I'm a maker, I love making, I love making new things. There is a certain thrill of discovery when you make something new, something "outside of your wheelhouse" as a good friend used to say. One of the big problems with making new things is they often require new tools and tools can be crazy expensive. So how the heck are you supposed to buy all these tools and still be able to afford the materials to make new stuff? I have several strategies, and I must be patient if I want a good deal. Having a plan, even a vague one, long beforehand allows you the option of purchasing items at better prices before the project begins. I have been known to buy tools without a project in mind because I knew I wanted to do something in the field of use the tool was designed for and I found the deal of the century.
Clearance Items at Lowes and Home Depot
I cruise the aisles for materials and tools all the time anyway, as I'm sure you do too. While I'm there I make it a habit to spin by the yellow tag clearance items and snag something if it's cheap. Some really incredible deals can be found when big box stores are clearing their shelves for the new season or a new supplier.
Online Tool Shops Such As Harbor Freight or Northern Tools
I am fortunate enough to live reasonably close to one of each of their brick and mortar stores. These stores can have 24/7/365 great prices, but subscribing to their email lists can bring in unbelievable deals at times. I get 20, 30 and 40% off coupons in email constantly, mix that with a markdown and you've got yourself a sale. Just beware that all too often the lower the price the lower the quality. If you plan to use the item much, you may want to spend some money on a name brand. Also, whenever going low price, always look online at other sites for reviews, preferably from sites that don't sell the tool in question.
Not exactly a secret these days but eBay is often the best place to pick up tools on the cheap. With millions of active auctions there is almost always a selection of options for anything you may be looking for. eBay is the world's garage sale as well as the world's largest confederacy of online businesses offering a staggering amount of both new and used tools to pick from.
Some of the pitfalls to watch out for; too cheap to be functional items, usually from China and too expensive to ship back if there is an issue. Shipping....sometimes free....sometimes many times more expensive than the item itself. Incredibly long wait times if shipped from overseas. Size matters, look for measurements, some items are much smaller than their pictures make them look.
The difference between a garage sale and an estate sale is at garage sales the guy who paid the original price for his tool is the one selling it. In an estate sale the emphasis is usually to clear a property of all loose items, if this includes a garage or workshop you are in luck. Since most estate sales are not from young property owners you will likely be looking at tools from a bygone era, sometimes outdated but often of a much higher quality than you can find easily these days.
Some think it to be ghoulish to shop estate sales, I say not so. An estate sale is of great benefit to the family and often is used to cover final expenses. I also believe that something of the owner is in every tool, a sense of pride and craft. Buying a tool that has been used by another maker honors them after they are gone. As a maker myself, I hope my tools end up in the hands of makers when I pass.
Going Out of Business Sales or Closeouts
I am very pro business but when Darwinism strikes a business and the doors no longer sway for customers, deals can be found. Not only are prices low but quality is usually high; businesses rarely buy on the cheap, their tools are usually used daily and are usually of high caliber.
Not all closeouts are equal, watch out for the faux closeout, the store that has been going out of business for months or even years, scam closeout sales abound. If they have a bunch of "going out of business" signs printed up, this is a red flag. Look for 1, 2 or 3 day sales usually auction style or at least "everything must go" where even the shelves and back office computer is for sale.
If you know the business before it goes out you will have better insight. If they went out of business because they sold high, don't necessarily believe they will suddenly sell low on their way out. If they had poor quality work, don't expect high quality tools.
I'm all about small government myself, but as long as it's big let's take advantage of it. Let's face it, government lacks a profit motive, so stuff sells cheap. Frequently you will even find stock that was purchased and never used, stored in a closet for years just to be dusted off and sold for a fraction of the cost. Often items are only available in bulk (by the pallet) but smaller buys are common and virtually every government agency has some sort of maintenance department that ditches tools at a cost nearing their recycle value. Beyond the usual sale of tax purchased items comes the TSA or Police seized auctions where the only good that comes from illegal chop shops is cheap tools. Public auctions can also be a great source for material items like scrap metal, brass, wire wood and motors.
As most auctions, you often have no recourse if the item doesn't work and don't bid too high on electronics and computers as they are often fried before the IT department lets them go. Before bidding, make sure you know where and when pickup is allowed. Public auctions don't deliver and are usually only available during business hours, an issue if you work for a living.
Often with a reputation of being sleazy, or selling stolen goods, pawn shops are often over looked. The days of the pawn shop fence are over as items sold to the pawn shop are linked with state ID to the person selling them. The deals at pawn shops usually come from people, often in the construction trades, who are down on their luck. You aren't victimizing someone by buying at a pawn shop, buying used tools gives market for people to sell used tools often the only way someone makes rent and utility payments. If no one is buying tools from the pawn shop, the pawn shop won't buy tools from people who need the money.
By shopping often you can frequently find items under $10 and even odd wrenches, sockets, screwdrivers and bits under $1. Also, pawn shops mirror the community the exist in, look in poorer part of town for better prices and industrial areas for appropriate tools.
Have fun and build often!