This post is part of a new series of DIY maker blog posts by Curtis Soldano, a Hacker Lab teacher and community member.
When thinking about sourcing parts for a project, makers should check their local thrift store or second-hand outlet. Lacking local retail electronic parts stores in this day and age, I've developed a habit of visiting these stores of technology treasures to see what I can find. I've developed an obsession with looking for (and buying) LCD monitors at my local selection of thrift stores — constantly searching, watching. :)
For $10, I set up both of my sons with second monitor for their PC's. For $7, I outfitted a Raspberry Pi arcade cabinet with a monitor. For $10, I bought a monitor for my Magic Mirror project. And, I am ashamed to say, I have a couple of more monitors in my personal parts stash for good measure. I believe the most I have spent is $12 for a 21" monitor. Super cheap are 15" Monitors which make great control panel or compact status displays. At some point I hope to build a stand alone Octoprint setup with one of my 15" thrift store monitors. I'm not sure . . . but I might have a problem and it doesn't stop there.
For Raspberry Pi in particular, look for monitors with DVI ports which can be hooked directly to a Raspberry Pi with a cheap HDMI to DVI converter or cable. DVI ports are a rectangular connector which looks significantly different than the typical VGA connector so they are easy to spot. You can get new DVI to HDMI cables or converters for under $10, under $5 if you look a little further than Amazon. Heck you might even get lucky and find one even cheaper at the thrift store.
Other kinds of finds that can be picked up on the cheap are old clocks, both digital and analog, which can yield components like seven segment LED displays, geared-motors with precise timing characteristics or, in the case of a Quartz clock, oscillating or frequency-locked crystals. "Atomic" clocks have a miniature radio receiver in them — who knows, those parts might be useful in your next project.
Old power supplies and DC power transformers are as abundant as they are cheap. Speakers seem to go to thrift store purgatory before they make their way to the landfill; if nothing else they can be scrapped for a strong permanent magnet.
Old style door bells have solenoids. If you find enough of them with different tones, you could build a electronically driven door bell xylophone. Old game controllers can be used to control robotics. Power transformers can be extracted from microwave ovens, laser diodes and high speed motors from old CD players.
The possibilities are endless. The key is having a mental picture of what parts you need, and what purchases you need to make to acquire those items. Go forth, be thrifty, and let us know what you find and make!
PRO TIP: Because this is second hand merchandise, stores want to continually move product off the shelves to make room for new donations. This means they usually have recurring sale promotions. Time your purchases with these sales to get maximum bang for your buck. More importantly, if you see something sitting on the shelf for more than two weeks, summon a clerk and nicely tell them, "This has been here for a while, would you take an offer" and they will likely accept it.
Sometimes I'll do this right before a sale to ensure I get a discount and the item before the sale so no one else beats me to it. Oftentimes the staff have a hard time accurately pricing dated technology so it gets overpriced and sits. I have had good luck making offers and definitely have saved a couple of bucks here and there. You should too!
About Curtis Soldano: Curtis Soldano is a long time technologist, tinkerer and maker who wants to share his excitement for using cool tech to make cool stuff. He has been with Hacker Lab since before the establishment of the mid-town location and has volunteered his time on many occasions to help grow Hacker Lab by providing elbow grease and skilled electrical maintenance and installations. Curtis’ educational foundation is in Digital Electronics and separately he attained his California State Electrical Contractor license in 2004 after apprenticing for his father in the family business for many years. Curtis’ also worked for over 20 years as producer for top tier tech and entertainment companies like EA, Disney, Atari, Playdom, E*TRADE, GSN and Sega.