Someone on the Facebook group Estes Model Rockets posed a question recently: Other than Amazon, where is everyone buying Estes rockets? I don't have a good hobby store near me.
I see beginners ask this kind of question frequently - where can you get model rocket stuff? This is quite an active, vibrant hobby with a hugely supportive base, but it's still somewhat underground. And it might surprise you to know that when I was a newbie 8 years ago, when I started googling where to buy model rockets, a lot of the best places didn't necessarily pop up at the top of the search results. Most of my first weeks' googling took me to Amazon, which is where I got most of my very first rockets and supplies, as well as my Kindle edition of The Handbook of Model Rocketry, by G. Harry Stine and Bill Stine, an absolute must-read for beginners.
Maybe this is because of Amazon's advertising budget, maybe not. I won't speculate. But it took me a little digging to find some of the best vendors in this hobby.
Of course, a good place to start is a local hobby shop - if you have one available to you. Whether it's a small, independent hobby store or a big box store, you can go browse rockets and supplies, which is a lot of fun. It can be good to get an idea of what something looks like and how big it is before you buy. And supporting a good local hobby shop is always appreciated! Independent hobby shops are kind of a dying breed, and the owners are often very supportive of the customers they have.
|The Treasure Chest, in Bloomington, Indiana. Last time I went back, they had closed for good.|
Of course, not everyone has a hobby store nearby, and even if you do, the stock of rocketry supplies may be limited. Most people are buying things online these days, at least some of the time.
Here is a list of vendors I've bought from. It is not comprehensive, and is not in order of greatest to least, or anything like that. If there's someone left off the list, it's because I've either never bought from them, or maybe I did once, but don't remember it, so I don't have anything to go on. I've bought a lot of rocket stuff over the years. If I forget one of your favorites, leave a comment below and tell us all about them.
I'll start with the obvious one.
You can find rockets from Estes and Quest on Amazon, as well as occasionally one or two other, smaller companies. Most of these are smaller vendors selling through Amazon, though, as a way to increase traffic.
While shopping from Amazon has its advantages - you're pretty much guaranteed a replacement or refund if your stuff doesn't arrive, or arrives damaged, for example - these days, I only buy rocket stuff from Amazon in certain circumstances. For example, if I need a building tool or painting supply and either can't get it elsewhere, or it's drastically cheaper an Amazon, I'll go with them. I get hobby knife blades in bulk through them. With individual kits, though, I tend to avoid them. Last rocket I bought from them was an Estes Der Red Max, and I had to return it several times before I got one which didn't have a squashed tube or bent balsa fins. Amazon pickers don't really know the hobby, and with the way model rocket kits are packaged, this is unsurprising to me.
I personally have a lot of sympathy for people who pick for Amazon. It's much harder work than you imagine, so I don't blame the pickers. But I'll turn to them for things like household appliances or general consumer goods rather than a model rocket kit.
Sometimes you'll find a rocket which is discontinued, and sold out everywhere, but Amazon still has a few. That's when I'd go ahead and buy from them.
You can buy Estes stuff direct from the source at their website. All their current catalog (including the catalog itself, which you can get for free if you like paper catalogs), meaning rocket kits, engines, launch sets, and bulk engines and classroom rocket packs, plus building supplies, Estes hats, t-shirts and water bottles, plus The Handbook of Model Rocketry (Bill Stine, co-author and son of the book's original author, is VP at Estes). Shipping is free above a certain amount, and that amount may vary if they're having a sale. It's also the first place you can get certain limited edition products like ready-to-fly scale models. Their website also has a strong educational component, and you can download old catalogs and instruction sets from the site.
Quest is another model rocket company you should consider. They have kits of varying skill level, just like Estes, and they also carry their own line of composite motors. This uses the more energetic ammonium perchlorate propellant, as opposed to the black powder Estes uses. Combining BP Estes motors with Quest AP motors in your range box gives you a lot of possibilities to play with as you fly rockets.
Apogee was the first site I found and purchased stuff from that wasn't Amazon. I bought some body tubes. These days, if I just wanted tubes, I'd probably go elsewhere, because their shipping was a little high. But they are known for excellent customer service, and they have a huge selection of kits, motors, specialty products, and a lot of things you just can't get anywhere else other than at Apogee. They also have an excellent e-newsletter filled with information on rocketry. You can browse their website for all their past newsletters and learn a lot. Also, they include a simulation file with almost every rocket in their catalog, free for download right there on the same page. This can be helpful if you want to pick motors for your flying field, and need to see how high your rocket may fly.
This was an early favorite of mine. In addition to kits from just about every manufacturer, they sell parts and supplies. They're a good place to check if you're looking for something that was recently discontinued. I bought most of my body tubes and nose cones for my first scratch builds from JonRocket, and used to look at their website every day. Shipping is free over $50. I met the owners at NARCON a few years ago, back when we could do that in person, and they're very sweet people.
eRockets sponsors my podcast, The Model Rocket Show, and they're a great vendor with excellent customer service. They produce the Semroc line of rockets, and the parts on those kits are top notch. eRockets also carries one-of-a-kind tools, finishing supplies, airbrush paint, etc. And they carry kits from tons of manufacturers - Estes and Quest, of course, but also AeroTech, ASP, Custom, Dr. Zooch, Shrockets, New Way, North Coast, Rocketarium, Odd'l Rockets, Mad Cow, LOC Precision, and many others.
ASP has much of what you'd find at other sites, but they specialize in a couple areas - scale model rockets and competition rockets. You can get kits specifically geared toward getting started in various NAR competitions, as well as parts and accessories (such a the NAR standard payload). They also have a series of their own scale model kits from small to large. Often, you'll find the same rocket in three different scale sizes, capable of flying on mini motors up to G or even H or I high power motors.
I particularly like ASP for specialty parts, like extra long body tubes, a wide variety of balsa nose cones and transitions, as well as their colorful nylon parachutes in all size.
AC Supply sells a lot of STEM products, including robotics kits, electronics, even Pinewood Derby supplies. The reason I like them so much is that they're an Estes wholesaler. You can get pretty much anything Estes at 40% off, and if you spend over $100, shipping is free. I like to buy from them if I need a large quantity of something, like bulk motor packs, or a bunch of rockets at once. I always save up and spend over $100 for the free shipping.
This can be a way to deal with HAZMAT fees - the large fee you have to pay for rocket motors with more than 30 grams of propellant. The current fee, I think, is about $37, and applies to many E, F, and G motors. (There are exceptions to this, but with Estes engines, E/F/G engines all incur the fee). It's a single fee, though. If you buy a single F26-6 motor, you'd have to pay shipping AND a $37 HAZMAT fee! But if you bought, say, 25 motors, you'd easily go over the free shipping line, and would simply be adding $1.48 to the cost of each motor (or pack of 2 or 3). With everything already 40% off, that's a pretty good deal.
I've probably spent more at AC Supply than any other rocketry vendor. Highly recommended.
I should really look at Belleville more often. Because, like AC Supply, they are a discounted rocketry shop, but they carry a few other brands besides Estes - especially Custom Model Rockets, and Quest Aerospace.
Here's a great example - you could get a Quest Quadrunner - an awesome 4-engine cluster rocket - for a deep discount.
I've only purchased from Belleville once or twice myself, but I did get excellent customer service when I did.
Like a lot of these vendors, BRM does sell some kits, but its specialty is composite rocket motors and motor accessories from AeroTech. You can get reloadable motor casings, delay drilling tools, and propellant refills, as well as single-use engines, from A all the way up through M high power! They also sometimes run specials on an AeroTech or LOC Precision kit plus motor casing combo, so it's not a bad idea to sign up for their email list.
I almost neglected to put North Coast on here - not because I forgot, but if memory serves, they used to sell their kits through other vendors, and their site served mainly as a catalog. Now, you can buy directly from the site, as it's a full online store.
Matt Steele, owner of NCR, is a great guy and will give you great service. North Coast has larger, mid-power kits. Built correctly, these could also fly on H or I 29mm motors, meaning you could do a certification flight on one if you chose to do so. I feel they're a good alternative to the old Estes plywood fins and centering rings Pro Series II builders' kits, which are no longer in production.
North Coast is also the U.S. distributor of the Adrel altimeter, a tiny, lightweight altimeter used in international competition rocketry.
If you're looking for something different, produced by a small manufacturer, FlisKits is worth a look. They've got some funny odd rocs, some tiny scale models, great cluster models with canted motor tubes for a cool smoke trail, and stuff for beginners to advanced builders. You can buy FlisKits rockets at many of the sites I've listed above, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention their website here. I know the founder, Jim Flis, as well as one of the current owners, Ray DiPaola, and they're great guys. Check out my episode of The Model Rocket Show podcast all about FlisKits by clicking HERE.
You can sometimes get some real deals on eBay. If you're looking for an out-of-production model rocket kit, or if you're looking for some reloadable motor hardware, it's worth checking out. You do want to beware of overpaying for an old kit, and of course go with sellers with good ratings. But I've found a few things on there I'm really happy I bought.
I got a few Estes D Region Tomahawk kits, and managed to pay a reasonable price for those. I got some AeroTech and Cesaroni high power motor hardware for less than retail. I've bought some really cheap cameras on there for taping to the side of a rocket. I even got a great blast deflector and rod holder to convert a camera tripod into a launch pad, capable of holding launch rods up to 1/4 inch!
I had to break the eBay habit a while back - I was winning too many auctions, and it was getting expensive. Still, I do check from time to time. There are a few things on my wish list I try to get for a good price.
I've never bought from Balsa Machining Service, and I know I'm missing out here, because a lot of people in rocketry give them a lot of praise. Their specialty is, as the name suggests, machined balsa parts. Nose cones, tail cones, and nose blocks (a solid balsa piece used as a tube coupler to make the upper portion of the rocket a payload section) are their main stock and trade. They also sell motors, though, and the School Rocket is the cheapest kit you will find on the market - whether you buy 1 or 50 - making them a good place to shop for school projects.
Again, I've never personally purchased from them (yet), but I have them bookmarked, and they have such a good reputation I have to mention them.
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What about you? Do you have a favorite vendor I forgot to mention here? Leave a comment below and tell us all about them!
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