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 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.


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.