I generally prefer LCD monitors with vintage PCs, but if you want a true retro experience, you need a CRT. The problem is finding one. Here’s where to buy CRT monitors.
The problem with CRT monitors is that the people who have them and don’t want them have a hard time finding the people who do want one. Prior to 2010 or so, I used to see CRT monitors all the time at thrift stores, church rummage sales, and the other usual secondhand sources. And of course I didn’t want one then. I was buying even older stuff at that point. I’m not sure anyone else wanted them either, though, and that was the problem.
Presumably in some areas, you can still try those kinds of venues. But where I live, the thrift stores and church rummage sales won’t accept CRT monitors or TVs anymore. You’re more likely to find a Dell 2001FP there, and even more likely to find something newer. Here’s why a Dell 2001FP is a good find though, and always worth looking for.
Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace
One of the best ways to buy a CRT monitor is a local online sale venues like Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, or Nextdoor. In that order, in my experience. Search for keywords like CRT monitor and the brand you want, if you have a preference. On Facebook it seems like the best stuff is always a couple of states away, but with patience, good stuff does turn up locally too.
If you want your monitor to match the PC you’re going to use it with, or if you need something older than a VGA monitor, you’ll need some patience. But chances are, you’ll be able to find some kind of 17-inch CRT pretty quickly that can stand in until you find the perfect monitor. Keep in mind the match doesn’t have to necessarily be exact. We all wanted an NEC monitor in the 90s, even if we didn’t have one. And monitors broke a lot in the 90s, or we upgraded to a bigger one. So you can use a monitor a few years newer than your PC and still look correct.
It also helps if you define “local” very liberally. One of my best finds came two hours away from home.
Check to see if your area has a computer recycler. Many of these businesses will happily sell the items they take in, and for many vintage computer enthusiasts, recyclers are the best place to buy CRT monitors and other vintage gear.
Not many people want CRTs, but a CRT probably is worth more to you than its scrap value. Give your local recycler a call during regular business hours and ask if they ever sell to the public. If they do, ask about what CRTs they have, if any. If you’re friendly and bring cash, it’s worth their while to sell to you. For some recyclers, selling vintage gear to collectors is part of their revenue model.
Expect selection to be hit and miss, but they’ll probably have more than the online venues do at any specific point in time. If you’re buying in person, be sure to check for screen burn.
Many estate sale companies regard CRTs as junk unless they’re a recognizable name brand and look really old. But I do see monitors in estate sales from time to time. CRTs usually turn up in basements and garages, so pay attention to the pictures in the sale ad. Expect the focus to be on other items but you’ll be able to train yourself to spot those beige colors. Sometimes you get lucky and find the estate of a former IT professional, and those types of sales can turn up all sorts of odd and inexpensive goodies. If you see what appears to be an office full of assorted computer equipment, go.
If you can be patient, this is likely to be your cheapest option. With a little luck, you can probably find more than just a CRT. I see vintage computer desks in basements all the time. So you may be able to score a period-correct desk along with that CRT, and maybe some vintage disk files or other accessories too, to complete your setup.
Estate sales are also a solid venue for modern-ish laser printers that can emulate old dot matrix printers for vintage computing.
Here are my tips for finding estate sales, if you’re unfamiliar.
Of course you can find CRT monitors on Ebay. You can find everything there. But I don’t recommend buying monitors on Ebay unless you can find someone selling near you and the seller offers the option to pick it up. CRT monitors are extremely difficult and expensive to ship, and frequently arrive damaged. And that means both you and the seller are unhappy.
How to ship a CRT monitor
If you see a monitor you must have and it’s a thousand miles away, contact the seller ahead of time and ask if they’ll accept some shipping advice. I used to have to ship monitors between Columbia, Missouri and Washington DC. Maybe my experience can help you.
The way we used to ship CRTs was to get a box large enough to hold the monitor and leave a good 1-2 inches of extra space all around. So the box really needs to be at least 2 inches taller, wider, and deeper than the monitor, and four inches would be better.
In addition to the box, you’ll need at least three large trash bags and a can of spray foam insulation. Inspect each bag for holes, so you don’t make a huge mess.
Put the monitor in one of the bags. Then place the monitor on its stand in the box, centering it as best you can.
You’ll use the other two bags to make something resembling the foam cradle that held the monitor from the factory. Place one bag in the front of the box, between the CRT and the box side. Make sure at least some of the bag surrounds the monitor on all sides. Then spray some foam into the bag. Don’t fill the bag. Just spray some foam in there and let it expand to fill the gap between the monitor and the box. You can always add more foam after it solidifies.
Place the other bag in the back and repeat.
These supplies will be expensive, and they still don’t guarantee the monitor will arrive without damage. But it gives the monitor a fighting chance.