It's no secret that I'm a fan of AliExpress and it's the first place I look when I need parts for projects I'm making, particularly for electronics components.
There are a lot of basic building-block components and consumables (also known as vitamins) that I use over and over again in projects. Often these items aren't easy to source locally (in Brisbane, Australia), so I turn to AliExpress, which offers a huge range of parts at unbeatable prices, as long as you don't mind navigating the massive marketplace to find reliable suppliers, or waiting weeks for the parts to arrive.
Stock up on these parts in advance so you'll always have them on hand when you get the urge to make something. Here are my top picks:
1. Metric Fasteners
You'd think with Australia's widespread adoption of the metric system, it would be easy to find nuts, bolts and washers in metric rather than imperial sizes, but local hardware stores tend to carry a very limited selection of metric sizes in small packs only. So, I can get 50 - 100 bolts on AliExpress for the same price as a dozen locally.
Fasteners are made from different materials e.g. nylon or stainless steel, with nylon being lightweight and great for electronics projects where you want to avoid accidental shorting. Bolts are available in a range of lengths, head profiles (e.g. flat, countersunk, domed), and drive systems (slotted, philips, hex, torx, etc) on AliExpress. Different types of nuts including standard, lock, wing and rivet nuts are also available, as well as washer types like flat or split ring too. Risers and grub screws are also really useful fasteners to have on hand for maker projects.
I use a lot of M3 (i.e. 3mm diameter) fasteners in my projects, so I stock up on bolts between 6mm to 30mm lengths in M3, as well as a more limited range of M2 - M8 hardware. Raspberry Pi has M2.5 holes, so don't forget the in-between sizes. You can buy fasteners in bulk (with 50 or 100 pieces at a time) in the size and types you use most often, or pre-packaged kits that usually have 20 - 25 pieces each across a range of sizes.
Search terms: add 'assortment' or 'kit' to the thing you are looking for e.g. bolt kit, grub screw assortment
2. Silicone wire
Sure, you can use regular wire with PVC insulation, but once you try silicone wire in your hobby and robotics projects you may never want to go back. The main advantages relate to temperature and flexibility:
- Temperature: silicone has a high melting point, so you can use thinner wires under load without risk of melting the insulation.
- Flexibility: being able to use thinner wires means better flexibility. High strand count silicone wire is resistant to breaking and can be bent around tight corners or to fit in places where regular wires would be too stiff.
I've found silicone wire saves the day in workshops aimed at beginners, and within communal electronics kits used for teaching (e.g. soldered onto DC motors in robotics kits), because students will be flexing the wires repeatedly, which leads to regular wires breaking, while the silicone wires tend to be better at surviving the stress. It's also much easier for students to strip the flexible insulation off silicone wire without damaging the wires (stiff insulation can tend to take some of the fine strands of wire with it if you are new to wire stripping), and the insulation won't accidentally melt while they are learning to solder either.
Unfortunately silicone wire is super-expensive locally, and is particularly difficult to find in small gauges, so stock up on a few different sizes, like this lightweight 30 AWG wire available in a range of colors
Tip: wire is sold in lots of different quantities e.g. 1M, 5M, 10M, and often in black+red packs, e.g so keep this in mind when comparing prices and read descriptions and feedback carefully to make sure the seller has accurately listed the quantities.
Search terms: 'silica gel' or 'silicone' (note - silicone not silicon) wire plus the gauge you need e.g. silicone wire 28 AWG
3. Cable ties
What can't you do with cable ties? These are a maker staple, so you'll want a stash of these. You can find these fairly easily locally in multi-length and multi-color packs of up to 1000 at your local automotive or dollar store, but if you are looking for particularly large quantities or need a specific type of tie in bulk, you can find better prices on AliExpress. You'll also find clips, and some adorable tiny cable ties that are great for tidying up wiring. Buying your cable ties online means you can have a choice of colors like hot pink and purple too, as well as re-usable nylon or velcro ties. My go-to cable ties are the longer, thinner nylon ties (e.g. 2.5mm x 250mm).
Search terms: cable ties, zip ties, releasable ties, cable ties pink 150mm
You'll find AliExpress is also a great source of specialized tapes like double-sided foam tape, conductive fabric tape, thermal transfer tape, copper tape (a favorite of mine for prototyping circuits on paper), kapton tape (great for insulating components, and heat resistant so you can solder near it, or use it near your 3D printer hot-end, for example).
Search Terms: search for the type and width of tape required e.g. 6mm copper tape
5. Neodymium magnets
I use these super strong, tiny magnets primarily for holding parts together in my 3D printed projects. You can buy small packs of 8 - 10mm disc earth magnets at DAISO but the extremely tiny magnets are more compact, and can't be found in local stores. Make sure you keep these out of reach of small children and pets!
Search terms: neodymium magnet or N50 magnet (plus the size and shape you are after e.g. 8x2mm round)
6. Multi-value electronic component kits
You're building a circuit you've found on an online tutorial or blog and you realise you are missing just one key component like a capacitor or transistor. Instead of trying to MacGyver something together out of alternative components, wouldn't it be nice to have a library of parts on hand, with different values for each of these common components?
Fortunately kits that bundle a bunch of different values of components are very common on AliExpress, including capacitors, resistors, transistors, potentiometers, diodes, LEDs, heat shrink and so on. These kinds of kits are available for both through-hole and SMD components. Some of these come in handy compartmentalized boxes, but the most economical kits usually come sorted into small zip-loc bags. If you are planning on using your own storage containers these bagged kits are a good option.
Search terms: Add 'assortment' to the component name you are looking for e.g. potentiometer assortment
7. Craft supplies
I always have a stock of googly-eyes, pipe cleaners, paddlepop sticks, pom poms, feathers etc that are popular with students of all ages for embellishing their projects in workshops. Nail art packs like this gem wheel are a great source of bling for rhinestones, glitter and sequins.
Search terms: wobbly craft eyes, chenille sticks, nail art crystal, popsicle craft stick
8. Circuit prototyping gear
When prototyping my electronics projects, I like to have spare breadboards and jumper wires as well as staple sensors like light-dependent-resistors or buttons on hand, so I can have a few different circuits on the go. You can find plenty of budget starter kits like this one for less than $3 that will save you the hassle of ordering the individual parts - just add a micro-controller. Should you need these kind of parts in bulk, for use in classes or at a makerspace, you can find packs of these individual components too, from small quantities like this jumper wire assortment up to packs bundling thousands of components.
Search terms: starter kit, arduino kit
I use micro-controllers for many of my projects. For really simple circuits, and particularly for wearables projects where I want something small, cheap and lightweight, I'll reach for a Digispark clone. Arduino Nanos are also a favourite of mine, and I particularly like RobotDyn's nano-compatible boards because they can be programmed via a micro-USB cable rather than mini, have great build quality and a sleek appearance. I also keep a few D1 minis around for when I want on-board Wi-Fi.
Search terms: No special tricks here, just search by name e.g. arduino, digispark, d1 mini
10. Alcohol wipes
Not so much of a part, as a consumable, but lint-free 100% isopropyl alcohol wipes are a handy addition to your components library for cleaning your projects after soldering, gluing or removing tape, or for cleaning away the blood if you are prone to stabbing yourself with header pins like I am.
Search terms: alcohol swab
Organizing your parts
One down side to ordering from AliExpress is that unless you can find these parts from the same supplier and purchase them in the same order, they will likely be shipped separately (that is sometimes true even if you order them at the same time from the same supplier as they may be housed in different warehouses). But, it's a lot of fun to get a constant stream of packages, and I like to try to guess the contents of the package based on the description on the customs declaration on the outside (it's often completely random). Once the parts start arriving, you'll want to organize them into well-labelled small parts storage so you can find the parts when you need them, because even more frustrating than not having the parts you need, is knowing that you have the parts and not being able to find them.
Parts drawers and storage containers tend to be a bit bulky, so my experience is that you'll find better value heading to your local discount store like DAISO or K-mart for those rather than trying to buy them on AliExpress.
Finding the parts on the site
Suppliers come and go, so my tip is to search for the item by the search terms suggested above, then sort the results by number of orders and pick your supplier from within the top 10 based on price and reading through feedback, particularly filtering feedback to reviews with photos, as these are usually high quality, detailed reviews. Once you've found a reliable supplier, bookmark them to save time when you need more parts in future.
To keep costs down, sellers usually offer free shipping by economy methods, which can take anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of months to arrive. DHL and EMS express shipping options will bring shipping time down to one to two weeks, but are uneconomical unless you are ordering a lot of items. If you need your stuff sooner, look for sellers who offer ePacket shipping - it is often only a few dollars, and the shipping time can be as little as 10 days to Australia.
Note: I don't have an affiliation with the sellers or get any kickbacks from the links I've included in this post, they are simply examples of products. Please do your own research and check recent seller feedback before purchasing parts.