It’s easy to build up a “junk box” of items you can use to build projects seen in MAKE — or just about anything you can imagine.

Many of my articles for MAKE take advantage of found components, often picked out of trash bins. Just because an electronic device has failed at its original task doesn’t mean it can’t perform other tasks. Castoffs can be recovered and the parts repurposed in countless ways.

Recently, my trash-picking adventures turned up a discarded laser printer. I set about finding what wonders were waiting beneath the plastic covers.

Jackpot of Parts

My first discovery was the main circuit board. Once I stripped the heat shields off, I found over 50 nonproprietary electronic parts, including capacitors, resistors, voltage regulators, transistors, transformers, coils, and integrated circuits. Jackpot! A couple of boards like this, and you’re on your way to building a backup supply of parts for future projects. A second, smaller PC board also yielded numerous useful components.

There are 2 strategies for keeping these components in stock: take the time to desolder the parts and store them separately, or leave them on the boards and inventory them on a sheet of paper attached to the board for future reference.

Digging deeper into the printer, I uncovered the paper transport mechanism. Gears, gears, and more gears! I harvested 2 gear mechanisms for turning rotating movement into linear movement. Anyone interested in robotics projects would find these useful.

The rest of the teardown revealed the laser tube and lenses, various rollers, wires, springs, and hardware, micro switches, relays, and of course a motor. I scored over 200 free, useful parts found for future use.

And don’t forget the plastic or metal case and chassis parts. I keep a couple boxes of these allegedly useless scraps to cut and shape when developing design ideas.

WARNING: Capacitors can hold a charge for months after they’ve been disconnected. Always bleed off the charge to ground, to prevent any shock hazard.

Inventory and Storage

So now that we’ve begun the process of pre-owned parts procurement, let’s give some thought to keeping track of what we’ve found. I’ve tried many strategies over the years, and I’ve discovered that one of the easiest (and cheapest) ways to store most electronic components for future use is in common mailing envelopes. For example, you’ve amassed a quantity of resistors of various values. Sort them by ohm rating (and perhaps by wattage and tolerance), and place them in envelopes marked with the relevant values. When you need a 100-ohm, 2-watt, 5% resistor to complete the circuit you’re playing with, you know right where to find it. This strategy works great for any components that are not potentially damaged by static discharge in handling. Complementary metal-oxide semiconductors (CMOS) and field-effect transistors (FET), as well as many integrated circuits, can be damaged by even the slightest static electric discharge. Such parts should be handled while taking anti-static precautions and need to be stored in static-free bags or containers.

Larger parts require larger containers. Pill bottles, as well as juice and coffee cans, are great found storage containers for the bigger items in your junk box. Again, clear marking with a felt tip pen or label maker makes quick location of any desired part a snap.

Sometimes it’s useful to have a container to gather all the parts you might want for a specific project. Let’s say I want to keep all the mechanical parts I found in the castoff printer for a specific robotics project. Head to your local discount or sporting goods store and find the aisle devoted to fishing. You’ll find dozens of small, partitioned containers designed to hold fishing lures and hooks. These are perfect for project parts management.


Fair Warning: There is an addictive quality to parts gathering. Once, my personal junk box was simply a box. Now, it’s more like a junk room. But I know that I have all I need to make just about anything that comes to mind, and most of it was found and free. That’s the maker way!


  • Ammon

    I tore down a Color Laserjet 4550 a few years back, and found a similar trove of stepper motors, gears, polished shafts, solenoids, clutches, and so on and so forth.

  • tonyv

    No wonder that Laser printer didn’t work, with the baseball bat stuck inside it!

  • chuck

    This is a great way to get parts, especially for a beginner. Get an inexpensive heat gun and a painter’s 5-in-1 tool from a discount tool store like Harbor Freight. Put a circuit board in a vice and heat the solder side while gently prying the parts you want loose with the 5-in-1. You will have tons of parts to experiment with in no time. A $10 heat gun will give you hundreds of dollars worth of recycled electronic parts. Get the Make components encyclopedia to identify the weird ones and learn about various types of components hands-on.

    • Trav

      I was just about to comment the same thing. Heat guns are great at bulk de-soldering especially multi pin devices that would take a long time to free each pin.
      But, remember old boards are excellent training tools as well. For both learning soldering and de-soldering. Working with scrap boards is great for learning how to pull components without lifting pads.

  • John T

    If you’re lucky, the printer will have a separate power supply. Don’t dismantle it if you can help it. Good chance it will output a suitable voltage for your microcontroller and another for your motors. Why build a new PSU for your project later when someone has already done it for you?
    I did this a while ago with an epson, ended up with a 5v/36v PSU and the motor drivers. Still not gone for the more generic parts though, not much use for tiny SMT parts (Yet!)

  • Rich

    I used the stepper motors from old Ljet IIIs for my CNC machine (they are pretty powerful 1.8deg/step), and the power supplies from those put out some nice clean power for various other things. I have another PS from some old random printer that has about 4 different voltages coming out of it. Make sure to put the PSs in enclosures (cheap plastic bins from the dollar store work fine) to keep from frying yourself.

  • mary beth jaynes

    Or if you also sew you can go to Joannes and pick up a sewing box and store the electrical goods there

  • Another trick when buying the partitioned plastic bins, is to compare the prices. For example, some big stores like K-Mart or Fred Meyer have the same plastic bins in more than one location for different prices. The same bin will be in hardware, then fishing tackle area, then storage, then in arts & crafts, and lastly in sewing. I often look at the coupons as well. Sometimes there is a storage coupon and sometimes there is a sewing coupon etc….often the cashier won’t know that you got the partitioned plastic bin from the storage aisle and are using the fishing tackle bin. (^:= It has saved me at least a hundred bucks over the years.

  • James Taverne

    I think the rods are the most valuable parts in printers as they are pretty good quality and can be used in cnc machines or 3d printers. Salvaging parts is not utilized as much as it should be. Here are some tips on salvaging parts: http://jamestav.com/salvaging-electronic-components/

  • Dylan Hart

    Where did the Bat come from ?

  • Stephen Griswold

    I hope that bat isn’t the main disassembly tool. LOL. I prefer to go the powered screwdriver method for disassembly, a lot less mess less flying pieces.

    One idea, though itself is a little brutal, when removing parts in great number, I’ve used a small butane torch, quick passes over the soldered side to losen parts, but pacing them on cotton cloth immediately to allow them to cool..

    • I’ve done the same thing with a butane torch or a heat gun. The heat gun raises the temperature more evenly and doesn’t burn the circuit board so easily. Either way, I should probably use a good fume extractor; the smoke from those boards and burnt components is noxious as hell!

      • Stephen Griswold

        My only problem, finding a reasonable heat gun. (Ironic, guess where the pocket torch came from? (H-F)
        I haven’t gotten into SMT yet, but finding I might with some components, and that heat gun would be a LOT less brutal!

  • Very good! As you said, it becomes addictive to gather parts, as I can find myself. Sometimes I wander the streets near home in the hope of finding some electronic equipment thrown away, in order to disassemble and gather useful parts to my projects. For example, last week I found two CRT TVs, and they provided me with several speakers, capacitors, fly-back, high-wattage resistors, sensors and many other parts. It´s fantastic!

  • joeinslw