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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
He started with some copper clad board. Because the substrate is a structural component he didn’t want to use a CNC mill to do the etching as it also removes a bit more than just copper. After using the mill to cut out the shape and drill holes he coated the board with flat black paint. This acts as the etch resist, which he sent through a 50W laser engraver to remove the paint and expose the areas he wants to etch. After etching he removed the rest of the resist, and masked off his solder pads with small rectangles of electrical tape. This protects the solder pads from the truck bed liner paint he uses to insulate the copper. He says it works great and plans to use the technique on all future builds.
As it says on every true Arduino board, they’re made in Italy. [Bunnie’s] trip to the factory happened in Scarmagno, on the outskirts of Torino. The process starts with large sheets of FR4 copper clad material, usually about 1 by 1.5 meters in size. The first task is to send the sheets through a CNC drill. With all of the holes done it’s time for some etch resist; the image above is just after the resist has been applied. A robotic system takes over from here, running the panels through the chemicals which first etch away the copper, then remove the resist and plate the remaining traces. From there it’s off to another machine for solder mask and silk screen.
There are videos of each step available. But our favorite piece is the image at the end that shows a pallet with stacks of completed PCB panels which are headed off to be populated with components.