It can be hard getting the parts you need even in the best of times. Now we find ourselves in times of economic trouble. So how do you get those parts without breaking your tightening budget? As a college student my budget oscillates between broke and more broke, yet I still mange to find the parts I need to build and tinker with robots, to build a small Minecraft LAN server, and so on and so forth. There are more resources at your disposal than you probably realize. First, if you are in college that will help. Milk it for all it’s worth. Second, use some tact. Don’t ask some one to risk their job. Don’t be a nuisance. Third (standard) check your local laws! I am not responsible for what you do. Disclaimer applies.
0: YOUR STUFF
What do you have? No really, take a moment. What do you have laying around that can be taken apart? What do you have that you can sell or trade to get money for the part you need? Do you have what you need in an old project? Can you make it out of something else? Could you combine two resistors instead of one? Could you alter your plans?
1: THE DUMP
It is your friend. Another person’s trash is your gold. Most dumps / recycling centers have to pay to have electronics and scrap metal stuff hauled away, so they tend to welcome you removing some of it for free. Ask before you take. If they say no, they say no. Look for computers, monitors, speakers, microwaves, toasters, and other consumer electronics. Also, keep your eyes out for odd-looking items. I have pulled working servers from my local dump, and I live in a rather rural area (population under 500). Even if what you find is broken, it will have parts that can be salvaged, power supplies, capacitors, wire, resistors, circuit boards, magnets, casing etc. At garage sales people throw out all kinds of goodies!
If you are in any engineering classes, or hardware oriented classes, get to know the professor and your fellow students. They can be an invaluable source of ideas and know how. They might also mention throwing away items, or look to sell something that you can often get for cheap. DO NOT BE A JERK ABOUT IT! Do not push or ask if they have anything you can have. It’s not cool man. Ok? At the end of the semester, ask the professor if they need any help cleaning up the lab(s). Offering help is one of the best ways to get things. If you see them going to throw something out, ask if you can have it. Even if you do not gain anything this way, the professor should remember your help. I got an oscilloscope and several bread boards this way.
AVOID THE BIG BRAND NAME STORES!!! Radio Shack should be your last resort. They tend to be much more expensive than internet based retailers. Look for pawn shops, used electronics stores, odds and end stores, salvation army, good will etc. You will be amazed at what they have. Often it is out of date by several generations, but so what? It can be harvested and put to good use. Remember even a now ancient Pentium 4 computer is roughly a MILLION times more powerful then the computers NASA used to put men on the moon! Old tape recorders are a great deal, usually around 5 bucks or so, they have gears, motors, magnets, capacitors resistors and large circuit boards.
4: THE INTERNET
It’s not only for vice. Sparkfun is great as are the sites they recommend. Google is your friend. There are too many good sites to list here. Revolt Lab is working on compiling a list of sites that we like and have had good experiences with, so keep an eye on the supplies section of the Knowledge page. Hackaday has a forum with a decent classifieds section. Other forums are always worth a check. Look for detailed posts on ongoing projects for an up to-date(ish) list of places or posts specifically about where to find things. Check out shopping extensions for your browser. InvisibleHand is a good one. Look into other similar add-ons as well as a currency converter. You never know when that part you need can only be gotten from a company in China. Craigslist is great. Look under the free and electronics sections. E-bay has more or less everything, but look for sellers with a good reputation, and trust your guy. While it is good for hard to find and older stuff, you can often get what you need other places. Personally I try and avoid using e-bay mostly because it can be hard to return products if they are defective or not what you need. With that said, I have never had a problem with anything I have ever bought on e-bay.
5. RE-CLAIMING CIRCUIT BOARDS
Circuit boards! You can reuse ones from older electronics. It’s really easy with large non-printed circuit boards (often found in older electronics, like phones, tape recorders, boom boxes etc.) Desolder components, use the existing holes, drill new ones, maybe use portions of the wires that are in place. You can often re-use chunks of the board. You might have to cut it into sections (don’t be afraid to do this. It’s not like you were going to use the board for it’s original purpose anyways, right?). A bit of solder here and there, a dab of epoxy and you have a board all set to go.
THE MORAL OF THIS STORY:
Keep an eye out! Wasteful producers and consumers, though problematic for, you know, … earth, are a goldmine for the hacker. We live in a time when technology is cheap and abundant. If you are willing to use something two or three generations out of date, you can often get it at a steep discount if not free. Keep tinkering and exploring.
-Azriel of Revolt Lab