Being an Off-The-Shelf Hacker requires resourcefulness and imagination. We work with the full physical computing stack. That means not only understanding the software side of a project, but also the electrical, electronic, mechanical, engineering and people-related aspects. In order to actually physically prototype your project, you’ll need to be able to find parts and adapt components to your requirements.
My goal here is to help you find these parts.
Where to go for parts isn’t always obvious to people just starting into hacking projects. Don’t feel bad, I’ve certainly run into plenty of veteran hackers, who say “Wow, Dr. Torq, I hadn’t thought of looking there!” With any luck, you’ll begin to find your own unique parts sources. Be sure to share those special places with fellow Off-The-Shelf Hackers.
The Big DIY Electronics Parts Vendors
The three biggie parts houses, in the DIY/Maker Movement world are Adafruit, Sparkfun and Maker Shed. All have extensive product lines of DIY projects, components, microcontrollers, boards and tools. Their Web sites are also chocked full of tutorials and forums covering their products and how to use them.
As you might expect, the Internet is jammed with countless other parts sources. Although probably not as well known as the big three, these vendors offer great prices on ESP8266 modules, the Raspberry Pi, connectors, batteries and just about every exotic tool you can imagine. Get on MCM’s catalog list and be inspired by their complete line of plastic cases, soldering irons and audio equipment. Likewise, Banggood sells 8266’s in volume, along with seemingly everything else you’d expect to buy in the Chinese tech universe … and then some. Lots of times they even include shipping.
Finding Physical Mechanism Parts
Physical computing projects require physical parts. Ten years ago, we called it robotics or hard automation. Where do you get bolts, ¼ inch X 1-inch steel stock, a light (or heavy) duty welding machine and lots of duct tape?
I think Off-The-Shelf Hackers should regularly visit their local Home Depot and Lowes. Not only will you conveniently find hardware, wood, plastic, concrete, electrical and plumbing supplies, it’s a great opportunity to just walk through the aisles and think about your projects. I call it “getting ideas by walking around.” Just wander around and dream.
Visit any Northern Tool or Harbor Freight and you’ll enter an all-together different world of possibilities. There you’ll find small metal fabrication tools, spot welders, trailer wheel bearing assemblies, 12-volt winches, overalls, generators, water pumps, hydraulic cylinders and a great selection of air compressors.
Do you need brass nuts and bolts to accent your latest Steampunk conference presentation machine? I did. So, I just trekked on down to my local Ace Hardware store. They actually had four 30 foot rows of nuts, bolts and washers in metric and English threads, springs, copper lugs, brackets and all manner of “hardware store” type hardware. There’s such a selection, that you might want to make an occasional recon trip, just so you have a mental map of where to look for a particular part. Why not plan a field trip with fellow engineers or your hackerspace colleagues?
Don’t discount the dusty old neighborhood local hardware stores either. Make an occasional pilgrimage, there too, perhaps with your STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) inspired kids. These 100-year-old places are full of history and culture … plus probably more than a few potential physical gems, hidden off in a long forgotten cubby-hole.
The last category of parts sources we’ll discuss today are what I call “one-off shops”.
These are niche places catering to very targeted markets. I admit, these stores are a stretch for most people to see how they may be helpful.
The perpetually-struggling Radio Shack stores, those still open after the bankruptcy, are good places to find basic electronic components and tools if you know what you are doing. In my opinion, the store staff has never been very deep on the actual tech theory or operation side. Fortunately, they usually leave you alone to root through the bins to find the perfect part for your project. Take your bounty to the counter, reject giving them your address and phone number, then pay with cash. Mission accomplished.
Check for your local stores as well. We have a 30+-year-old company in Orlando called Skycraft. They have rows and rows of crazy specialty “hardware.” They bill it as surplus and clearly a lot of the parts originally were destined for the military sector or space flight. Nevertheless, they have all kinds of industrial-strength connectors, fasteners, switches, power supplies, transformers, gearboxes, motors and so on.
Skycraft also carries an astonishing selection of wire and cable, that they can cut to length while you wait. Search your area for a similar type store and then go explore for an hour. You’ll certainly come up with some great project ideas. Oh yes, don’t be put off by the staff. They’ve always kind of given off that grumpy and impersonal kind of vibe. They’re good people and their brand of customer service adds to the place’s charm.
Here’s a picture of a pair of specialty push button switches I bought for use in my wired Steampunk Presentation Machine clicker. I paid $2 for each switch and my conference session audiences were mesmerized with the look and feel they gave, bolted into the clicker:
Another, local specialty store is Hinge. They supply antique copper and brass fittings, fasteners, knobs and various early 20th century gadgets. These things might not be critical for your MVP (minimum viable product). But properly finishing out your projects aesthetics will certainly make your creation interesting when you demo it to an audience.
Hinge’s 20,000-foot showroom is immaculate, with everything well marked and in its proper place. The staff is friendly and knowledgeable. Of course, with my interest in Steampunk, Hinge will be one of my new favorite hangouts because they have a ton of parts I can use in my projects.
Lastly, I wanted to mention the old-school auto parts store. They can be extremely valuable and convenient when you need a physical hardware part. My hometown had a place called Cody’s Auto Parts. Back when I was building hot rods, needless to say, I spent a lot of time there.
Early on, I’d go in and ask for a part that would do a certain job. The inevitable “what year and model” question would follow, to which I’d answer, “I don’t have a year or model, I just need something that does this…”. After a while, the owner just pointed to the back and off I’d go to find my part. Don’t bother trying this at a big-box auto parts store. You’ll never have the same kind of informal, hometown customer experience.
In the old-school shops, you’ll also find the welding equipment, bolts and all manner of car parts. Hidden in the bins are also 12-volt solenoids, valves, pressure senders, heavy-duty relays and all kinds of metal piping. They also have various rubber or plastic hoses, low-voltage lights and motors. You probably will need many of these parts as you prototype more ambitious and complicated physical computing projects.
Go Find Your Parts
Building physical computing prototypes requires a fairly comprehensive prospective on resources. Hopefully, in addition to looking in all the obvious places, I hope you’re inspired to explore alternative and one-off places to find the parts you need for your projects. And, be sure to try my “getting ideas by walking around” technique.
The New Stack is a wholly owned subsidiary of Insight Partners, an investor in the following companies mentioned in this article: Shelf.