Don’t Ignore the Artist’s Supply Store

So it’s Saturday morning and you’ve found yourself with an urge to build something involving copper plates or carbon electrodes. Maybe you need a metallic powder for a chemistry experiment. Casting supplies? Pure lead? Copper mesh? Silver wire?  Odd tools? Exceedingly caustic etchants?  There’s a store that sells it all, and it’s not usually frequented by hackers: the art store.

If you know where to look, the store is full of useful things. Each method of expression in art has its own set of supplies; a bountiful collection of various processes and the useful things therein. I grew up in a city that did not have a real art supply store. It had one of those big box craft stores that assault you with glittery plasticized flowers and terrible manufactured scents. When I moved to a different city and walked over to the local art supply to purchase some new pens I ended up staying for a few hours just looking at all the cool things they had for sale.

Drawing

The drawing section contains a few useful things. There are graphite and carbon rods, squares, and powders in different compositions, from hard to soft. These can be used for anything from DIY resistors, electrodes, brushes, and high voltage experiments. There are also, naturally, quite a nice selection of drawing and drafting tools.

Painting

Depending on the art store, the painting section contains a selection of useful chemicals. Sometimes the pigments for blending oils can be pure metals. The section is also usually good for better than average purity mineral spirits, acetones, etc. used to thin and modify the paints.

 

Modeling & Ceramics

The modeling section is really quite handy. Aside from a full selection of normal clays there are other useful materials. Plasticine, which is a great material for making models of things, masters for resin casting, and more. Sculpey and the other oven bakeable clays make acceptable quick parts. It can be filed and machined quite well, but the strength is so so.

This section also contains a complete selection of resins for resin casting. I’ve often found silicone rubber, urethane rubber, clear resins, water moldable polymers and more.

Also, if you’re lucky enough to have an art store that sells materials for glazes, it’s just as good as having a chemistry supply store in town, except they may actually sell to you without checking you for a drug habit first.

Printing

The printing section is packed full of useful materials. Various rubbers are available in this section. I’ve also seen copper and zinc plates for sale. Also a full selection of chisels. Rubber rollers in all sizes for glue or transferring prussian blue for checking machine fits.

Fabric and Leather

The fabric section contains useful cutting mats and jigs. Also a better than average selection of dyes. Including dyes that come with more warning labels than the ones at big box stores. These can be used for coloring plastics, filaments, or even colorants for anodizing. Leatherwork likewise has its own interesting set of tools and supplies.

Jewelry

Depending on the art store the jewelry section can be a trove. I’ve even seen pure silver, gold, and copper wire at some stores (behind very locked cabinets). It usually has a small selection of precision hand tools — depending on your town this may be your best bet for a local source of pliers and snips. Some stores even have supplies for lost wax casting, soldering of precious metals, lapping supplies (for gems) and more.

 

Glass

The glass section in some stores can contain anything from pure lead sheeting to propane bunsen burners. Glass rods,tubing, colored glass, small ovens, heavy duty irons, and more. Unfortunately this store wasn’t well equipped for this hobby.

Misc

There are also a huge assortment of objects that stretch across the disciplines. I took a sampling of some of the items that stuck out to me.

Thanks to the Dakota Art Store in Bellingham for letting me run around their store for thirty minutes with a camera. Also, for running to the back to find some of the more odd items. If you’ve not paid a visit to your local art supply, I recommend you do.

Does anyone else get their supplies at a store you wouldn’t expect? If you have a favorite place to score material for your hacks, leave a comment below. I’d also like to hear about any favorite art-store finds I missed in my whirlwind tour.

49 thoughts on “Don’t Ignore the Artist’s Supply Store

  1. The reverse can also be true. When lead time allows, some artists of my acquaintance purchase anything from the overlap between art supplies and tech materials from the vendors of tech materials; because being intended for artistic purposes has a way of bumping the price pretty significantly(at least at vendors in this area).

    1. Some of the chain hobby stores (that focus on artistry & home decor) offer coupons. For example, Hobby Lobby for many years has had a 40% off almost anything coupon, limit one per visit. That brings the prices down to nearly parity on most items, and can yield some genuine deals on others. You don’t even need to sign up for their mailing list to get the coupons mailed to you in their sales flyers. You can print the coupon from their website, whenever you need one, no sign up necessary.

  2. Surplus stores like Ax-man are a treasure trove of random electronic and mechanical components. There is even a section for lab beakers and tubes at my local one.

      1. No, but you have Trojan Electronics and I believe Grimmers is still open. Trojan especially has a huge inventory from the decades they’ve been open, and Steve will cut you a deal if you want something that’s been on the shelf for years.

    1. Great place but Twin Cities area only.
      We also have BME Lab and Science next door to a Hub Hobby in Little Canada. BME is now part of or owner of Elemental Scientific. I can walk into the store and walk out with 16 ounces of Nitric Acid and a few feet of borosilicate glass. No hazmat shipping fees. :D

  3. I didn’t knew UHU glue stick can be used for material to stick on a printing bed. If I knew, I would have try this sooner since we can find these in any library store.

    1. I had very good success with plain white glue on a heated glass bed, at least for PLA.
      Just water the glue down and spread on the glass bed, heat it up until dry, repeat.
      This gives you an very nice and flat surface (almost mirror-like) and good adherence, as long as the bed is heated (I use 50°C).

    2. The best I have found is Elmer’s washable school glue stick. Its a purple glue taht goes clear when dried. Dirt cheap, available everywhere, and works perfectly for PLA prints.

    3. I think, they are in nearly every supermarket here. I used this as paper glue already in kindergarten. And this application is really good to know, as a get a 3D printer today :-)

  4. And who among us has not stood in front of the mechanical pen and pencil display with lust in our hearts?

    As anyone who has never owned a good Staedtler or Koh-i-noor Rapidograph will tell you, There is No Substitute.

    1. I still have my Staedtler .5mm and .7mm pencils etc. from the freshman engineering package I got when I started university.

      Several years back I start doing a little art and I got Koh-i-noor pens as they are supposed to be a top notch product but I hate mine. Every time I went to use one the damn thing is clogged and then you gotta tear the whole thing down to clear the clog, rinse, dry, ink everywhere, what a joke… (Just my experience as always YMMV)

      1. The Koh-i-noor pens are absolutely fantastic if you ink every day. Few things can provide as consistent of a line. However, if you do not, they will, as a byproduct of their design, clog within a few days. They even sell a little tool to unclog them. I like the sakura pigma microns for this reason. Still a decent line, not as finicky as a fountain pen, and the ink is really smudge free.

        1. I’ll second the pigma microns for exactly that reason… Koh-i-noors silently taunt me from their shelf perch, and when I finally give in, I find they’ve clogged up and must be fussed with for more time than I would actually be using them. Pigma’s are so close a runner-up that the distinction is meaningless in most applications, and they just work. Alas, someday I’ll retire to the woods and have daily time to keep the koh-i-noors happily in use.

  5. I found the art supply store to be an unexpectedly good source of nice flat & manageably-sized pieces of thin plywood, which I use in my laser cutter. Finding plywood is easy, finding pre-cut plywood is harder, finding THIN plywood is harder (1/8″ is as thin as hardware stores go) and finding FLAT plywood is like hen’s teeth… unless you’re at an art supply store!

    1. How small of a panel do you need?
      Most big box home improvement stores carry “project ” sizes that are 2x4ft and 2x2ft for small projects or patches.
      They also have panel saws to cut up full sheets for you for free.

  6. Haha… I’m so guilty of this.
    Art stores are a black hole.
    In Busan, Korea I found a really nice one which had japanese saws and a ton of other hard-to-find tools. It had a good selection of wooden dowels/trimmings and coloured plexiglass too.
    I can walk around for hours.

      1. Hi Razputin, sorry for only replying now, I never saw your comment! I made my original comment almost a year ago!

        The shop in question is in Seomyeon, in the main street, right next to H&M. Little shop with three floors, yellow sign above the door. DCartmall.com Awesome place.
        I was there almost two years ago, so it might have moved since then, although it looked pretty settled and I just had a look in the Daum maps street view variant.

        Are you teaching or working in Busan? I miss Korean food!

  7. I work in the IT field, but my degree was sculpture in college (with a concentration in traditional printmaking). The number of times both skill sets have played off each other still amazes me. The number of times I can improve on a new tech using old technology/art techniques amazes me. We forget old ways of doing things because it was replaced with new ‘better’ tech. Take something like lithography which improved chip production. Photo transfer for PCB etching, was something I was already familiar with because the basics were used for photo transfers onto plates for newspapers. It’s very cyclical, and I love the constant discovery.

    I completely agree that if you need something now, or just want to see what’s available art stores are some of the best suppliers ever. Though I know a lot of artists that get a lot of supplies from the Home Depot. Just be careful with student/’artist’ grade supplies. They tend to be the cheaper supplies, and they’ll get the job done, but you’ll fight them. Oil paints as an example use less pigment/or not as pure, and you need more of it to mix the color you want, and it will be diluted/less vibrant. You can get away with it though if you at least buy expensive/good white paint to mix with the cheaper colors.

    Side note, if you’ve never written/drawn with an artist’s pencil but only yellow #2’s do yourself a favor and spend the $1-2 on a mars staedtler or turquoise pencil.

  8. Pottery supply stores are also great for raw materials. High quality sand (casting), pigments for glazes (some overlap with the paint pigments mentioned above but glazes often need different pigments due to high temp reactions), grog, fire bricks, tools, heck high quality turning wheels instead of that lazy susan you bought at Ikea.

  9. Good brands list the ingredients: see that PR102 code? Standard code Pigment Red 102, natural red iron oxide. B Blue, Br Brown, Bk Black, O Orange, G Green, Y Yellow, W White, V Violet.

    BTW, the caption system sucks big time, time waster while they slide, and for long ones I had to read the HTML source.

  10. Matboard, every kind of cardboard corrugate, every kind of glue, every kind of x-acto blade (because you NEED curved AND straight blades) and every kind of tape, and clay, and the right kind of light bulbs so if you mix your own paint your pictures don’t look the wrong color in white light. Armature wire! Hot glue sticks of all the different sizes. Every single kind of pen that exists period. Graffiti supplies (they don’t sell KRINK, MOLOTOW, or Montana cans at Walmart, I checked, they only sell crackle coat Rusto for repainting your lawn furniture and really well priced and functional fans). Geez I love art stores. And Walmart too.

  11. Thanks to the author for highlighting the many items creative types yearn to play with. Please note that many local art supply stores everywhere are closing. So it is very important to shop local and support stores like Dakota Art. Great article about the value of having raw materials available when the creative urge hits.

  12. I read the article thinking, wow, must be nice to live in a city with some real supply stores… then realized it’s in B’ham, where I’ve lived for nearly 25 years!

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