Upgrading a Laminator for Toner Transfer PCBs

If you need a circuit board now, you’re probably looking at a toner transfer process; all you need to make a PCB is a copper clad board, a laser printer, some special paper, and the usual etching chemicals. The quality of these boards is highly dependant on the quality of transferring toner to the copper, and getting the process right is as much an art as it is a science. A clothes iron is the easy way of transferring the toner to the board, but if you’re looking for repeatability, you’ll probably want a laminator.

Laminators, too, also vary in quality. The king of toner transfer laminators is the Apache AL13P. With four heated rollers and a steel chassis, it’s enough to do some serious heating. [mosaicmerc] came up with an amazing mod for his Apache laminator that takes all the guesswork out of the settings, and does it all in one pass for maximum repeatability and PCB quality.

The Apache laminator in question is a beast of a machine that drives four rollers with a synchronous motor and also has a ‘reverse’ button that sends the laminations out the front end of the printer. Stock, a toner transfer PCB would require dozens of passes through the Apache, but [merc]‘s mod takes care of everything for you.

The addition that makes this possible is a small board with a PIC12 microcontroller. This microcontroller connects the motor driver board and the display interface together, triggering the reverse button to move the board 5/8″ forward and 1/2″ back, giving the laminator an effective speed reduction of 12:1. This method also has the bonus of not tampering with the motor or control circuitry, and allows for multiple passes in the same run.

With this modification, the Apache AL13P becomes the perfect solution to transferring toner to a piece of copper, with the ability to transfer 10mil traces on 1oz copper. The board also offers some other features like thermal sensor failure shutdown and a cool-down mode that overrides the heater. If you’re looking for an easy way to step up your toner transfer PCBs, you can’t do much better than this mod.

PCB Toner Transfer Method, Now Without The Transfer

A common way to create a custom PCB at home is to do what is called the Toner Transfer Method. In this process, the trace layout of the board is printed out on a piece of special toner transfer paper that allows the ink to come off in the following step. The toner transfer paper is then put print-side-down on a copper clad PCB blank, heated and pressed with an iron. The heat and pressure from the iron transfers the toner from the paper to the copper. The exposed copper then is chemically removed, the previously applied toner protects the copper in the pad and trace areas. The toner is then removed using paint thinner.

That is a long process with many critical steps. [mlerman] wondered why no one was printing the toner directly to the PCB. He has been tinkering with printing directly on PCB blanks for 4 years now. He’s made hundreds of boards over that time and can now make a PCB in under 15 minutes.

The obvious route to take would be to modify a current laser printer to accept the much-thicker-than-paper PCB boards. A few printer models were tried but [mlerman] feels the Lexmark E260 works the best due to the cost, internal mechanical components and an easily modifiable manual feed system. There is also a Local Printer Utility that allows the majority of the printer parameters to be adjusted.

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DIY Circuit Boards Look Professional

Professional Looking DIY PCB Boards

Making PCBs at home is a great means to get your prototype up and running without having to wait weeks for a professionally made board. Regardless if these prototype boards are milled or etched, they are easily identified as ‘home brew’ due to their ‘unfinished’ appearance. [HomeDIY&Stuff] has put together a little how-to on the process for making DIY PCBs look a little closer to a professionally manufactured board.

The process starts out with designing the board in a PCB program. There are a lot of these programs available. Eagle is a popular choice and has a free version available. Once the layout it finalized, the design is printed out on a transparent sheet of plastic. A blank copper-clad PCB board that already has a UV sensitive coating applied are available for purchase and is what is used in this example. The transparency is placed over the PCB blank and then exposed to UV light. The coating on the PCB cures where ever the UV light passes through the open areas of the transparency.

Once the transparency is removed, there is a noticeable difference in coating color where it has cured. This board is now placed in a developer solution that removes the un-cured UV sensitive coating. A Ferric Chloride acid bath then etches away at the now-exposed copper. The cured coating from the previous step protects the copper at the trace locations during the etch process. The result is a board with copper where you want it and none where you don’t. If the board has any through-hole components, this would be the time to drill those holes.

Up to this point the process has been pretty standard for homemade PCBs and the next part is certainly the most interesting but, unfortunately, is also the worst documented step; the solder mask and silk screening. It appears that two silk screens are produced, one for the solder mask and one for the silk screen. The artwork for making the silk screens can be output from the PCB design software. There is no mention of the solder mask material used but oil-based silk screen ink is specified. Although the details are lacking, the photos show that it works pretty well. If you have had any experience with silk screening DIY PCBs, let us know in the comments.

Laser-Based PCB Printer

Being able to create PCB’s at home is a milestone in the DIYer’s arsenal. Whether you physically mill or chemically etch boards, it’s a tricky task to perfect. [Charlie & Victor] are working towards a solution to this complicated chore. They call their machine the DiyouPCB. DiyouPCB is an open source PCB etching project consisting of both hardware and software components.

The project is based on using a Blue Ray optical pickup. The pickup was used in its entirety, without any modification, to simplify the build process. In order to use the stock pickup, [Charlie & Victor] had to reverse engineer the communication protocol which also allowed them to take advantage of the auto-focus feature used while reading Blue Ray discs. The frame of the machine is reminiscent of a RepRap, which they used to do preliminary testing and laser tuning. The X and Y axes run on brass bushings and are belt driven by stepper motors which are controlled by an Arduino through a specially designed DiyouPCB Controller Shield.

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PCB manufacturing tutorial

There comes a time in every maker’s career where solderless breadboards won’t do, perfboard becomes annoying, and deadbug is impossible. The solution is to manufacture a PCB, but there’s a learning curve. After learning a few tricks from [Scott]‘s awesome DIY PCB guide, it’s easy to make your own printed circuit boards.

There are a few basic steps to making a PCB. First is designing the board in Eagle or KiCad. The next step, putting the design into copper, has a lot of techniques to choose from. Photo transfer, direct printing, and CNC milling have huge benefits, but by far the most common means hobbyists produce boards is with toner transfer using a laminator.

Unless you’re doing SMD-only circuits, a drill is required. Most people can get away with a Dremel or other rotary tool, but Hackaday has a favorite drill press that is perfect for drilling holes in FR-4. In part two of [Scott]‘s tutorial, he goes over solder masks, silk screens before jumping into vias. These small bits of copper conducting electricity through a circuit board are extremely hard for the garage-bound builder to achieve on their own, but there are a few solutions – copper rivets (anyone have a US source for these?) and copper foil can be used, but sometimes the most effective solution is just hitting the board with a lot of solder and heat.

Thanks [Upgrayd] for the title pic.