Copper-clad Enclosures

Building a great looking box for your projects can be a challenge. [Ken] boils down his process of building enclosures out of copper clad (PDF) circuit board material into an illustrated guide in case you want to try this for yourself. Why would you want to use PC board? The fiberglass substrate makes for a strong and lightweight material. Also, [Ken] is a ham radio operator and the copper coating acts as an electrical shield for delicate components inside.

As you can see above he uses solder to tack the pieces together. There’s some important considerations that go along with this method. First, he cuts the pieces just a bit oversized and then sands them flat and square before assembly. Next, he uses some 20 gauge wire as a shim between a ninety-degree joint and a right angle jig. This shim compensates for the shrinking that occurs as the solder cools, making sure the joint gets pulled to a right angle. He even solders nuts in place so that screws can be used to attach the case cover to the chassis.

Yesterday we saw toner transfer used to make labels on an ABS case. If you make your enclosure out of copper clad, using toner transfer for panel labels will be a snap!

29 thoughts on “Copper-clad Enclosures

  1. Looks nice and I bet it’s electrically pretty quiet but it seems a lot of effort to replicate a pressed steel or ally case which doesn’t cost a lot to buy new. If you needed more than one of an odd shape box it might even pay to buy a press brake and a sheet of tinplate. The seams can be soldered continuously then so there’s no need for any gusseting, and self tappers can be used instead of brass nuts.

  2. Check out this PCB enclosure, it’s a LAPTOP!

    Nice project too.

    But really, I can see if this if you just can’t get enclosures anywhere. But it’s a good bit of work. And there’s so many choices in enclosures now. You don’t have to use Bud Boxes any more.

    PacTec makes GREAT enclosures.

    He did a nice job there, but really…. it’s so much easier to buy one.

  3. “copper coating acts as an electrical shield for delicate components inside”

    …Delicate components inside?

    Ever heard of EMI? That’s where you were supposed to mention EMI. Not “delicate components”.

  4. After cleaning the surface thoroughly, you can apply several layers of shellac to the exposed copper to retard corroding. One nice thing apparent is that if you need case markings for dials, buttons, etc. the toner transfer method and etching would do fine. Alternatively, one could decorate the enclosures using this method.

  5. A good tutorial on the process. I never seen a radio handbook dedicate 19 pages to this. A thank you to Ken – wa4mnt for making this available. from reading old radio handbooks, the handbooks would give plenty of detail om making chassis from sheet metal, but back in their day sheet metal is what was available.

    Here it shouldn’t be expensive to have a local machine shop to mill some square stock in hopes when the solder cools it draws the joint into square. Perhaps a case of beer to drink after the work day. That may include the stock, and a beer or two for yourself.

  6. I just buy sheets of aluminum at Lowes and hammer them into the approximate shape I need. Throw on some JB-Weld if I need to fasten anything. This stuff is gettin way too fancy. ;)

  7. Great idea. Mayhaps a bit expensive and “way to fancy”, but thats not always a bad thing. Could it be done cheaper/better…depends on your outlook i guess. Have to agree with the idea of custom etching and using SMD components on the inside to make a true one piece design.
    Definitely a one of a kind idea.

  8. Very nice tutorial. I’ve seen hundreds of boxes made this way (though not as carefully as this). This technique compares favorably to many other quick box ideas and can be VERY fast if you are not worried about perfect looks. This beats aluminum in convenience because you can’t solder to aluminum. In many cases, I’ve also build the enclosed circuit right on the inside copper clad of the bottom case panel. Having a shear helps a lot though.

  9. Great guide! I’ve built several cases using this technique. It’s nice to be able to build exactly what you want, when you want it.

    It doesn’t have to be ugly. I guess some people have never heard of paint or clear-coat.

    It doesn’t have to be expensive. You can often get cheap packs of PCBs from surplus vendors.

    And it’s not really even that time consuming, depending on how fast you can cut the PCBs. Thin phenolic boards can be cut easily with a guillotine-style paper cutter, and are still strong enough for many cases. Especially if you lay down a continuous solder fillet instead of tack soldering, which is fast and easy with a 200W iron.

    The gusseting may not be needed either. And you don’t need brass nuts; cheap zinc plated hardware solders just fine if you use a little flux from the hardware store.

    @24601: If you’re too lazy to open a pdf, you’re certainly not going to be building any enclosures; so what are you doing here?

  10. Tacking? Come on man, this isn’t welding, use a full seam! Looks better that way, and is an easy fun way to show off your soldering prowess by soldering a clean line.

    Otherwise, this looks fantastic, and good idea on the shimming wire.

  11. It’s quite easy and holds up well. A few tips after having built several:

    – copper will tarnish fast. If you want it to stay looking nice, clear-coat it as soon as you finish building it.

    – sanding epoxy-glass will release loads of small glass fibers into the air. Arrange dust collection, wear disposable clothing and use a respirator or dust mask.

    – you will want to avoid running your finger along the cut edge of the epoxy-glass material. Those little fibers take a couple of weeks to work their way out of your skin.

    – The biggest soldering iron tip you can find , and plenty of watts behind it, will make your job much easier. You want to hit those spots with plenty of heat for a short time, lest the epoxy break down and star getting runny.

    – don’t count on solder as a structural element. Those braces and gussets will help your enclosure last longer.

    – if you’re going for shielding, remember that the inside and outside copper are electrically isolated unless you do something to join them. Copper shielding tape will work well for this, wrap it around the exposed edge before soldering.

  12. I’ll add this too. WOOD is perfectly acceptale for a project case. But if you’re going to do it, please make it look decent. Sand it, stain it, etc… some projects look very nice using just wood.

    1. The idea of using copper as enclosure is to shield circuits (esp. RF) inside from EMI etc. Copper is a much better material for shield as compared to aluminium etc. because of it’s high conductivity. It is not used to make cases look pretty. Though I agree, if it can be fine tuned, it would look even better.

  13. @Doc Oct: My favorites for electronic surplus are All Electronics, Electronic Goldmine, and BG Micro. Since it’s surplus, they don’t always carry the same items, so it pays to check in periodically for good deals. I picked up a huge pack of assorted PCBs from Goldmine years ago and still have plenty left. I think it was $20 or less.

    Of course there’s Ebay too. Remember you can often use PCB material that wouldn’t be optimal for actual circuits, which can save you some money. I recently bought a pack of PCBs with black substrate there. If you etch a pattern or image on it, polish the remaining copper, and then clean and clear-coat, the effect is quite nice. I’ve done some small art projects with it already, and plan to do a Hellraiser-style cube soon. It would also make some very interesting enclosures or faceplates.

  14. That’s a very good attempt. The idea of using copper as enclosure is to shield circuits (esp. RF) inside from EMI etc. Copper is a much better material for shield as compared to aluminium etc. because of it’s high conductivity. It is not used to make cases look pretty. Btw. do you have any data as to how much RF attenuation (@ what frequency) you could attain due to this enclosure ?

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