We home machinists use our metal stock in relatively
small amounts unlike the industrial user, so we are not
afforded the benefits from bulk or wholesale discounts as
the professional, or industrial user. To acquire our stock
we are forced to either scrounge, beg or worse, buy by mail
order. There are about one dozen major metals dealers that
will specialize on mail order sales to anyone. Some of them
also sell tools. There is a great range in prices from one
company to another so once you have acquired their catalogs,
it pays to shop around. As you can imagine, shipping charges
can be astronomical and many times there is a minimum
purchase amount. You may only need 3" of something but you
are stuck having to buy six inches or a foot of it hoping to
be able to use it later. If you can only buy mail order, you
have to carefully plan your projects to minimize the total
cost for the raw metal. One way to help minimizing the high
costs involved is to hook up with two or three more home
shop machinist buddies and pool the purchases of stock.
In the old days, before recycling was in vogue, the hobby machinist or model maker would merely visit the local machine shop and befriend the local foreman into giving up some of their scrap pieces of stock. These scraps or end cutoffs would serve as entirely useful pieces of metal. Another approach would be to ask for partially machined parts that are either ruined due to machining mistakes or because of middle of the job changes. They may already be end faced, turned, center drilled, etc. Why this may not be the best route at the present day is because most large shops or factories that manufacture goods will sell their generated scrap to salvage yards to at least recoup some of the money lost to the scrap bin. Unless you are really close to the foreman or have relative working there, you are better off going to actual salvage yard.
In my area, there are several large metals scrap yards that will buy just about any kind of metal scraps. Although 99% of the material found there is not in a form that can be readily used in normal machining, the remaining 1% is. Do not let the swimmingly small percentage fool you. At my local yard I have found a veritable gold mine of aluminum cutoffs and other discards from the machine shop. All sorts of pieces of dimensioned stock, flat, square, rectangular, hexagonal, round, as well as tubular can be found. I have been able to get 4" diameter aluminum rounds 10" and up in length together with all the smaller sizes. Is it good quality material? You bet it is. It is marked with all the regular nomenclature of the expensive stuff from the metals company. The prize? In my local shop outside the Washington DC area in Montgomery county, Maryland, all aluminum, brass and stainless steel sells for a flat fee of $2.00 a pound. This can save you from 3 to about 10 times the cost of material depending on the company it comes from. Four inch diameter aluminum stock can be as high as $4.80 per linear inch plus shipping. It may cost about $10.00 for ten inches if bought as scrap. The only catch is that is you are really interested in finding some real treasures, you need to visit just about every week as some things seem to leave as soon as they arrive. For instance, I had seen a barrel with flat 1" thick brass stock in various sizes. It was a Friday and when I went the following Monday it was no where to be found. I did find and purchase about 15 7/16" diameter aluminum bronze rods, each about 12" long. So what, you ask? Well, the same size stock sells for $8.00 a piece through a particular metal supply house I know of. I got all fifteen for what I would have had to pay for one!
Another little trick while you are on your scrounging expeditions is to carry a small magnet. On the rare occurrences when there is a supply of steel bar stock, you need to quickly determine if it is stainless steel or regular carbon steel. Most commercial stainless is non magnetic ( though there are some that are ) and regular cold rolled steel is magnetic, so with a quick check you can find out what you are dealing with. Why bother you ask? The answer is in the price difference. Stainless sells for $2.00 and regular steel sells for only 25 cents a pound. Believe me, you do not want to break your back carrying 100 pounds of steel you think is regular steel to the weighing scales, expecting to be charged only $25.00 and be told that the bill comes to $200.00. It seems that they don't care if it is the magnetic type of stainless. If the magnet sticks, no matter what kind of steel it is, you pay 25 cents / pound Of course, if you are specifically looking for non magnetic stainless steel, you can avoid any disappointments by just using that little magnet. Another good source of excellent steel bar is the shaft on automobile transmisions. It can sometimes be simply pulled out from the rear housing. Only problem is that they are hard as the dickens. There are always dozens of scraped transmisions laying around in a heap.
There are also bins full of discarded parts that either did not measure up or were damaged. Do not over look these as I have made dozens of tools and accessories by recycling these " useless " discards. So in order to save money that can be better used to purchase much needed machine tool, visit and patronize that local scrap yard.
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