shellac maybe? Just need a bunch of bugs and booze.

    Nickel itself won’t make a heating element. Need chromium too. Nickel is more conductive and lower melting point than iron. Even easier for a heating element would be something Edison made some money doing: graphite fibers made from burned stuff (bamboo for instance).

  27. but if you lose the ability to re-make your tech from the flint tool to LSIC’s, how would you get rid of Curious Yellow?

  28. Here’s a relevant story:

    Tom Sukanen, a Finnish immigrant to Canada, decided during the depression he wanted to return home.

    Instead of buying a ticket home he decided to build his own ocean vessel, even though he was in southern Saksatchewan. The nearest water with a draught deep enough to accomodate his ship was thousands of kilometers away.

    Strangely enough, he rowed to Hudson Bay, got a job on a ship to Finland, went home and then came back to Saskatchewan to start work on his project.

    He worked on the ship for six years, but was eventually committed and died in an asylum. Even so people are astounded by the precision in the ship’s hull which he beat by hand from plate steel, and painted with horse blood.

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