Saturday, June 30, 2012

What making something from scratch really means

The Toaster Project

Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, June 8, 2012

My new hero is Thomas Thwaites, who built a toaster from scratch in nine months, and wrote a delightful yet weighty little book called “The Toaster Project” about the process. Thwaites begins by purchasing the cheapest toaster he can find (about $6.95) and disassembling it into 404 discrete bits. He then tries to identify the raw materials of the bits, and, without getting into precise chemical analysis, comes up with roughly17 metals, 18 plastics, 2 minerals, and one that’s “just weird.”

Thwaites’ book is not an instructional manual per se, but it does get you thinking about the debt you owe modern technology. Thwaites—a design student in London—first travels to an ancient iron mine turned tourist attraction, near South Wales, for a suitcase full of rock containing iron. He then constructs a trash can furnace for extracting the metal, based on a 16th century woodcut diagram. His first attempt at smelting is a hilarious disaster, but he is eventually successful after using his mother’s microwave oven running at full power for half an hour.

WMMNA: The Toaster Project–Rebuilding A Simple Electric Appliance From Scratch
And so it goes as he travels to Britain’s remotest locations in an often comic pursuit of nickel, copper, mica and plastic with varying degrees of success. The completed toaster looks more like “what happened?” than a finished product. But Thwaites is an inspiring maker, as he embraces his failures, recalibrates the “rules” as necessary (using a high-tech piece of machinery like a microwave, for example, was not part of the original plan), and sees the project through to the end. The finished product is not pretty and barely functional. And it cost 250 times more to make than the price of the store-bought version. But he did it.

Of course Thwaites’ toaster project is a testament to the complexity and ambiguity of our industrialized society. “My attempt to make a toaster has shown me just how reliant we all are on everyone else in the world,” he reflects at the end of the book. “It also has brought into sharp focus the amount of history, struggle, thought, energy, and material that go into even something as mundane as a toaster.”

He’s also aware of how deceptively cheap a $6.95 appliance can be. “The real ‘cost’ of products is hidden,” he writes. “We don’t see (or smell) the pollution emitted when iron is smelted or plastics are made. If all the costs associated with their production were captured, well, toasters would cost a bit more, and perhaps we wouldn’t buy and discard them so often, and of course not so many people would be able to afford them...”

But he also sees building a toaster as an important life lesson that might help slow the hasty manufacture/consume/throwaway cycle. He says he’ll never throw his toaster away, “because (to put it cornily) it embodies so many memories. Maybe when we’re in school each of us should assemble our own toaster, or own kettle our own microwave or something, then perhaps we’d be more likely to keep these thing for longer, and repair and look after them. This would mean these products would be more than things that just come ‘from the shops.’”

Maker Faire Report
My friend, Sally Diggory, shows off the blinky LED broach she made at the
Radio Shack tent using a soldering iron.

Despite the crowds, this year’s Maker Faire (May 19-20) seemed to have more opportunities for making things than ever before. In one day my friend Sally Diggory and I managed to solder blinky LED broaches; snap together plastic rockets; fold the best paper airplanes; roll poppy seed bombs; and make kinetic sculpture earrings. A feast for the eyes and intellect, there were numerous 3D printers extruding plastic, as well as robots, tesla coils, el-wire art, and huge works of mechanized art.

Kids watch Presley Martin's snails making art
by eating through multiple layers of colored
paper in the Show Barn.

I loved Michael LaGrasta’s LED glass-top desk that doubled as a web server. I brought home instructions for installing a penny and resin countertop, and a pen loaded with electrically conductive paint. But my favorite idea-guy was Presley Martin of Seaside, who builds cages for garden snails in which he layers one wall with brightly colored paper. The snails eat through the paper layers and create amazingly beautiful designs. Could my worst garden nemesis actually become a partner in art?

Back yard rug

A recent article in a gardening magazine inspired me to paint a rug on my concrete patio. We’re talking about a 25-year-old, roughly finished, stained from who knows what, and generally unattractive garden patio. I chose a garden theme to my rug, and designed it around flower stencils I bought at a craft store.

What you need
1 gallon white porch and floor paint
Large paint brush
2-ounce bottles of acrylic craft paint in a variety of colors
Stencil brushes
Blue painter’s tape
Tape measure
1 gallon clear concrete sealer
Large paint roller
1 audio book

Painting a concrete rug is a great opportunity to read a book. Borrow or download a good long book that you can listen to while painting. (I chose “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”) Start by cleaning the concrete with a pressure washer or garden hose. I also scrubbed the concrete with a brush and concrete cleaner (unless it’s a “green” version, keep this chemical away from plants and soil), although I’m not sure it made a big difference.

Tape off the perimeter of the rug with painter’s tape, keeping the sides straight and the corners square using a tape measure and L-square. A perfect rectangle will have matching diagonal measurements, but close is good enough. Paint inside the tape with two coats of white porch paint using a brush or roller, following the manufacturer’s directions for drying times.

Sketch out the overall design of the rug on a piece of paper, keeping in mind the relative dimensions of the stencils you will be using. Use bands of colors around the outsides, and blocks of color in the center section.

My concrete rug really brightens up an otherwise
drab concrete patio in my backyard.
Using blue painter’s tape, mark the borders of each color as you go. I used the edges of the stencils as guides to keep the tape lines straight and equidistant from the edges. Start on the outer edges and work towards the center. The tape can be removed after you paint a band or block, but allow paint to dry fully before taping over it for another section.

Use the stencils to paint designs in the center of bands or blocks, dabbing color in with a stencil brush. Pour a small amount of paint into a plastic container and load paint brush sparingly for best results. Of course you also have the option of painting freehand. Don’t be too much of a perfectionist when painting on concrete—it’s impossible on this irregular surface. The overall effect will still be striking.
Cover your rug to protect it from dirt and critters between painting sessions. Finish the rug with two coats of clear concrete sealer applied with a paint roller at a windless time of day. Then stand back and admire your patio upgrade.

(Step by step instructions with photos can be found at