Toner Transfer And Packing Tape

The toner transfer process of producing PCBs has evolved tremendously over the last few years. It started out by printing PCB layouts onto magazines with a laser printer, then some clever people figured out that glossy inkjet photo paper would work just as well. Now there’s a new substrate for you – packing tape – and it seems to work pretty well.

[David] was designing a cheap board for a robot kit for a workshop and needed 100 tiny PCBs. They were simple boards, and perfectly suited for home PCB manufacturing. He started off by printing directly onto glossy magazine paper, but this wasn’t an ideal solution. During one run, some of the toner landed on the packaging tape he was using to secure the boards. A bit of serendipity came into play and [David] discovered packaging tape is usable in the toner transfer process.

The technique is simple enough: put some packaging tape on a piece of paper, print a board layout (reversed!) on a laser printer, and go through the usual clothes iron/laminator/etching process. [David] is actually using a hair straightener for transferring the toner over to the copper clad board – interesting, and in a pinch you can use the same tool for reflowing SMD components.

38 thoughts on “Toner Transfer And Packing Tape

  1. There’s press’n’peel toner transfer sheets that also fill in the tiny voids in printing and bulk up the transfer. They’re cheap and work consistently. I don’t see why one should bother messing around with glossy magazines or packing tapes when superior purpose-made products are available for a couple dollars.

    1. Exactly. Press-n-peel works a whole lot better than any of these other attempts at being cheap. Plus you dont risk destroying the laser printer with melted packing tape on the fuser roller.

        1. Anywhere else is almost certainly going to attract a shipping cost which is likely to be more than the cost of the actual product – unless you have a link to a “free international shipping” site?

  2. The press-n-peel isn’t all that readily available in many places and/or costs a lot of money. Don’t assume that people are just being cheap – 5 sheets of the PnP Blue costs almost 20 EUR + shipping here.

    I have had good results with self-adhesive nylon film – mine is from http://www.d-c-fix.com in Germany, but they are commonly carried in rolls in home decor stores around here. It withstands the temperature well and certainly won’t melt in the printer – unlike the packing tape. It can consistently handle 8/8 boards and helps to reduce the pitting too – but for that you should use a hot air gun and melt the toner after the transfer. It is also vastly cheaper than the PnP Blue – a 10m roll can be had for about 10 EUR here and that will last a very long time.

      1. I am printing on the film. I peel the backing off, stick the nylon on a sheet of paper to act as a carrier and pass it through the printer. Then cut it out and iron/laminate as usual. I have found the method on some Romanian website, which is gone, unfortunately.

        The key to a good transfer is not the pressure but heat – the hotter the board gets, the better, because then the toner will fuse to it better. I am using a cheap laminator from a supermarket and pass the board through it perhaps 20 times, until it is too hot to touch.

    1. I’ve been using overhead transparency material (3M Brand) for a few years now, works really, really well. Double sided is easy if you print fiducial marks larger than the board. The toner and laminator temp are important. Last time I looked the cost was about the same or less than using Photo Paper. I should really write it all up and share.

  3. I wouldn’t bother with toner transfer if I have to make more than a handful of PCB. If you are making 100 PCB, use a Chinese proto PCB service. Some of them have the option of shipping by courier if you want them fast.

    1. At $14 for 10 5x5cm pcbs (yay dirtypcbs!) I’m not terribly motivated to do etching even for small runs!

      Of course, the trick there is to have enough projects going that you can happily wait a few weeks for your boards…

  4. My first thought is that the space between the lines of packing tape would cause a problem.

    I love [Jan]’s idea using self-adhesive nylon film. I may buy a laser printer just to try that out.

  5. Great way to mess up the fuse and drum in your laser printer, in my early experiments with toner transfer I was taping squares of photo paper to standard letter paper to save on my then precious photo paper, after a few print attempts I noticed a small smudge had began to appear on everything I printed, this as it turned out was a very small smudge of tape adhesive which had transfered onto the drum of the printer… and stayed that way forever.
    On that note I later made amazing toner transfer boards using a hp laser jet 5l with a fresh toner cartridge set to its darkest setting on semi-generic photo paper.

    1. Quite a number of people experimenting with transfer materials have damaged their printers like this. You really want to avoid any high-gloss plastics like packing tape.

      I have had *excellent* results with matte vinyl shelf paper. It holds the toner well enough to avoid damage to your printer but releases it easily onto your PCB.

  6. The best material for toner transfer is that yellow glossy paper which exists behind labels. Go buy an A4 adhesive label paper, peel off the label itself and throw it out, and then print on that glossy yellow paper. Trust me. I made hundreds of perfect double sided PCBs this way, and some of them even had 0.1mm pitch which came out perfect on the first try. This is a golden advise which I’m giving you for free. It coated me a lot of my time and many many tries with different materials to reach this conclusion. And don’t listen to other people. I’ve tried all of these and none of them was as perfect as this. You can even use that to print on your t-shirts! Also, always use acetone to clean the toner afterwards. Don’t ever use anything else. Also you may decide to keep the toner and it’s totally OK.

    1. I bought such paper from eBay, without stickers and marked “toner transfer paper”. It’s yellow, glossy, and works very well. But few days ago I tried photo-positive method and I don’t think I will use toner-transfer any more. It’s much precise, much simpler and much consistent, and materials are also pretty cheap.

  7. The best method i’ve tried is to use just normal paper but with a thin layer of purple stick glue. use purple to see what you’re doing. when it dries run it through the printer, then iron like normal. soak it and the glue will dissolve and the paper will separate on it’s own with no mess.

  8. WTF? Needing to make 100 boards is the absolute opposite of “…perfectly suited for home PCB manufacturing.”
    Needing to make 100 boards is the EXACT reason you should get real boards made at a real board house. You could possibly make the case that for ONE board home etching is OK. No way 100.

    Have you ever actually etched your own boards at home?? No one that has would ever advocate making 100 of the same board that way in your garage. It would take days to cut the copper board, print all the transfers, iron them on, gallons of enchant handling, cleaning all the trace transfer plastic off the finished boards, and then having to make ANOTHER batch since 10-20% of them didn’t etch right. It’s going to cost more in just material, not to mention time, to do this. Insanity.

    Let me rewrite the article for you.
    “This guy came up with a new clever way to print circuit board transfers for home etching using packing tape. If you need to make one board, you may want to try this, especially if you like suffering. Now if you need to make 100 boards of the same design here is a link to http://www.pcbshopper.com where you can find VERY CHEAP sources of professional looking PCBs. K THX GG.”

    1. It would probably cost $30-$40 for the whole batch and I’ll get a professionally made batch of double sided PCB with plate through holes, silk screen etc by ordering it from a proto PCB service including shipping from China.

      If I am stupid to try to make 100 PCB at home instead, I would look into doing silk screening or photoresist. There is too much scrubbing for 100 PCB and lots of variables on a large area/batch using toner transfer.

      In case you are questioning my toner transfer skill. This is what I have done with toner transfer on glossy paper: TQFP 0.5mm pitch part with 10/10 space and 2 traces between 0.1″ header pins. http://em.motokokusanagi.com/web/Misc%20Electronics/USB/TUSB3210.jpg

  9. I’ve printed on regular paper, ironed on, then dissolved the paper with cellulase enzyme. It worked, and was a fun experiment, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to make all my boards that way. PnP Blue isn’t that expensive when you consider that a 5-pack makes up to 467 square inches of PCB. I think the biggest single board I’ve ever made was 20 sq. in., most are smaller.

  10. I’m still printing on the advertisement magazines paper: it’s thin and glossy enough. But I’ve reduced greatly the work by buying a laminator on the Amazon (http://www.amazon.de/AmazonBasics-Hei%C3%9Flaminierger%C3%A4t-f%C3%BCr-Fotos-80Mic/dp/B00D44TLTK/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1424675709&sr=8-1&keywords=amazon+basics+laminierger%C3%A4t) and improved it using this: http://www.edaboard.com/thread281568.html schematics. Just needed slightly change schematics and PCB to make it working better and match the laminator package. Now toner transfer is like a charm – I forgot how to use the iron.

      1. for sure. I had slightly different components, another triac etc. the only principal change was the voltage reference circuit: the device is based on the OPAMP used as comparator. one signal comes from diode, and variates from 0.6…0.7 to approx 0.4. Second signal comes from TL431 and is 2.5V. Second signal is too high: this is not nice, while I used not really precise POT’s. I’ve added sequent resistance between POTs common point and 2.5V reference. Now the voltage on POTs is 1V. this increased precision of the temperature set. The second halve of the OPAMP I’ve used as a buffer to light a LED when heater is on. made rectangular PCB, used a lot of old, non-smd components, which were taken from old disassembled devices.

  11. Similar process, but use oracal brand (maybe other works too) vinyl sticked over regular paper give me very good results and is cheap enough to forget about costs. Laser toner sticks well enough to vinil, and transfer it to the copper is perfect. Currently I’m using a laminator….. plus use a heat gun (with care!) over toner in pcb improve a lot the finishing. It seals the tiny holes..

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