No-Etch Circuit Board Printing

If you’ve ever tried to build a printed circuit board from home, you know how much of a pain it can be. There are buckets of acid to lug around, lots of waiting and frustration, and often times the quality of the circuits that can be made traditionally with a home setup isn’t that great in the end. Luckily, [Rich] has come up with a way that eliminates multiple prints and the acid needed for etching.

His process involves using a laser printer (as opposed to an inkjet printer, as is tradition) to get a layer of silver adhesive to stick to a piece of paper. The silver adheres to the toner like glitter sticks to Elmer’s glue, and allows a single pass of a laser printer to make a reliable circuit. From there, the paper can be fastened to something more solid, and components can be reflow soldered to it.

[Rich] does post several warnings about this method though. The silver is likely not healthy, so avoid contact with it, and when it’s applied to the toner an indeterminate brown smoke is released, which is also likely not healthy. Warnings aside, though, this is a great method for making home-made PCBs, especially if you don’t want tubs of acid lying around the house, however useful.

Thanks to [Chris] for the tip!

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Etching Your Own Metal

It’s been said that with enough soap, one could blow up just about anything. A more modern interpretation of this thought is that with enough knowledge of chemistry, anything is possible. To that end, [Peter] has certainly been doing a good job of putting his knowledge to good use. He recently worked out a relatively inexpensive and easy way to etch metals using some chemistry skill and a little bit of electricity.

After preparing a set of stencils and cleaning the metal work surface, [Peter] sets his work piece in a salt solution. A metal bar is inserted in the other end of the bath, and both it and the work piece are connected to electrodes. The flow of electricity removes some metal from the exposed work surfaces, producing whatever patterns [Peter] wants.

One interesting thing that [Peter] found is that the voltage must stay under 6 volts. This is probably part of the reason it’s relatively easy to etch with even a wall wort. Above that, the iron work piece produces a different ion which can clog the work surface and create undesirable effects. Additionally, since his first experiments with this process he has upgraded the salt bath with magnetic stirrers. He also gets the best results in a very cold environment.

There are many other uses for etching metals, too. Creating your own printed circuit boards comes to mind, but there are plenty of other uses as well. What will you do with this technique?

Take Your PCBs from Good to Great: Toner Transfer

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One-offs that I never would have gotten professionally made, but that were infinitely handy during development

A lot of us make circuit boards at home. I find it a useful skill to have in my bag of tricks for intermediate steps along the way to a finished project, even if the finished version is going to be sent out to a PCB fab. When I need a breakout board that meshes with other development tools, for instance, there’s nothing like being able to whip something up that plugs right in. Doing it quickly, and getting on with the rest of the project instead of placing an order and waiting for delivery, helps keep me in the flow.

Toner transfer is by far the fastest way to make a circuit board at home — simply print the circuit out on a laser printer, iron it onto the copper, and etch. When it works, it’s awesome. When it doesn’t, it can be a hair-pulling exercise in figuring out which of myriad factors are misaligned.

For a long time now, I’ve been using a method that’s very reliable and repeatable. Recently, I’ve been tweaking a bit on the performance of the system, and I thought I’d share what I’ve got. At the moment, I’m able to very reliably produce boards with 6 mil (0.15 mm) traces and 8 mil (0.20 mm) spacing. With a little care in post-production, 4 mil / 6 mil is entirely plausible.

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PCB agitator from a broken CD-ROM drive

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Etching PCBs goes a lot better if you agitate the solution in order to carry away the dissolved copper and get fresh etchant to the area. With that in mind [Rohit Gupta] designed a mechanism in Sketch Up before realizing he was going about it the hard way. He ended up basing his agitator on a broken CD-ROM drive instead of starting from scratch.

He uses the CD sled from the drive, ditching the lens and its support structure. To get direct access to the motor that drives the tray he uses an L293D H-bridge chip. This is controlled by an MSP430G2231 microcontroller. The driver board seen in the upper right includes a voltage regulator, three status LEDs, and one user input switch. Once triggered, the sled will move back and forth, contacting an old mouse microswitch which acts as the limiting switch. We find it entertaining that [Rohit] prototyped the circuit on a breadboard, then used that success to etch the final circuit board (shown in the video below).

If you’ve been following the hacker creed and never getting rid of any junk you’ll have no problem finding a donor drive to make one of your own. But just in case you can’t get a hold of this hardware a similar agitator can be built using a hobby servo.

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[Fran’s] PCB etching techniques

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We think that anyone who’s done at-home PCB fabrication will appreciate the tidiness that [Fran] maintains throughout her etching process. She recently posted a three-part video tutorial which showcases her techniques. As you can see in the screenshot above, her habits reek of top-notch laboratory skills.

Regular readers can probably guess what circuit she’s etching. It’s the test boards for her LVDC reverse engineering. She is using the toner transfer method, but in a bit different way than most home-etchers do. She uses the blue transfer paper made for the job, but before transferring it to the copper clad she uses a light box (kind of like the X-ray film viewer at the doctor’s office) to inspect for any gaps where toner did not adhere. From there she uses a heat press to apply the resist. This is a heck of a lot easier than using a clothes iron, but of course you’ve got to have one of these things on hand to do it this way.

The second part of the tutorial is embedded after the break. We chose this segment because it shows off how [Fran] built her own chemical hood. It’s a clear plastic storage container lying upside down. A work window has been cut out of the front side, and a 4-inch exhaust hose added to the top. [Fran’s] lab has a high volume low velocity fan to which it connects to whisk the fumes outside.

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Comprehensive home PCB fabrication tutorial

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From what we’ve seen we’d say [Jianyi Liu] is really good at etching PCBs at home. Now you can learn from his experience. He just published a mammoth guide to fabricating your own PCBs at home. That link goes to his index page which leads to all eight parts of the guide.

He starts off by mentioning that fab house boards are rather inexpensive these days. This will save you a lot of trouble (like acquiring the equipment and raw materials needed to get up and running) but you can’t beat the turnaround time of doing it yourself.

After discussing the particulars about trace width, copper thickness, and a few design considerations he lays out his board and prints the artwork to a sheet of transparency film. A pre-sensitized board is cut to size before a trip through an exposure rig with the film taped onto it. The image above shows him rinsing the board after applying the developer chemical. From here he uses cupric chloride he mixed himself to etch the board. [Jianyi] recommends populating the components before cutting the panel apart — a task which he accomplishes with a hack saw.

Level converters to make all your hardware (5.5V and under) play with each other

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I finally set aside some time for one of my own projects. I have been playing around with ARM microcontrollers a lot lately and wanted to try out my GLCD display that uses the KS0108 protocol. It’s 5V but I had heard that some of these displays will work with 3.3V TTL. But the datasheet tells me otherwise. I tried using a pull-up resistor to 5V and configuring the Stellaris Launchpad pins to open drain, but the low voltage wasn’t getting below the 0.3V threshold needed by my display. My only choice was to use some type of level conversion. I actually ended up driving the KS0108 using a pair of TXB0108 level converters.

I figured this had to have been done before so I check over at Sparkfun. Their offerings are either one-way or have a direction pin that you must drive yourself. I figured there had to be a bi-directional solution and a search over at Mouser led me to the TXB0108. It is exactly what I was looking for and as you can see I etched my own circuit boards to make the TSSOP chips breadboard compatible. I’ve documented the process you can find the code and board files at my post linked above.

Update: one of the Reddit comments mentions this chip is available on a breakout board from Adafruit if you’re interested.