A short interview with Thomas Thwaites: The handmade toaster builder

Thomas Thwaites is trying to build a toaster from scratch, by hand, by himself. As I tried to explain in the previous post I think that this is just about the coolest art project ever. Luckily for us he thinks Shapeways is, “totally great, bringing on of the future!” and so he answered a few of my questions.

On the Toaster Project web page he details all of his challenges. He has videos of smelting iron ore in a leaf blower furnace and lots more on the project website. Everyone’s favorite video seems to be the one of him trying to smelt iron ore in a microwave. My personal favorite is the one of the Argos toaster that he is trying to ‘replicate.’ It is embedded below and fantastic.  

Argos Value Range 2 Slice Toaster from Thomas Thwaites on Vimeo.

 

He takes a simple cheap every day household item the “Argos Value Range 2 Slice Toaster” and bombards it with all the fetishism and bombast usually reserved for more ‘deserving’ things such as cars. It shows us that he is serious about his subject, his challenge. 

Joris: What was the most difficult thing to do so far?

Thomas: Making the iron (originally i was planning on making steel, but as iron
was so difficult i realised that steel for now, is well out of reach of
‘the common man’).  My first attempt at smelting in a furnace burning
coke melted the ore – and i think i refined it to some degree, but the
black hard, magnetic, metallic tasting lump that i got out at the end
wasn’t workable into toaster shapes.  I therefore resorted to the
microwave smelting – that took a lot of experimentation with different
times, crucibles, mixtures of coke and partially refined ore, etc.  I
got workable iron in the end though, but it was a long process.

Joris: Are you bored with mass production?

Thomas: I think mass production is quite amazing as a system, the look of most
products is quite boring… and
even highly ‘designed’ stuff by ‘designers’ I find a bit dull;  I went
into one of those
‘design’ shops in Rotterdam and was just quite bored by the kind of
witty takes on objects that it was filled with. I think the aesthetic
of ‘products’ needs to become a bit more raw – less smooth cases
covering everything. I also think that the authenticity of making
something yourself is extremely important.

Joris: What made you take on this project? People getting out of touch with technology and divorced from it because of its complexity?

Thomas: I was curious to see if I could do it, but I also wanted to add
something to the debate around the environmental/economic crisis  The
need to buy less stuff to protect the environment, and the ‘need’ to
buy more stuff to maintain the economy seem to be on a collision
course.  There’s a feeling in some circles that we should retreat to
self-sufficient ways of life – I wanted to investigate what this would
mean.

Joris: Could I buy your toaster?

Thomas: Yes, but it would cost A LOT more than the £3.94 ‘value’ version on which it was based!  It is after all, unique…

Congrats to Thomas for his now working toaster and this fantastic project! He is basically doing by himself for one thing what Shapeways, in due time, wants to do together with you for all things. I’m now off to convince my girlfriend that his toaster is a household appliance that we need. 

 

8 comments

  1. T. Shawn Johnson

    This project epitomizes a theme of thought I’ve been having lately: the fact that we really are not paying the proper price for things these days. Dollar stores are a prime example. Very little of what we buy in a dollar store is actually worth $1 or less. So how exactly are we paying so little for things that are worth so much more in materials, labour, shipping, and fuel? The answer is … we aren’t. We will pay later. And we have a lot to pay for.

    The making of this toaster from scratch illustrates this nicely.

    -Whystler

    1. Joris

      Good point. I didn’t even see the environmental angle initially just saw it as a “technology is so complex” thing.

    2. Walter Sharrow

      Actually, those products did cost much less the a dollar to make. That’s the wonderful thing about Capitalism, you get what you paid for. I think you’re thinking of Communism, where you get what the state says something is worth. That product would not be made, or even delivered, if it wasn’t worth less then a dollar. You don’t think people do this for fun, do you? That’s the “Fun” of mass production. The more you make, the less it costs.

      You should watch more shows like “How it’s Made” on the Science Channel. When you see the machines involved, the numbers that go through every second, you quickly understand how a pair of flipflops can cost less then a dollar.

      Also, as far as the cost of materials and the shortage of natural resources, that too factors in well with Capitalism. If the resources are scarce, they simply cost more. The cost ends up being pass on to the consumer, with higher prices. If the materials aren’t scarce, then the costs remain low.

      Free markets are very good at regulating things, unlike say, Socialist governments and heavy handed laws. It’s only when outside forces muck up the works that capitalism fails.

  2. Michael Williams

    I actually work for a supplier to some of the dollar stores. If we make it here in the US, we profit (after all loses) a fraction of a cent per item sold. If we make it in China we profit more. But at what cost? The countries that have sold us cheap stuff in the past, Japan: now they sell us over priced technology, Mexico: Is pointed more towards bigger industry, cars and such. We have made these other countries rich. Anyone see that China just bought a chunk of the Iraqi oil fields? So really, the things in the dollar store come from 2 directions. One is low profit per item, but high sales volume. The other is products that failed at their intended price. Pretty much liquidation. So as to not be at a complete lose. The problem with our economy is Big Corporations. Especially the energy based ones. Oil and Electric. Unlike the auto and technology fields we are addicted to Energy. So to save us money, and to save the environment we move off the grid. Solar, wind, water power. If we let the Energy companies do it for us, they still regulate the price. If we do it ourselves… The economy of many countries would fail. Why do you think the US isn’t pushing Hydrogen or Ethanol? I could go on and on, but to make a long story short. The world will see major reform in the upcoming years. Those of us that can make a toaster at home will survive. Those of us that need to hire someone to change a light bulb. Hope you got a lot of money to hire the rest of us.

    1. Walter Sharrow

      Most Hydrogen Gas is made Fossil Fuel, such as Natural Gas and Coal. You can get Hydrogen Gas from water, but only if you have electricity to start with, which kinda defeats the purpose. After all, you don’t get more power out of the Hydrogen then you do the power necessary to get it from water in the first place. Might as well just use Electrical power straight and skip the wasteful middle man. Electrical power is easy to store, transport, and use.

      As for Ethanol, it’s energy produced is still very small compared to Gasoline. It’s a good material, it just lacks the power. Maybe with some genetic engineering, that can be fixed. It’s really just another form of Solar power though, taking energy from the sun and the soil. To replace world wide need for power, you’d have to blanket the earth in sugarcane to produce enough power through Ethanol. Nothing like mass deforestation to fix the environment.

      Too bad Nuclear Power has such a bad rep, as it produces a remarkable amount of power with very little waste or environmental impact. Outside of two incidents, both involving huge blunders on the part of staff, it’s extremely safe. Newer Breeder Reactors can actually produce fuel. A truly sustainable, high-yield energy source, available now.

  3. Walter Sharrow

    It’s cute that he found a way to smelt iron in his microwave, but it doesn’t seem like he’s anywhere close to actually making a Toaster.

    Generally, I’m not too found of this new-agey, anti-industrial, suburban attitude that individual man should be an island on to himself, or that industry is the cause of the world’s problems. It’s ironic that the people that have benefited the most from the collaborative nature of society seem to be in the biggest rush to throw it all away because it’s not meeting their lofty, over-idealistic expectations fast enough.

    I’ve been on the minimalistic side of things. Reduce and Reuse. You know what that’s called? Poverty. When you’re poor, you reduce and reused EVERYTHING. I’ve worked hard to have more then I need, and I’m quite happy about it. But it seems like the wealthy suburbanites, whom have always been raised in the lap of luxury, are promoting poverty as a way of life. But I have yet to see them actually give up anything. They actually are spending more money on snake oil herbs, anything marked “Organic”, and flip-flops. It’s become just another marketing brand name. And I can’t say I’m a huge fan of this self-important, elitist, iPhone packing, Cappuccino drinking, pretentious cultural movement. It looks down on others and accomplishes nothing.

    We owe alot to our clean industrialized cultural, which gives us so much, we can afford to look down on it. The path to supporting alot of people isn’t one of self-reliance, but stable interdependency. We need each other more and more, not less. Living off the grid is for mountain hermits. I’ve seen it, it’s nothing you want to aspire to. I’ve been there, I’ve “Done That”. And it sucks more then you can imagine.

    You suburban lives might be boring and overly planned out, but they are good lives, and the envy of all of those who don’t have them. I know I won’t make any friends in the Left by saying this (sorry Joris), but I can not support this mindset at all.

    1. Joris Peels

      Walter,

      no problems I think it is a fair point. I sometimes lie in bed awake at night worrying about us destroying our earth but I also once bought two HP printers because they were cheaper than one printer and a single cartridge.

      There is a clear hypocrisy in a lot of environmental posturing. I also do not think that anyone can honestly deny the benefits of an industrialized society. But, I do think that Thomas’ project is sincere. Furthermore I do think that a lot of people have honest & real qualms about a society where everything is ‘single use.’

      A part of this is a reaction. I don’t think it is ironic at all that some of the people that have benefited the most from industrialization are its greatest detractors, I think it is logical. The greater experience of excess the greater one’s reflexive (perhaps unrealized) guilt. The biggest anti-smoker is almost always a reformed smoker, the most macho is often the most insecure. Some will confront themselves with it but most will just react.

      Is it any more fair lets say than a post second world war generation, having been raised in the security and wealth of the rebuilding of continents and without the horrors and deprivations of the war, rebelling against the generation that suffered for their freedoms and prosperity?

      I agree that “stable interdependency” is a much more workable solution in the long run. But, I think that this is precisely what the toaster project demonstrates.

      Daydreams of Thoreau have been wisps in idle minds from the moment of the discovery of nature. Some have been heartfelt others an escape from responsibility. But, this in and of itself is significant. We at one point invented the idea of nature once we had transformed a portion of the sum total of everything into such sooty jumble that we must consider what we had touched to be so significantly different from what we had not touched that we must indeed invent new terms, words and feelings for both.

      Ever since this moment of widespread definition some have had a feeling of unease, queasiness and worry about the world all of a sudden becoming to distinctly divergent parts and paths. The unheimliche with regards to the split of our one planet into two.

      And yes I agree fully that most of us would not be alive, healthy and in any position to idly debate the state of this one earth without the advanced of the modern industrialized society. I also agree completely that poverty should not be an aspiration.

      The surest way to the moral high ground in any argument though is to not care or pretend not to care about these worldly possessions that cause so much fret to those not as motivated to win the argument. This rhetorical device is tried and tested.

      And there is something innately perverse to throwing consumerism at the problem of consumerism. Reducing any debate on the future of this planet to a particular brand you wish to signal to others as owning, a group you join on Facebook or a cocktail party rant against bottled water undermines the seriousness of the issue and indeed can be counterproductive. If enough feel as they have done enough with a mouse click or a purchase decision, real effort into understanding the challenges ahead or even in framing the discussion will not be made.

      I do not think that Thomas’ piece The Toaster Project is some bourgeoisie Molotov cocktails on Sunday, Manolo Blahniks on Monday affair. I do think that he is one of those with an uncanny feeling that something is amiss. He wants to honestly in an investigative fashion put his finger on it and that to me is part of the genius as well as the purity of the entire project.

  4. T. Shawn Johnson

    It’s important to look critically at ourselves and the society we have participated in building. If we neglect to re-evaluate our motives and methods, then we threaten ourselves with extinction if only because we refuse to change. We must adapt to changing conditions, and right now we face a rapidly changing world.

    Call it guilt. Call it a means to redemption. Call it evolution. Blindly holding onto a sinking ship, denying its course, will gain you nothing. If you have the courage to open your eyes and confront the difficult situation ahead, then we have a hope to survive.

    ***********************************

    Let me tell you a personal story…

    I used to sell my clay sculpture at renaissance faires. I made large greenman faces with bare hands and mud, no molds. I hand mixed glazes, and hand painted them with a keen eye towards layering colour carefully to get a result that fulfilled my artistic needs. I could not do it any other way to achieve the result. I did this for a living – a meager one. I charged $80 for these face sculptures and in doing so, seriously underpaid myself to the tune of $8 an hour for highly skilled labour after materials, and the fees I paid for shows and transportation.

    Fortunately most folks paid that price willingly in Canadian, Asian, and European markets. Strangely, at shows in the USA, probably 50% percent of the market asked for a significant decrease in price. What could I do? I had to make the sale to feed myself, and keep a roof over my head, and pay for the next show to continue the cycle.

    So these people paid $40-60 for my pieces. They Were Not Worth This Price. So who paid the extra? I did … when my rent went unpaid .. when my hydro was cut off ..

    *********************************

    Someone will always pay the full price of a thing, even if you don’t when you buy it. It’s never the wealthy who pay and the price is rarely exacted in the present. The shame is that the hidden debt is downloaded to the poor, and often steals from the future.

    -Whystler

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