We go both ways on vendors. Sometimes we like cheap, sometimes the cheapest are the ones who waste the least of our time. Rarely are both true, and it's always caveat emptor. Here are the ones we like. They had no input into the selection process, other than being out there and doing a good job – or not. There are doubtless other good vendors we don't know about, and for obvious reasons, there's not much we can say about the ones we don't like, but are sort of forced to deal with anyway, except to perhaps damn them with very faint praise.
McMaster-Carr What can be said about McMaster? They don't have quite everything but they come pretty close when it comes to mechanical things and tools. They do such a good job of product selection that we didn't even check the last time we bought things like a heat treat oven, a high vacuum pump, or a digital camera from them. All the stuff we get from them is right, it gets here fast with no muss and no fuss. A little experience with the top quality drill bits, mill bits, taps and suchlike they carry will have you wondering why you ever struggled along with the " Harry Homeowner" quality stuff you get at the local hardware stores. Yes, the good bits do cost more, but are worth it. McMaster spans the range from cheap to the very best, it's up to you to decide what you want. You would do well to open an account with these people, as it makes ordering from their web site effortless and safe. They give a couple of percent off if you pay them fast. They are not always the cheapest in bucks, but are almost always the least expensive in total cost, it seems. Their website can be intimidating until you learn to use the search feature and then browse forward and backwards a bit. Turn up your text size if your eyes are like ours.
Digi-Key We have been dealing with DigiKey since almost their beginning, and I think they have made maybe one mistake in decades. Go here for almost all things electronic. They won't have the very latest "in–sampling" parts from everyone, and there are better places to get things if you're doing serious quantities, but you knew that already if you are. They are, above all, reliable. They can be very fast, too, as it seems most shippers have a little pneumatic tube from Minnesota to here. It can be a good place to find data–sheets. Just search on a part number, either the manufacturer's or Digi's, and with luck there will be a link to the data–sheet after clicking on a part number in the search results to go to its page. Their back–order policy is very good. If you pay upfront, they will pay shipping on the back–ordered parts later, and the parts usually come before they predict. There are some things we don't buy here, like say, DB9 connectors. Digi only offers the full-price lines, at a few bucks each. Other sources have the imports for a few per buck.
Caswell Plating We get all of our electroplating, powdercoating, and anodizing supplies here. They have really good after–sale support, and very good documentation that prevents the need for most of it – buy their book. Like McMaster, they do a good job of picking what to carry. You might find almost the same stuff cheaper elsewhere, but our advice is to buy it from Caswell first to find out what you are trying to match! They have a lot of experience in which buffing machines, abrasives wheels and compounds do the best work on a given job. Saved us endless learning curve time.
Surplus Center As with all who sell surplus, the supply of any particular part is variable. You have to get all you'll ever want when they are in stock. In other words, you can't really design this stuff into a product, but you can certainly use it in one-off projects. This is just about the only place to economically get much of what they specialize in. Big motors, hydraulics, stuff like that. Some of what they carry is not surplus, and therefore product–able, it is usually obvious. Caveat: don't order big heavy stuff and little delicate stuff in the same order, the little stuff might not make the trip unbroken.
Harbor Freight We got most of our large machine tools, and many smaller tools here. Some of what they carry is excellent, some is just junk. Hint: go to the store and see for yourself before buying. We are very happy with the major purchases we made there, it is good solid stuff. Some of the cheap specials are...cheap. Forget getting any spare parts for major tools from them. Luckily, they are not the only source for many of the popular Chinese tools. A little careful catalog reading will show that, for example, Grizzly carries most of the same stuff, and does support it.
Grizzly Industrial Sadly, we didn't discover Grizzly until after we'd bought most of our major toolage at Harbor Freight. These guys do a better job of selecting the quality Import stuff, in general, and buy enough of it to get special little touches added, like for example a quick–change tool–post and nicer handles on the lathe they sell that is the equivalent of the one we got from Harbor Freight. Their prices are slightly higher, to be sure, but the stuff is better. We like their carbide insert lathe tools, and router bits, so far. One of our associates at Hidden Valley Woodworking swears by everything he has gotten from them, and this individual is picky about quality. Last time we went there, their web page didn't have quite a lot of their product line on–line, so get a catalog to drool over. We'd send you here before Harbor.
JDR Microdevices The "Grizzly" of build it yourself computers. Not the cheapest, but the stuff is good, and they back it to the hilt. This is a good place to get what electronics parts they sell, they have the inexpensive DB9's for example.
PC Land A local outfit, this is where we buy the bulk of our computer things. They generally have the best prices, and are very knowledgable and helpful. I'm sure their support is good (watched them work with other customers), but we've not needed any, as the stuff we get there just works. Since we buy a two digit number of computers or equivalent in upgrades from them per year, we get a bit of a discount. We really like these guys.
Marlin P. Jones An electronics (mainly) surplus outfit. The same caveats apply to all surplus – you may not be able to get more later. They do know how to pack things, but beware backording things here. Good place for little motors and fans, as well as power supplies.
American Science & Surplus Another interesting surplus outfit. Sometimes they get stuff they don't know what it is, and forget to overcharge for it. Good source for glassware among other things. Entertaining to say the least.
Hidden Valley Woodworking. Just down the road is a very nice woodworking shop, owned by friend Paul Shaut. We get him to make most of our non– metallic jigs and larger woodworking projects, as he is simply better at it than we are. We like when he drops by the shop and shows us some new way to work smart, not hard.
As well as the above, we of course deal with all the local stores, such as Home Depot, Lowe's, and of course, Tractor Supply. Tractor supply carries a line they brand Clarke, which is good quality import stuff. We got our floor standing drill press there, it has ZERO quill play, and cost under $150. The Clarke tool boxes we got after a lot of looking around are both the best and the least expensive, in a very rare confluence of events. Good place to buy a bit of metal especially if you're in a hurry. If you're lucky enough to have one in your town, go check them out. Some of the tractor spares for example are inexpensive bits of metal useful in the machine shop.
I (Doug) have to say some nice words about a few manufacturers. We absolutely love our Makita 1/2" 18v drill. It took a few tumbles from roof level during construction, and survived just fine, thanks. It is simply the finest hand power tool I've ever touched. Beware, though, it has so much torque it can lift you off your feet or punch you in the gut HARD if you get a bit stuck in something. This torque is a nice feature, though, when you chuck a socket adapter into the thing and use it like a portable power rachet. You will wear out before running down the battery. We also have a Makita orbital sander, which is good, but isn't really a standout like the drill.
The Ryobi battery powered stuff we got at Home Depot is also very good, and the batteries are more affordable. The only thing that sucked in their master tool kit was the vacuum cleaner (actually, it doesn't suck very well). Even the little toy chainsaw has its uses. I carry it or the sawzall around when mowing this 30 acre place to whack tree limbs that hit me in the face. Take THAT! Their drill is also a nice one, having levels and magnets built in. It's just that after having that Makita, nothing else is quite as nice.
Our Bosch jigsaw is the nicest example of that tool type I've ever used. Bosch seems to have this whole blade and bit thing really hammered. Their jigsaw blades are the sharpest I've ever seen, and cut fast even at slow saw speeds. This saw and blade combo can actually go slowly enough not to melt plexiglas, a rare thing, while still getting a good cut speed, like over 1/8" per stroke. Their router bits are beyond compare, which is good, as the price is also, sheesh. Compare $26+ for one roundover bit versus $39 for a whole set of "purple" bits from Grizzly. The Grizzly bits aren't quite as perfect, but...either eat rock hard wood with alacrity.
The Foredom–copycat tool we got at Harbor Freight seems as good as the real thing, but at 1/3 the price, which is satisfying. We built an even better one for some things using a flexible shaft with a chuck on the end (from Harbor), a 1/4 hp motor, and a grinder floor stand. Add a drywall mud tray to hold bits, and some office-furniture type casters to the stand, and you have what amounts to a Dremel tool on steroids that is still portable, and quiet besides. Except the one we built is reversable, which is handier than one might think at first. You can get a lot more out of a wire brush or a drum sander if you can go either way, and for working at or near edges, there's this safety advantage possible. Rather than have the tool grab and go around the edge, usually damaging the piece, you can reverse when appropriate so it doesn't do that.
Our Hitachi angle grinder is also excellent, especially when used with a Variac to control the speed and used as a buffer. Can't ask for better tools than the above.
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