Reverse Engineering a PCB

Occasionally when a device breaks, the defect is obvious. Whether it is a blown fuse or a defective capacitor, generally the easy to see stuff is easy to fix. When a problem is more subtle, or when doing some more advanced tasks like adding functionality to a device, greater knowledge about a circuit board is required. While there might be details hidden in lower levels of PCB, often just knowing the mounted components and layout of the outside layers can be enough to create a rough schematic of a device. [Throbscottle] has put together an excellent guide for procedurally breaking down a photo of a board and turning it in to something useful. The guide utilizes some open source image processing software such as the GIMP, Inkscape, and Dia, all of which are widely available. Keep in mind this reverse engineering can be a time consuming process, but will almost definitely reward those patient enough to work through it.

[Thanks to everyone who sent this in!]

Beginner Concepts: Analog circuits

We look at a lot of projects that have microcontrollers in them. That’s because microcontrollers do cool stuff, but there are still plenty of tricks you can pull off with analog circuits. [Osgeld’s] latest project explores this realm, controlling the discharge of capacitors through an LED. His setup uses just nine components and, if you’ve been collecting broken electronics from your friends and neighbors like a good hacker, you can scavenge all of these parts. Try it, you’ll like it!

Make your own toner transfer paper

Who would have thought that some corn starch could be made into toner transfer paper? We’re not sure of the advantages (perhaps its cheaper?), but if you have a lot of time or just love to get sticky [Matthew Sager] shows the proper method for making the paper, printing, and then etching a PCB.

If you’re just getting started making PCBs, we recommend you check out these DIY circuit etching videos to get a better grasp on the printing and etching steps.

Update: Atari pause button

The Atari 2600 pause circuit is now available in a kit form. We saw this pause method back in February and the kit uses the same circuit. We don’t really need a kit for this, the board is very simple to throw together. But we do appreciate the detailed installation instructions (PDF) that accompany it. After all, you don’t want to kill you classic gaming rig with a botched install.

[Thanks CPUWIZ]

PCB drill press on a budget

An accurate drill press is an essential tool for making your own through-hole printed circuit boards at home. Reader [Josh Ashby] offers up a solid design using scrap bin materials.

A major issue with PCB drilling is that even the slightest horizontal play will snap the delicate carbide drill bit. Hobbyist-grade tools such as Dremel’s drill press attachment are usually too sloppy for this task, while a more precise instrument might set you back a couple hundred bucks.

[Josh’s] design uses a nylon “sled” moving vertically in an aluminum u-channel track. Most of these materials were salvaged or were acquired inexpensively from a local hardware store, and assembled in less than a day. Surprisingly, this low-tech approach has proven sufficiently smooth that he’s yet to break a bit while drilling. And the entire setup, including the knockoff Harbor Freight rotary tool, cost less than the wobbly name-brand accessory alone.

Minimalistic Circuit Design

[David Terrill], whose exploits we have covered before, has shared with us his techniques for building circuits without a prototype or bread board. [David] managed to incorporate a Dual D flip-flop at the heart of the circuit, as well as an impressive number of transistors, diodes, and other passive components. Unfortunately, the circuit diagram is a little low resolution to really make out the real function, but based on the components, our best guess is a two-output blinking circuit. Maybe for an encore, someone out there will build a circuit built entirely around a battery so that it can be a self-contained system.

Let us know if you have a better copy of this schematic, or a guess at what the circuit does!

DIY circuit etching video tutorial


Circuit-bending blog GetLoFi has posted the best tutorial yet on home-made printed circuit boards using the toner transfer method.

We’ve covered homebrew PCB fabrication techniques about a billion times before. What sets this tutorial apart is that it collects many bits of knowledge otherwise scattered all about the web, and then depicts the entire process on video, from initial printing to cut PCB…because reading about it versus seeing it done are two different things entirely. They give a number of immensely useful tips throughout: choice of materials and where to get them, tools and techniques, and dispelling several myths about these methods (for example, they’re adamant about not using acetone to clean toner from the PCB). Well worth the 30 minutes to watch. If that’s too much and you’ve been stuck on just one part of the process, the tutorial is in three segments.

Trimming finished boards on a paper cutter? Who would’ve guessed?

[via Make]