music, guitars & other obsessions

Building A Parts Inventory – The Zen of Taobao

As I gear up for my amp and pedal board builds, the first task was to build up a parts inventory, well it turned out not so easy – in China, there is no Digi-key, Antique Radio Supplies, Angela Instrument, Mojo Amps, etc. to meet the demand of the DIY market, I am so jealous of the people in the US, who can just go to a few solid sources and get all the parts, here I had to resort to order from multiple vendors via Taobao over several weeks of searching – thus the name of this post.

First, I must say that Taobao is quite impressive, you can source almost anything through it, its root with Alibaba is clearly apparent, it is The Place to hawk your wares in China, even office workers, students have open stores on Taobao. Where is your Taobao store?!Overall, I think Taobao is even better than eBay, but then again I have not used eBay for quite sometime, so who knows… Unlike eBay, the site is not auction driven, so everything is available for “Buy It Now”. But like most of the Chinese websites, the Taobao site is tacky and hard to look at, the site is too busy and chaotic to the eyes of a “western eye” like me, may be I lived in the States for too long but I really can not stand the look and feel of the typical Chinese websites, I think there is definitely a culture reason to explain why that is so… Any, back to the topic at hand.

Anyway, it took me two solid weeks of Taobao-ing to gather the parts, some came easily, but some were surprisingly hard to track down, in nay event, I manged to get 90% of the parts that I needed, so some modifications to the designs will have to be made later, it could get interesting, being the lazy person that I am, I really just wanted to get all the parts as specified, but that is not to be…

The Zen of Taobao – be patient and use the search engine wisely, while I tried my best in translating everything from English to Chinese for the parts, but not knowing the actual or proper names of them in Chinese was frustrating, since electric parts are not common everyday terms that people use, I can’t just ask someone “how do you say xyz in Chinese”, so the process to determine the proper names for the parts turned to to be rather time-consuming and tedious…

Typically when you do a search on Taobao, hundreds of matching parts will pop up, or the opposite happens, either way, lots of fine-tuning in the search terms were needed, you will also see some vendors purposely put multiple parts under the same category or worse, just fraudsters low-balling the price to get traffic to their stores, so the first thing to do is to weed out those “fillers” and drill down to some real vendors with actual items of interest.

Once you get to the store, it will still take sometime to get the exact item that you want, but because all the vendors are using the same Taobao storefront engine, one can usually navigate through the store with ease, but I must warn you that it is very easy to get side-tracked – many foolish items were ordered because of this, even though I tried my hardest not to be temped by the “shop window”, I still ended up with a bunch of parts that I probably don’t really need.

Anyway, before you get to the shopping cart, you need to double-check the inventory with the vendor, usually via Alibaobao or QQ. Make sure that they have the parts in stock before you hit the check out button – you can of course cancel or change the order later, but it takes a bit of extra work, so best to just ask and make sure… As it is often the case, you will need to get the vendor to adjust the shipping rate, as a majority of them do not bother to use the Taobao program properly to group the orders together and figure out the proper shipping rate, instead you get charged for every single item that you order so it is possible to get a shipping rate larger than your actual order, really!? Why can’t shopkeepers spend sometime getting that basic thing right?!

For small orders, and there were many – I had to source some of the parts locally at Cai Ge Electronic Market, which is a topic for another day. The unit price there are usually 25-100% higher than those shown on Taobao, WTF, you say. For electronic parts, especially passive parts, it is quite common for the vendor to establish a minimum order like 100 or 1000 pieces, you can of course find vendors that are willing to sell a piece or two to you, but be prepare to pay top yuan for such orders. Every time I shop at Cai Ge, I felt like I was ripped off, because when the vendors know that you are just a hobbyist (your small order gives it away) – a small fry, they really have little incentive to treat you fairly, it is “get as much you can while you can” with them, bastards!

It turned out that sourcing components for the tube amps was relatively easy, first of all, the part count are much smaller than the pedal boxes and because there are many specialists that cater to the burgeoning tube DIY market in China, it makes ordering parts a pretty simple process. I will do a post on some of those stores later.

While it was relatively easy to source the parts for the tube amps, I still wasted a lot of time and wasted energy because I could not make up my mind to turret boards, epoxy boards with through holes, or just point-to-point? Each method requires its own special parts which take time to track down. In addition, like the cheap bastard that I am, I just wasn’t about to fork out top yuan to get the audiophile-quality parts, which were all readily available, so I have no one to blame in this case. I saved money but at what cost?! Even with my cheap-ass way of parts selection, I think out of everything, a surprising 20% may be even more were spent on the stupid hardware, i.e., the parts that do not even make any damn sound at all! Let’s not even get into whole issue with the chassis now, that is another can of worms, and will discussed in due course later.

But getting the parts for the pedals was another story altogether. Man! I really did not think it would be this difficult, for example, just for the transistors, I had to order them from half a dozen stores and I am still short of a couple of them… It was also difficult to track down a common part like the potentiometer, unless of course if you want to pay more than 8 yuan for one cheap carbon comp pot! May be I am just being too cheap as usual…

Even though a single pedal may just contain a few parts, given the large number of pedals that I want to try out (I set my sights high ;-), I still had to order a lot of parts, especially the transistors, resistors and capacitors, some of which turned out may be obsolete or very hard to get, especially with some of the older designs. Many a time, I thought for all the yuan I was spending, I could have bought all the pedals I ever need, why do I put up with all this bull shit?But then I think what is the fun in that? Did I not start this whole project with the intention to try out different pedal designs, and to learn/refresh my basic electronic knowledge which is unfortunately woefully lacking these days…

There are many takeaways from this saga so far, first, proper planning is a must, or as they say “measure twice, cut once”. Since there are so many plans available for the amp and pedal build, I probably bit off a bit more than I can chew by try to build so many different ones all at once, this may be partly justified by the fact that it is very inefficient to order parts in small quantity, if I do that I might as well just buy the finished amp or pedal, as there is not much difference in price after you factor in all the time, energy that goes into an exercise like this… I guess we will see if my “efficiency theory” will work out or not.

I did a quick calculation, so far, I have “invested” close to 10,000 yuan in the parts, some were no doubt impulse purchases, I mean do I really need to have hundreds of knobs, am I really going to use them all? How many pedals can I build or use?! But in the heat of reading, AX84, SEWatt, etc. it was very easy to got carried away and start ordering parts like a mad man, oh well, there is always the Salvation Army to haul my junk away later.

With the last of the parts coming in the next few days, I am finally ready to bread-board some amps and pedals, I am also relieved not to be spending hours and hours going through Taobao, looking for those damn parts, my eyes really could use a break!

Another side note, my experiences with the orders have been just great so far, most of the orders were delivered within two days, even on weekends. I didn’t have a single order screwed up because of the delivery company. Another finding was that, most of the orders were carefully packed, labeled, and stuffed into the boxes for shipping, good job I say!

This post is really getting too long, be back with more later…


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