After hacking and modifying nearly anything I can get my hands on, I’ve had good and bad experiences with all kinds of suppliers. I do work as an engineer, but this article, like the rest of this site, will focus on what I do in my spare time. “Stores” like Walmart, Target, Amazon.com, or Craigslist aren’t included. While useful, I think most people know more or less what they sell (except Paris Hilton apparently).
To be clear, as of this writing, none of these suppliers has paid me to make these claims (with one possible exception noted below). If any of them are reading this and would like to start paying me, I will be happy to discuss this.
Allelectronics.com – really great for little odds and ends. Prices are generally quite good and they seem to carry standard stuff and the occasional oddball component. They also carry some cool electronics kits which I have never tried myself, but might be interesting to some.
Servocity.com – Pretty self-explanatory as to what they sell. My experience has been very good getting threaded rods and hobby servos from them. It appears they’re trying to branch into heavier industrial servos as well. No experience with these, but industrial stuff commands a much higher price in general, so who can blame them?
Monoprice.com – Really great prices for cables and the like (banana plugs, wall mounts, etc). Good online help resources. Great supplier, but, as they are in California, this can mean things take a while to ship to the East Coast.
Automationdirect.com – Industrial electronics equipment, so it may be out of many hobbyist’s price range. I include this here because they are very reasonable and actually publish their prices. Still, they are primarily an industrial supplier, so the pricing may look high to someone not familiar with this class of device. If you don’t believe me, compare their pricing on a Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) or touch screen to anything made by Allen Bradley (if you can even get a price).
They now sell pneumatic components as well at decent (by industrial standards) prices.
Radio Shack – Not a great selection, really high prices at times. However, they are about the only game around if you need a component right now. Also, their sales guys can actually be pretty knowledgeable. I remember going to this store and thinking it was pretty great in high school, but apparently they’re no longer around. Probably a similar story with small electronics stores elsewhere.
Machining and Woodworking Stuff:
Home Depot, Lowe’s, Ace– Although Home Depot and Lowe’s have a bigger general selection, I’ve found that Ace sometimes has components that the others don’t. For example, when I needed a 1/8″ NPT tap, the Home Depot guy didn’t seem to have any idea what that was and after a search of their plumbing section, I wasn’t able to find it. The much smaller Ace had exactly what I needed. Also, they had a 1 7/8 inch hole saw that was hard to find elsewhere. Good for them.
Freckleface.com – Really great prices on polycarbonate, acrylic, and other similar materials. Highly recommended. One note of caution, pay attention to their tolerances. They state it clearly, but their tolerances are +/- 1/4″ in length and +/-10% in thickness. The do actually mean this, so that’s something to consider.
Mcmastercarr.com -They have pretty much anything you could want industrial supplies-wise, and their website is excellently designed for you to find the item you’re looking for. Delivery times are excellent (at least for me being fairly close to Atlanta). The only bad thing is that their prices can be high for the hobbyist.
Grizzly.com – If you want to take the plunge, and buy any machine tools like a small lathe or milling machine, Grizzly is a good resource that I have used in the past.
Zentoolworks.com – I’m currently working on a CNC router obtained from this company. Mechanically, it went together well and I am working on my control system. Their prices seem very reasonable for what they are selling, and I hope to have the 7×12 router fully functional soon.
ZTW did sample me some equipment to test out, although they did not demand that I make any claims for them or put them in this article.
Hobby Lobby – Although one might think so from the name, these guys do not sell components like servos and hobby R/C radios. It’s apparently not that kind of “hobby lobby.” However, they have really cheap wooden boxes, and all kinds of other supplies for building stuff. Crafty stuff. This can really set a project apart from the bare breadboards or partially finished projects that you see quite often. You may be able to find just the right box or other trinket for cheap that will save you from having to 0ne.
Dollar Tree, etc. – Dollar stores have all kinds of crazy stuff. If you can find what you need, they’ll probably beat out the Hobby Lobby price-wise. However, that is a big IF.
Garage Sales, Thrift Stores, Side of the Road – This may not be the most glamorous place to get parts, and you definitely can’t always get what you want. However, you may end up finding something that inspires a new project or just happens to be something you need. May want to check the legality of the “side of the road” source in your area.
Found this picture on Wikimedia, thought it was pretty funny.