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How to make a toaster

Toasters might be as cheap as chips but how difficult is it to make one yourself? One artist decided to find out – and discovered the complex journey behind the appliances we take for granted. By Simon Usborne

Wednesday 05 August 2009 00:00 BST

Like most toast fans, Thomas Thwaites had never paused to consider the little white box in the corner of his kitchen. But if he looked inside the most mundane denizen of the worktop, what would he find beyond the crumbs? It was a question that had tickled the art student since he read Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. When the hapless antihero, Arthur Dent, crash-lands on a planet in inhabited by primitive people, he lacks the skills required to re-create his modern world. "Left to his own devices he couldn't build a toaster," Adams writes. "He could just about make a sandwich and that was it."

Fascinated by the scenario and what he calls "a remarkable lack of knowledge about the basic technologies that underpin our modern existence" Thwaites set out to achieve what the fictional character could not: make a toaster. What Thwaites didn't know was that his end-of-year art project would take nine months, involve travelling 2,000 miles to some of the remotest corners of Britain, cost almost £1,200 and destroy three microwaves. Would it work?

The deconstruction

A toaster makes toast, but what makes a toaster? To find out, Thwaites bought one for £3.94 at Argos and attacked it with a screwdriver. From the copper threads in the wires, to the element and the screws that hold it all together, Thwaites identified and separated an astonishing 404 parts made from at least 36 different materials. "How could something with this much in it cost the same as a slab of cheese?" he asks.

Undaunted by the scale of his task, Thwaites created some rules to govern his bid to expose a society that churns out high technology as disposable, almost inconsequential products: His toaster would have to look and work like the one from Argos; he would do everything himself; and, most crucially, make his toaster from scratch – and that meant sourcing raw materials.

Balls of steel

A crash course in smelting came from a 15th-century book unearthed at the Science Museum's library. Then came a call to Thwaites's local iron mine – Clearwell Caves in Gloucestershire. "I asked a chap called Ray if I could come and mine some iron ore because I want to make a toaster," Thwaites recalls. "He was totally fine with it but when I turned up expecting to be handed a pickaxe and some dynamite, it turned out Ray had heard 'poster' instead of 'toaster', which would have made more sense for an art student."

Thwaites begged Ray for some rocks from a display case (Clearwell is all but a museum today) and carted them to his South-east London flat. Armed with an ornamental chimney pot packed into an insulated metal dustbin and a leaf blower, Thwaites knocked up a DIY blast furnace. By feeding it with coke, iron ore, air, and a lot of heat, he hoped to make molten metal. Generating the heat wasn't a problem – Thwaites' thermometer read 1,206° when it broke – but the resulting lump didn't look promising: "It tasted like metal and was magnetic but when I tried to shape it with a blow torch and a hammer, it shattered."

His furnace destroyed, Thwaites resorted to using a less traditional smelting process. By loading his iron ore and a reducing agent into a microwave whacked up to full power, Thwaites created a piece of iron the size of a 10p coin. Countless repetitions and three knackered microwaves later, he had enough steel to make the frame of the grill and the lever for popping up the toast.

Mining plastic

As every schoolboy knows – and Thwaites comes to the table with an A in GCSE double science – plastic is made from crude oil. And crude oil can be found in the North Sea. So Thwaites asked BP if he could go to a rig to collect a jug of the black stuff. While he waited for a response, Thwaites needed to find a way to treat his oil under pressure. "I needed to create 200 psi, but most pressure cookers seem to go up to about 15 psi, unless you block the safety valve," Thwaites says. "It's one thing taking your microwave up to 1,500°C, but it seems foolhardy to make what is essentially a bomb."

A firm "no way" from BP ("they could only supply a whole tanker") ruled out life-threatening pressure cooker action. Fortunately, oil isn't the only source of plastic – it turns out potatoes will do the job. Armed with a recipe for starch bioplastic, Thwaites blended raw potatoes and cooked the drained results with vinegar and glycerine (a thickening agent) to create what he describes as "a pot of snot". Thwaites poured the unlikely mixture into a mould carved from a tree felled in his local park. But when it came to cracking open his mould, Thwaites found only a flaky mess that went off before disintegrating.

More lateral thinking led Thwaites to a fly tip near his home in Lewisham, where he set about "mining" plastic. In minutes he had found the "feedstock" he needed – a yellowing baby seat and a plastic tub. He chopped them up and heated the chips in a hot-oil bain-marie until the plastic could be poured into his mould. A few minutes later, he had a toaster case and an electrical plug that looked a bit like ice cream but, he hoped, would do the job.

Copper and nickel

His hunt for copper to make the wires and the pins for his plug led Thwaites to Anglesey in North Wales. He travelled to a mine shaft to collect water rich in minerals, including traces of copper. He collected gallons of water, transporting it home in water cooler bottles. He then set about extracting the copper by electrolysis which involved, alarmingly, sticking metal rods into his bottles and wiring them up to the mains. But it worked, and Thwaites had copper. He used a cuttlefish to carve a mould and made his plug pins, which bear the imprint of fish bones.

Nickel was crucial for the heating element – it has a very high resistance to heat and electricity – but was harder to source. The nearest mine he could find was in Siberia. Almost ready to give up – again – Thwaites discovered that the Canadian mint had issued a special run of 25-cent coins made of nickel. Risking the wrath of the Mounties – Canadian law forbids melting down legal tender – Thwaites bought some on eBay and turned them into cable. Finally, he needed some sheets of mica, around which he would wrap his nickel element. This involved a 24-hour journey to Scotland's Knoydart peninsula, where he hacked his mica out of rock with a penknife.

Powering up

After months in which he had become an amateur miner, smelter and metallurgist, Thwaites had lovingly crafted 28 parts – some way short of the 404 found in his Argos model, but hopefully enough to make toast. "It didn't have a timer, spring, or a cancel button," Thwaites says. "But, unlike the Argos toaster, it did have a crumb tray." First he assembled his parts and displayed his work at the RCA's end of year exhibition, where his tutors were suitably impressed. But passing the year was easy – making toast would be another matter.

Thwaites was invited to show his toaster at a design institute in Rotterdam. It would be the first time his project would be powered up. "I started getting a bit concerned about the health and safety implications," says Thwaites, the man who microwaved steel. "I spent hours earthing the thing to make sure it wouldn't electrocute me or the audience." Thwaites then loaded his toaster with bread and flicked the switch. "It worked for approximately half a second," he recalls. "It was encouraging in that the bit that got hot was meant to get hot – the element – it just got too hot too quickly and melted. I examined the bread for the faintest signs of crispness but I couldn't find any. My toaster toasted itself rather than the bread."

Thwaites could consign his extraordinary creation to the scrapheap and enjoy a well-earned holiday. But he won't give up and has asked Kew Gardens for permission to tap their rubber trees for insulation for his wiring. ("They didn't seem keen.") Soon he'll repair his fried element and take his toaster to America, where mains electricity runs at a less-terrifying 110 volts compared to our 240. "It sounds cheesy, but I have a new respect for the cheap, throwaway gadgets we rely on," he says. "But I won't be satisfied until I'm making toast with my own toaster."

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