13 Useful, Cheap Product Substitutions

Home Science Workshop

Recently, I decided to gather together some of the DIY recipes I knew for making your own paints, glues, solvents, cleaners, etc. Along with other money-saving and on-hand product substitutions. I also reached out to my Facebook network. Here are some of the better substitutions I found.


PTFE Teflon Grill (and Crafting) Sheets

Years ago, I discovered Teflon-based “craft mats.” These are PTFE Teflon sheets that almost nothing sticks to. They make the perfect project work surface for any kind of hobby/crafting work. I never work without a Teflon mat on one side of my work surface and a self-healing cutting mat on the other. But I just discovered another great use for these mats. I saw a commercial for a Teflon grilling mat, a piece of this same material that you put over the grate of your grill to prevent items falling through and dirtying your grill. You even still get grill marks on your food. When I bought my first branded craft mat, I paid a whopping $13 for it. Then I discovered that they are identical to generic PTFE sheets and you can get 5 of those for $8 on Amazon (delivered, Prime). Branded grill sheets go for as much as $5 each. They are the same as the generic sheets, so don’t be hoodwinked into spending more than you need to, and for goodness sake, get yourself some of these. They’re amazing.

Airbrush Cleaner

When I first got my airbrush, I bought a $9, 16 oz bottle of airbrush cleaner for it. The first time I used it, I thought: “Wow, this smells just like windshield washing solution.” Searching online, I discovered that, surprise, it’s basically windshield washing solution. There are a bunch of online recipes for DIY cleaner. They all involve windshield washing liquid (or window cleaner), isopropyl alcohol, glycerin, and distilled water. For that $9 I spent, I could have made enough airbrush cleaner to last me for years. The basic formula is (e.g. for 8 oz) 30% windshield washing liquid/window cleaner, 10% isopropyl alcohol, 10 or so drops of glycerin, and the rest water. If you’re using window cleaner, some say to only use ammonia-free, as ammonia isn’t so great for your air brush. Others report using Windex for years without issues. You can get ammonia-free Glass Plus on Amazon for under $3 for 32 ounces. BTW: “SuperLube,” and other airbrush lubrication products, are basically just glycerin, so feel free to skip buying specialty lube and just use glycerin instead.

Matte Medium Paint Thinner

The quality of my miniature painting took a giant leap when I started thinning the acrylic-based hobby paints I was using. Many painters just thin with water. But that makes it hard to apply consistently smooth, thin coats. When you water-thin your paint, the pigment can separate from the medium and the water. To help keep your thinned paint integrated, you need a matte medium-based thinner. There are oodles of formulae out there, but basically all you need is to fill a (e.g. 7ml eyedropper) bottle with mostly distilled water and 5 or so drops of matte medium. Experiment until you find the amount of medium that keeps everything integrated while also keeping the paint nice and thin. Some people also add a few drops of Flow Aid. You make that yourself, too: Mix about 6ml of distilled water with 5 or so drops of glycerine. You can also just add a modest drop to glycerin to your batch of acrylic thinner.

All the Paints from 5 Colors

Gaming modelers and painters will appreciate this one. Here is a chart showing how to derive a bunch of Citadel paints from just five basic Citadel (or similar) colors. These are obviously all common colors used in many other hobby and art paint ranges.


I asked on my Facebook wall for any ideas my network had for DIY product substitutes. Here are a few of what got shared.

Homemade Sugru

Steven K. Roberts: Homemade Sugru – silicone sealant and corn starch. [Here’s an Instructable on making it.]

Bug Spray for Plants

Ross Hershberger: Quart of warm water, 1 tsp Neem Oil, 1/2 tsp liquid Castile soap. Spray on. It kills scale insects (which are pretty tough) and is pretty harmless to fauna.

Olive Oil Paint Cleaner

Christos Liacouras: I was shooting hoops in my parent’s driveway years ago when our next-door neighbor appeared, his hands covered in paint. “Do you have some turpentine so I can clean my hands? I can’t even use the door knob to get into my house!” I asked him, “Is it oil-based paint?” He paused, and said “Yes.” I said, “OK, you need olive oil.” I opened the kitchen door and told my mom, and she appeared with the Green Jug, Like all Greek mothers, she decanted the store-bought olive oil into the Green Jug for later use. (Your jug may have been a different color). The next-door neighbor cautiously held out his hands, and my mom poured olive oil into them. He rubbed and to his amazement, the paint dissolved into the olive oil. As he used a paper towel to clean his hands, he looked at me and my mom like we were from another tribe, heirs to the Ancient Ways.

Nail Polish Remover Acetone

Lenore Edman: We’ve been buying acetone marketed as nail polish remover (but also labeled as 100% acetone) at grocery outlets because their pump dispensers are better (and much cheaper) than the ones we can get from our local lab supply shop. We refill them from the cheap can of acetone from Home Despot.

Coffee Filter Embroidery Stabilizer

Dave Dalton: Coffee filters make an excellent substitution for embroidery stabilizer (backing paper). [Details here. Image via Artfully Sew.]

Copper Etching Solution for PCBs

Andrew Lewis: Mix muriatic acid (patio cleaner/pool acid) with 3% hydrogen peroxide (mouthwash) to make copper etching solution, instead of using ferric chloride, for PCBs (2:1 peroxide to acid). Our old pal Stephen Hobley recommends an even easier to come by mix of white vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, and salt.

Home-Sourced Resin Dies

Peter Brown pointed me to this really cool video that he recently did experimenting with various alternatives to dyes used in resin casting. He tried everything from powdered make-up to Kool-Aid, mustard, and hot sauce. The results may surprise you.

No-Slip Paint

Andrew Lewis: If you want no-slip floor paint for steps or a boat gunwale, apply the first coat of paint and sprinkle fine play-sand onto it while it’s still wet. When it dries, brush or blow off the excess sand and apply a top coat of your paint.

Gelatin Gesso

DC-area artist Angela White pointed me to a book, Green Guide for Artists. It includes a number of DIY, nontoxic recipes for all sorts of art supplies. For instance, to make your own gesso, you need chalk/plaster of Paris, gelatin, water, honey. Mix 1 part chalk/plaster of Paris to 1 part water. Separately, mix 1 part gelatin to 8 parts water. Add one part of your gelatin mixture to 10 parts of the chalk/plaster mix. Add a fee drops of honey. The combined mixture will thicken as it stands.

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at garstipsandtools.com.

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