Retro Future Electrics

A page about retro electronics, from the introduction of electricity until 1970-something. We refit old gadgets with new tech, and wonder at the makers who came before us.

Refurbing a T-20 Toaster from 1956

There is nothing more retro-future than smooth chrome curves. I think many folks saw the Technology Connections youtube episode about these old automatic toasters that were made from 1949 to the mid 60s. I figured I’d give a go at refurbishing one, unfortunately they are now very popular, often going for over $100 broken! I got lucky and managed to snag on eBay for under $60 with a buy it now. The problem was listed as: ” It’s not working correctly at the moment. as soon as you plug it in, it starts turning on with any bread in it. It has 2 screws missing from the bottom “.

On the whole it looked pretty good given the age, and the Ni-Chrome wire(The cheapest part of the unit!) seems like it was still working since the ad showed glowing red coils. What will we find when we dig into it?

Safety First: Before the unit even arrived in the mail I ordered 4 feet of cloth covered 3 wire cord from Sundial Wire who makes a variety of era appropriate wire. I went with black pully wire at 14ga and 3-wire. This is a little overkill, but I like the idea of the shell being grounded in case I ever happen to use it with a non-GFCI outlet.

Initial Unboxing and Thoughts

As soon as the toaster arrived I had to unbox it and carefully see what happens upon plugging it in. The plug is a bit sketchy, so I’m sure to only use with a GFCI outlet and to be exxxxtra careful. As described in the ad the elements turn on and stay on. Happily the bread tray also lowers when this happens, and comes back up when off. I won’t retread what Alex from Technology Connections did much better, but the short version is that the wires heat up, and this changes their properties allowing the wire to get longer, and thus lower the bread. I honestly think this mechanical action is a miracle of a Rube Goldberg device, but it works well. And the fact that it works here means we don’t have to worry about a) the heating element, and b) the complicated linkages for the bread lift/lower mechanism. Yay!

That does still leave the problem with the electrical. Luckily at the RFE underground layer(ok, regular suburban garage lair) we are somewhat better with electricity than mechanical engineering. My first thought was something with the bimetallic thermostat blade, or the contacts was off. But it actually looked as if these were functioning properly. After a little poking and prodding with the multimeter, I found 0Ω across the two bolts that supported the contact switch and provided the connection to the mains voltage. Interesting! This should be 0Ω when the contacts are closed, and infinity when they are open, but this was 0Ω when the contacts were open. Eureka! So clearly something was “closing” the contacts even when the actual contacts were open.

I started to disassemble this area and then noticed almost right away that the contact was operating normally. ( I had the ohm meter across the unplugged outlet, reads about 11Ω when the contacts are closed. (This is a powerful toaster! Using Ohm’s law, V=IR at 120V gives you 120=I * 11, meaning this takes around 11amps, or 1320 watts! (The toaster is rated at 1275W, so this adds up within my rounding))). After some fiddling I discovered that the mere act of tightening these two nuts would short out the contacts. One of the pieces of insulating material is bad. It looks to be a sort of coated plastic insulator sheet (it honestly looks conductive, but I tested and it’s not).

So now with the nuts backed out a bit but still solid, the toaster works in an Automatic Beyond Belief fashion! Just as the box said in 1956, almost 70 years ago as of this writing. I feel like it’s likely this will continue to break down, so I’m pondering a more permanent solution. I’ve seen high-temp insulating sheets before. I just need to find one that will work well here.

After some searching it seems that phenolic sheet is the stuff I was looking for. I’d never heard it called that but knew what I wanted, after a few days of searching I stumbled across the right terms.

Disassembly & Cleaning

This toaster was made to repair, in fact there is even a 21 page repair manual available for free downloads from Manuals Lib . There was also a few paid versions, the free one is a little bit of a poor scan, which was fine on the words but a little blurry on the diagrams. No idea if the paid ones are better. It needed some cleaning, I initially tried dawn and sponge, but I saw Tim’s Toasters said he used the dishwasher. I didn’t have a Kitchen Aid historic dishwasher, but I did have modern Whirlpool builder’s grade dishwasher. (I know, sad for the retro future lair). I was a little suspect, and tried it with an end panel first, but the results were pretty good! So I did everything. It really cleaned all the nooks and crannies with little work. I dried off all the metal in a 170ºF oven for 20 minutes after the dishwasher cycle.

Now that everything is cleaned, and our problem maybe fixed, and only one trip to the local hardware store (That’s City Mill for us in Hawaii, they still have that row with all the little screws that you can buy one at a time)

Bakelite base repair

The Bakelite base had a break, it wasn’t obvious until disassmebly. As this area doesn’t get super high heat, and JB Weld claims it is good to 550ºF (288ºC), I used it and some clamps to repair this crack. With the 4 base installed it wasn’t obvious, but I figure it was better to fix now while everything was apart. Simple 2 part epoxy and some clamps overnight led to good results. I still need a little buffing to make it look undetectable, but as it’s black on the bottom, it doesn’t jump out at you now.


I was impressed by how springy the case was after being bolted together for almost 70 years. The service manual recommends building a jig to facilitate getting it back together. Thusly:

This picture shows a drawing from the Sunbeam T-20 service manual. Depicting a wood, felt lined box that the manual instructs you to build to aid in reassembly.

There are also small slots next to the screws, which work well with a small screwdriver to help force the bolt holes to line up. These are all thick chrome, you can exert a lot of force on them and not bend or break them, quite a change from modern plastic tabs!

A little history: cost in 1956 – $27.50

This toaster was expensive, although still almost $10 cheaper than the Sunbeam CoffeeMaster that I worked on here: Sunbeam Coffeemaster. This toaster came from Seattle, so I looked in the Seattle Times archive and found this ad from February 10th of 1956 from Ernst Hardware which was in business from 1893 all the way to 1996. According to the CPI calculator from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, this is the same as $321.74 in April 2024. For kicks I looked at the WalMart website, and they had one for $11 and change, cheaper than even the straight cash price in 1956.

I would love to go hear Miss Gladys Coble, Factory Representative, explain to me the glory of the Sunbeam Appliance line! Although I’m not sure how I feel about spending over $300 on a toaster, I suppose better than spending over $400 on a coffee maker!

And now a little in operation:

Short of the toast starting and finishing

Adjusting the Toast Darkness

There is a knob at the bottom of the toaster to adjust darkness. When the top to this knob is installed it can only go about 1/2 turn or so, but with it missing, you can turn it all the way around about 15 times. I did some timing with no bread, and you should expect the toaster to stop toasting after 4-10 seconds as the bimetallic strip will quickly see all that radiant heat coming directly from the opposing nichrome wires and turn off. After some adjustments I fine tuned the knob with bread, here is my “a little dark” , “way too dark” , and “just right” bread tests:

A photo that shows three pieces of toast, the first a little dark, the second a lot dark, and the third about right.

Conclusions and Eating Toast

This toaster is a bit faster than modern toasters. With heating elements pulling 1275 Watts it can toast about twice as fast as a modern plastic shell toaster that draws about 750W for two slices, and faster than our Dash Toaster (The America’s Test Kitchen recommended toaster) that uses 1100 Watts, but for a long opening. This makes for a softer interior while still having a crisp exterior. We like this a tad better, but it’s up to your personal preference if that’s what you like.

This was a fun project that turned out to be quick. Our toaster was made on Valentines Day 1956, a Tuesday. The (likely) men who put it together and cast the parts are likely departed from this world, we appreciate their hard work and good craftsmanship. We’ll never know if this toaster was a gift to a couple in the 50’s who used it well, or put it in the attic because they already had two toasters or where it has travelled to since then, it ended up on eBay from a seller in Oregon who purchased it from an estate sale, but before that it’s unknown. I hope it brought joy to those who owned it before me.

Sources and References

If I have toasted further than others, it’s because I’ve stood on the shoulders of toast giants! My initial thoughts to get one of these toasters came after watching a YouTube episode of “Technology Connections”. Prior to and during the repair I watched other videos on YouTube and read a lot of pages. Some that were particularly useful were Tim’s Toasters, and the manual from Manuals Lib. I read countless other pages and watched several other YouTube videos on the subject, but those three were the primary sources. Interestingly I have not yet found someone with the same problem as mine on the web. So if you have a shorting switch I hope this page helps! Feel free to ask additional questions in the comments, although due to the large number of spam replied (over 10 a day) I only go thru them every so often so please be patient!

AI non-use on Retro Future

Talking AI is very retrofuture, but our articles are all 100% written by people with no AI assistance. We do sometime use AI for the article main image, although all photos are authentic and only edited for size/color/rotation, never content. This is our blog to share our experiences and hobbies with the world, in the hope that someone learns something or at least enjoys them. Thanks for supporting us with your views!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *