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Bill Gurstelle is a Contributing Editor for MAKE magazine. His most recent book is entitled Absinthe & Flamethrowers: Projects and Ruminations on the Art of Living Dangerously. You can follow Bill on his danger-quest at twitter.com/wmgurst. He is a guest Make: Online author for the month of August.


What in the world is obtainium? It may sound like a mixture of osmium, barium, and titanium, but it’s not. It’s the stuff you will need to obtain – parts, chemicals, and equipment – to make cool stuff. Obtainium comes from many places. Sometimes you find it, sometimes you buy it.

If you need a general, commonly-used part for a general project, most people will use a full-line retailer like McMaster or Small Parts, Inc. If you need a more specialized part, for say, a robot or a solar energy project, it’s easy enough to find specialty retailers online.

But what if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for? Or, you simply want ideas?

Then go to the local science surplus store. Surplus stores are places of great inspiration. A walk up and down the aisles of a good one will spark any number of great project ideas. Today, I visited my local favorite, Ax-Man Surplus, in St. Paul, MN to obtain a few key project parts. But it’s hard to stay on task, what with all the potential project material surrounding me.

Axman 11.jpg

Look at all this stuff I didn’t even know I needed!

Axman gas mask.jpg

I summoned enough self-control to take a pass on the gas masks.

Bill at Axman1.jpg

This is pretty interesting, but I didn’t buy it. Now I think I should have.

rheostat.jpg

But look at this, a whopping nice rheostat that could be useful for that arc light project I’ve been working on. With luck, I can get rid of the salt water resistor tank I’ve been using. Pretty cheap, too.

There are scientific surplus stores everywhere. I found this list online and it seems like somebody is updating it, at least occasionally. If you’ve a store you really like, please comment and let other readers know.


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Comments

  1. Gizmo says:

    OMG! It has been a decade since I have been to AxMan.

    Love it there. Back in the early 90s they had a big box of character LCD modules that a friend got away with for $2 each module. 2 line by 16 I think. Quite the steal.

  2. Mike Yancey says:

    These folks are the ultimate recyclers.

  3. Jared Rusten says:

    I can’t help but think of the awesome surplus places that have closed. From that list that was linked, my two favorite spots: C&H Surplus in Pasadena, and Triangle Machinery in San Jose have shut down. There just doesn’t seem to be a business model to sustain places like that, and I haven’t seen an online resource that can maintain accurate inventory info on the random churn that occurs in these rare, wonderful, outposts.

    I’m positively sick about it. When I immediately need a pulley, casters, extra belts, capacitors, a motor, etc. I no longer have the aisles and aisles of glorious industrial salvage that Triangle offered just down the street from me.

    For me this post was a cruel tease.

  4. mr_steve says:

    I’ve been going to ax-man since I was a kid. I’ve started many projects just by walking around in there and saying “Hm, I bet I could use that for something…”

  5. MattMiddleton says:

    There’s a great one in Toronto, ON – Active Surplus! They’ve been around for ages, and you can get all sorts of crazy stuff there.

  6. Salviati says:

    I remember the 50 gallon drum of Teddy Ruxpin mouths and eyes that they used to have… Good times!

    1. Anonymous says:

      I bought a few…

  7. Spikenzie says:

    Smallish but good surplus section, also sells new low cost/quality items. Just off of Sources Boulevard in Montreal, QC. (Was called DDO Electronics.)

  8. Frost says:

    Way back when (we were 13 or 14) a friend and I used to go to Ax Man to get parts for ham radio TR boxes and the like. I used to come out of there with my hands nice and grubby from digging around in huge buckets of 4PDT relays and the like.

    In later years, as my tastes refined, I moved to Acme Electronics in Minneapolis, which had a little more, shall we say, “organization” than Ax Man. But I missed the iron lung in the window…

    I moved away from the cities many decades ago, but I still love to hear about one of the greatest surplus places on earth!