How to Build Beautiful Enclosures from FR4 — aka PCBs

Most hobbyists say that it is easier to build a functional prototype of an electronic device, than to make the enclosure for it. You could say that there are a lot of ready-made enclosures on the market, but they are never exactly what you need. You could also use a 3D printer to build a custom enclosure, but high-end 3D printers are too expensive, and the cheaper ones produce housings which are often not robust enough, and also require a lot of additional treatment.

Another way is to build the enclosure out of FR4, a material which is commonly used in PCB production. Such enclosures are low-cost, with thin walls but yet very strong, nice looking, pleasant to the touch and have excellent thermal and moisture stability. FR4 offers some more possibilities – efficient wiring with no wires inside the housing, integrated UHF or SHF antennas or RFID coils, capacitive switches, electrical shielding, selective semi-transparency, water or air tightness, and even integration of complex mechanical assemblies.

Here I shall explain the process of building those “magic” enclosures. It is based on nearly fifty years of personal experience and more than a hundred enclosures, built for most of my projects. Here are two examples – this case for a hardware password manager is just a few centimeters long, while the other one (protective transportation cover for my son’s synthesizer) measures 125cm (about 49 inches), and yet both of them are strong enough to withstand a grown man standing on top of them.

The global approach is simple – you take the sheet of single-sided copper clad FR4, cut it and solder the parts together. That sounds simple, but there are a lot of details which should be met if you want to get top results. Please read about them carefully. You might be tempted to skip some of the steps described here, but if you do so, you will most likely end up being disappointed with the results.

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Birth of an Arduino

Hey look, an Arduino without its clothes on. This one’s just started its journey to becoming the ubiquitous prototyping tool. The image is from [Bunnie’s] recent tour of the fab house where Arduino boards are made.

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.

[via Reddit]