Harvesting Electronic Components

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Introduction: Harvesting Electronic Components

About: Retired Electronic Design Engineer. Member of The MakerBarn.

With stores like Radio Shack disappearing, it is getting hard to find simple electronic components. The web, particularly eBay, has been a great help, but shipping can get costly. Consumer electronics, like VCRs and Microwave Ovens can be a source of parts, but consumer electronics tends to very highly integrated. Many parts are special made, or so specialized they are not useful.

Lately, however, the recycling move has produced a wonderful source of high-grade electronics. Check around you area for electronic recycling centers. These businesses take electronic equipment from companies and take responsibility for bring the material into the recycling stream. They typically disassemble the equipment separating the various metals and other valuable contents into various bins for sale to refiners. The circuit boards get thrown into a large container and are usually shredded for reprocessing.

Commercial equipment is built to a much higher standard than consumer electronics. Cost is not so much a factor, and since the volume of production is lower, they tend to use standard components.

One large recycler in Houston charges about $1 a pound for circuit boards, but quite often just gives then to me when I tell them the boards are for our makerspace. Another place I've been to seems to be glad to see the boards go. He has never charged me for a used circuit board.

Step 1: Selecting Boards for the Harvest

Be picky when selecting boards, remember you will need to dispose of the waste properly. It depends on the type of prototyping you will be wanting to do. You may want only through hole components, or maybe you would like to experiment with some surface mount components. I tend to look for board with a lot of analog circuitry. The board above is excellent. It has some digital logic, but it has quite a few high quality op-amps and trim-pots.

Avoid boards that are conformal coated. These boards have a tough coating both front and back and the part are very difficult to remove. Conformal coating is common in surplus military boards

Step 2: Some Tools You Will Need

A metal tray is great for catching the parts as they come off the board. Since we will be using a good bit of heat, a welding glove is good to have. Other holding tools such as small vises, vise-grip pliers. and board holders come in handy. Don't forget eye protection, the wrap-around safety glasses are best.

Finally, you will need a heat source. I use a small butane torch, big torches are too hard to control. Also a high-temperature heat gun works well.

You need anything that works well at grabbing the parts. Needle-nose pliers, IC pullers, slip-joint pliers, and hemostats work well.

Plan to work outside with a light breeze. You will be hitting the circuit board with a lot of heat, so fiberglass will be burning and smoking a bit. Eye protection is a must. Bit of hot solder will be flying about.

Step 3: Getting Started

Examine each board and plan a strategy for the board. Be sure to remove any fasteners that are securing components. Plan to work on the parts that are easiest to remove first. Many straight legged parts fall right out when heat melts the solder. Some components, such as resistors, are crimped on the board before the board is soldered. It's best the leave these behind.

Step 4: Easy Parts First

Heat the board gently and as evenly as possible under the component you wish to remove. Some components will just fall out of the board once the solder melts. I tap the board against the wooden bloc to help jar part loose. Get as many parts off as possible using the heat and tap technique.

Step 5: Smaller Parts Can Be Removed With the Needle Nose Pliers

Try the needle nose first. Clear out the small capacitors near the ICs. Needle nose pliers also work well on the 8-pin DIP packages.

Step 6: Remove the Larger ICs

Slip-joint pliers work well for pulling ICs off. ICs are usually not crimped, but there leads are bent outward to hold then in the board while being soldered. Wiggle the IC and it will come loose, almost like pulling teeth.

Step 7: Give the SMT Parts the Brush-Off

SMT parts can be removed with a small needle nose. Another way that works well is to brush them off the board with a disposable acid brush. Heat the board from the back and keep the brush moving. As soon as the solder melts, the parts will brush off and fall in the tray.

Step 8: Cleaning Off the Board

After a few minutes, you should have almost all the parts off the board and in the pan. Notice I left the resistors. These were all clinched to the board and simply not worth all the effort it would take to remove them.

Step 9: Big Pile of Parts, Now What?

In the photo you see the result of harvesting two circuit boards. Now it's time to sort the parts and look up those you don't know. Thanks to the Internet, finding data on most of these devices will be easy.

Surface mount ICs can be difficult to catalog. SMT resistors are usually marked, but capacitor are not. I use a DER EE DE-5000 LCR meter to test and sort capacitors. It works great and comes with a tweezers type probe for test SMT componets. They are about $140 from eBay and Amazon suppliers.

Happy Hunting!!

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124 Comments

If you don't know what you are doing, please be VERY careful around the capacitors!!! They can deliver leathal shock.

This would only apply to through hole parts I want, though it might work with smd stuff. When the weather is good outside, I usually place the board with the component side down. Then, with safety glasses on and my compressor turned on as well, will heat a small area about 2 inches or so in diameter with my mini butane torch. As soon as I see a solder puddle, in one motion, I remove the torch and blow the solder away with a shot of air from my compressor. The parts don't stay hot long enough to get damaged, and usually fall into the bin below automatically. Just make sure there's nothing in the direction you're blowing the solder. Again, it's not for all parts, but it's been good for me. Others mileage will vary for sure. 8c)

I did it with a craft knife and some pilers. Really messy, as you have to cut the solder carefully and not slice the component in half.(My parents won't get me a solder iron or any other heat source in fear of setting our home on fire).

1 reply

I use several methods but the heat gun is the most effective for SMT and most pin-soldered devices. I heat the part until the solder begins to change color then rap the board on a hard surface. The heat gun I bought was at Walmart which used 120 VAC and has two settings. Since the gun only heats up while pressing the trigger, it is safer than a soldering iron or propane torch, and faster than a soldering gun. Most have a shield to prevent touching it to anything that can burn so it isn't a fire hazard unless it is improperly used. The trigger may tire your finger but I do recommend taking a break every ten minutes or less.

Inventory your treasure so you know what you have, an excell spread sheet works great.

after reading many comments, it looks like what one person said about heating the board from the back and letting the parts fall into a box sounds like a good idea. also sand in an old frying pan is the most effective and quickest way to remove parts. also quick and easy.

1 reply

Sand in the frying pan! -- I'm definitely trying that! Thanks!

Cool I like the idea

also I am SOOOOOOOOOOOOO upset that RadioShack is going out of business :'(

PS: one of the employees told me that iPhones "Killed" them

12 replies

Did he explain how the iPhone put them I of business? I guess I don't understand the connection

They used to sell cameras iPhones are cameras (he gave some other reasons to but I don't remember them

I would have to say that what has hurt them the most is Amazon. Having the ability to order large quantities of electrical components from vendors vying for your dollar has most likely taken a huge chunk of RS market. Not to mention that RS used to carry the latest technology, but the internet and Amazon has brought that market to your fingertips. Low prices and 2 day shipping are such a great deal that even Walmart had to follow Amazon's lead. Barnes' and Noble, along with most other chain bookstores have had to close down because the business model doesn't work due to the high overhead. Best Buy can still compete because people want to see or "check out" many of the items they sell prior to purchase.

Don't get me wrong, I love Radio Shack. The other day when I needed thermal paste that day to get a CPU back up and running, my local RS was there to save the day. But all things considered, the music lyric "video killed the radio star" can be reapplied here: "Amazon killed your local store."

I miss radio shack , that was the only store i could buy a great sortwave radio at and i build radios myself , my first radio was a crystal radio i built from a kit i bought from radio shack ,

My first electronic project [EARLY 50S?] was a crystal radio KIT, from Archer [mail order], which later was bought-out and ruined by Tandy Leather [Radio Shack]. And then RS committed suicide by switching emphasis [and shelf-space] FROM COMPONENTS to stereo and hi-fi sets, and games, and computers, and etc, ad nauseum!!!

I see you calling the store Radio Shack; am I to presume from what you say they dropped the name "The Shack"? The only local or fairly local stores that carried a lot of electronics parts were owner run and not corporate. I heard they hadn't closed *all* the stores; but, I can't find them here in South Carolina anymore.

It wasn't the iPhone specifically so much as it was cell phones in general. Corporate leadership focused on that to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. When AT&T launched the iPhone, you could only get them at AT&T corporate owned stores, so we'd have try to convince you that what you really wanted was a Palm device or (god help me, I'm not kidding) a Windows phone. When Android launched, that helped, but the damage had been done. Even finally being allowed to sell the iPhone came too late to reverse their decline.

They specialized in iPhone, which has a narrower market and so less sales. They expanded into other phones, but it wasn't enough. Plus, I know I wasn't the only one going there to try and find the things I could have found in the old Radio Shack before it became The Shack. I would complain to the manager, who would just reply it's a corporate store and they sold what they were sent. So, more an more phone were trying to be sold, along with every mom and pop store in the city. Instead of being a market leader they were just following the pack, and they couldn't compete especially in a declining market. It's as simple as that.
Here's 'a' link: https://www.theverge.com/2016/6/1/11836816/iphone-vs-android-history-charts

Sprint killed Radio shack after they bought them !! And instead of closing sprint stores that were failing they shut down the shack !!

FWIW I even called the corporate offices and warned them. lol What a waste of my time. I said we wanted the old Radio Shack back, and that they'd forgotten the tinkerer. The parts that The Shack carried were abysmal.

I worked at a store that served a lot of farmers, it killed me to watch as corporate gutted our part and tool selection.