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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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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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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Print Flexible PCBs with a 3D Printer

Let’s get it out of the way right up front: you still need to etch the boards. However, [Mikey77] found that flexible plastic (Ninjaflex) will adhere to a bare copper board if the initial layer height is set just right. By printing on a thin piece of copper or conductive fabric, a resist layer forms. After that, it is just simple etching to create a PCB. [Mikey77] used ferric chloride, but other etchants ought to work, as well.

Sound simple, but as usual, the devil is in the details. [Mikey77] found that for some reason white Ninjaflex stuck best. The PCB has to be stuck totally flat to the bed, and he uses spray adhesive to do that. Just printing with flexible filament can be a challenge. You need a totally constrained filament path, for one thing.

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Want to Make a PCB? The Pantum Knows…

We’ve done a lot of PCBs with the toner transfer method over the years. The idea is simple: print a pattern using toner (which is just ground up black plastic) and then use an iron or other heat and pressure device to transfer the toner to a copper-clad board. It works and it works well. But getting just the right combination of heat, pressure, release paper, and toner is sometimes tricky.

Some people hack their printers to turn off the fuser wire (to make the toner not stick to the paper) or to run a PCB directly through it. If you have a big expensive laser printer, though, you might not want to chop it up just to run PCBs. Have you looked at laser printer prices lately? We aren’t sure if it is cheap units flooding the market, or the overwhelming popularity of color printers, but you can pick up a Pantum P2500 for about $25 or $30–and probably get WiFi printing at that price. [Mlermen] picked one of these up and shows you how to convert it to a PCB printer.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: Printem Is Polaroid For PCBs

We are going to great lengths to turn a quick idea into an electronic prototype, be it PCB milling, home etching or manufacturing services that ship PCBs around the world. Unwilling to accept the complications of PCB fabrication, computer science student [Varun Perumal Chadalavada] came up with an express solution for PCB prototyping: Printem – a Polaroid-like film for instant-PCBs.

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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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