Perfect PCBs With An Inkjet Printer

Instead of mucking about fabbing PCBs with the toner transfer method, or making masks for photosensitive boards, the holy grail of at-home circuit board manufacturing is a direct inkjet-to-etch method. [Don] isn’t quite there yet, but his method of producing circuit boards at home is one of the easiest we’ve ever seen.

[Don]’s boards begin by taking the output from Eagle and printing them with an Epson Artisan 50 inkjet printer. By sticking a piece of cardstock in the printer before the copper board, he’s able to precisely align the traces and pads onto the copper board.

When the board comes out of the printer, it’s only covered in ink. While some specialty inks are enough of an etch resist, [Don] comes up with a clever way to make sure acid doesn’t eat away copper in the needed places – he simply dusts on toner from a copier or laser printer, blows off the excess, and bakes the entire board in a toaster oven.

The result, seen above, are perfect traces on a circuit board without the need for ironing sheets of photo paper onto copper boards.

As far as the, “why didn’t someone think of this sooner” ideas go, this one is at the top. [Don] says the method should work  on sheets of aluminum for printing solder paste masks. Impressive work, and now the only thing left to do is getting two-layer boards down pat. For more direct to copper printing check out the hacks we’ve covered in years past.

69 thoughts on “Perfect PCBs With An Inkjet Printer

  1. Blowing toner around your workplace is really not good for your health, not to mention it gets everywhere and sticks. If you’re going to try this, at least wear a mask, preferably do it in a sealed box, and ideally do it in a negative pressure box.

    I don’t know if he’d be able to get much in the way of registration if doing double sided boards with this method either. Dry film resist is a lot less faffing about, make your artwork once, use it many times.

    As for tinning, the chemical mixtures are a bit of a pain to get. I found that taking a very small blob of solder paste, and mixing it with a much larger amount of gel/paste flux (like 3 or 4 times the flux to solder paste, until it’s quite a pale grey mixture rather than the dark grey of normal solder paste), then spreading it on the board (paint it on) and then heating it up (even just on an upside down iron) works well.

    The very “thin” solder paste mixture gives a pretty even and thin coating and doesn’t have enough solder to bridge anything. You can just touch any areas that need a bit more with a blob of the mixture on a toothpick while the board is still hot. While it’s still hot wipe it with a paper towel to remove any residues. In fact, you can probably just heat the board and wipe it with a wad of paper towel that you dipped in your flux+solderpaste mixture.

  2. Easier? really? The blue transfer sheets are easiest you can get, none of that poor person scrubbing of paper off, Just peel and it’s done. I see sprinkling toner and baking as a heck of a lot harder than my process with Press and Peel.

    The 1oz copper boards are far more expensive than the press and peel pages, so if you cant afford them you cant afford to make boards at home.

    1. I haven’t tried the blue press n peel stuff but I did recently buy 100 sheets of dextrin paper for £10, that stuff is fantastic and cheap, easily doing down to 0.012″ traces, 60 seconds with a hot iron and no messing around blowing cancer dust anywhere either. 25mins from printed to tinned :-)

    1. I’ll second that.

      I’m experimenting with various inks from a modified printer, and I know of other people trying to print conductive traces through various means.

      Please tell us what you’ve found.

  3. Awesome! I haven’t made any circuit boards since my school days due to the stupid amount of steps involved. And equipment… (stencil to UV, to development, to etch, to clean). I’d rather pay someone else to do that.

    But doing it at home with an old printer and a toaster oven? Hell yea! The method may not be perfect, but Don just made home PCBs that little bit easier!

    Now imagine if you could make this into one big machine?
    Combine a printer, a toner spray, air/water nozzle, toaster oven, etch chamber, and sand blaster, in one single machine.

    Copper in, circuit out.

      1. Homemade double sided boards suck. Mostly because you cannot plate through holes. Well, if anyone has managed it I’ve never heard of it. So forget about vias, they’re the least of your problems.

  4. I don’t know why these boards almost always lack ground planes. Pouring a polygon is easy. It reduced the amount of etchant used up. Maybe it makes transferring the toner difficult, I’m not sure. Anyways the title for this article is somewhat misleading. The PCBs are far from perfect. And while it does use an inkjet printer, it also still uses toner. I’d sooner have the toner melted onto photopaper than being blown around with an air compressor. That stuff is nasty. Even if it doesn’t get in your lungs it’ll be all over your fingers etc.

    What we need is an ink that is corrosive at high temperatures so that you print that on with an inkjet printer, then bake the board and wash off the disolved copper lol…

    Anyways kudos to the guy for making PCB production more accessible. I’m just not a fan of the method, to each their own though.

  5. There are also UV-curable inks that can be used to print directly to the PCB…they resist etchant very well. My friend reliably gets 6 mil traces using that method…he’s developed the inks.

    1. I etch with most of the holes covered, leaving just a small pit in the center which helps align the drill bit in the correct location. There’s a script that does the filling in bit for you but I’ve forgotten what it was named, it’s been a while since I etched at home.

  6. Just get some proper toner transfer paper and be done with it. It’s cheap if you cut out the size you need and tape it to a regular sheet of paper before sending it through the printer (only tape the edge that goes in to the printer first). A laminator is nice for sticking it to the copper clad but an iron will do just fine.

    Personally I’ve stopped making boards myself though unless I need the board NOW. It’s so damn cheap to order proper boards these days that time is the only factor. A few days ago I ordered from oshpark, 3 small boards for $3 _shipped_. It’s going to be hard beating that price by doing it yourself and you get the added benefit of proper vias, plating, solder mask, silk screen and the precision needed for tiny SMD parts like QFNs.

    1. I just don’t see the beating of price here, what are you doing with the extra two boards if you only need one, I have a number of projects to do, and each of them needs just one board, but outside making forces me to buy 3 boards of which 2 gonna end up on the shelf. Why don’t those outside makers not just make there prices for the sqrinch we use. Add some $cents for each hole and let the client deside if it needs fancy overlay’s printed on it. They can run the small layouts easely on the edges of the big orders, if they make a little more effort to make it fit. There major profit is from those 2000 board orders anyway. Then I have my one board per project, professionally made and probably for $1 a $2 / Inch.

  7. This method of applying powders to wet inkjet prints was a common method for making Fake ID holograms with pearl ex powder as early as 2005 at least. Probably earlier than that, but the first I had heard of it,

  8. Calling those perfect traces is a stretch. Look at them at 11:09 in the video, especially the trace in the middle. This would most probably not work for fine pitch surface mount boards. Kudos for trying though.

  9. I can’t help but think of CNC milled boards as the ideal, rather than this. Only one material necessary: The PCB. The mill is a bit pricey, but the results are worth it IMO.

    1. You could help it, But that would require some effort on your part. You could start by actually milling some copper, and seeing what an intractable mess that really is. Pure copper has undesirable machining properties. The main complaint is copper’s tendency to adhere to machine tools. Using polished cutters, and copious amounts of flood cooling can mitigate that effect to some degree though.

      Are you still thinking that milling boards is ideal, or should I go on?

  10. laser printer + laminator for wide traces and dry film/UV photo process for the really small stuff.
    If you are doing laser method save yourself a lot of trouble and get a laminator for $20. You will wonder why you ever used an iron as long as you did.

  11. Another thing to consider trying (if you have access to it) is what is sometimes called a ‘solid ink printer’, these types of printers are used a lot by hobbyists in the plastic model hobby field to create custom decals, and utilize solid blocks of wax-like material as the ‘ink’, the printer melts the ‘ink’ and feeds it through print nozzles to print on the paper or whatever other media you load into the printer. With this type of printer it should be relatively easy to create an etching mask for your pcb design, as well as maybe even (if necessary) create iron on transfer style masks of a quality similar to those created using laser printers. Though I can’t say with any certainty how well the ‘ink’ would stand up to various etching solutions, but assuming it does the results should be pretty good I’d think.

    1. The proper name is “dye sublimation printer”. As you say, blocks of waxy “ink” are sublimated, ie flashed into vapour, and condense onto paper. They’re not cheap but apparently give very good results in normal printing, especially colour.

  12. JUST USE powdered CALAFONIA instead of laser printer toner …. calafonia was used decades ago in simillar technique (but without inkjet printer – there were no such things then).
    If your only opinion against this technique is that “toner is bad for health and will dirt all stuff around” then – READ MY POST ONCE AGAIN.

      1. ups … sorry :) its my second language …. I ment “colophony” or “resin” …. in Polish “calafonia ; kalafonia” ;) Its solid, rock hard resin – when you powder it it behaves just like laser toner …. It was used like in this vid above to make our pcb paths “eath resistant”, I even found some old sources – if you know polish I can post them …

          1. yep ; 1963 (first copy, I got one reprint from 1987) S.Sękowski “galwanotechnika domowa” – wrote this book for “young chemists” – recepies for photoresist’s (organic and synthetic) and a method to make pcb’s with final step with resin. But there are more, older, from a “press for technicians” MT.

      1. Not only water. Many years ago when I worked in Kodak, guys were designing special polymer-based inks for their new printers. I remember those went on market around Xmas in 2006 or 7.

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