First an explanation of why I decided to buy direct from China. The difference in cost between Chinese manufacturers and European retailers was very appealing even after factoring in the high shipping cost and as I wasn't in a hurry for the items I could accept the long delivery time of 40 days. My estimation was that the cost of each material would be about 1/3 of the price if I had bought them from a UK retailer even after adding shipping, handling and relevant taxes.
And what did I find?
Well the number one lesson is that you definitely get what you pay for! Here is a summary:
There are very distinct differences in quality between manufacturers
Here is a good example of the variation in quality between different manufacturers. Let's take the Imbucare Box With Large Cylinder:
If you buy this item from Nienhuis you will pay £30 for a top quality material that will stand up well to the very highest level of use in a classroom environment. The paint on the cylinder is chip proof and you can see that the hinged door is mounted and sized so that it will only open outwards. This is the 'crème de la crème' of the Montessori materials world but with a price tag to match.
The next quality level is found at most material retailers as either a standard or premium range. This one retails for £11.99 from Absorbent Minds so less than half price of the Nienhuis version but there are a few differences: the wood has a lower quality finish and the paint on the cylinder may chip with heavy usage. Another interesting difference is that the hinged door swings inside and out.
This example pretty well summarises my experience of purchasing materials from China but I have shown below a few more comparisons for your viewing pleasure.
Expect to get what you pay for
This Multiple Shape Puzzle Set fro Nienhuis costs £53.70! The quality is exceptional as you would expect.
Now here are the puzzles that I bought from China.
When you look at each one they are perfectly reasonable in terms of quality. Each shape fits nicely into its space
The circles puzzle cost less than $2.
The three shape puzzle also cost less than $2 and is perfectly functional although the wooden knobs are a lighter shade of wood than the base which is the same yellow wood mentioned earlier.
The colour used for the blue circles varies though between the two puzzles which really isn't a big deal but worth pointing out if you care about that type of thing.
Personally after paying so little for each of these I wasn't too concerned.
Some things really ought to be high quality
When ordering the pink tower I wanted to be sure of a decent quality. That is why I paid extra for the 'premium' version (still from China) which cost $17 with the non chip coating.
The same version generally retails for £30 in the UK.
I am really happy with this item and was pleased to see that it came with a spare 1cm cube as well.
Some things really don't need to be such high quality
This is the horizontal dowel material. My one slopes down slightly which you can see in the picture but is otherwise good quality.
Maria Montessori explained that materials should be beautiful and well made to encourage children to see them as special and so treat them with care. I agree with this wholeheartedly but with an item like this I would rather save money that can be put towards a high quality brown stair for example.
Sometimes imperfections don't matter
This coin slot box has a few obvious imperfections: the drawer knob is a different colour wood to the rest of the box and the drawer front does not fit squarely with the drawer. However, neither of these things are serious in my mind considering the price tag of less than $4.
Sometimes imperfections do matter
This is the sandpaper globe which is designed to be the first introduction to our planet by providing a tactile difference between the land (rough) and water (smooth).
It is simple and clear and allows the senses to concentrate only on the land forms set against he water.
The one I received was not that accurate and just looked cheap. It appears to foretell rising sea levels as the Bering Strait is much larger than I remember and if it were really accurate there would certainly be no need for the Panama Canal on this globe.
But worse than that the United Kingdom has had Wales and Scotland removed not to mention the fact that Ireland no longer exists.
Some things are a bit strange
This is the three colour vertical dowel material As I remember the colours are generally the three primary colours i.e. red, yellow and blue.
This version cost £7.99 from Absorbent Minds.
But the one I got is red, yellow and green. The quality is very good but I found the colour choice strange.
The only other time I have seen these colours is from IFit.
Does it matter? I don't think so but maybe you do?
Some people feel very strongly about the ethical impact of buying from China. What about labour conditions or chemicals? One concern that I do have is the question of where the wood is sourced from. I hate to think that deforestation is happening as a result of these cheap materials.
All in all I am happy with the materials that I bought. Some are a bit naff but most are perfectly suitable for me. For a small homeschool I don't believe that it is necessary to spend lots of money unless you have plenty to spare.
That being said I think it is worthwhile spending more on key items that will be used often or those which are a bit special like the globes.
Would I do it again? Yes. I will place another order soon for 3-6 materials and I'll be sure to keep you posted.
The company website is here. I have a pricelist I can send you if you request via the contact form (the file size is much too large to publish here).