Yes, we’ve seen our share of tutorials for making solder paste stencils, but [Felix] hit it out of the park with this one. It’s the definitive guide to making solder stencils at home, with quality as good as you would find in any professionally made stencil.
The material for the stencils comes from the same source as so many other DIY solder stencils – aluminium cans. The interior plastic coating and the exterior paint job are both removed with heat, acetone, and patience. After laying out the cream layer of his board in a PDF file, [Felix] used a fairly interesting transfer medium to get the toner onto the aluminum; cheap vinyl shelving paper attached to a piece of paper apparently makes for an ideal surface to transfer toner.
After transfer, the board is etched with HCl and peroxide. [Felix] is getting some very good results with his method, including a few very fine pitch IC footprints. It’s just as good as a professionally made, laser cut stainless stencil, and you probably already have all the necessary ingredients lying around your house. That’s a win anytime.
This is a solder paste stencil machined from a beer can. [Simon Ludborzs] spent quite a bit of time dialing in his process to get to this point. Note the nice crisp edges of the openings. That’s a big change from his first attempt.
When looking for a way to make his own stencils he considered two options: plastic and aluminum. He produced both (more about the plastic stencil and his reflow process is discussed in this post). Plastic is a bit easier to work with since it lays flat. But it proves to be too thick. After applying paste with a squeegee there’s way too much solder on the pads. Aluminum beverage can walls are much thinner, depositing less paste.
We’ve seen soda cans used in the past, but they were produced through an etching process. [Simon] cut these holes using a CNC mill. This required a bit of futzing to figure out the right settings. For instance, he used Altium to produce CAM files from his circuit design. But the program is set up to mill the outside of traces, resulting in openings that are too large. He fixed this by setting the pasted expansion rule in the program to a negative value. The other advantage to using a mill is that he can cut precision tooling holes to ensure proper alignment. You can see them in the upper corners of this image.
It was time for some new T-shirts so [Andreas Hölldorfer] built a laser cutter. Wait, what? That’s the excuse he’s going with, and in the end this scratch built laser cutter did come in handy by cutting stencils to use when decorating his garments.
The first thing we thought when looking at the cutter is where’s the tube? [Andreas] didn’t use a CO2 laser, so this ends up being rather low-powered. The cutting head is a 1W blue laser diode which manages to slice the three-ring binder separator pages he’s using for the stencils. The two-axis machine is mounted inside a wooden box to protect his eyes while it’s cutting. He plans to add a drawer later on so that the cutting bed will slide in and out to swap out material for the next project. He already does a lot of 3D printing work and had an old RepRap driver board on hand to use for this projects. He designed and printed the red mounting brackets which make all of the junk-bin components work together. Not bad!
If you’d like to try this out on a smaller scale try using optical drive parts for the axes.
Even if you’ve overcome your fear diddling about with tiny SMD components, applying solder paste – especially if you’re populating more than one board at a time – is still a chore. The pros use very expensive laser cut stainless steel solder paste stencils, something still a bit out of reach to the casual hobbyist. [Felix] solved this problem by making his own solder paste stencils very cheaply using empty soda cans.
The process begins just like any other home etching tutorial by lightly sanding the un-bent aluminum can and applying the etch resist via the toner transfer method. Etching is done with off-the-shelf HCl and hydrogen peroxide, resulting in an amazingly clean stencil comparable in quality with a professional stencil.
Sure, going through a dozen-step process to make a solder paste stencil may not be as convienent as [Cnlohr]’s toothpick and tweezers method, but [Felix]’ method is just about up to par with extraordinarily expensive laser cut stainless steel stencils. Not bad for something that came from the recycling bin.
If you’re making your own boards with SMD parts, you might want to get a solder paste stencil. Usually made of laser-cut mylar or extremely thin steel, these stencils allow you to squeegee solder paste onto your board’s pads and make assembly a whole lot easier. [Rochey] needed a stencil for a board he was working on, and lacking a laser cutter he turned to what he had available – a few bits of plastic and a CNC machine.
[Rochey] began making his stencils out of laminating pouches and an xacto knife. This worked well, but it was time-consuming, and a bit fiddly when cutting 1 mm square holes. To speed up the process, [Rochey] put one of these laminating pouches on his CNC machine, exported the ‘Top Cream’ layer in Eagle to the CNC software of his choice, and had his machine attack the plastic with a 1 mm drill bit.
To [Rochey]’s surprise, everything went as planned; in five minutes, he had a stencil with perfectly accurate holes that masked off everything but the SMD pads.
Thanks [Fabien] for sending this one in.
We’re kind of surprised we haven’t covered this concept before since it only uses techniques that are commonly avaialable for home PCB fabrication. [Ray] made this solder paste stencil out of a sheet of copper using the same etching techniques you would for a circuit board. He designed and printed a resist pattern, with toner everywhere except the places where there should be holes in the stencil. He transferred the toner to the copper using an iron.
The difference here should be obvious; this a thin copper sheet with no substrate. Because of that, you must protect the copper surface before etching. he covered the entire thing, both sides, in packing tape. After that it’s into the Cupric Chloride bath to dissolve the exposed parts. Once the tape and toner has been removed you can scree a precise amount of solder paste onto your boards.
This isn’t for everyone, but if you’re assembling many boards it’s not a bad approach. If the stencil is no longer used it can be recycled, but we do wonder how corrosion on the copper will affect the stencil’s performance.
The idea for this technique came to [Ray] from a guide that’s been around for years.
Need to use that antiquated hardware that can only be connected via a parallel port? It might take you some time to find a computer that still has one of those, or you could try out this USB to Parallel port converter. It’s not limited to working with printers, as the driver builds a virtual parallel port that you should be able to use for any purpose. But what we’re really interested in here isn’t the converter itself, but the build process. [Henrik Haftmann] posted a three-part series of videos on the assembly process, which you can watch after the break.
The build is mostly surface mount soldering with just a handful of components that need to be hand soldered. The first of his videos shows him stenciling solder paste onto the boards. From what we can see it looks like he built a nice jig for this using scrap pieces of copper-clad which match the thickness of the PCB, and hold it and the stencil securely in place. There’s a bunch of other tips you can glean from the videos, like the image seen above. It’s a clamp that holds the PCB and USB jack together while they are soldered.
If you’re ever thinking of assembling a bunch of boards you should set aside thirty minutes to watch them all.
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