Hands-On Othermill Review Grinds Out Sparkling Results

We’ve been on the lookout for alternatives to chemically etching circuit boards for years. The problem has been that we don’t particularly want to devote months of or lives learning how to build precision CNC mills. Off in the distance there may be an answer for that quandary if you don’t mind parting with twenty-two Benjamins. Sure, it’s a heck of a lot more expensive than toner transfer and cupric chloride, but the Othermill can be purchased right now (in your hands a few months later) and after reading this in-depth review we are a bit less hesitant about opening our wallets for it.

othermill-review-thumbIt’s a tome of a review, but that means there’s something for everybody. We especially enjoyed seeing the 10 mil board shown here which took about 1-hour to mill. Considering it has also been through-hole drilled we’d put that on part with the time it takes to etch a board. There are obvious places where the traces are not perfectly smooth (not sure if that’s burring or over-milling) but they are not broken and the board’s ready to be populated.

Alignment is something of an issue, but the Othermill isn’t limited to PCBs so we’d recommend designing and milling your own alignment bracket system as an early project.

Who isn’t envious of custom-builds that can get down to 10-mils, like this beauty from 2013. Our hopes had been sparked when Carbide 3D came onto the scene. We’re still optimistic that they will make a big splash when they start shipping preorders in a few months.

As this review proves, Othermill is already out in the wild with a 6-8 week wait before shipping. We saw it in action milling multiple materials at the Hackaday Omnibus Lauch Party and were duly impressed. Price or waiting-period aside we’re going to hold off until the software options expand beyond Mac-only (UPDATE: Othermill software support for Windows was added in early 2016); either Othermill will add support or someone will come up with a hack to use traditional CNC software. But if you count yourself as a subscriber to the cult of Apple the software, called Otherplan, does get a favorable prognosis along with the hardware.

Already have an Othermill sitting on your bench? Let us know your what you think about it in the comments below.

Bonus content: [Mike Estee], CTO of Othermill just gave a talk last night about how he got into making mills and the challenges of building something with super-high-precision. Sound isn’t good but the talk is solid. Hackaday’s [Joshua Vasquez] also gives a talk on the video about building an SPI core for FPGA. These talks are one of the Hardware Developer’s Didactic Galactic series which you really should check out if you’re ever in the San Francisco area.

44 thoughts on “Hands-On Othermill Review Grinds Out Sparkling Results

  1. I used to do the whole toner transfer thing, but I finally ordered a few boards from seeedstudio fusion a few weeks ago.

    I no longer think it makes sense for a hobbiyest to ever make their own PCBs.

    You can literally get 0.3mm vias, plated holes, double sided silkscreen, 6 mil traces and 100% etesting for a dollar a board. You can get professionally fabricated boards for less cost than even the shittiest DIY attempt.

    Nobody wants to screw around trying to solder wire through their vias or plating holes. It just isn’t worth the time for anything of moderate or higher complexity.

    1. If you got time, much time or money, much money.
      Shure, no problem, i will order boards.

      I either get cheap boards and have to wait 3-8 weeks till i get them.
      Me, personally, real world experience, at least 3 weeks. That is *my* reality, yours may differ.

      Or i shelf out a lot of money and get the board in a week, but i do not have a gold shitting donkey.

      That means if i want to build something, the first board iteration will never work like intendet. I will have to order two times.
      That means if i want to build something pretty it will be a nearly half a year, worst case, till i am done.

      If i etch the board myself, i will be done in 2 days and *then* i can order pretty boards.

      Shure, if you only do slow and through hole stuff, perfboard is the way to go…

      But you will be lucky if you get the interesting chips in something that is not a BGA, i do not do deadbugs annymore…

      I print on ordinary copier paper, use a uv lamp from a sun tan thingy, develop in a paint bucket. And etching is done in an old tupperware box with an old fish tank heater.

      And still i am capeable to make TQFP and Boards for a fraction of what a mill costs…

      1. If your board is off any non-trivial complexity, lots of vias and small features etc, you really have no choice but to order it.

        Some Chinese proto places offers international courier options. So you pony up about $30 for ten 10cmx10cm boards that shows up in about 10 days instead of the 2-3 weeks of wait time for $20. That kind of pricing beat the heck out of local proto service for hobby work if you don’t mind the extra few days.

        1. Agreed. We have a mill that can do PCBs like this but I can’t justify the time to set it up and wait for it to mill when I can get 5-10 PCBs from Seed studio in 10 days for $50.

          It would cost $20 in materials and electricity to make them, when you factor in your time it’s a no brainer.

          If I have to amortize a $2200 machine on top of that, forget it.

    2. The benefit to making your own PCBs is prototyping and turn around time. If you have an idea, you can make it a reality in a couple hours versus a week or more waiting for the shipping. This is especially handy when you like to tweak your design or are prone to mistakes (which happen regardless of how awesome you are). You can go through 5 different revs in a day instead of a month and a half.

      1. This is the reason I etch my own boards. Once I get a final design laid out i’ll send it out for production, but for quick and dirty prototypes you cant beat home etching.

      2. > are prone to mistakes (which happen regardless of how awesome you are).

        If you are prone to mistake, *slow down* and think before you start doing making a board. A bit of careful review or *extra up front design* can save you time doing all the spins and wasting time in debugging and “tweaking”. Unless you really enjoy the tweaking/spinning part instead of enjoying the working project.

        May be you haven’t really reach the awesome status or that you have a much lower standards for it. Let’s say you won’t be surprised if things works the first time because you have spent the time understanding the datasheet, the math and review your design carefully. May be you make a mistake or there was something that are not documented, but you should be able to clean that up in 1 rev. That’s what we expect to do at work by the way.

      3. Also, if you need only one board , just to prove an ideia or just to help solving another problem ( like, say, building a USB->Something converter that will be used just once to reprogram your other , more important project ) , it is wasteful to spend money in 10 boards that will be get thrown in a dark corner of the basement.

        If I could order 1 board for the $3 , and have it delivered in about 2 weeks, I would do it. But the reality is spending $15 – $30, for delivery in something between 2-3 months, and that is considering the package doesn´t get lost in the mail service, that seems to be ocurring more frequently in the mail service. And paying for the better service ( FEDEX, DHL, etc ) also turns it inadequate.

        So, my vote also goest to making most of the boards home. When in need of a bigger number of professionally made boards for some serious project, board houses could be considered.

        1. Some of the Chinese places allows for a few sub paneling a few smaller designs in the batch, so you can do simple dongles. As for the extra/spare boards, may be should organize a blank board swap in the local hackerspace and see what others in the same situation have to share?

      4. Most of the cost for the proto PCB is in the setup and shipping. You don’t save a whole lot even if you only want one board from a batch. They are not going to change their process and still make multiple of them on a panel. The local shop prices here are about 10X Chinese prices here and only for a few days faster.

        Once in a while, I do have non-trivial designs that requires lots of vias and multilayers PCB cannot be done at home.

    3. I agree. I used to make my own, but unless I need it today, I just order from Seeed. And really big orders (hundreds of boards) ship from inside the US, so it doesn’t take long to get them.

    4. Sure, if you are looking for a small board. I just milled a 12″ by 8″ board. It would have cost upward of $200 to get it made professionally. I made a mistake in the first, and had to pony up a whopping $18 to mill a second board. I’ll take $18 for a “DIY attempt” board over $400 for two runs of a board.

      Each method has its time and place.

      1. Bare copper milled board is also nice because it’s possible to realize you made a mistake, put it back in the mill, and cut through some traces and cut out some new footprints in a bare area. (Depopulate the board first. Carbide is amazingly brittle when it hits something traveling sideways.)

    1. I was going to say the same — and I bought a slightly broken LPKF off ebay for $500. New motor brushes, and now I have double-sided, drilled boards up to almost A4 size any time I want. It’s really convenient. I’m currently working on converting one (yeah, ebay problem) to dispense solderpaste and do pick-and-place as well.

  2. I did look seriously at the Othermill primarily because I wanted something that could do custom PCBs. As I have a few projects that need something a little more reliable than protoboard. Plus I just really don’t feel comfortable with chemical etching either.

    Unfortunately my sweet spot for desktop manufacturing is somewhere right around the sub 1k range. I’m essentially lazy enough that I don’t want to source the materials but comfortable enough with assembly that working directly out of the box doesn’t seem worth the premium that comes with it. So at just over twice of my comfort zone I found myself nixing it for alternatives, the Mac only software didn’t exactly help.

    Still does look like a solid little machine and I do have to say that 10mil board is pretty darn impressive.

    1. You can get a Chinese gantry-style CNC for 1k and it will easily do the same stuff as shown. Precision bearings are precision bearings, precision rods are precision rods and steppers are steppers – none of the “ours is worth two and a half times as much because it’s lovingly crafted by pixies and elves” crap is going to get you a single mil closer to a working PCB. I happen to own a Chinese one acquired for this exact purpose, works perfectly fine as long as you’re not trying to mill individual molecules with it – 10 mil isn’t going to look great; doable, but if you really need that, you’re better off ordering PCBs.

      Also, regarding the jokers doing the test – you don’t use a corner alignment, you drill two 1/8″ holes into your support material AND your PCB, stick in two broken old endmills then turn the PCB over and fit it back onto the pegs. Simples. Oh, and using actual endmills is not a great idea – v-tip engravers are MUCH sturdier, but you obviously need to watch your milling depth – however, a 45 – 30 degree v-tip with a 0.2 – 0.1mm point can do a _really_ nice job.

      1. Can you use Chinese and precision in the same sentence? “Gantry style” by itself is low precision enough.

        No, really, I was looking to buy a setup like you are using. Who makes it and where can I get one?

      1. To us ancient Brits, Benjamin conjures up memories of Floella Benjamin – presenter of children’s programmes such as Play School and Play Away. Mr Franklin was that kite flying guy was he not?

      2. Agreed, stop using stupid american terms for $ amounts, you have readers from all around the world. That would be like saying 22 Dame’s or 22 John’s in Australia, I had to google to find those names and I live in the country.

          1. If go to a British site and they are using terms that are British in nature, I don’t complain. In fact, you never see any American complain about it. If we are interested enough, we go learn what the terms mean.

            But yet on every American site, you have to have at least one asshole complaining about this.

            Deal with it.

  3. Ummm, it’s made of plastic. I don’t care what kind of plastic, but you can’t have “precision” and “plastic” in the same sentence. Check the Thermal Coefficients of plastics over cast iron and steel. Little wonder they point out alignment problems. There are dozens of metal-body/frame mills for a quarter of the price that will have equal or better accuracy that **stays the same** no matter what the temperature is.

    I have a small bench-top mill I paid $600 for that will reliably produce 0.001″ repeatability all day long. To boot, I ordered and received it all in the same week.

    Retired Mechanical Engineer and former Toolmaker. Just to add a touch to credibility.

    1. I suggest you look more closely at the engineering of it. The othermill does do 0.001″ all day long too (I have one, and I’ve done it).

      Thermal Expansion coefficient for HDPE (what they use in the othermill) is 67 (10-6in/in/oF)
      The worse case precision scenario is Z (engraving depth), which has 2 inches of HDPE that could effect
      thermal expansion.
      67 x 2 x 0.000001 = 0.000134in / degree farenheit

      Assuming a 5 degree rise during fabrication, then that’s 0.67 mils difference, i.e. still within 0.001″ accuracy.
      And that’s just depth, which is less important than X/Y precision (which are basically non-issues anyway due to the engineering).

      Also, you should consider that the axis move on steel, so thermal expansion of the plastic has little bearing on this and they have a number of devices in there to allow / offset thermal expansion anyway, and to decouple the steel from the plastic. Plus the device calibrates itself. The bed is aluminum (i.e. not plastic).

      I.E. You can get down to 1mil traces, and approx 5mil spacing with small enough bits (I have done this). But at 1mil, your substrate and binding the copper to it, is gonna be a bigger problem when you’re soldering than milling it.

      It’s a good mill and surprisingly well engineered. You might not want to use it for making 10-100 boards due to the time taken, but for one off prototypes where time is critical, it’s awesome. I can design something and have the board in my hands 30 mins later. If there was a mistake, I can respin it. It’s repeatable, accurate and works.

  4. Just read the review. 10 mil resolution, 4 hours to make an Arduino clone, Mac-only software, 8 week lead time and $2200 price tag. Meh.

    Better off getting a Shapeoko 3 and running it with a TinyG and Chilipeppr if you really want to mill PCBs IMO. With TinyG and Chilipeppr you can read in Eagle board files directly and it does auto leveling. The Shapeoko will be WAY more useful for other things too.

    1. Or just etch the board and drill using a proper drill stand – it will be done faster, with much less carcinogenic dust and noise. I will have that Arduino clone populated and running already while you are still waiting for the mill to finish. I am not sure what is the appeal of milling PCBs – it is incredibly slow and inefficient over etching.

  5. I’ve milled lots of PCBs with my 6040 CNC and I must say that the biggest help is the drilling. It’s really annoying by hand but with a CNC it’s a blast. It can easily mill a TQFP footprint.

    However I still order my PCBs from dirtypcb’s, takes 3 weeks to get home. Same time that the components will take time to arrive from china. No biggie. Few projects overlapped and I have plenty of things to do.

    Where do you buy your photosensitive PCB’s? Before CNC mill I used to check and those were expensive as hell. Checked ebay and there’s quite a few suppliers?

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