Retrotechtacular: Tinkertoy and Cordwood in the Pre-IC Era

It is widely accepted that Gutenberg’s printing press revolutionized thought in Europe and transformed the Western world. Prior to the printing press, books were rare and expensive and not generally accessible. Printing made all types of written material inexpensive and plentiful. You may not think about it, but printing–or, at least, printing-like processes–revolutionized electronics just as much.

In particular, the way electronics are built and the components we use have changed a lot since the early 1900s when the vacuum tube made amplification possible. Of course, the components themselves are different. Outside of some specialty and enthusiast items, we don’t use many tubes anymore. But even more dramatic has been how we build and package devices. Just like books, the key to lowering cost and raising availability is mass production. But mass producing electronic devices wasn’t always as easy as it is today.

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Making More Of Me Money

For the last few years, Hackaday has really been stepping up our game with marketing materials. Our t-shirts and swag are second to none, and last year we introduced the ‘Benchoff Buck’ (featured above), a bill replete with Jolly Wrencher EURions that is not yet legal currency. At least until we get a sweet compound in the desert, that is.

[Andrew Sowa] created the Benchoff Nickel. It’s a visage of yours truly emblazoned on a PCB, rendered in FR4, silkscreen, gold, and OSHPark’s royal purple. In doing so, [Andrew] has earned himself a field commission to the rank of lieutenant and can now reserve the dune buggy for a whole weekend.

The Benchoff Nickel was created in KiCad using the Bitmap2Component functionality. Planning this required a little bit of work; there are only five colors you can get on an OSH Park PCB, from white to gold to beige to purple (soldermask on top of copper) to black (soldermask with no copper). Luckily, the best picture we have of me renders very well in five colors.

The Bitmap2Component part of KiCad will only get you so far, though. It’s used mainly to put silkscreen logos on a board, and messing around with copper and mask layers is beyond its functionality. To import different layers of my face into different layers of a KiCad PCB, [Andrew] had to open up Notepad and make a few manual edits. It’s annoying, but yes, it can be done.

OSH Park’s fabs apparently use two different tones of FR4

The Benchoff Nickel can be found on Github and as a shared project on OSH Park ($22.55 for three copies). One little curiosity of the OSH Park fabrication process presented itself with [Andrew]’s second order of Benchoff Nickels. OSH Park uses at least two board houses to produce their PCBs, and one of them apparently uses a lighter shade of FR4. This resulted in a lighter skin tone for the second order of Benchoff Nickels.

This is truly tremendous work. I’ve never seen anything like this, and it’s one of the best ‘artistic’ PCBs I’ve ever held in my hands. It was a really great surprise when [Andrew] handed me one of these at the Hackaday Unconference in Chicago. I’ll be talking to [Andrew] again this week at the Midwest RepRap festival, and we’re going to try and figure out some way to do a small run of Benchoff Nickels.

Edit: OSH Park revealed why there are different tones of FR4. In short, there aren’t. The lighter shade of skintone is actually FR408, which is used on 4-layer boards.

Ask Hackaday: What’s Your Etchant?

Although the typical cliché for a mad scientist usually involves Bunsen burners, beakers, and retorts, most of us (with some exceptions, of course) aren’t really chemists. However, there are some electronic endeavors that require a bit of knowledge about chemistry or related fields like metallurgy. No place is this more apparent than producing your own PCBs. Unless you use a mill, you are probably using a chemical bath of some sort to strip copper from your boards.

The standard go-to solution is ferric chloride. It isn’t too tricky to use, but it does work better hot and with aeration, although neither are absolutely necessary. However, it does tend to stain just about everything it touches. In liquid form, it is more expensive to ship, although you can get it in dry form. Another common etchant is ammonium or sodium persulphate.

pcbyThere’s also a variety of homemade etchants using things like muriatic acid and vinegar. Most of these use peroxide as an oxidizer. There’s lots of information about things like this on the Internet. However, like everything on the Internet, you can find good information and bad information.

When [w_k_fay] ran out of PCB etchant, he decided to make his own to replace it. He complained that he found a lot of vague and conflicting information on the Internet.  He read that the vinegar solution was too slow and the cupric acid needs a heated tank, a way to oxygenate the solution, and strict pH controls. However, he did have successful experiments with the hydrochloric acid and peroxide. He also used the same materials (along with some others) to make ferric chloride successfully.

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From Zero to Nano

Have you ever wanted to build your own Arduino from scratch? [Pratik Makwana] shares the entire process of designing, building and flashing an Arduino Nano clone. This is not an entry-level project and requires some knowledge of soldering to succeed with such small components, but it is highly rewarding to make. Although it’s a cheap build, it’s probably cheaper to just buy a Nano. That’s not the point.

The goal here and the interesting part of the project is that you can follow the entire process of making the board. You can use the knowledge to design your own board, your own variant or even a completely different project.

from-zero-to-nano-thumb[Pratik Makwana] starts by showing how to design the circuit schematic diagram in an EDA tool (Eagle) and the corresponding PCB layout design. He then uses the toner transfer method and a laminator to imprint the circuit into the copper board for later etching and drilling. The challenging soldering process is not detailed, if you need some help soldering SMD sized components we covered some different processes before, from a toaster oven to a drag soldering process with Kapton tape.

Last but not least, the bootloader firmware. This was done using an Arduino UNO working as master and the newly created the Arduino Nano clone as target. After that you’re set to go. To run an actual sketch, just use your standard USB to UART converter to burn it and proceed as usual.

Voilá, from zero to Nano:

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Free Routing for gEDA

If you lay out PC boards using software, it is a good bet you have an opinion about autorouters. Some people won’t use a package that can’t automatically route traces. Others won’t accept a machine layout when they can do their own by hand. You can, of course, combine the two, and many designers do.

The open source gEDA PCB package (and pcb-md) have an autorouter, but it is pretty simplistic. [VK5HSE] shows how you can use a few tools to interface with the Java Freerouting application, to get a better result. For example, the original router made square corners, while the Freerouting application will create angles and arcs, if configured properly.

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How Commercial Printed Circuit Boards Are Made

Most of us who have dabbled a little in electronics will have made our own printed circuit boards at some point. We’ll have rubbed on sticky transfers, laser-printed onto acetate, covered our clothing with ferric chloride stains, and applied ourselves to the many complex and tricky processes involved. And after all that, there’s a chance we’ll have ended up with boards that were over or under-etched, and had faults. For many the arrival of affordable online small-run professional PCB production from those mostly-overseas suppliers has been a step-change to our electronic construction abilities.

[Fran Blanche] used to make her own boards for her Frantone effects pedals, but as she admits it was a process that could at times be tedious. With increased production she had to move to using a board house, and for her that means a very high-quality local operation rather than one on the other side of the world. In the video below the break she takes us through each step of the PCB production process as it’s done by the professionals with a human input rather than by robots or ferric-stained dilettantes.

Though it’s twenty minutes or so long it’s an extremely interesting watch, as while we’re all used to casually specifying the parameters of the different layers and holes in our CAD packages we may not have seen how they translate to the real-world processes that deliver our finished boards. Some operations are very different from those you’d do at home, for example the holes are drilled as a first step rather than at the end because as you might imagine the through-plating process needs a hole to plate. The etching is a negative process rather than a positive one, because it serves to expose the tracks for the plating process before etching, and the plating becomes the etch resist.

If you’re used to packages from far afield containing your prototype PCBs landing on your doorstep as if by magic, take a look. It’s as well to know a little more detail about how they were made.

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Creating A PCB In Everything: Upverter

For the last five months, I’ve been writing a series of posts describing how to build a PCB in every piece of software out there. Every post in this series takes a reference schematic and board, and recreates all the elements in a completely new PCB tool.

There are three reasons why this sort of review is valuable. First, each post in this series is effectively a review of a particular tool. Already we’ve done Fritzing (thumbs down), KiCad (thumbs up), Eagle (thumbs up), and Protel Autotrax (interesting from a historical perspective). Secondly, each post in this series is a quick getting started guide for each PCB tool. Since the reference schematic and board are sufficiently complex for 90% of common PCB design tasks, each of these posts is a quick how-to guide for a specific tool. Thirdly, this series of posts serves as a basis of comparison between different tools. For example, you can do anything you want in KiCad and most of what you want in Eagle. Fritzing is terrible, and Autotrax is the digital version of the rub-on traces you bought at Radio Shack in 1987.

With that introduction out of the way, let’s get cranking on Upverter.

A little bit about Upverter

Upverter was founded in 2010 as an entirely web-based EDA tool aimed at students, hobbyists, and Open Hardware circuit designers. This was one of the first completely web-based circuit design tools and Upverter’s relative success has been a bellwether for other completely web-based EDA tools such as and EasyEDA.

I would like to take a second to mention Upverter is a Y Combinator company (W11), which virtually guarantees this post will make it to the top of Hacker News. Go fight for imaginary Internet points amongst yourselves.

Upverter is a business after all, so how are they making money? Most EDA suites offer a free, limited version for personal, hobbyist, and ‘maker’ projects, and Upverter is no exception. The professional tier offers a few more features including CAM export, 3D preview, an API, simulation (coming soon), BOM management, and unlimited private projects for $125 per seat per month, or $1200 per seat per year.

To give you a basis of comparison for that subscription fee, Eagle CAD’s new license scheme gives you everything – 999 schematic sheets, 16 layers, and unlimited board area – for $65 per month, or $500 per year. Altium’s CircuitStudio comes in at $1000 for a one-year license. There are more expensive EDA suites such as Altium Designer and OrCAD, but you have to call a sales guy just to get a price.

Upverter is positioning itself as a professional tool at a professional price. There are better tools out there, of course, but there are thousands of businesses out there designing products with tools that cost $500 to $1000 per seat per year. In any event, this is all academic; the Hackaday crowd gravitates towards the free end of the market, whether that means beer or speech.

A big draw for Upverter is their Parts Concierge service. You’ll never have to create a part from scratch again, so the sales copy says. Apparently, Upverter is using a combination of very slick scripts to pull part layouts off a datasheet and human intervention / sanity check to create these parts. Does it work? We’re going to find out in the review below.

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