secrets of the fine d-i-y
February 24, 2008 11:11 PM   Subscribe

what's the secret handshake that gets me access to the interesting/unusual materials that designers and contractors can get ahold of?

i'm talking about things like double-walled stainless steel tubing. pvc "boards" that you can use outside in wet conditions. a specialty tree that i've started seeing around town, parkinsonia 'desert museum'. sheets of perforated corrugated steel for a fence we're building. cobblestones for the driveway. strips of "cor-ten" steel to edge our garden beds. and so on.

these are all materials that i've seen around town here in austin, but usually in commercial applications. unfortunately, it's hard to walk up to the girl behind the counter at crate & barrel and ask her where her contractor got the limestone for the building facade. :) and the materials are not at home depot or lowe's -- which may, at best, carry less specialized (and less interesting) versions. if i'm lucky, i can find something that might be what i need, online (hard to tell from a picture), but these places are never local, and shipping would be crazy.

is there simply an inpenetrable barrier between materials suppliers for designers and contractors and those for the general public? i want in, without having to hire an expensive go-between guy. possible?
posted by phoeniciansailor to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 71 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Have you heard of Grainger?
posted by hobbes at 12:01 AM on February 25, 2008

Best answer: And also McMaster-Carr. I remember oogling over those catalogs after studio hours in the lab.
posted by hobbes at 12:03 AM on February 25, 2008

Get a copy of <>The Blue Book for your area, and start calling around. Some of the people you talk to will be dicks, but most are willing to help out.
posted by electroboy at 12:25 AM on February 25, 2008

Best answer: Sorry, that's The Blue Book.
posted by electroboy at 12:26 AM on February 25, 2008

You probably drive past these suppliers every day, but you don't see them because they don't have a retail storefront. It took me years before I poked my nose into the local Metal Mart, and learned that they're incredibly friendly to hobbyists/experimenters, with no minimum quantity, cut-to-order services, and a walk-in service counter. An hour later, I left with $45 worth of aluminum tube, plate, and channel stock. A week later I was back for more. :)

Get in touch with local welding shops and find out where they buy their material. Whenever you talk to any of these people, simply say you're looking for hidden-gem suppliers, and ask if they have a favorite place to get weird stuff. Share what you've learned.
posted by Myself at 3:54 AM on February 25, 2008

If you can make it to a tradeshow like The Builder's Show you will see all of this stuff.
posted by extrabox at 4:37 AM on February 25, 2008

Best answer: Thomas Register is the meta-listing, and is now online. Everything is there.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:20 AM on February 25, 2008

ARCAT will help you connect the cool items you want with the companies who make them and give you access to specs to help you decide if said items are suitable for whatever crazy application you might dream up.

Sweets also works along those same lines.

Once you know the name of the company and the trade name of the material, its usually pretty simple to track down a dealer in your area.
posted by Chrischris at 6:31 AM on February 25, 2008

Best answer: There's a relatively new Grainger in North Austin at Anderson Ln and 183 (next to Hobby Lobby). You might try there.
posted by nightwood at 6:41 AM on February 25, 2008

Grainger and McMaster-Carr are more for tools and parts. (And they are awesome in that respect.) Small scale materials like tubing and nylon bits, yes. Machine shop stuff. Not so much construction stuff.

There used to be a plumbing supply house near me. That's where you went when Menards or Ace Hardware didn't have the washer you were looking for. The guys working the parts counter were mean and it was a boys club. But if you played along, you got what you were looking for.

"You want what? For one of those? Jeez, I haven't seen one of those in 30 years. And it's doing what? And you want to replace it? Christ, I don't know. Hey Bob, do we have any size 2B washers back there? Here you go, they're a nickel a piece."

Agreeing with the other advice, hit the yellow pages and look for industrial and construction supply houses. The Blue Book is THE resource, but it might take some calls before you find places friendly to the public.

Another thought would be architectural firms. Ask them if they have any old supply catalogs.
posted by gjc at 7:29 AM on February 25, 2008

A lot of the places require you to have a business. For $45, my dad filed a DBA with a contractorish name and I made him some letterhead, and we got contractor's discounts and could get into contractor's places. It helped that we were doing a LOT of work renovating our house and a few houses for friends.
posted by SpecialK at 7:32 AM on February 25, 2008

Grainger has or can get everything. However, you MUST be corporate to purchase from them, and they are EXPENSIVE. McMaster-Carr has everything too, and will sell it to anyone, but you have to know exactly what you're looking for.

The answer is that you're driving past them every day, look in the yellow pages under "contractor supply" and "building materials."

Also, go to the Contractor side of Lowe's, usually near the lumber. They'll be able to answer your questions. I (we) prefer the local construction supply stores, as they usually have insanely well trained staff and can answer your questions on the spot and direct you to the exact shelf you're looking for, and/or they know where to look in the computer.
posted by TomMelee at 7:58 AM on February 25, 2008

I'm in austin also, and I'd love to know more about this stuff. I haven't gotten that deep into construction materials but lots of fields of supply have the same problem in my hobbies (woodworking, electronics, photography, etc).

Expect to do a lot of legwork. I visited about 5 places that sell lumper and plywood before I found one that carried the selection I wanted at reasonable prices that were happy enough to sell to me. No one I met was actively *hostile* but many of them were confused. "You want 3 sheets of plywood? Not 30?"

I've found all kinds of suppliers that you wouldn't normally think about via google, and online yellow page searches, cold calling them and showing up at their place of business. I've bought glass you can't get at home depot, paint you can't get at home depot, plywood/wood you can't get at home depot, hardware you can't get at home depot, etc.

Also, I keep meaning to look up this place I saw on a recent This Old House - the one in Austin - there was a place that recycled construction materials, and they do auctions weekly. I'd love to go by there and see what they have some time.
posted by RustyBrooks at 8:43 AM on February 25, 2008

So I just went to the this old house website and looked up the austin project. This might be an interesting place to start, a list of suppliers they used including, say, a limestone supplier.

Something to consider is, if you want limestone, you'll be going to a stone supplier. If you want double-wall steel tubing, you'll be going to a metal supplier, etc. No one-stop-shopping for the most part.
posted by RustyBrooks at 8:49 AM on February 25, 2008

Bad news with McMaster-Carr is that they pick and choose who to sell to, even who to sell catalogs to (though I've seen them for $30-50 on ebay). A friend of mine works for them as a phone operator and she says someone calls at least once a day to beg her for either a catalog or the ability to place an order- they just don't do business with everyone.

You put in an application, they review it, and then decide if you deserve the ability to be their customer. Crazy, huh? My friend says they base it on the size o the business, how well known the business is, and occasionally how entertaining the applicant is.
posted by arnicae at 10:03 AM on February 25, 2008

arnicae, is this behavior on the part of McM new? I used to place small ($15-50) orders with them all the time via their website, and never had a problem.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 3:55 PM on February 25, 2008

The 'secret handshake' for architects is 6 to 8 years of education and apprenticeships. Architects, designers and contractors work very hard to build-up those supplier relationships based on trust, dependability and payment on invoices. I think some of the resistance you may find is because the design and construction industry is consistently undercut by house flippers and illegal labor practices. It makes it difficult for small businesses of the design/construction type to stay afloat and compete fairly.

Also, a lot of design firms have the reps or supply houses order products for them from all sorts of catalogs. The smaller supply houses don't have room for a lot of surplus stock (this goes for lighting, wall materials, hardware, etc.) and so they can order within 2 days whatever a designer needs (provided you have an account). However, they don't make any money on small orders and are usually resistant to this practice. The more quantity they order, the lower the cost per unit goes and the higher their profit (provided the mark-up stays the same).

It's a web of all different materials and suppliers and like RustyBrooks says, there's no one-stop shopping (aside from Home Depot).
posted by lilbird at 11:01 AM on March 14, 2008

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