PCB Laminator Is Its Own Project

One of the easiest ways to make PC boards at home is to use the toner transfer method. The idea is simple: print the artwork using a laser printer and then use a clothes iron to transfer the toner from the paper to a clean copper clad board. The toner is essentially plastic, so it will melt and stick to the board, and it will also resist etchant.

There are several things you can do to make things easier. The first is the choice of paper. However, the other highly variable part of the process is the clothes iron. You have to arrange for the right amount of heat and pressure. If you don’t do a lot of boards, you’ll probably have to make several passes at getting this right, scrubbing the reject boards with acetone and scouring pads to clean them again.

[Igor] had enough of the clothes iron and knew that other people have used lamination machines to get the toner off the paper and on the blank board. He started with a commercial laminator but hacked it for PID control of the temperature and made other improvements.

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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.

Hackaday Links: February 23, 2014


You can pick up a tiny laser pointer on the cheap if you know where to look. But when it comes time to replace the multiple button cells that power it be prepared to clean our your wallet. [KB3WZZ] got around that with the cap from a ball-point pen. He drilled holes in the end plug of the pointer, and used wire and a plastic pen cap as a battery adapter. He’s powering it from USB, but now that you have wires exiting the case you can use any source you wish.

[Gerben] tipped us off about the trinket clone he built himself. It’s a tiny sliver of a PCB which he etched, populated with through-hole parts only, and finished off with some finger nail varnish to prevent shorting and corrosion. The solder-covered edge connector for USB was left unvarnished of course.

If you live in a college town you are probably quite used to seeing futon pads and frames on the curb waiting for the garbage collector. A little bit of ingenuity, and some added lumber, will turn a futon frame into a respectable shelving unit. [Thanks Martin]

Complicated bench equipment + good lighting + a great camera = an awesome teardown. This time around it’s the guts of a Keithly 2002 8.5 digit mulitimeter laid bare. [Thanks David]

Here’s a PCB laminator hack that is definitely worth a look. The original unit was acquired on eBay for about $25 and had a thermostat whose performance wasn’t optimal. A bit of alteration for the thickness of the substrate, and you’ll never hand iron a toner transfer board again! [Thanks William]

Last summer we heard about Scout, an ocean-going drone trying to cross the Atlantic. We just checked the live tracking and the craft is still at sea. But a much smaller 5ft vessel made it from New Jersey to Guernsey (an island between the UK and France) after traveling for about 14 months. [Thanks Rob]

Toner Transfer PCBs, Double Sided, With Color Silkscreen


Making a few PCBs with the toner transfer method is a well-known technique in the hacker and maker circles. Double-sided PCBs are a little rarer, but still use the same process as their single-sided cousins. [Necromancer] is taking things up a notch and doing something we’ve never seen before – double-sided PCBs made at home, with color silkscreens, all make with a laser printer.

For laying down an etch mask, [Necro] is using a Samsung ML-2167 laser printer and the usual toner transfer process; print out the board art and laminate it to some copper board.

The soldermasks use a similar process that’s head-slappingly similar and produces great results: once the board is etched, he prints out the solder mask layer of his board, laminates it, and peels off the paper. It’s so simple the only thing we’re left wondering is why no one thought of it before.

Apart from the potential alignment issues for multiple layers, the only thing missing from this fabrication technique is the ability to do plated through holes. Still, with a laser printer, a laminator, and a little bit of ferric or copper chloride you too can make some very nice boards at home.

Making PCBs and Waffles


The toner transfer method of fabricating PCBs is a staple in every maker’s toolbox. Usually, tutorials for this method of making PCBs rely on a clothes iron or laminating machine. They work perfectly well, but with both of these methods (sans high-end laminators), you’re only heating one side of the board at a time, making perfect double-sided PCBs somewhat of a challenge.

[Mark] just came up with an interesting solution to this problem. A waffle iron PCB press. Technically, [Mark] is using his ‘grill and waffle baker’ as a two-sided griddle, with a few aluminum plates sandwiching the copper board for good thermal conduction.

After a whole lot of trial and error, [Mark] eventually got a good transfer onto a piece of copper clad board. Now that he has the process dialed in, it should be a snap to replicate his results with a new project and a new PCB design.

Etching your own boards really, really fast

Sometimes the planets align and the Hackaday tip line gets two posts that are begging to be used together. Here’s two hacks to etch your own boards at home in just a few minutes.

Toner transfer PCBs on the quick

One way of putting an etch mask on a PCB is with the toner transfer method: print your circuit on a piece of inkjet photo paper using a laser printer, lay that circuit face down on a sheet of copper, and go at it with a clothes iron. This takes a heck of a lot of time and effort, but [Dustin] found another way. He used parchment paper instead of inkjet photo paper. Once the paper was on the board, he rolled it through a laminator. The results are awesome. It’s a very fast process as well – you don’t need to soak your board in water to get the photo paper off.

Etching that’s like wiping the copper away

[Royce] wrote in from the Milwaukee Makerspace to tell us about [Tom]’s etching process that is like wiping the copper off the board.  He used Muratic (Hydrochloric) acid and Hydrogen Peroxide with a sponge to wipe that copper away. The trick in this, we think, comes from the 30% H202 [Tom] picked up at a chemical supply company, but we’re pretty sure similar strengths can be purchased from beauty supply stores. Check out the video after the break to see [Tom] etch a 1 oz. board in just a few seconds.

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Print toner directly to a PCB

We use the toner transfer method to fabricate printed circuit boards. The most difficult part of this is printing, ironing, and removing the paper from the toner that is used as an etchant resist material. [Mark Lerman] is developing a method to apply toner directly to the copper clad using a laser printer. Each of the photos in his gallery have comments that take us through his process. A laser printer has been modified to negatively charge the copper plate, thereby attracting the positively charged toner to it. Once the toner has been applied, the board is baked in an oven, then run through a laminator. This process can yield 2 mil traces and it looks like the potential for incredibly clean boards is just around the corner. The question is, will this be easier and take less time than using photo resist?

We’ve contacted [Mark] in hopes of getting more details. If you can’t wait for a follow-up, take a look at this thread concerning his work.

[Thanks Komradbob]