Few things have had the impact on electronics that printed circuit boards (PCBs) have had. Cheap consumer electronics would not be as cheap if someone still had to wire everything (although by now we’d be seeing wiring robots, I’m sure). Between removing the human from the wiring process and providing many excellent electrical properties (at least, on a well-designed board), it isn’t surprising that even the cheapest examples of electronics now use PCBs.
For many years, the hallmark of being a big-time electronic hacker was the ability to make your own PCBs. There have been many ways that people have tried to bring PCB manufacturing into the hacker’s garage: stick on decals, light-sensitive blank PCBs, and even using laser printer toner (that last one spurred me to write a book on PCB layout many years back). You also see a lot of people using 3D printers or CNC mills to create PCBs. Hardly a week goes by that someone doesn’t ask me how to make a PCB in a home or small business lab.
My reaction is invariably: “Why?” Back in the 1980s, I worked for a company that had PCBs made and our board house was going out of business. So we bought them. They had an array of plating machines, photoplotters, and exotic chemical handling equipment. They were 60 miles from our company, and that was handy because we’d drive over carrying giant rolls of artwork directly to the board house. The cost was high, and with modern-day regulations on dumping chemicals would probably have been higher. The price for tooling was especially high. That first board cost a lot. Even the 100th board was expensive by today’s standards.
I did a lot of boards myself in those days, especially prototype boards that were likely to have issues. But they were never the same as the commercial boards. It is hard to do two sided boards (not impossible, but hard). You don’t get plated through holes, so you have to use wires or rivets to connect the sides. You may not have thought of it, but that copper connecting both sides on a commercial PCB add a lot of strength to the PCB tracks. Just like single-sided boards are easier to delaminate than a double sided board, my homemade double sided boards had the same tendency because they were basically two singled-sided boards back-to-back. You could use some noxious chemicals to sort of plate the board, but it wasn’t as good. And I never found a reasonable way to do solder mask. Silk screen wasn’t worth the trouble, although I’ve used rub on letters and later toner transfer to get a similar effect.
The worst part about making my own boards: the drilling. Those holes really need to line up right (especially IC sockets) and if you screw it up, you get to start over at step 1. Granted, you can go surface mount, but most boards still need at least some holes (even if just for vias). The second worst part was handling all the chemicals. The clear etch wasn’t too bad, but the more readily available ferric chloride stains everything! I still have some marks on my patio concrete to prove that. I never had the gall to try some of the homebrew etches because they had nasty chemicals, too.
Things are different today. You can layout your PCB totally on the computer (or even in your browser). Click a button and you can send those files anywhere in the world. There are dozens (or maybe more) board houses that will produce your board cheaply. Many of these are in Asia, but there are affordable options everywhere now. The only thing you really need is time. You can’t have an idea in the morning and look at a prototype PCB in the afternoon. But if you are willing to wait–and the wait doesn’t have to be that long–you can get beautifully produced boards at a very low cost, even if you are making only one or two boards. You’ll get multiple layers, plated through holes, silk screen, and all the other things you expect in a professionally made board.
Yes, my CNC mill will chip away copper (and end mills) and leave me with a board with no solder mask, no silk screen, and no plated through holes. I still have my tank for heating up ferric chloride (which should have the brand name Stain-it-all). But I never do that anymore. It simply isn’t worth it. You shouldn’t either. Despite the advice in the video below, the best way to get ferric chloride stains out of things is to not use ferric chloride at all!
I’m going to stop short of recommending a particular board house so I don’t get accused of advertising for any particular one. We had a Hackerchat not long ago where several people mentioned their favorites. Ask around. Or leave your favorite (and why) in the comments.
Don’t get me wrong. No one that reads Hackaday needs to be told why someone wants to build something even though they could buy it somewhere else. I do that all the time. If your goal is to learn about PCBs or hack the PCB process, then by all means, knock yourself out. But if your goal is to prototype something and the PCB is just a means to an end, dump that ferric chloride, save the end mill, and find a board house. You’ll be glad you did.