So, You’re Scared Of Surface Mount

If you are lucky enough to encounter a piece of homebrew electronics from the 1950s, the chances are that under the covers the components will be assembled on solder tags, each component with long leads, and chassis-mounted sockets for tubes. Easy to assemble with the most agricultural of soldering irons.

Open up a home build from the 1960s or early 1970s, and you might find the same passive components alongside germanium transistors mounted through holes in a curious widely spaced stripboard or even a home-made PCB with chunky wide tracks.

By the late 1970s and early 1980s you would find a more familiar sight. Dual-in-line ICs through-hole on 0.1″ spaced stripboard, and home-made PCBs starting to appear on fibreglass board. Easy to use, easy to solder. Familiar. Safe. Exactly what you’ll see on your breadboard nearly forty years later, and still what you’ll see from a lot of kit manufacturers.

Nice and familiar, a through-hole Arduino. By Nicholas Zambetti -, CC BY-SA 3.0
Nice and familiar, a through-hole Arduino.
By Nicholas Zambetti CC BY-SA 3.0

But we all know that progress in the world of electronic components has not stood still. Surface-mount components have a history going back to the 1960s, and started to appear in consumer equipment from the end of the 1980s. More components per square inch, smaller, cheaper devices. Nowadays they are ubiquitous, and increasingly these new components are not offered in through-hole versions. Not a problem if your experiments are limited to the 741 and the 555, but something that rather cramps your style if your tastes extend to novel sensors for a microcontroller, or RF work.

This development has elicited a range of reactions. Many people have embraced the newer medium with pleasure, and the project pages are full of really clever SMD projects as a result. But a significant number have not been able to make the jump to SMD, maybe they are put off by the smaller size of SMD components, the special tools they might require, or even the new skills they’d have to learn. When you sell a kit with SMD components these are the reactions you will hear from people who like the kit but wish it was available in through-hole, so this article is for them. To demystify working with SMDs, and to demonstrate that SMD work should be within the grasp of almost anyone who can wield a soldering iron.

But They’re So Tiny!

Tiny SMDs - fortunately most of which you will not have to worry about.
Tiny SMDs – fortunately most of which you will not have to worry about.

It’s likely to be the first reaction from a lifelong through-hole solderer. SMD parts are often very small indeed, and even those with larger packages can have leads that seem as numerous and thin as the hairs on a cat when seen with the rabbit-in-the-headlights panic of the uninitiated.

But it is important to take a step back and understand that not all SMDs are created equal. Some of them are grain-of-sand tiny and only hand-solderable by those with God-like powers, but plenty of devices are available in SMD packages large enough for mere mortals.

So don’t worry when you look at a board covered with grain-of-dust-sized components. Very few people could attempt that level of construction, your scribe certainly can’t. (We await commenters claiming to routinely hand-solder thousand-pin BGAs and 01005 chip components with anticipation, however such claims are useless without proof.)

Instead, concentrate on the SMD packages you can handle. SMD chip component packages are refered to by a number that relates to their dimension. Confusingly there are both metric and imperial versions of the scheme, but the format is the same: length followed by width.

Consider the picture above with the PCB and the tape measure, it’s the underside of a Raspberry Pi model B+, and will have been assembled by a robotic pick-and-place machine. The majority of the components are very tiny indeed, but you will notice L3 as the black component towards the bottom left that looks huge compared to its neighbours. That package is a “1008”, 0.1 inches long by 0.08 inches wide. It’s still tiny, but imagine picking it up with a pair of tweezers under a magnifying glass. Not so bad, is it. You’ve probably handled plenty of things in that size range before, do SMD parts seem so scary now? The larger components – 0805, 1008, and 1206 – are surprisingly within the grasp of the average maker.

But I need all sorts of special tools!

Retro Populator, a homebrew pick-and-place machine we featured back in 2014
Retro Populator, a homebrew pick-and-place machine we featured back in 2014

In a commercial environment an SMD device will be assembled by machine. Glue or solder paste will be printed in the relevant parts of the board, and a robotic pick-and-place machine will retrieve components from their tape packaging and automatically place them in their correct orientations. The board will then be soldered all-at once, either in a reflow oven or by a wave soldering machine.

If you’re new to SMDs you are unlikely to have any of this kit just lying around on your bench. There are self-built pick-and-place machines and a host of self-built reflow ovens, but it’s safe to say they’re still quite an advanced thing to have.

You’ll also see all manner of commercial kit aimed at the bench-top SMD constructor. Hot air soldering stations or SMD bits for conventional irons, all of which are very useful but come with a hefty price tag.

The good news is that you don’t need any of these special tools to dip your toe into the SMD water. You almost certainly already have everything you need, and if you don’t then very little of what you lack is specifically for SMD work. If you have the following items then you are good to go:

A basic SMD soldering toolkit
A basic SMD soldering toolkit

A good light source. Even the larger SMDs are still pretty small. Plenty of light ensures you will be able to see them clearly. A good downward pointing desk lamp should suffice. A clear high-contrast surface. Because SMDs can be difficult to see, it helps if they are manipulated over a bright white surface. A fresh sheet of white printer paper on a desk makes a suitable working area. Good hands-free magnification. Unless you are fortunate enough to have amazing eyesight, you will need a decent magnifier to work with surface-mount components. The “Helping hands” type on a stand are suitable. A very small flat-blade screwdriver. You will need this to hold surface-mount components down while you solder them. A good-quality set of precision metal tweezers. You will need these for picking up, manipulating, and turning over surface-mount devices. A fine-tipped soldering iron. If you have a standard fine tipped iron suitable for use with conventional 0.1” pitch through-hole components then you should be well-equipped.

That said there is one special tool that might be worth your consideration. Holding an SMD device while soldering it can sometimes seem like a task that needs three hands, so one or two tools can be found to help. Fortunately this is something you can build yourself. Take a look at the SMD Beak, a weighted arm for example, or your scribe’s spring clamp third hand.

I’m sorry, this is just beyond my soldering skill level

Desolder braid and plenty of flux are your friends.
Desolder braid and plenty of flux are your friends.

It is easy to imagine when you are looking at an SMD integrated circuit that its pins are just too small and too close together, you couldn’t possibly solder them by hand. The answer is that of course you can, you simply need to view how you solder them in a different way.

With a through-hole IC you solder each 0.1″ pitch pin individually. It is something of a disaster if you manage to put a solder bridge between two pins, and you race for your desolder pump or braid.

With a surface-mount IC by comparison there is little chance that you as a mere mortal could solder each pin individually, so you don’t even try. Instead you solder an entire row at once with an excess of solder, and remove the resulting huge solder bridge with desolder braid to leave a very tidy and professional-looking job. Surface tension and plenty of flux are your friends, and there is very little soldering skill required that you do not already have if you are an experienced through-hole solderer.

If you can hold it down onto the board and see it clearly with your magnifier if necessary, then it doesn’t matter what the component is, you can solder it. Give it a try, you’ll surprise yourself!

What next?

1206 chip discrete components hand-soldered to a PCB
1206 chip discrete components hand-soldered to a PCB

So we hope we’ve convinced you as an SMD doubter, that you have the ability to work with SMDs yourself. What next?

Start by reading up on the subject. Your favourite search engine should deliver, tutorials can be found from Sparkfun, from Adafruit, or from Instructables among many others. And look for videos, YouTube has a huge number of SMD soldering guides.

But there is no substitute for practice. Find a scrap board populated with reasonably-sized surface-mount components, and have a go at reworking it. Desoldering its components may be a bit difficult, but you should easily be able to rework the solder joints. Slather an integrated circuit’s pins with flux, and try running a blob of molten solder along them, then removing the excess with desolder braid. The great thing about a scrap board is that it doesn’t matter if you damage it, so you can practice these techniques to your heart’s content until you are satisfied with your new-found skill.

So you’re ready to move forward, and make your first SMD project. Well done! What you do next is up to you. Design your own circuit and get a PCB made, buy a kit, or find an SMD project you like on with downloadable PCB files and order your own.

Whatever you do, be happy that you’ve conquered your SMD fears, and resolve to be first in the queue to try any new technology in the future!

Crawl, Walk, Run: Planning Your First CPU Design

I’ve worked with a lot of students who want to program computers. In particular, a lot of them want to program games. However, when they find out that after a few weeks of work they won’t be able to create the next version of Skyrim or Halo, they often get disillusioned and move on to other things. When I was a kid, if you could get a text-based Hi-Lo game running, you were a wizard, but clearly the bar is a lot higher than it used to be. Think of the “Karate Kid”–he had to do “wax on, wax off” before he could get to the cool stuff. Same goes for a lot of technical projects, programming or otherwise.

I talk to a lot of people who are interested in CPU design, and I think there’s quite a bit of the same problem here, as well. Today’s commercial CPUs are huge beasts, with sophisticated memory subsystems, instruction interpreters, and superscalar execution. That’s the Skyrim of CPU design. Maybe you should start with something simpler. Sure, you probably want to start learning Verilog or VHDL with even simpler projects. But the gulf between an FPGA PWM generator and a full-blown CPU is pretty daunting.

Continue reading “Crawl, Walk, Run: Planning Your First CPU Design”

TrainLight: Transit Info At A Glance

In a world of sensory overload, sometimes it’s nice to get the information you need without a bunch of clutter. [Savage] has created an attractive and minimalist system to display the current wait times for specific trains in his San Francisco neighborhood.

trainlight-legendIt’s basically a Spark Core and a 60 LED-per-meter strip of WS2812Bs. A 1000µF cap filters the power coming in from a switching adapter and a resistor limits the level-shifted logic going to the LEDs. Eight barriers made from card stock keep the light zones from bleeding together. The sides of the square canvas panel indicate cardinal directions and are oriented to [Savage]’s southern-facing house.

The server gets prediction data every 30 seconds using the RESTbus JSON API. [Savage] added in a bit of time for walking down the stairs, putting shoes on, and walking to each stop. TrainLight receives these times over WiFi and lights the LEDs accordingly. If a section isn’t lit at all, the wait time for that line is greater than 10 minutes. Dark green means you have 5-10 minutes to get there, and pale green means 2-5 minutes. If the LEDs are yellow, you’d better put on your running shoes.

This is a fairly simple build with a focus on subtlety. Even before guests in his house understand what they’re looking at, [Savage]’s TrainLight makes for an interesting conversational piece of blinkenlights and doubles as illumination for the stairs. There’s a slightly sped-up demo after the break.

Want to make your own? [Savage] has a tutorial page and his code is up on the gits. Blinky lights are also good for telling you whether the trains are running at all.

Continue reading “TrainLight: Transit Info At A Glance”

Designing A Crystal Ladder Bandpass Filter

Most hobbyists use crystals as an external clock signal for a microcontroller. A less common use would be to make a bandpass filter (BPF) for an RF signal. [Dan Watson] explains his crystal ladder design on his blog and links to several sources for understanding the theory and creating your own crystal ladder band pass filter. If you want a set of these purple PCBs you can order them straight from the purple fab.

[Dan]’s schematic
One of the sources that [Dan] cites is [Larry Benko]’s personal site which is primarily dedicated to amateur radio projects. Which you can find much more in-depth information regarding the design of a xtal BPF. [Larry] goes into detail about the software he uses and some of the applications of crystal ladder filters.

BPF designed by [Larry]
BPF designed by [Larry]
The process includes measuring individual xtals to determine which ones will work together for your target frequency. [Larry] also walks you through the software simulation process using LTSpice. If you aren’t familiar with Spice simulation you can get caught up by checking out the series of Spice articles by our very own [Al Williams].

Thanks to Dangerous Prototypes for the tip.

Beyond Measure: Instrumentation Essentials

The physical world is analog and if we want to interface with it using a digital device there are conversions that need to be made. To do this we use an Analog to Digital Converter (ADC) for translating real world analog quantities into digital values. But we can’t just dump any analog signal into the input of an ADC, we need this analog signal to be a measurable voltage that’s clean and conditioned. Meaning we’ve removed all the noise and converted the measured value into a usable voltage.

Things That Just Work.

This is not new information, least of all to Hackaday readers. The important bit is that we rely on these systems daily and they need to work as advertised. A simple example are the headlights in my car that I turned on the first night I got in it 5 years ago and haven’t turned off since. This is not a daytime running lights system, the controller turns the lights on when it’s dark and leaves them off during the day. This application falls into the category of things that go largely unnoticed because simply put: They. Work. Every. Time. It’s not a jaw dropping example but it’s a well implemented use of an analog to digital conversion that’s practical and reliable.

Figure 1

Continue reading “Beyond Measure: Instrumentation Essentials”

Transforming Spice

Spice is a circuit simulator that you should have in your toolbox. While a simulator can’t tell you everything, it will often give you valuable insight into the way your circuit behaves, before you’ve even built it. In the first installment of this three-part series, I looked at LTSpice and did a quick video walkthrough of a DC circuit. In the second, I examined two other parts of Spice: parameter sweeps and AC circuits. In this final installment, I want to talk a bit more about real-world component performance and also look at modeling transformers.


lowpasssLast time we looked at a low pass filter, but it wasn’t practical because the components were too perfect. Only in simulation do voltage sources and wires have zero resistance. There was no load resistance either, which is unlikely. Even an oscilloscope probe will load the circuit a little.

The resulting AC analysis showed a nice filter response that was flat to about 1 kHz and then started roll off as the frequency increased. Suppose the source had an 8 ohm series resistor. How does that change the circuit response?

Continue reading “Transforming Spice”

Spice Power

Spice is a circuit simulator that you should have in your toolbox. While a simulator can’t tell you everything, it will often give you valuable insight into the way your circuit behaves, before you’ve even built it. In the first installment of this three-part series, I looked at LTSpice and did a quick video walkthrough of a DC circuit. This time, I want to examine two other parts of Spice: parameter sweeps and AC circuits. So let’s get to it.

schem2In the first installment, I left you with a cliffhanger. Namely the question of maximum power transfer using this simple circuit. If you run the .op simulation you’ll get this result:

--- Operating Point ---
V(n001): 5 voltage
I(R1): 0.1 device_current
I(V1): -0.1 device_current

The power in R1 (voltage times current) is .5 W or 500 mW if you prefer. You probably know that the maximum power in a load occurs when the load resistor is the same as the source resistance. The Rser parameter sets the voltage source’s internal resistance. You could also have created a new resistor in series with V1 and set it explicitly.

Continue reading “Spice Power”