Direct-to-PCB Inkjet Printing


Full Spectrum Engineering has offered up a tutorial for their inkjet direct PCB kits that repurpose direct-to-CD capable inkjet printers (such as the Epson R280) to print etch-resistant ink straight onto copper clad board. This is easier and less error prone than some iron-on methods, especially for two-sided boards. Just print (no need to reverse the design), dry on a hot plate or in a toaster oven for a couple minutes, and your board’s ready for etching!

Homebrew methods exist for all of this, but for those who would rather move ahead with their design than spend time scrounging for the required bits, the kits offer a pretty good value. They can also meet you halfway…say if you’re only lacking access to a laser cutter and just want the CD stencil…all of the parts are available individually or as a complete set: the resist ink cartridge, the stainless steel board-holding stencil, and a supply of double-sided copper clad boards precisely sized for the stencil (3.5 by 2.5 inches). The small board size is well within the limits of the freeware Eagle Light Edition software.

Concerned about gunking up your nice inkjet with non-OEM ink? You can dedicate hardware to the job without breaking the bank. Many of the compatible printers are of the “free printer after rebate” bundle variety that can now be found inexpensively on Craigslist or eBay.

33 thoughts on “Direct-to-PCB Inkjet Printing

  1. Sweet. I have two Epson R280 printers and one of them doesn’t print very well because I put ink from Carrot ink in it and it leaked all over the place. I have another brand new printer still in the box from when Circuit City went out of business.

  2. The images I checked were all GIFs, which as I recall are limited to 256 colors. Explains the bad coloring if so.

    Anyone know of the top of their head if any of these printers’ CD printing works well/at all in Linux? I may watch for one of these printers to go on sale or something, sure beats the photo etching I tried once :D

  3. ellisgl:
    I am guessing they did that because Epson fills their printers with a ton of bs sensors to match paper size etc. It is probably a pain to roll your own tray. Though I am not familiar with this model.

    Now if you can find a cheap HP printer that prints flat (or you can easily modify to print flat) AND uses the HP reference driver (DJ 600 mono, DJ 990c etc etc) you could probably quickly build a simple dedicated printer, that would work in almost any OS.

  4. I always thought this would be a good method to make an UV resistant mask for photo-positive PCBs (colors work better than black for me). Then you don’t have to count on a funky ink to mask the copper, and you still have full use of the manufacturers original ink cartridge.

  5. Sorry about the image quality. It was the watermarking program. I junked it and figured out how to use photoshop so it’s much better now.

    HPs don’t work because they boil the ink so must be waterbased. This ink is special as it won’t wash off.

    The whole tray is a pain to make and would only fit 1 printer because of all holes unique to each brand.

  6. Also it does doublesided boards great because the laser cut stencil + CD printer sensors align the board. You won’t be able to do better than that by hand especially when you can’t see through the board using toner transfer. The ink lasts hundreds of boards so is way cheaper in the long run.

  7. The idea itself if very cool, caught my interest instantly. A shame that it seems to be limited a bit by the use of Epson printers. Can you say something about Canon Pixma Inks (PGI-5BK and CLI-8BK are the 2 blacks it uses, the first one is the pigmented one AFAIK). I also like the idea about the photo positive pcbs suggested by ian, did you try that, since it might be compatible to more inks being a completely different solution?

  8. So would this work for older models such as the epson R300 etc.? They use the same tray system for printing to CDs.

    Pity the CD tray printing software can’t be coaxed into printing to a slightly larger area.

    either way, it’s still a damn fine idea :)

  9. How long does the ink last between prints?? This is the biggest question IMHO. For most, printing PCB’s will not happen every day; or even every month. Is there some way to seal the cartridge and head so it doesn’t “dry out”?

    These printers are very difficult to find where I live (Indonesia). The R280 is being deprecated. We need more printer options.

    Can you ship granular ammonium persulfate with the kit? Hard to find here too.

    Nice job though – I’m looking closely at this solution… fed up with UV mask and toner transfer methods.

  10. Canon and HP printers for the most part use carbon pigment black ink which will not work (the is a limitation of the thermal printheads). The Epson inks are polymer pigments (pizeo print head) and seem to work much better. You can use quad tone rip (QTR) to control the individual color positions on your Epson printer so you would not have to put the color ink in the black position. It looks like they may be using mispro yellow, but the price seems a bit steep. For what they are charging for a cartridge, you could get a whole pint from inksupply.

  11. We consulted with James at Massmind before putting out this kit. The main problem was lack of a step by step instructions for a specific kit.

    There are many improvements and hacks you could do but not all of them work and few are easy.

    Configuring the print settings and using something free and popular like Windows Paint opens this project up to the mass population.

    Not everyone wants to take apart a printer just to print a PCB.

    If you do want to hack it, we have rewritten Epson firmware to do a lot more control. We also have Xaar head type products in development that can eject a lot more fluids than the cheap Epsons and can supply for beta tests if there is interest (Xaar heads are $400 just for the head however).

    As for resolution, it is detailed on the step by step tutorial: we can get 12mil with 10mil spacing in our sleep. I can get 6/6 with very careful etching setup. I’ve heard of other people going 4/4.

    This is way better than toner transfer but you need to play with it if you are pushing those limits. It’s certainly easier and faster. Especially if you want to align it on both sides.

  12. @drone
    No need to order etching chemicals. Visit your local hardware store and you can get a gallon of muriatic acid ( normally used for bleaching concrete) for about $5 and then pick up a bottle of hydrogen peroxide at a drug store for $1 . When ready to etch mix two parts peroxide to one part acid. Etches fast and better than the powdered stuff.

  13. Has anyone experimented with different “ink” to slip from etching and copper at all? Could be much cheaper and faster. To mix some solution, which hardens well and can be soldered to.

  14. What Type of ink is it, i’ve tried normal inkjet ink and it’s water soluble, no use for this method, BTW i’ve tried this method b4 using a HP400 pinter it has a straight through paper feed, so no awkward bending, board goes straight from front to back, works better with .8 mil boards, 1.6mm boards wont go through without hacking the printer to peices

  15. Would it be possible to use something like this to print on silkscreens? If I could print a screen and use it immediately I’d be pretty happy. It sounds like a non-water soluable ink that can act as an etch resisit might have all the right properties for printing on screens.

    Now to find a way to get the screen to work in the printer… that’s a different story.

  16. If you have a laser cutter, a mylar stencil takes about 30seconds to make. Aligning it with <.5mm pitch takes much longer then making it.

    For 1 off board, just use a syringe solder paste. With 22 gauge tip, you just squirt it in lines and it balls up on the traces when heated. A lot less clean up.

    Stencils are for faster production not accuracy.

  17. sure, agreed on all points.

    “if you have a laser cutter”: yeah, getting there. someday.

    “use a syringe solder paste”: yeah, been there. that’s why I like the idea of printing the paste.

    actually, pondering mods to a vinyl sign cutter/plotter to lay down paste. Resist too, why not?

    — mew

  18. It would have been nice to have a link back to the YahooGroup where this was developed… A bunch of us on Homebrew_PCBs were trying different things in inkjet cartridges, from the famous Staedler 313 red ink to Future acrylic floor polish. Various inkjet inks were tried, then one member, Volkan Sahin found the key – pigmented ink and heat setting the ink. Some colors work better than others, depending on the formulation. So different brands of pigmented ink may work better in one color than another brand.

    Since then, I started a separate YahooGroup for using inkjet printers to print directly onto PCBs.

    Ink Supply even mentions us on their page for the specific yellow ink:

    I also found that there are ID card carriers available for many of the Epson printers that take the CD tray. And that a steel cutter for ID cards will cut through 0.030 inch thick doublesided PCB blanks. Not sure how long the cutter will last.

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