Toolbox: Shop bookshelf (catalogs)

Toolbox: Shop bookshelf (catalogs)

In the Make: Online Toolbox, we focus on tools that fly under the radar of more conventional tool coverage: in-depth tool-making projects, strange or specialty tools unique to a trade or craft that can be useful elsewhere, tools and techniques you may not know about, but once you do, and incorporate them into your workflow, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without them. And, in the spirit of the times, we pay close attention to tools that you can get on the cheap, make yourself, refurbish, etc.

This week, we finish out our Shop Shelf series with a column on beloved tools, parts, and supply catalogs. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always had a “thing” for catalogs. Maybe it’s the tool fetishist in me, maybe it’s the ravenous American consumer, or maybe it’s the techno-utopian who thinks that the right tool, the right part, the right material, will make everything… well all right. Whatever it is (and it’s probably all of these things or more), I love my catalog collection and always get a little thrill whenever a new edition shows up in my mailbox. And at least the catalogs themselves are free, so it’s a very cheap thrill.

Apparently, I’m not the only catalog coveter. The query I sent to my maker network returned tons of results, too many to detail here (so some are simply listed at the end of the piece). As always, please chime in with Comments and tell us what are some of your favorite catalogs.



If you peer onto the shop shelves of every electronics geek in the US, chances are, the Digikey catalog will be spotted there. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t have one on my shelf. I even remember having a healthy respect for Digikey before I started messing with hardware and electronics, as I’d watch my wirehead friends ogling the components, spec’ing parts, and tearing into their Digikey orders when they arrived. I remember thinking: “Man, these guys sure are excited by this incomprehensible catalog and all of these strange components I can’t begin to understand.” Now I understand.




Jameco has a soft spot in my Charliplexed heart, as it was the first electronics catalog I started ordering tools, parts, and kits from. I started ordering from their computer parts catalog, got the electronics catalog, and fed my early electronics interest from there. One of the first things I bought from them was a 35-piece computer/electronics tool set. I still use many of the tools (e.g. the solder sucker) from that set on a nearly daily basis. And I still order from Jameco on occasion and have always been happy with their products and the customer service.



All Electronics

Another catalog that’s always been in my collection. I haven’t ordered anything from them in years, but I always enjoy scanning their offerings.



Electronics Goldmine
Dan Barlow of HacDC writes: Electronics Goldmine offers discounts on SMT components, and often has cool, weird stuff like IC masks and wafers. They also have a special robot section.


A bunch of my maker buds recommended the venerable Marlin P Jones & Assoc catalog. MAKE’s Collin Cunningham writes: “MPJA has some awesome prices on a variety of electronics equipment. I recently picked up a Mastech Dual 0-30V benchtop power supply for under 200 beans and I’m quite happy with it. They also have dirt-cheap toggle switches and some unusual surplus items, like a security camera mount I found useful for shooting macro/project builds.”



A catalog I’ve never even seen in person but one that shows up on a lot of recommendation lists for electronic component catalogs. And like all of the other catalogs here, it’s sent free of charge, and it looks to be the size of a phonebook. And like most of the catalogs here, there are online and PDF versions, if you don’t need the dead tree edition.



Small Parts
I’m not sure if Small Parts has a print version anymore. I couldn’t find one on their website. The last time I requested a catalog (several years ago), a CD-ROM showed up, and a cool little pocket-sized drill bit spec’ing guide. This is a great source for small orders of materials and supplies that you’d normally have to order in quantity. I hate the online version of their catalog, but you can download it as a PDF. There’s so much fascinating stuff here, it’s fun and inspiring to just browse. Our new intern Sean Ragan writes: “This is where you go if you need to build, say, a gas chromatograph from scratch. High-performance hardware for demanding research applications. Exotic plastics, including PEEK and Teflon, too!”



Lee Valley
This catalog has all sorts of woodworking tools, gardening tools, and hardware. The tools are to die for, high-quality, beautifully photographed. You do NOT want to look at this catalog if you’re itching to upload your plastic. Danger! Danger!



Lindsay’s Technical Books
If every wirehead has the Digikey and MPJA catalogs on his/her shelf, every steampunk and retro-technician has the Lindsay’s Technical Books catalog. Sean Ragan: “Lindsay’s features reprints of classic machine manuals and books on fundamental technology skills. Famous as the publishers of Dave Gingery’s pour-your-own-machine-shop-from-scrap-aluminum series. A great depository of forgotten lore.”



Garrett-Wade Tool Catalog

Sean Ragan: Tools by and for people who love tools. If you need a chest drill or a Yankee screwdriver, or any other exotic hand tool, this is the place to look.


American Science and Surplus
We’ve talked about American Science and Surplus countless times here on MAKE. This catalog is what you’d get if you crossed one of the tech parts catalog above with the Archie McPhee catalog. Sean Ragan writes: “Not only is their catalog chock-full of awesome, cheap junk for hacking and creative reuse, it’s also downright hilarious. Consider their description of the blank dice they used to sell: ‘We’ve got tetra! We’ve got octa! We’ve got hedrons so poly-sided we dunno what to call ’em!'”



Sean writes: “Micromark sells tools intended for model builders, including many tools which are custom-manufactured by and for this catalog. The offer casting supplies, small clamps, gluing jigs, micro machine tools, etc., etc.” As a former tabletop wargame terrain-builder and miniature painter, this is one of my all-time fave catalogs. Most of the tools and supplies I used in that hobby came from here.



I wrote a review of the Plastruct catatog for Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools. Here’s what I said:
“This is the scale plastic stock and model parts catalog used by architects, scratch-build modelers, railroad hobbyists, and other miniature makers. They have EVERYTHING at various mini scales: I-beams, T-beams, H-beams, tubing, tiny plumbing fittings, stone and brick-patterned sheets, plastic sheet stock in every size, color and thickness. The next time you watch a sci-fi film and see a far-away shot of, say a mining colony on a lonely asteroid, you’re probably actually looking at a big chunk of the Plastruct product line. Their website is abominable; get their paper catalog.”



Polytek Plastics
MAKE and CRAFT’s Becky Stern says: “Polytek not only has detailed descriptions of the products they sell, but also loads of mold-making advice (with pictures!). I’ve ordered different varieties of silicone mold rubbers from them. The catalog has information about people using their materials and the industries in which they work (props, special effects, landscaping, concrete, and architectural work, etc.). They haven’t changed the cover of their catalog forever, but hey, if it’s not broken, why fix it?”



This shipping supply specialty catalog is the go-to source when looking for shipping and packaging tools, supplies, and materials. I rarely order from it, but I love looking through it. And we certainly use a lot of their products or Maker Media packing and shipping and for Maker Faire.



Industrial Safety
Becky: “Great for stocking your shop with the right equipment to keep you safe while making whatever it is you make. It’s where I got all my welding gear. I’m just sad they don’t carry smaller sizes in gloves and jackets. I guess 5-foot tall ladies aren’t their target demo. Their masks and respirators go well with any of the products you order from Polytek.”



Scenic Express
This is the catalog I get the most excited about seeing in my mailbox, and I’ve never ordered a thing from it. It’s targeted at the model train market, but anybody working in miniatures, from dollhouse makers to wargamers, will find incredible stuff here. They carry all sorts of miniature trees, grass, foliage, buildings, molds for making rocks, bridges, and stonework, little plastic people going about their daily lives, and all of the tools and supplies you need to create your own Lilliputian wonderlands.


Nate B from HacDC sent this list of catalogs and I was unaware of all of them (except for Sweetwater Sound), so I thought I’d post his message en toto:

Nasco caters to veterinarians and farmers, science teachers, and lab sampling technicians with a variety of different catalogs. I’ve gotten everything from elbow-length gloves (hello, transmission fluid!) to a cheese grater from them.

Black Box used to have great reference pages in their paper catalog, but it’s been years since I’ve gotten one. Do they still do this? L-Com is doing a similar thing now but on a much smaller scale, and they seem determined to spend more on mailing me catalogs than I’ve spent on buying products from them.

Campmor’s little monochrome newsprint catalog is mostly sunglasses porn (I don’t know how anyone can have 850 different pairs of glasses, and they’re all different from year to year, except a fetishist), but there are some really neat ideas buried in the other parts of the catalog. I buy stuff from them on occasion, but mostly I just flip through the quarterly issues to keep up on the innovations. Also handy: It’s fairly soft paper, so it fills an emergency-standby role one reserved for the Sears catalog. (heh.)

Ditto Sweetwater Sound, for audio gear. Good for a giggle, at the prices people will apparently pay for Mac gear, or software to distort their audio in very specific ways. GSnap, folks! Anyway, there’s tons of cool stuff in there. If you’re ever in Fort Wayne, tour their facility! They’ve built and moved into new digs since I was last in town, and the previous “too small” place blew my mind. I can’t imagine Fort Sweetwater.

Fastenal just earned a place on my bookshelf for having Akro and Lewis shelf bins at prices and minimum-quantities that made ULINE look abusive. They do a lot more than fasteners, and if you have a Grainger or McMaster-Carr fetish, give Fastenal a look. I was also impressed with the service at a local outfit called E&R Industrial, as I was able to walk into their headquarters showroom and pay cash for stuff that Fastenal would’ve taken four days to ship to my nearest location. But I guess living in the (former?) motor city has its perks.

Everything I said about E&R applies to Wholesale Tool () except that the products they carry are a lot more like Harbor Freight in quality. Nice folks though, with no hassles when I returned something that turned out to be even crappier than I’d anticipated given the price. They don’t do full catalogs anymore (starting this year), so I’m not sure they belong on the list.


Alden Hart, from Dorbot DC, HacDC, and a MAKE magazine author as of Volume 18, sent me this list (along with recommendations for MPJA and ULINE covered above):

Grizzly Industrial – Machine tools and accessories, everything from machinist wax and scribes to 5-ton lathes.

Enco – Machine tools and parts. Kind of expensive, but the super savers have a lot a good deals. Good for precision equipment.

Harbor Freight Machine tools and accessories. Cheap. Not good for precision components. Good service.

Global Industrial – Lots of stuff for outfitting your shop. I got some great benches from them. Beware of shipping costs; some of this stuff is heavy.

Delvies Plastics – Online only, I think. Great prices on small quantities of plastic stock, casting resins, etc.

Speedy Metals – Online only. Great prices in metals and various types of stock. Cheaper than their eBay store once shipping is factored in.

Surplus Traders – Extreme Deals sections (when you need more than $100 worth of cheap parts. Run by a guy named Ted. Square dealer.)


Instructables author Brennn10 also has a round-up of the 10 Best Electronics Catalogs that includes some not listed here.


[Thanks to Marc de Vinck, Becky Stern, Collin Cunningham, Sean Ragan, Nate B, Alden Hart, Thomas Edwards, Dan Barlow, Kent Barnes, Andrew Q Righter, and anyone else I’ve forgotten who sent me catalog suggestions]



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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

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