Take Your PCBs from Good to Great: Toner Transfer

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One-offs that I never would have gotten professionally made, but that were infinitely handy during development

A lot of us make circuit boards at home. I find it a useful skill to have in my bag of tricks for intermediate steps along the way to a finished project, even if the finished version is going to be sent out to a PCB fab. When I need a breakout board that meshes with other development tools, for instance, there’s nothing like being able to whip something up that plugs right in. Doing it quickly, and getting on with the rest of the project instead of placing an order and waiting for delivery, helps keep me in the flow.

Toner transfer is by far the fastest way to make a circuit board at home — simply print the circuit out on a laser printer, iron it onto the copper, and etch. When it works, it’s awesome. When it doesn’t, it can be a hair-pulling exercise in figuring out which of myriad factors are misaligned.

For a long time now, I’ve been using a method that’s very reliable and repeatable. Recently, I’ve been tweaking a bit on the performance of the system, and I thought I’d share what I’ve got. At the moment, I’m able to very reliably produce boards with 6 mil (0.15 mm) traces and 8 mil (0.20 mm) spacing. With a little care in post-production, 4 mil / 6 mil is entirely plausible.

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The Evolution of a DIY Circuit Board Plotter

In this three part video series we watch [Dirk Herrendoerfer] go from scraps to a nice 3D printed assembly as he iterates through the design of a pen plotter for making circuit boards.

[dana] mentioned [Dirk]’s work in the comments of this post which describes a different process. Many permanent markers stick to copper well enough to last through the chemical etching process. While hand drawing definitely produces some cool, organic-looking boards, for sharp lines and SMDs it gets a bit harder; to the point where it becomes advisable to just let a robot do it.

Of course, [Dirk] was aware of this fact of life. He just didn’t have a robot on hand. He did have some electronic detritus, fishing line, an Arduino, scrap wood, brass tubes, and determination.  The first version‘s frame consisted of wooden blocks set on their ends with holes drilled to accept brass rods. The carriage was protoboard and hot glue. Slightly larger brass tubing served as bushings and guide. As primitive as it was the plotter performed admirably, albeit slowly.

The second version was a mechanical improvement over the first, but largely the same. The software got a nice improvement. It worked better and had some speed to it.

The latest version has some fancy software upgrades; such as acceleration. The frame has gone from random bits of shop trash to a nicely refined 3D printed assembly. Even the steppers have been changed to the popular 28BYJ-48 series. All the files, software and hardware, are available on GitHub. The three videos are viewable after the break. It’s a great example of what a good hacker can put together for practically no money.

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Etching a PCB In Ten Minutes.

Most circuit boards any maker could need for their projects can be acquired online at modest cost, but what if you need something specific? [Giorgos Lazaridis] of pcbheaven.com has designed his own etching bath complete with a heater and agitator to sped up the process of creating your own custom circuit boards.

[Lazaridis] started by building a circuit to control — in a display of resourcefulness — a fish tank heater he would later modify. The circuit uses a PIC 16F526 microcontroller and two thermristors to keep the temperature of the etching bath between 38 and 41 degrees Celsius. The fish tank heater was gingerly pried from its glass housing, and its bimetallic strip thermostat removed and replaced with a wire to prevent it shutting off at its default 32 degrees. All of it is mounted on a small portable stand and once heated up, can etch a board in less than 10 minutes.

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Escalating To CNC Through Proxxon’s Tool Line

Proxxon is a mostly German maker of above average micro tools. They do sell a tiny milling machine in various flavors, from manual to full CNC. [Goran Mahovlić] did not buy that. He did, however, combine their rotary tool accessory catalog into a CNC mill.

Owning tools is dangerous. Once you start, there’s really no way to stop. This is clearly seen with Goran’s CNC machine. At first happiness for him was a small high speed rotary tool. He used it to drill holes in PCBs.

In a predictable turn of events, he discovered drilling tiny holes in PCBs by hand is tedious and ultimately boring. So he purchased the drill press accessory for his rotary tool.

Life was good for a while. He had all the tools he needed, but… wouldn’t it be better if he could position the holes more quickly. He presumably leafed through a now battered and earmarked Proxxon catalog and ordered the XY table.

A realization struck. Pulling a lever and turning knobs! Why! This is work for a robot, not a man! So he pestered his colleague for help and they soon had the contraption under CNC control.

We’d like to say that was the end of it, and that [Goran] was finally happy, but he recently converted his frankenmill to a 3D printer. We’ve seen this before. It won’t be long before he’s cleaning out his garage to begin the restoration and ultimate CNC conversion of an old knee mill. Videos after the break.

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Taking the Converted PC PSU Bench Supply a Step Further

A quality bench power supply is essential for electronics work. Nobody wants to go through the trouble of digging through their electronics bin just to find a wall wart with the right output. And, even if you were so inclined, it would be folly to assume that its output would actually be clean.

You could, of course, purchase a purpose-built bench power supply. But, this is Hackaday, and I’m sure many of you would rather build one yourself from an inexpensive PC power supply. Normally, you’d do this by separating out the different voltage lines into useful groups, such as 12V, 5V, and 3.3V. [Supercap2f] wanted to take this a step further, both to get a more useful unit and to practice his PCB-making.

His design uses a custom circuit design to fuse the circuits, and to provide some basic logic. Using the LCD display, you can see which lines are powered on. There is even a simple 3D printed cover to keep everything neat and tidy. [Supercap2f] has posted all of the design files, so you can build one of these yourself. We’ve seen similar builds in the past, but this is another nice one that anyone with the ability to etch PCBs can build.

Design for Hackers

Near the end of the lifecycle of mass-market commercial product development, an engineering team may come in and make a design for manufacturability (DFM) pass. The goal is to make the device easy, cheap, and reliable to build and actually improve reliability at the same time. We hackers don’t usually take this last step, because when you’re producing just a couple of any given device, it hardly makes sense. But when you release an open-source hardware design to the world, if a lot of people re-build your widget, it might be worth it to consider DFM, or at least a hardware hacker’s version of DFM.

If you want people to make their own versions of your project, make it easy and cheap for them to do so and don’t forget to also make it hackable. This isn’t the same as industrial DFM: rather than designing for 100,000s of boards to be put together by robot assembly machines, you are designing for an audience of penny-pinching hackers, each building your project only once. But thinking about how buildable your design is will still be worthwhile.

In this article, I’m going to touch on a couple of Design for Hackers (DFH) best practices. I really want to hear your experience and desires in the comments. What would you like to see in someone else’s open designs? What drives you nuts when replicating a project? What tricks do you know to make a project easily and cheaply buildable by the average hacker?

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[CNLohr]’s Glass PCB Fabrication Process

One of [CNLohr]’s bigger claims to fame is his process for making glass PCBs. They’re pretty much identical to regular, fiberglass-based PCBs, but [CNLohr] is building circuits on microscope slides. We’ve seen him build a glass PCB LED clock and a Linux Minecraft Ethernet thing, but until now, [CNLohr]’s process of building these glass PCBs hasn’t been covered in the depth required to duplicate these projects.

This last weekend, [CNLohr] put together a series of videos on how he turns tiny pieces of glass into functional circuits.

At the highest level of understanding, [CNLohr]’s glass PCBs really aren’t any different from traditional homebrew PCBs made on copper clad board. There’s a substrate, and a film of copper that is etched away to produce traces and circuits. The devil is in the details, and there are a lot of details for this build. Let’s dig deeper.

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