People have been complaining about not being able to find electronics parts for decades. If you go back and read old QSTs and CQs from the 1950s (I have QST all the way back to WWII) you'll find authors moaning and groaning about how Radio Row is only half a mile long now, instead of five miles, as it was when they were kids... In truth, it's not as good as it was in the 1950s now, or even the mid-1960s, when I started building electronics projects. In 1965 I could still order breadboard-style tube sockets (including the old large 6 and 7-pin types for tubes like the 58 and the 6F7) from Allied Radio, and did.
The real problem today is that a lot of the parts you'd like to have for tube projects haven't been manufactured in twenty or thirty years. They still exist in the form of "new old stock" (NOS) meaning parts that were made 50 years ago but were never sold and have been sitting in a warehouse or basement or somewhere ever since. They're out there, but you have to hunt them down. On the other hand, certain things about the current day make it better, especially for parts hunters. This page is a distillation of what I know about finding parts. I've been doing it for a lot of years and I'm pretty good at it. Certainly, if you have anything you'd like to add, drop me a note:
Where to start? Make a list! Have a good sense for what you need before you begin scanning Web sites or catalogs, or browsing the aisles at the local junk shop. It also helps to know enough electronics to understand what sort of substitution you can get away with.
Once you know what you need, here are some places to go and some paths to follow:
This is always your first stop. Although their Web site is first-rate, their annual paper catalog often has wonderful artwork on the cover, and is great for browsing. AES has almost any tube you'd ever want, and certainly any tube you'll find called out in magazine projects. But tubes are the easy part in this business; lots of people sell them, and prices (except for a handful of truly collectible tubes) are often less in nonadjusted dollars than they were in the 1950s. AES sells mostly NOS tubes, which are tubes that have basically been sitting on shelves for thirty, forty, or even sixty years, still unused in their little cardboard boxes. Tubes had a finite but predictable service life, and were made in huge quantities until the early 1970s. Demand for tubes vanished almost overnight as transistors took over, leaving a mountain of unused tubes with nowhere to go.
What AES is really great for are other things: Sockets, switches, and replacement coils and universal replacement IF cans. They carry the Hammond line of new-build transformers and chassis, along with lots of books on building tube projects, especially tube audio, which I'm sure is their major market.
One of the last survivors of New York City's fabled Radio Row, Leeds has been in business since the 1920s, and stocks over 350,000 tubes, sockets, and associated parts for vintage radios and vintage telephones. They have both octal and 4-pin breadboard tube sockets, like the one shown at right—just the thing for breadboard radios with parts bolted to real breadboards. Cruising through their Web catalog showed some beautiful pointer knobs, the famous National Velvet Vernier, military surplus power and audio transformers, double-ended Fahenstock clips, the 1N23C microwave cartridge diode, and hordes of other interesting things. You can order by phone, FAX, or email. They acceept Visa, MasterCard, PayPal, checks, and money orders.
A fantastic source for old radio parts, emphasizing pre-1950 items, and catering especially to people restoring pre-1935 radios. Their Web site lists available goods, but you can't order through the Web site and have to contact the firm at their HQ in Cleveland, Ohio. If you want to build a "breadboard" radio where sockets screw into a wood base, this is the place to go for the parts, especially breadboard tube sockets. Lots of old Miller and Meissner coils; in fact, this is the only reliable source I know of for specific IF can transformers for superhets, especially at odd IF frequencies like 262 KHz. (It helps if you know the original part numbers here.) You need to check with them before ordering because stock changes so often.
Great annual catalog of military surplus odds and ends. You can find some tubes and sockets, a few variable capacitors, knobs, and other things, all of them rugged and most of them reasonably cheap. The older radios themselves cost more now, largely due to demand from the collector market, but the parts are not out of line. Request their print catalog and stay on their mailing list. I've purchased from them for many years and have never been unhappy with the goods or the service.
These days, a lot of the stuff that used to turn up at hamfests or in long-vanished shops on long-vanished radio Rows now turns up on the quintessential Web auction site EBay. I've found that a lot of the really tough items, like IF can transformers and variable capacitors, are found on EBay in quantity, though not as cheaply as at hamfests. Note well: EBay takes some study. Suck in your pride and go buy a book like EBay for Dummies and read through it. There's definitely an art to getting what you want, and it works a lot better when you fully understand the process. Some tips:
Where have all the old parts gone? A lot of them are in basements of ham radio ops, especially the older guys who have been in the hobby since the 1940s or 1950s, when building your own equipment from loose parts was a major reason for being a ham. Before the 1970s and personal computing, ham radio was the techie hobby, and most technically inclined people of that era were licensed, at least for a while. If you're interested in building tube radios, I powerfully recommend studying for and taking your ham radio license. The Morse Code is basically gone now, and the test is really about electronics and the rules governing amateur radio. (Morse Code is still worth knowing, however, if you decide to try building simple transmitters rather than just receivers. There's no thrill like firing up a two-tube transmitter built in a cake pan and communicating with a guy on the other side of the planet!) Once you have your license, join a radio club, and you'll be in regular contact with guys who will be poleaxed seeing newcomers actually wanting to build things. When I was first starting out, the older hams in my club were very generous with parts and advice for my projects. For more information about ham radio and how to get involved, go to the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) Web site. I've been a ham since 1973 and have never regretted it.
The other good thing about ham radio doesn't require a license. There is a long tradition of electronics-oriented flea markets called hamfests, and if there's one within driving range of you, go.The ARRL database of hamfests is here. There aren't as many loose parts for sale at hamfests as there used to be, but there will always be some, and you can generally get them much cheaper at hamfests than from other sources.
Most towns of any reasonable size with any manufacturing at all have at least one retailer selling technology surplus. The goods come from order overruns, bankruptcy sales, and so on, and tend to reflect the sort of industry present in the area. I have visited a great many of such stores in many cities, and they really do defy easy categorization. Radio parts used to be the bulk of junk shop stock, especially in the 20 years following World War II. The rise of cheap computing in the 1970s gave junk shops new life
They are fewer now than they used to be. When I was in college in the early 1970s there was a junk shop in Niles, Illinois, barely three miles from my house, and many more in and around Chicago, including the long-vanished Gemco on West Madison Street and Radio-TV Lab on Irving Park Road. The other problem is that they come and go over time, and if I published a list of shops it would go out of date almost immediately. Most such shops don't maintain Web sites, so you may have to hunt through the yellow pages to find them.
Actually, the best way to find your local shop is to ask other guys in the area who tinker with electronics. (This is one superb reason to become a ham radio op and join a club!) That's how I found Apache Reclamation and Electronics in South Phoenix, and OEM Parts here in Colorado Springs. There is a good list here that seems to be only a little stale.
If you know of any really good local walk-in junk shops, do drop me a note and let me know about them.