Hunting down the right parts usually takes more time than soldering everything together. I can’t count the number of projects that I tried to build and couldn’t find some key component that’s no longer made. You can help put together a list of suppliers at the end, but the idea is to have a quick reference to get your projects rolling (saving your money for important things, like espresso). Even if you’re familiar with the usual electronics parts shops, chime in to help me create a list of the best suppliers to fuel those hardware hacking projects.
If you want to keep your money, I’d avoid RadioShack as much as possible. When you’re stuck because you can’t find a freaking 10kohm resistor, it’s fine, but the markup on their low quality parts is insane-their clearance prices aren’t too bad. As much as people bag on RadioShack, just remember that nobody else bothers to sell electronic parts in the middle of nowhere.
Shipping can eat your project budget quicker than anything else. It’s the reason that I’m sometimes willing to pay $1 for $.05 in resistors at RadioShack. When I’m buying parts, I try to buy from a single supplier if possible to maximize my parts budget.
Stocking up on parts in bulk can help make projects extra affordable later on. Buying a quantity of resistors, capacitors, PNP and NPN transistors and a decent supply of linear voltage regulators will save you a fair amount of money later on. I love it when I can build a $30 project for the cost of a proto-board and an odd capacitor.
Just about every electronics component manufacturer will provide free samples on request. That’s right – free. It’s usually just a matter of creating an account on the manufacturers web site and selecting the components you need. As a rule, I don’t mention when I’ve sampled parts for a project. Seriously, they’ll get a little suspicious if 100 people suddenly sample the exact same parts. Samples aren’t limited to semiconductor companies. [ladyada] has a nice list of sample providers, including enclosures and connectors.
Digi-Key carries just about every part you can think of. These guys prefer to sell large quantities, but they’re happy to take small orders. Orders are shipped out fast, but they’ll tack on an extra $5 fee if your order is under $25. Even if you’re not ordering, they usually have data sheets linked for every part they carry online. If you’re wiling to jump through the hoops, you can even create a parts order that’s linkable from your website – it can make it much easier to share a project with others, but I usually find that a few part numbers get deprecated as time goes by. Oh, and they’ll send you a massive parts catalog that’s handy for parts hunting and brain storming.
Mouser Electronics is one of my favorite suppliers these days. They have reasonable shipping options and are fast with UPS ground orders showing up at my house within two days. Their inventory isn’t always the best, but substitution parts are usually easy to find because the online catalog links to web enabled PDF pages from their print catalog. It makes cross-referencing very easy. Like Digi-Key, they’ll send you a massive parts catalog to shove under your monitor.
Futurlec is a great place to get incredibly cheap parts, but you won’t be seeing your order for about a month (ok, so my last order showed up after three weeks). I suggest stocking up on connector headers and resistors. I haven’t had to make a late night resistor run in a couple of years thanks to these guys.
Sparkfun electronics is like a candy shop for Hack-A-Day readers. They carry higher end parts like GPS units, GMRS modules and micro controller programmers. Pricing varies a bit, but I can always find something interesting there. If you prefer professionally made PC Boards, they even put together an inexpensive PC Board service.
ebay is one of my favorite places to shop for parts. It’s a great place to buy brand new $150 stepper motors for $20 or hunt down funky, hackable hardware. People certainly try to sell single components, but it’s usually not worth the effort.
Salvaging parts is the absolute cheapest method for parts shopping. Thanks to custom ICs and SMD parts, newer electronics don’t normally have much in the way of salvage value. On the other hand, older hardware is a great source for parts. My current favorite salvage source is the dot matrix printer. They’re easy to take apart, have nice power supplies, and they’re loaded with quality heat sinks, wiring, connectors, hardened steel rods, and stepper motors. The bigger the dot matrix printer, the bigger the stepper motor. If you can score a few of the same model, you’ll end up with a few matched sets. People hate throwing them away, so they’re easy to get for free.
Lack of availability can be a problem, but obsolete parts are another way to keep costs down. Originally, the UCN5804B stepper driver I used for the cutting board CNC machine cost about $16 each. Now that they’re deprecated, they can be had for about $5 each.
Grab bags are another good way to save money. They’re usually full of loose parts that’ll have to be identified, but they’re cheap. The guys over at uchobby put together a nice how-to on sorting them.
Thanks to the movement from mail order to internet suppliers, the parts company scene is huge. There are loads of production part and surplus companies around. Here’s a quick list of shops that’ll probably be useful if you’re looking for parts.
Got a favorite shop? Drop the link in the comments and I’ll add it to the list.