October 1971 Popular Electronics
Table of Contents
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles
published October 1954 - April 1985. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.
If - and that's a big "if"
- you can find a hobby shop today, it is still a great source of tools and materials
for building electronics projects. Just as the convenience, vast selection of products,
and competitive prices of the Internet has been killing all sorts of brick and mortar
stores since the early 21st century, local hobby shops (LHS's) have all but disappeared
from most towns. There are still a handful of full-featured, well-stocked hobby shops
to be found, but they are rare anymore. A lot of the small hobby-type hand tools (X-acto
knives and saws, Dremel tools & bits) can be bought in home improvement stores, and
the large craft stores often carry balsa, aircraft plywood, poplar wood, small gauge
brass and aluminum tubing and sheets, plastic models and paint, and Estes rockets and
engines. The prices are usually so high that I only buy from them if I have a 50%-off
coupon. Otherwise, I have to resort to online buying. I try to buy from the LHS when
it is convenient. I'd like to help keep the hobby shops in business, but on an RF Cafe
income I can't afford to be very generous. Here in Erie, we still have
Maxwell's Hobby Shop and
Gehrlein's Hobby Shop, which is quite the exception given how small
Erie is. We do have a very active control line flying club (Bean Hill Flyers) and a somewhat active R/C club (Thermal G), so that helps.
Don't Bypass the Hobby Shop
A Gold Mine of Hard-to-Find Tools and Materials
for the Electronics Experimenter
By Frank H. Tooker
Your hobby interests may not extend to model railroading, airplanes, or ships, but
that is no reason for you to pass right by the model hobby shop when you are out shopping
for items for your electronics hobby. When you browse around a modern, well-stocked hobby
shop, you will be amazed at the variety of items you find that are useful in electronics.
Materials and tools that are obtainable only with difficulty or perhaps not at all
from electronics suppliers and hardware stores are right there on display in the hobby
shop. To give you an idea of what you can expect to find, let's discuss some examples.
Basic Materials. Precision-made telescoping brass tubing, round or
square, is a standard item in any hobby model shop. Available in a wide variety of diameters
and square dimensions, these tubes fit one inside another so precisely that they can
be used anywhere as bearings.
Useful hobby shop offerings for experimenters include wide variety
of sizes of brass, aluminum, and plastic round and square tubing, angles, strips, and
Short lengths of tubing can be used to increase control shaft diameters - say, from
1/8" to 1/4" - to allow the use of readily available knobs. And the tubing can be used
as extension shafts, too; the extensions are lightweight, yet sufficiently strong, for
most electronics applications.
The tubing can be quickly formed to make attractive handles for projects. Tubing benders
for this purpose are probably right there on the same shelf with the tubing.
Available diameters for brass tubing cover a range of from 1/16" to 1/2" with a 1/64"
wall thickness. And you can obtain the tubing either plain or nickel plated. Small-diameter
aluminum and plastic tubing are also available in hobby shops. Most of the better places
have both 12" and 36" lengths.
Looking for sheet metal for any purpose from shim stock to a small chassis? The hobby
shop is the place to get it. Brass, copper, aluminum, even lightweight magnesium sheet
stock are there for the picking. And don't forget the various thicknesses of plastic
sheets and brass, aluminum, and plastic angle stock.
Model hobby shops also carry "music wire" in a wide range of diameters. This is a
very high-quality steel wire preferred by industry for making coil springs. And you know
how difficult it is to buy a spring with just the right tension and dimensions even for
standard dial cord assembly replacement. With a reasonable selection of music-wire sizes,
you can actually make small coil springs to order for just about any application. (Note:
Do not attempt to cut music wire with diagonal cutters; you will only damage the cutters.
Instead, use a carbide saw or grinding wheel to cut the wire.)
Maybe you need some especially tiny screws, nuts, and washers. You will not find them
in a hardware store or an electronics parts supply store. But the hobby shop has them
in abundance in dozens of sizes - some so small you need a jeweler's loop and screwdriver
to work with them.
Many items on peg-board displays are packaged in clear plastic bags
so contents can easily be seen, simplifying buyer selections.
Have you ever looked high and low for small pulleys for stringing dial cords in a
home-brewed project? If so, you already know that such a basic item is often the hardest
thing to find. Excellent "pulleys" (known to the modeler as "sheaves") can be had from
any hobby store in 3/32", 1/8", 3/16", and 5/16" diameters. You won't find much use for
the first two sizes, but the latter two are really handy.
This is by no means the end of the list of materials you can find in hobby shops that
you can put to good use in electronics project building. There are dozens and dozens
of other materials you have probably long since given up on trying to find.
Special Tools. The model hobby store excels in its variety of special-purpose
tools. Don't be misled into believing that modeling tools are cheaply made, inaccurate,
and made of poor quality materials. While there are certainly some "cheap" tools available
for the infrequent user, serious modelers own and use some of the finest hand tools you'll
What most significantly distinguishes modeling tools from most others is that the
former are designed to do small, fine work accurately. (Just think of some of the really
close work you have had to do in some of your most recent projects, and you'll appreciate
how handy modeling tools can really be.)
Modelers work in miniature, so their tools are often miniature in size. Such tools,
of course, can be obtained from jewelers' supply houses, but for a one-place source,
the hobby shop is the place to go.
A simple but pressing example of a tool that is desperately needed for modern electronics
work is a No. 67 drill. This drill is extensively used in making component lead holes
in printed circuit boards. Some hardware stores handle this size drill, but all hobby
stores have it as a standard item. When buying such fine drills, add the extra few cents
and get the high-speed steel ones; they are well worth the extra cost.
Now you will need a device to let you use such a small drill with a standard drill
chuck. Get a collet-type pin vise when you pick up the drill. A word of caution: Don't
try to use fine drills in your portable electric drill (a drill press is okay); you will
just bend or break them one after another.
Small items, among them hardware, tools, cutters, etc., are generally
kept in glass display cases under counters to afford browsers and buyers easy view of
When working with fine drills, invest in a geared-type cordless electric drill, another
hobby shop standard. Your $6 or $7 investment in the drill will more than pay for itself
in drills and reduced labor when drilling many holes.
Most electronics supply houses now have jewelers' screwdrivers, but in the hobby shop
you can also get wrenches and nutdrivers for hardware as fine as No. 00. You can also
buy a saw with a fine Swedish-steel blade that is only 0.008" thick (that's roughly half
of 1/64"!) for about $1.25. Look around in the hand tool section, and you'll find a wide
variety of miniature pliers and cutters and tweezers that seem to be just made to order
for your electronics workbench.
Tools are available individually and in kits. Example of modeler's
tool kit is shown here.
Visit Your Local Hobby Shop. But take along only the amount of money
you intend spending. This is no light admonition. The vast array of materials and tools
(not to mention model kits) are too tempting to pass up.
Here's a good idea: Make your first trip a browsing visit in which you familiarize
yourself with the items available. Don't buy; just look. Then come back another day to
make your purchases. Either way, allot a good four hours for your first visit; more if
the hobby shop is really first class. You'll need that much time to just look.
If you live in an area not serviced by a well-stocked model hobby shop, you can do
your browsing and purchasing by mail. You will have to pay for a catalog, but it is well
worth the nominal investment.
Note: The photographs in this article were taken by Ed Buxbaum in,
and with the kind cooperation of, Polk's Hobbies, Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y.
Posted October 17, 2018