by Eric Stricklin AG5EI
While us hams all share a common interest in a broader sense, I’ve learned that the specific part of the hobby each person is drawn to, can vary quite a bit. I enjoy playing with circuit boards and soldering irons, and that’s probably why I decided to start studying for my license in the first place.
It's taken me a few years to accumulate a good stash of electronic components. I thought I would take the time to share some of my experiences with buying components online, how I store them and what to watch out for.
Ebay is where the lion's share of my components came from. For most general purpose passive components, you just can't beat it. A lot of the items came from China, at unbelievably low costs, like 100 5mm LEDs shipped for $1.23, as shown in the photo. Resistors, Capacitors, diodes, and loads of other passive components, I simply cannot complain about the quality. I even ordered some switches, pots, rotary encoders and some connectors, all seem to be of a usable quality. Now I have used most of them in various projects, without incident. I also thought these resistors were a particularly good deal. There are some things though, that I advise against ordering from China. Any, and I literally mean any IC, you'd be better off getting from a trusted supplier. I originally ordered quite a few ICs from China and as I started to use them, I found out that many of them are just junk. The LM386 audio amplifiers that I scored a nice handfull (50 of them to be exact) for only a few bucks, turned out to be missing an internal resistor, and the audio quality was terrible. I replaced one on a breadboard with a Fairchild brand LM386 and the amplifier instantly sounded near perfect. Watch out for fake ICs as well, many of them sold cheap may even display a name brand, but are in fact fake junk. That goes for all ICs, not just Ebay, if it sounds too good to be true, well you know the rest. Some of the voltage regulators I've gotten do seem to work fine on breadboard layouts, but I'm not sure I would trust them in a permanent project though. Some of the other ICs I haven't had a chance to use yet, such as some schmidt triggers and opamps, but my guess is they are sub-par at best, and absolute junk at worst. I did order some generic Arduinos, and am happy to report they work just fine, as many youtubers will vouch for as well. Of coarse I always recommend buying at least one name brand Arduino from the Arduino website just to support the project.
I also ordered some tools, such as a pair of snips and a solder sucker. The snips work about 10 times better than I thought they would given the cheap price. The solder sucker isn't the best, but it does work. I bought some protoboards of varying sizes, the quality was hit and miss. Most were thin, and the soldering pads were of poor quality. After some tinkering with the heat adjustment on my soldering iron, and trying different sizes of solder, I was finally able to use them but from now on I will only order quality protoboards. I've found the thick FR4 fiberglass boards to work very well.
With the cheap prices of Chinese goods on ebay, comes slow shipping. I will say that most packages arrived before they were scheduled to. The majority were in hand within 2 weeks of ordering, but some did take the full 3-4 weeks. I knew that shipping was going to be slow on these items, and was prepared to wait, as I didn't need any of the items immediately. That's also why I ordered a lot of things I didn't need for any upcoming projects, but thought I would one day use. These included some surface mount components, a larger assortment of transistors, thermal compound, multiple size heat sinks, solar panels, fuses, battery holders and some usb connectors.
Not all of the items I ordered on Ebay came from China. Some were from U.S. sellers. I ordered a good deal of wire for one project I was doing, and a 4x20 LCD. Some of the electronic components being sold by U.S. sellers on Ebay, are the exact same products as those from China, but with a slightly higher price and much faster shipping. I would also imagine that if you have a problem with an item or shipping, (I never did luckily) it would be easier to deal with a U.S. seller than one in China. I have heard from several sources on the internet though, that the Chinese sellers are notorious for taking care of any problems, and returning messages.
Most of the items I recieved from Ebay, did not have datasheets available. For most of these items like LEDs and even the LCD display, one wasn't really nessesary. I did order some relays with 12 volt coils for a project I was working on, and ended up needing the data sheet to obtain the physical deminsions so that I could
lay out a design in Eagle, before having a circuit board made. I ended up using a digital caliper to measure everything carefully, so no big deal, but it would have been nice to have the datasheet.
For the most part, I had limited success ordering components from Amazon. The selection is just not there. I did order some things, including a set of LEDs that came with some resistors, an Arduino learning kit, some protoboards, breadboards, and a few other things. Most of the time they didn't have what I was looking for, or I thought the price was too high. I did order 2 different soldering irons, including this one and this one. The Vastar is actually the one I prefer, but they both work fine. I went ahead and got a cheap set of helping hands, that work satisfactory. I also ordered a head magnifier with a built in LED light, and a set of glasses with interchangeable eye loops as well. As expected, everything from Amazon shipped fast. I have an Amazon Prime membership, so sometimes if I want something quick, I check Amazon first.
These are the giant online suppliers, and I'm sure there are plenty of other good ones too, but the ones in the title are ones I've used before. It can be a daunting task to sort through their massive selection of components. If you can dream it up, they probably sell it. Sometimes you have to use the filter functions when searching for parts on these websites, to have any hope of narrowing your results down. The prices may not be the lowest, but they are reasonable usually. You'll always find a datasheet, and fast shipping. The items are almost always packaged well too, in anti-static material. After learning from my Ebay lessons on ICs, this is where I ended up getting all of mine. I also ordered some other things along with the ICs, since it wasn't going to make the shipping costs go up. Now that I have a decent hoard of parts, I order from these places most of the time. I do try to group all of my parts into as few orders as possible to save on shipping.
The only 2 physical locations I've ever shopped for components, are Radio Shack and Fry's. I can't imagine Radio Shack actually stocking electronic components in their stores anymore, but who knows. Fry's is an awesome store, but unfortunately there's not one near me. The prices only seemed slightly higher than online, but the selection was really good. If you live close to one, lucky you! In the words of my electrical engineer brother-in-law "sometimes you just need that one damn resistor to make it work" and places like Fry's are your saving grace.
I haven't tapped this option yet. I've heard a lot of electronics repair shops will sell components to the needy, or sell old parts. It's one of those "your mileage may vary" things, but if you need something in a pinch it might be worth a shot. It also might be a good idea to build a relationship with a repair shop. Search google or a phone book, you'd be surprised at how many repair shops are still out there. Many of them are owned/operated by hams.
A lot of your fellow hams probably have good hoards of components also. I can't speak for all the other hams in the world, but I can say that most hams love helping each other out, and most of us wouldn't miss a few cents worth of components if another ham needed them. Even if they don't have what you need, they may know where to find parts in your area.
I've pulled some components from old electronics before. Sometimes they are a pain to remove, and often all I find is every component BUT the one I'm looking for. Get yourself a good solder sucker, and some solder whick and you too can rob components from dead electronics! Now days, I never throw away any electronic gadget until I've scoured it for parts. Bathroom scale? Hello load sensors! Old Operation game? Why yes I'll take that piezzo! You never know what you'll find, it's also good fun, and you might learn something.
A wise man would actually consider the storage for all these items, BEFORE buying them, but I wasn't very wise. These organizers are probably about the most popular option. A tackle box is good for starting out, small zip lock bags work well too. I found some organizers in the tackle section at my local Wal-Mart for less than $5 and bought a few. You can see in the photos I printed and taped some labels to the lids of them so that I could remember what/where things are. Also a cross reference of capacitors and the corresponding number. There are a lot of good plastic drawer type storage organizers out there, but the drawers are usually larger and there aren't enough of them. With electronics organizing, you want smaller drawers, in higher quantities. You could drive yourself mad trying to organize them perfect, 50 different resistor values taking up 50 individual slots/drawers is a bit much for me I decided. I try to organize things the best I can, but recognize that I am going to make some compromises too. For example, my capacitors are in a row of slots at the top of the box shown, the number values go up from left to right. So I may not know exactly which slot has the one I need, but I can get close, and can usually find the one I want without too much digging. I left my resistors attached to the individual cardboard strips they are typically sold with, and those have the values written on them. It sometimes takes me a couple minutes to find the value I'm looking for, but as I always say, I was built for time and not speed.
I looked for starter kits extinesively and didn't have much luck. Most of them had too few components, were way overpriced and were usually missing a few things I would have had to buy separately. I think it may be a bit more work, but better to peiece together a nice component hoard. Some of the learning material out there comes with , or can be purchased with a kit containing the needed items. This might be a good idea for some folks. Make is a popular company, I have not purchased any electronic kits specific to their books, but I have owned some of their books and am quite happy with them.
This is highly subjective, but here is a list that has a lot of the components a person would use
in ham radio, and some other projects as well. All components listed are through hole mount unless otherwise noted.
Learning about electronics and radios, is not a linear process. The best way to start learning is to just jump right in. Find a project that your really interested in, and dive right in. Theory and formal education certainly don't hurt, but are not required. With experience, also comes a deeper understanding of how electronics/radios work. You may not always understand every little detail about how a circuit your trying to construct/repair works, but keep in mind that as long as your tinkering, your also learning. The Arduino is a great way for beginners to get started, and a great opportunity for "old dogs" to learn new tricks as well. Worried you'll make mistakes? You will. Scared of destroying parts? Who cares they are cheap! Getting frustrated also comes with the territory, but when that happens just remember to take a break and relax. Above all, this hobby is supposed to be FUN!73s!