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Good sources for Tinkering materials

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#1 Orpheus


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Posted 13 February 2010 - 11:10 AM

Good Sources for tinkering materials (a work in progress, natch)

Shipping can kill small eBay deals, but don't blame the dealers. EBay's seller rating policies almost force them to use fixed shipping to keep their high ratings. Try browsing for auctions with the words "lot", "misc" or "asst" in them to build up your stock. They often go for MUCH less per item than single-item auctions (e.g. 10-100 for the price of 3-6) and the fixed shipping hurts less when spread over a large lot. Also consider "free S/H auctions" (often from the Far East). They take weeks to arrive, but can be unbelievable bargains.

Shopper's tip: If an auction offers the "Make an offer" option, don't hesitate to offer much less than the starting price, even if that price is a bargain. Sellers rarely enable that option unless they are willing to take 75% (and often 50%) of what they are asking up front. "Making an offer" bypasses any last minute bidding (Most bidding occurs  in the last hour --or minute) You lose nothing by making a lowball offer early on: they can make a counteroffer, and you'll be first in line for a second-chance offer if no one bids at their starting price.

Shopper's tip: You can often win an auction with a low bid (say, 3-5 minimum bids above the starting price) if you are the first bid, especially if the seller is offering many identical auctions in a short span. It's psychology: your foot is in the door, so others will move to the first duplicate with no bids. Surprisingly, the *very* first auction of a tightly spaced series may go for a lower price than the second, third, etc. because experienced buyers expect higher bidders will slug it out over earlier items, leaving later items to go at a lower price (which is generally true). If you can't get the *very* first in a series, aim late in the series (but not the very end), because most interested parties may have bought from an earlier auction in the series, leaving only you -- but bidding on the last in a series? Well, c'mon, that's too obvious: you'll be competing against others with the same thinking

Here are some consistently reliable  sellers with broad steady stock:
  • abcfab is a NH-based seller of copper clad boards. Keep an eye out for their bulk packages, where they basically sell by the pound. Don't let their advice about scrubbing with Scotch-brite™ scare you: 99% of their boards are Grade A cut-offs and end pieces from the large PCBs their factory makes professionally, and you should scrub ANY blank copper-clad board before applying the resist, because copper always oxidizes slowly in air. A single box could be enough for years of tinkering.
  • Asia Engineer aka Giorgio11185 is what I call an electronics bazaar [EB] or electronics boutique, depending how specialized the stock is. I suggest browsing EBs a few times a year, even if you don't have anything in mind (try using  "favorite sellers" feature and signing up for their newsletter), because they'll have parts or lots that will inspire you, or which you will immediately realize that you will need for future projects. Always check out the announced sales -- it only takes a few seconds, and they often knock a big %age off the already low prices on newly added stock or lots that they are clearing out.

    I can't recommend electronics bazaars highly enough, whether you're a beginner filling a parts box or an engineer. Like any bazaar, they are a great source of inspiration, and full of hidden treasures. One suggestion: keep an organized searchable list of your goodies, so you don't forget that special part or module in your components bin that would make a certain project trivial -- or even possible. It's easy to forget what you have on hand.

    Asia Engineer is a good place to buy pasts assortments for a beginner's junkbox. My entire SMD parts box for the past few years is based on a single $10 assortment of 50 resistor values and 32 capacitors (something like this, but they do vary over time), and it still meets 99% of my tinkering needs. If you don't have what you need on hand, You might want to browse around for other assortments --I consider them an excellent investment in time- and money-savings. if you don't do SMD, through-lead assortments are getting to be less common (and more expensive) but they're still a major bargain, at present. This seller doesn't seem to combine shipping, but they often offer free ship, that may not matter. They are China-based, so your order may take a couple of weeks to arrive, but I've dealt with them for years, and they are reliable.
  • Experimenters Discount Warehouse is FL-based EB of useful "general specialty" components -- not highly specialized (e.g. RF only, uC only, etc.), but with a good eye to parts that would be extremely useful in general hobbyist projects. They sell in lots of (usu) 5-20 and have *very* good combined shipping (e.g. the first lot may be $3 S/h, but each additional may be $0.13).
  • foodchemscientific is a great source for kitchen chemistry and food service chemicals -- carboxymethylcellulose thickener, citric acid (which costs more per oz in a gourmet store than a lb here) Unfortunately, I've rarely seen them selling anything lately.

  • ICtouch has gotten some strong 3rd party recommendations for prepackaged assortments of common parts, including transistors, but I haven't bought from them. 2-3 weeks shipping

  • Sure Electronics is another China-based EB with a mixture of basic component assortments and more-specialized parts. They offer a 1206 SMD resistor assortment (vs 0805-size for Asia Engineer) which can be a plus: it handles 1/4W (vs. 1/8 - 1/10W for 0805), may be easier for beginners to solder, and can be used as through hole, if you solder a short bit of wire where he leads should go.
  • Thai Shop Etc. is a (obviously Thai-based EB with a large stock of common hobby parts like voltage regulators, diodes, timer chips, basic digital ICs, transistors, etc. Other EBs stock these, too, but TSE stocks a broad enough range of the commonest parts to make them worth mentioning, especially if you are looking to stock up a parts box. They do combine shipping, but it's been a while since I restocked my basic semiconductors bin, so I can't vouch for the current details. Ask them.
Though I don't advocate *abusing* free sample programs, you shouldn't overlook them. Companies are quite happy to send you a limited amount (usu. 2-5, but sometimes 10, depending on the price of the part and the company)of a limited number of parts (usu 4-8) per sample order (sometimes limited to certain items, but usually covering most of their range, or at least useful representatives of each type) up to 4x a year, so if you stick to 2x a year per supplier, you should stay in their good graces. I was going to compile a list, but LadyAda maintains a better, more updated free samples page than I could manage. There are so many suppliers that you could get far more components than you could ever use in a year, with just 1-2 orders a year to each.

You'd be surprised what you can get as a sample -- not just pricey, electronic parts but almost anything, even a state-of-the-art enclosure. They know what they're doing: a vendor rep once left me a set of new cases when I was consulting at an neuromuscular lab. They got used in several projects, and ultimately were re-used to dress up a biomedical device that went to market and probably made the vendor millions

(Inventor tip: you might think a tech company would accept a prototype looking like, well, a prototype -- but no! That may be fine if they send an engineer/researcher to your lab [not that I'd risk even that], but when you make a pitch to the marketing or executive team, they want to see a *product*. It's not just superficial: the right case can make a product worlds better in real-life use. Inventors tend to focus on the cleverness of the innards, and overlook any ugliness of design or awkwardness in UI, but failing to optimize your product, case and user controls together before even the most preliminary product pitch can be a life-changing mistake. A guy I know was cut off five minutes into an initial pitch of a naked device in a 1U rackmount, but got approved after he packaged it efficiently in a small sleek enclosure -- and that business relationship earned him millions over time. Don't throw your fortune away!)

NEW: Futurlec gets a top billing because if you're reading this, you're probably building your "junkbox" [stock of common parts] and they sell good through-lead parts assortments [useful for plug-in proto-boards] -- new stock at old-time prices.

Dealextreme may not be the wide-range bargainfest they used to be, but they are still *usually* dirt cheap and offer free shipping. As with the many newer Free Ship Chinese sites that grew up in their shadow, buy individual items on the day you see them. Sure that probably drives their prices up a little, but shipping takes 2-3 weeks. Unlike most of their imitators, DE has OK customer service (but you may have to contact them more than once), and its active user community posting product reviews, videos, etc. is invaluable: always check the reviews and Q&A to know what an item is (and isn't) good for, because DE sources many seemingly similar items that may differ greatly in quality. Alas, their site structure and search engine aren't the most convenient, and are based on *intended use* not technical function (e.g. the telephoto lens that makes your webcam a microscope may be listed under "cellphone accessories", not "optical"), but it's well worth browsing to find a part that's perfect for your project. I've often stumbled across a part that I wished I'd known about the month before --at a head*desk*bash price! Their dirt-cheap high-quality solder-bearing pastes will revolutionize your tinkering all by themselves.

Monoprice is my first stop for anything cable- or adapter-related. They only stock good stuff, carry a broad stock at usually a fraction of the price you'd pay anywhere else, and ship promptly (Usu. from a CA-based warehouses, but sometimes they dropship from some other US dealer/supplier) at a very reasonable S/H.

Meritline is another free ship Chinese outlet with a wide variety of parts gizmos and gadgets. It's worth checking out their Daily Deals and subscribing to their Twitter feed for even more spectacular than usual discounts. I can't say that I love this site the way I love some others, but hardly a month goes by when I don't order something from them, however small -- but be cautious and read the reviews: if it looks like junk, it very likely is. But if they have a discount code on it, it can *still* be a bargain.

I really like Tayda Electronics because they offer single unit prices on a very broad range of components that equal or better than many companies' 100+ quantity prices. Their shipping cost is quite reasonable -- but since Tayda's in Thailand, it can take a week or two to arrive. Tayda is a real winner for small unit quantities and low prices, but their stock is not exhaustive. I try to check them first when I go shopping for common parts

While I really love the *spirit* of the many shops that have sprung up to support microcontroller (e.g. Arduino) and robotics hobbyists, I often fine their parts prices... unimpressive. DIP Micro is an exception. They often have the best prices around on prototyping materials, and I like their stock. They have offices on both sides of the US/Canadian border, for cheap/fast shipping to either country.

Sometimes it's not worth it to hunt on eBay, risk unknown storefronts, or cobble together minimum orders at each of several small shops. Sometimes you need to specify a source that will be reliably in stock for years to come (vs. transient surplus stock). Sometimes you need to "see what's out there" before you even begin design work. The sites below are rarely the cheapest, but when you factor in time spent searching or comparing specs or finding equivalents, they often turn out to be the true bargain in the end.

Digi-Key has been around, supporting hobbyists, since I was a boy. Their free paper catalog dwarfs the Boston phone book. They often stock parts that the manufacturer itself hasn't carried in years, and their online catalog now links datasheets for most of their stock. Moreover, though their address is Theif River Falls, MN, their prices aren't so bad. They're as close to a one-stop online electronics shop as I know.

Mouser isn't quite as big as Digi-key, and doesn't offer as much documentation, but they always deserve a comparison-shop. Sometimes they're cheaper.

Jameco Electronics -- I used to be a regular customer in decades past, but not for a while. Don't know why. [ETA: They recently made a number of tinker-friendly changes, from better small-order shipping rates to selling and paying commissions for [approved] user-designed kits on their site.]

McMaster Carr is has a huge stock of components, fasteners, parts, materials etc. but are mostly focused on industry. Often spending a couple of bucks more on exactly the right part (which you may not even have known existed) and being able to locate it quickly can save you more than enough time to be worth a somewhat higher price. Maybe that's why I've been seeing them listed as a part source in an increasing number of DIY/hacker projects lately. Their website also lets you bookmark parts of interest *on their site* instead of in your browser, which has some subtle benefits (the last time I tried to use a dead link cleaner on my gigantic bookmark file, the cleaner died.) Some companies also datamine bookmark and wishlist info to offer targeted discounts on parts that you've wanted to buy for a while.

Shopper's Hint: Amazon offers a Universal Wish List widget that lets you bookmark products on OTHER sites. It's a convenient way to monitor prices and suppliers. Sure, Amazon will peek at your list --that's just the way they are-- but that's a fast way to let them know that someone else has the item cheaper. I've noticed that Amazon's price often drops (for me, anyway) a few days after I wishlist a cheaper price elsewhere. Of course, a few people hate Amazon, and fear that it will become the Walmart of online. I think that risk has passed, but it's your call.

Shopper's Hint: Sometimes a part you are looking for goes by other names in other industries (this can make a 10x difference in price). Sometimes you wish you could find companies or items thatare *similar* to one you know. Try the experimental "Google Sets"  -- just type in a few synonyms or members of a set, and it will suggest other members of that set. For example, when I couldn't think of more big stock suppliers after Digi-key and Mouser, I typed those companies into Google Set, and got this list -- sure enough, they were almost all companies I knew and bought from in the past -- and the few exceptions turned out to be interesting enough to bookmark for the future. True, some of Google's guesses were more "large-lot surplus shops" with broad and consistent stock, but it's not a bad set of guesses from just two examples. If I added more to my example list, I could probably get a tighter fit. -- But you don't want too tight a fit. Always leave room for serendipity

Some surplus companies stock junk (which isn't a bad thing). Many stock whatever odd lots they were able to get cheap recently. Some are mind boggling train-wrecks (including two of the biggest/best surplus consigners -- even their sales reps and computers can't keep track) Many surplus companies price their stock too close to retail for my tastes -- or even *over* the original retail, knowing that companies will happily pay big bucks for *exactly* the right out-of-production part. (A company can make as much by selling an occasional part for hundreds of dollars as they can selling hundreds of parts cheap  -- but selling/shipping hundreds of parts is a lot more work)

I'll focus on those that tend to have a broad and reasonably stable stock -- they're basically the kind of electronics bazaars that I described above, and you don't have to worry (much) about building your prototype around a key part or price that won't be available next year when you want to build more or create a v2.

Alltronics generally aims a little more towards a 'fair price' than a raging bargain -- but you can get reals steals in the "unsorted" "by-weight" or "random 100" assortments -- great for fleshing out a parts box. I bought a bunch of $1-3 1-lb assortments (from the now defunct PolyPaks in Lynnfield MA) in 1976, and I'm still using those components today. And I do mean *using*: they haven't just been sitting neglected. It's just that even 1-lb of 2N2222 or 1N400X is over 500 units, much less 5lbs. (Don't try this for SMD: sorting out 1 lb of SMDs, which may be resistors, caps, semis, un- or poorly-labeled and require a magnifier anyway... Well, it will simply kill you. End of story) In addition to components, I bought hardware assts -- tiny nuts&bolts, springs, brackets, random subassemblies --there's a reason I call it my 'junkbox'-- and I can't count the number of times a single oddball spring or screw has paid for the entire shebang ten times over. Truly random junk parts may not be suited to planned projects, but they're indispensible for random repairs, improvisation and tinkering

Electronics Goldmine (note the hyphen in the URL) has a nice (and fairly stable) range of assortments and multipacks, reasonable prices and shipping, along with "what came in on the tide" surplus parts that are catch-as catch-can. They're definitely worth a look when stocking a parts bin

Awaiting write-up:

Monoprice is my first stop for anything cable- or adapter-related. They carry a broad stock of good cables/connectors a fraction of the price you'd pay anywhere else, and ship promptly (Usu. from a CA-based warehouses, but sometimes drop-shipped from other US dealer/suppliers) Very reasonable S/H.

SmallParts.com stocks parts and materials that you may not even realize you need until you know they're available, especially if you are building tiny things or biomedical gear. They're not a bad source for lab gear, either. Since they target tinkers rather than labs, they won't treat you like a terrorist.

Inventables.com is an incredible resource for bleeding edge exotic materials. Their sample prices can be high, so use them to fire your imagination, and the research other suppliers or sources for specific items on the web. Sometimes the materials you'll find will inspire projects, and sometimes they will *become* a project -- either to experiment with what's already out there or develop your own.

The ever-growing "maker/DIY" community, ranging from hardware and software hackers (in the original sense) to garage/industrial technologies to arts&crafts, is supported by an ever-growing number of shops born from and supporting the movement, often incorporating an open philosophy [open specification, open license] that is very different from regular stores. For example, they may sell a product, but also publish the parts, schematics, PCB board etc. so you can make it yourself, modify it to your needs or even create a competing improved version. Though they often aren't quite the cheapest source (until you factor in your time, and the chances that you will actually get around to doing it yourself, esp. if it's just one step of your ultimate project) They are often the best. They sell parts/materials you may not otherwise get in small quantities (or at all) and often offer training/education material and a support community. You won't buy your production supplies from them, but they're great for creating your prototype or stocking your workshop.



Edited by Orpheus, 11 January 2013 - 05:00 PM.
added more sources

#2 Orpheus


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Posted 20 January 2011 - 02:40 AM

Did a long-overdue update.

Only covered a *tiny* fraction of my favorite sources, though -- many more to come

#3 Dex

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Posted 11 January 2013 - 10:04 AM

Surplus Sales of Nebraska


Fun place to shop.


#4 Orpheus


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Posted 27 March 2013 - 02:52 AM

chip_partner seems to be a new player on eBay, and their offerings are incredible! Go right now and check them out, or you won't understand why I'm so psyched.  (auctions) (store)

Though their account has been registered since 2009, and have 41,000 sales with 99.9% positives, I can't help but think they must have changed management or business models recently, because I don't remember seeing anything like this before. They have a wide array of hobbyist supplies, but what really blows my socks off are their pre-built micro-sized modules, each of which would constitute a significant subcircuit or even an entire small project for many hobbyists -- and most seem to be $0.99 or maybe $2 ($1 shipping for the first item, add'l items in the same order are free)

For many modules, I couldn't buy the main chip for $1 in the US, much less the other parts, PCB and assembly -- but the real miracle of these modules is the possibilities they open up. When you can buy a 434MHz microcontroller RF data transmitter and separate compatible reciever, 6-channel 2.4 GHz transciever, micro audio amp, adjustable voltage regulator circuit, panel voltmeter or any number of much fancier pre-built circuits for $1, ready to just string together with a few wires, it lets you think of the "big picture" and design amazing things without worrying about the circuitry. I haven't played enough with the modules to assess their reliability, but they should be good enough for prototyping (after a little testing), even if I wouldn't put my name on a product that contained them (at least not until I was sure they'd reliably last a year).  If I didn't know these basic circuits/chips (many have been on the microcontroller hobby scene for years), I wouldn't believe it was possible (you know what they say about "if it seems too good to be true), but I'm guessing these are "good enough" knockoff chips

I'm posting this now [27 March 13] because I want to give you a chance to check them out before you place any major orders at the usual suppliers (some of these modules cost $20-40 at Sparkfun, Adafruit, etc.), but you might want to wait a few weeks before placing an order. My first order [quite small] arrived as an empty envelope! They replied to my email in hours, offering a refund, but I'm still going to keep an eagle eye on their shipping for a while before I can wholeheartedly recommend them (I'll probably be ordering a total of about 20 items between now and the end of April, as several separate orders to test them. A few bucks 'separate order' postage is worth it to know I can trust them, before I go whole hog with larger orders)

If all goes well, I'm going to give them a *prominent* entry in my recommendations post at the top of this thread (heck, I'll probably start a separate review thread for their various modules) --and you can expect a vituperative negative report here if I have any more problems! With their polite service and 99.9% positive rating, I'm not expecting any -- but as I said above, there are signs of a possible recent change of management or business plan.

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