The man who made his own toaster

I spent the weekend at the Aspen Environmental Forums, and one of the presenters I got to see there as Thomas Thwaites—a man who built a toaster from scratch. As a project for his design degree, Thwaites reverse-engineered a cheap toaster from the British equivalent of Wal-Mart and used it as a blueprint to build his own. The catch: Thwaites made everything that went into the toaster. He mined the metal. He drew out the wires on jewelry-making equipment. He even found a way to make the plastic casing.

The point of this project wasn't to suggest that everybody ought to be capable of DIY-ing up their own toaster. (Really, if you wanted toast in a post-apocalyptic world, you'd really just be better off with an old-fashioned, pre-electric toaster, which held bread in a metal grille so you could toast it over the fire). Rather, Thwaites was trying shine a light on how much we rely on other people, on their skill sets that we don't necessarily share, and on centuries of technological advance. It takes a village to make a toaster. Or, rather, in this modern world, it takes lots of villages, all over the planet.

Thwaites' project was also an interesting perspective on industrialization. There are drawbacks to producing goods this way. But there are benefits, too. And when we have the necessary conversations about how to make our world more sustainable, we need to consider both sides of the coin ... and how we can get the benefits for less risk.

Cory wrote about this project back in 2009, when it was still a work in progress. The video above provides a short summary of the entire Toaster Project, including an amazing shot of the finished product which did (very briefly) work.

Video Link

Thanks to Matt Blind for the YouTube link!


  1. There was a TED talk recently (I forget whose, sorry) that touched on a similar concept, except with using a computer mouse as the example. The punchline being that literally no one knows how to make one from scratch, despite being a relatively simple thing as modern gadgets go. In order for such a thing to exist, you need a global network involving literally millions of people, none of them knowing more than a fraction of the total process.

    And that it’s easy to forget how much efficiency these networks (or capitalism, in other words) provide, even for things you could theoretically do yourself. Like how it takes a fraction of a second for the average person to earn enough money to pay for an hour’s worth of artificial light, while in past eras it could have taken hours.

    1. I guess that means technological artifacts have become emergent – they arise from interactions of our institutions and systems, but nobody creates them.

    2. The punchline being that literally no one knows how to make one from scratch,

      Except that’s not true.  “Literally” not true.  I know several people, including myself, who could do this.  From base principles if necessary; building a voltmeter from rocks and bearskins.

      I do not know anyone who could it alone.  Someone would have to hunt and gather while I was chipping the blade to make the palstave to cut the limb to make the tiller to revolve the stone to shape the grinder to powder the ore to etc. etc. etc.  Knowledge is not the issue at all – it’s labor. Division of labor is critical, because the visionaries and librarians are not necessarily the strongmen who rule the tribe.

      1. Good point.  Understanding how is not so much of the issue.  It reminds me of the game “Age of Empires”.  You’ve played the games enough times to know exactly what needs to be done, but you begin with just a small number of men and material.  From there you have to build your essential infrastructure.  Once your basic is up and running efficiently, only then can you build the next layer, and then the next.  But regardless of your skill or ability, there is a hard limit to how fast you can advance.  Imagine how many layers of logistics, technology, facilities, knowledge, man-hours, etc. you need to produce just one micro-controller.  Given how many of our everyday items cannot function or be produced without microchips involved in one or more steps along the way, it’s scary to consider how long it would take to rebuild from a global catastrophic event that shut down our ability to transport material over 100 miles for say about a year or so.

        1. “…it’s scary to consider how long it would take to rebuild from a global catastrophic event…”

          I spend a lot of time thinking about this. What knowledge would we wish we had saved if civilization fell?  How much could we preserve if we collected all and only the most important knowledge and made long-lasting copies distributed throughout the world? What should we load onto this ark, how much room can we afford, how many copies can we make, how long can they be preserved?

          Some of the top things I think need to be collected and preserved:

          Agriculture and animal husbandry, with particular attention to soil and water management, appropriate technology from digging sticks to combine harvesters, as well as storage, milling and other processing. This is the most important subject – without food, nothing else can happen.

          Languages – a picture dictionary for the base vocabulary  in the top languages, plus a comprehensive dictionary with definitions that bottom out in words from the base vocabulary, and self-playing recordings of the phonetic alphabet (string phonograph recordings with a built-in player), plus translation lists for a few thousand words in each of the top thousand languages, including all the dead languages which are known.

          Mathematics – built from pictures on up in a self-contained manner, focusing first on concrete and applied math as illustrations of more general principles. “Dictionaries” for translating between different mathematical dialects.

          Physics – integrated with the mathematics curriculum, presented in a uniform mathematical dialect. Emphasis on EM and materials science rather than cutting-edge theory.

          Chemistry – beyond the basics into heavy chemical engineering, mapping out the dependencies, alternate paths, and pitfalls of synthesizing and using the most economically important compounds. All the data on the principal properties of compounds that we have, similar to an expanded version of the CRC handbook

          Geography- as much of it as will fit, with a particular emphasis on locations of ores, winds and currents, and biological resources.

          Geology – emphasizing economically important ores and other resources, field identification and labwork, but also stratigraphy and both uniform processes and catastrophic events.

          Astronomy – orbital elements of the top few thousand objects in the solar system with special attention to the long-term, data on the compositions and forms of the planets,  the proper motions and spectra of the nearest and brightest few thousand stars with additional data on nearby galaxies, quasars, pulsars and variable stars, information on the structure of the Milky Way and galactic clusters.

          Logistics and project management- crucial, but I don’t know enough about it to say anything. Accounting, economics, operations research

          Manufacturing processes – starting from rocks, ending with microchips and jet engines. This will take a large fraction of the whole library. Getting some of the practical information will be difficult, much is trade secrets and implicit knowledge.  Detailed designs and processes for making crucial machines at a variety of technological levels are needed. Knowing what has been tried and found not to work will also be valuable.

          History, anthropology, archaeology – an amount similar to or greater than that on languages.

          Biology and medicine – too much in these areas to include everything. Most detailed biochemistry that does not have current applications will have to be left out. Emphasis on species identification, ranges and behaviors, microbiology, disease diagnosis, pharmaceuticals, surgical procedures, other treatments, both human and veterinary.

          Culture – plays, novels, tales, myths, legends…

          This is just scratching the surface, a sketch of an outline of the table of contents. Such a project will need thousands of people working for decades, maybe even centuries. Perhaps Wikipedia could serve as a nucleus for this more focused, detailed, permanent and expensive work.
          Though it needs so much time, effort and cost, I think it will be the best thing we can do for the future.

      2. Pardon me, but no you don’t. Understanding the underlying physical principles and actually knowing the process behind every single component in an actual product are extremely different things. How much do you know about, for example, oil drilling? Because you need to know everything there is to know about oil drilling if you claim to know how to make from scratch something that contains plastic. And so forth.

        1. Not necessarily.  Oil bubbles to the surface in some areas.  I sort of make a hobby of learning how to do things from basic principles.  Granted it would be (and is) an absurd amount of effort to produce a single technological artifact, but there’s no better way to really understand what goes into making something than doing it yourself.  I don’t go out and mine my own ore, mostly simply due to the expense of the undertaking.  It really sort of makes me sad that in our current age, it’s often much cheaper to buy a very complex finished  item and have it shipped halfway around the world than it is to simply obtain one of the raw materials for a part of it from someplace much nearer.  Obviously mechanics of scale and all that.  But I still enjoy doing things like building a foundry furnace from scavenged materials, constructing wooden patterns, and sand-casting aluminum parts for a small metal lathe, building a bandsaw out of wood (except for the blade, bearings, and motor, of course), learning to mix concrete and lay block to build an earth-sheltered greenhouse, teaching myself how to design, frame, side, roof, and wire a garage, and so on.  Some people collect “things”.  I guess I collect skills.  It’s very rewarding, which is why I grinned like an idiot through this guy’s entire presentation.  He’s my kind of crazy.  XD

          1. building a bandsaw out of wood

            Just as long as you never ask, in that perfectly Murphy-tempting way Jeremy Clarkson has, what could possibly go wrong… ;)

        2. you need to know everything there is to knowbout oil drilling if you claim to know how to make from scratch something that contains plastic

          That depends on the plastic. Celluloid or bakelite could be made without oil.

    3. A scarier thought is that most people also have no clue when it comes to basic survival.  Like, how to get clean water, make a shelter, find food, make tools, render first aid and generally get by.  

  2. I just don’t get it.  

    This project seems to be a huge waste of time.  Do you actually have to try this to either understand or prove  “it takes a village to make a toaster”?  I can think of 1000 other ways I’d rather waste my time and I do!

      1. Or maybe to cultivate an appreciation for toast that goes far beyond what the rest of us can even imagine!

    1.  That’s why there’s an article on Boing Boing about Thomas Thwaites’ project and not one about yours.

    2. Bah.
      Clearly it DOESN’T take a village to make a toaster. This gentleman has just done so on his own.
      The conclusion is that it doesn’t take a village to make a toaster, we simply choose to use a village (or villages) in the making of our toaster(s).
      What do they teach in the schools these days?

  3. We have a few of those pre-electric toasters at our cottage, they work just fine too except I expect the toast is a bit more carcinogenic than most modern toasters would provide you. 

    It’s great having a cottage way off the grid and it helps keep perspective to properly appreciate advancement. No one should ever -not- go without in a first world country.

    1. Yea u still need the metal and wiring for it. He made all that himself, going
      To mines for the ingredients. Just interviewed thomas a week ago. Cool guy.

  4. This was a nice idea, but this guy is no maker…

    I’d be interested to see this attempted by someone with some skillz.

    1. David Gingery has a series of books that describe how to make machine tools using no machine tools. From what I understand, it takes a few years to build up to making a useful machine tool, since each thing you make is needed to make the next thing that’s more accurate and bigger.

      Similarly, one could describe the process to go from mined ore to a toaster that has some hope of actually looking good and working properly. It would take a person more than 9 months to master the necessary skill set. More like 9 years.

      1. Since he was using stuff like a chisel and a leaf-blower and so on, I assumed a kind of post-apocalyptic at worst availability of tools to work with.

        Pretty sure the object here was to do only the toaster from scratch.

        On that basis, I reiterate that many could do a much better job…

        Cheers for the tip, I’ll look up David Gingery : )

  5. An interesting concept, but as stated, this guy is no maker and seemed to come up ith some absurd methods … why go to so much trouble to cast a plastic casing in a single piece? cast in 2 or 3 pieces and ‘glue’ together with more plastic would be much simpler.

    1. But it’s part of the point, isn’t it? I do not believe there’s much exaggeration in the ‘Castaway’ scene when Hanks’ character tries to make fire. It’s the fact many of us aren’t makers and take such items and far more complex ones completely for granted and probably could not live without them…

    2. It wasnt about making a toaster or something that toasts bread. It was about
      Trying to understand what work would go into making a very similar model
      To the cheap under 5pound toaster he bought from a store round the corner.

  6. Really, if you wanted toast in a post-apocalyptic world, you’d really just be better off with an old-fashioned, pre-electric toaster, which held bread in a metal grille so you could toast it over the fire

    Pure decadence. A toasting fork is more than sufficient. You can even make your own from a stick.

    1. We had a wire frame toaster and a wire basket popcorn popper when I was a lad.

        1. No churn, but we did have a treadle blade sharpener and bellows for the fireplace.

          1. Oh yeah I remember those things!  My neighbor had an old exercise bike retrofitted with a huge grinding wheel, and I used to use that thing GLADLY to sharpen my axes.  That thing was money.  Really did the job nicely, much better than the shower of sparks from the tiny grinders with fast motors you buy at Home Depot nowadays.

  7. Reminds me of the SNL Christmas sketch with Paul Simon and Victoria Jackson where they are stranded on an island. His gifts to her are just some shells and leaves he found but her gifts to him are things like a luxury watch and an exotic motorcycle that she has elaborately crafted from the rawest of raw materials on the island.

  8. In a post-apocalyptic world, toast would be an immeasurable luxury.  We’d all be a lot more concerned about shelter, disease, and any sort of food would be welcome.  This guy is a weird hipster DIY hound who is oddly trying to highlight the gulf between technology and know-how.  Something the economist Leonard Read did much more elegantly long ago with I, Pencil, pointing out that no individual person has the full knowledge needed to create such a prosaic item as the pencil:
    The proliferation of TED conferences is leading to videos like that.

    1. Eeexcellent. I have started laying in supplies for my post-apocalypse Toastorium, including an impregnable vault in the back, where I will spend my evenings juggling the goose egg-sized lumps of gold I have traded for a few loaves of toast.

  9.   I don’t know if it was ment as such, but this is some of the best experimental archeology I’ve seen lately.  If I had to build, say, a perfect period Spanish galleon with only period tools, I love to have this guy around.  Excellent project.

  10.  The thing that struck me was that it really wasn’t about the toaster, but why a build a modern toaster (just for comparison I guess) a more classicly styled toaster should be easier to build.

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