Christmas Lights Done the Hard Way

It’s that time of the year again when you gotta start worrying if you’ve been naughty enough to not receive any gifts. Hopefully, Blinky Lights will appease St. Nick. Grab a strip of RGB LEDs, hook them up to an Arduino and a Power supply, slap on some code, and Bob’s your Uncle. But if you want to retain your hacker cred, you best do it the hard way. Which is what [roddersblog] did while building his Christmas Starburst LED Stars this year — and bonus points for being early to the party.

christmas-lights-the-hard-wayFor starters, he got panels (as in PCB panels) of WS2812 boards from eBay. The advantage is it lets you choose your own pitch and strand length. The flip side is, you need to de-panel each board, mount it in a jig, and then solder three lengths of hook up wire to each LED. He planned for an eight sided star with ten LED’s each. And he built three of them. So the wiring was, substantial, to say the least. And he had to deal with silicone sealant that refused to cure and harden. But nothing that some grit and determination couldn’t fix.

For control, he choose the PIC16F1509 microcontroller. This family has a feature that PIC calls the “Configurable Logic Cell” and this Application Note describes how to use CLC to interface the PIC to a WS2811. He noticed processing delays due to C code overheads that caused him some grief. After some experimentation, he re-wrote the entire program in assembly which produced satisfactory results. You can check out his code on the GitHub repository.

Also well worth a look, he’s got a few tricks up his sleeve to improve the quality of his home-brew PCB’s. He’s built his own UV exposure unit with timer, which is an interesting project in itself. The layout is designed in Eagle, with a flood fill to minimize the amount of copper required to be etched away. He takes a laser print of the layout, applies vegetable oil to the paper to make it more translucent to UV, and doubles up the prints to get a nice contrast.

Once the sensitized board has been exposed in the UV unit, he uses a weak but fresh and warm solution of Sodium Hydroxide as a developer to remove the unexposed UV photo-resist. To etch the board, he uses standard Feric Chloride solution, which is kept warm using an aquarium heater, while an aquarium air-pump is used to agitate the solution. He also describes how he fabricates double sided boards using the same technique. The end result is quite satisfying – check out the video after the break.

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A Stack Of Boards For An Edison Breadboard Adapter

The Intel Edison is a neat piece of hardware, but the connector for the Edison is extremely intimidating and the Mini breakout board is incompatible with breadboards. What’s [Federico], a builder of Internet of Things to do? Etch their own breakout board.

The Mini Breakout board for the Intel Edison is the official ‘minimal’ offering for getting the Edison up and running with a mess of jumper wires and LEDs. While this breakout board handles the USB to UART bridge, power regulation, and exposes all the pins on the Edison connector, it is terrible for prototyping. It’s a 4×14 array of holes on a 0.1″ grid that are hidden underneath the Edison.

[Federico] handled this problem with a copper clad board and a little bit of ferric chloride. He jumped into Eagle and created a breakout board to turn the 4×14 pin grid into a more sensible breadboard-friendly layout.

The breadboard-friendly adapter doesn’t have level shifters, but by using the mini-breakout board between the Edison and the breadboard adapter [Federico] still has the UART to USB hardware and a battery charging circuit. Still, there’s room for improvement and we can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

Make Flexible PCBs with Your 3D Printer

The last few years have seen great strides in budget printed circuit board manufacturing. These days you can have boards made in a week for only a few dollars a square inch. Flexible PCBs still tend to be rather expensive though. [Mikey77] is changing that by making flex circuits at home with his 3D printer. [Mikey77] utilized one of the properties of Ninjaflex Thermoplastic Elastomer (TPE) filament – it sticks to bare copper!

The TPE filament acts as an etch resist, similar to methods using laser printer toner. For a substrate, [Mikey77] lists 3 options:

.004″ thick “Scissor cut” copper clad board from Electronics Goldmine

.002″ thick pure copper polyester taffeta fabric from lessEMF.com

<.001″ Pyralux material from Adafruit, which is one of the materials used to make professional flex PCBs.

A bit of spray adhesive will hold the Flex PCB down on the printer’s bed. The only issue is convincing the printer to print a few thousandths of an inch higher than the actual bed level. Rather than change the home position on his Z axis, [Mikey77] used AutoDesk 123D to create 3D PCB designs. Each of his .stl files has a “spacer bar”, which sits at the bed level. The actual tracks to be printed are in the air a few thousandths of an inch above the bed – exactly the thickness of the substrate material. The printer prints the spacer bar on the bed, then raises its Z height and prints on the flexible PCB material. We’re sure that forcing the printer to print in mid-air like this would cause some printer software to throw errors, but the system worked for [Mikey77] and his Makerbot.

Once the designs have been printed, the boards are etched with standard etching solutions such as ferric chloride. Be careful though – these thin substrates can etch much faster than regular PCB.

Testing The Efficiency Of PCB Etchants

etchIn the interest of the scientific method [Feynmaniac] (great name, btw) over on Instructables has posted a little experiment on something we all, no doubt, care about: putting PCB traces in copper clad boards with the most common etchants out there.

The experiment used the ‘ol standard, ferric chloride, and the safe, inexpensive newcomer, vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, and table salt. Finding the most efficient mixture of ferric chloride is easy: just use what’s in the bottle. The vinegar and H2O2 requires some stoichiometry, though, and [Feynmaniac] calculated that with an 8% acetic acid solution and the most commonly available 3% peroxide solution, a 2:3 ratio of peroxide to vinegar is the best. Salt to taste, or until everything turns green.

Four copper clad boards were used for the test, masked off in a ‘barcode’ pattern. Two methods of applying the etchant were used: either rubbing the etchant on with a sponge, or immersing the boards in a bath of the etchant being tested.

In terms of speed, ferric chloride was by far the fastest, with 3 minutes until the board was etched using the rubbing method, or 10 minutes when simply immersed. Vinegar/peroxide took longer with 11 minutes rubbed, and 20 minutes immersed. No differences in the quality of the etch were noticed.

While ferric chloride was by far the fastest etchant, it does have the downside of being environmentally unfriendly and fairly expensive. The vinegar and peroxide etchant is safe, cheap, and can be found in any grocery store on the planet.

This experiment didn’t test other common etchants like HCl and H202, or cupric chloride (which is is the byproduct of HCl and H202). Still, it’s a good confirmation that the vinegar and peroxide method actually works, in case you were wondering.

Etching your own PCBs

When [Adr1an] wrote in to share a link to his PCB etching tutorial he mentioned that he knew we had already covered a ton of these guides. He’s absolutely right, not only have we featured a great number of them, but we also wrote our own quite a while ago. But that doesn’t mean we ignore them when they come in on the tips line. In fact, we read all of them that have something to offer and are pleased to feature the ones that are well presented… like this one!

[Adr1an] went all out with his writeup. He not only covers all of the elements that go into this, but discusses where to purchase them and his thoughts on how he arrived at the choice. He’s using the toner transfer method and prefers Brother branded toner for its coverage and resistance to over-etching. He prints on HP Everday Photopaper, then uses a laminator to transfer to the copper clad board. For this guide he used 2oz copper but prefers 1oz copper as it etches faster. His etchant of choice is Ferric Chloride, which can be ordered as a dry powder. He uses the direct etch method of loading etchant into a sponge an applying that to the board.

The board he makes in the guide looks great, and it only took him 28 minutes!

PCB toner transfer with dowel

Pulsar Professional FX has a neat tip on their site for getting a really even toner transfer when making your own PCBs. First, the PCB is cut to size, and the paper is tacked to the board. Then, the PCB is placed paper up onto a dowel and rolled back and forth with the iron. Since the board bends slightly over the dowel the toner sticks evenly to the copper. After that, just remove the paper as usual and etch with your preferred method.

Etch PCBs with ferric chloride and a sponge

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Etching a printed circuit board generally takes a bit of time and uses a lot of etchant. [TechShopJim] posted a method that uses a sponge to reduce the amount of etchant used while speeding up the entire process. First, a resist is applied using either a sharpie or the toner transfer method. Using gloves to handle everything, he soaked a sponge in ferric chloride and continually wiped a copper-clad board until all the exposed copper was removed. This technique moves the etchant around more, keeping “fresh” etchant closer to the copper. If you can’t procure ferric chloride, you can also use our method that uses 2 household chemicals: hydrogen peroxide and hydrochloric acid.