A Complete Desktop PCB Etching Station

Right now you can get a custom circuit board delivered to your door in about a week for just a few dollars. There’s little reason to make your own circuit boards at home anymore, but when you need a board now, you want to have that capability. [Tuval Ben Dosa] designed a complete PCB etching station that is the perfect tool for making printed circuit boards at home. It’s got everything you need for the perfect etch, and with this setup you can make a board in hours instead of waiting for days.

The chemistry for any etching setup is important, and in recent years the entire community has moved from ferric chloride to copper chloride for a very good reason: you can recharge copper chloride etchant by bubbling oxygen (or air) through it, whereas ferric chloride is a one-use etchant.

The mechanical part of this build consists of an airtight glass food container sitting on top of a PCB heating element not unlike the heated bed of a 3D printer. Along with that is an I2C temperature sensor encased in a silicone tube, a stir bar, diaphram pump, and a few pumps to blow air into the etchant and pump out the chlorine gas generated. This is controlled by a small microcontroller with a UI consisting of just an encoder and OLED display.

If you’re looking for builds that will etch copper and brass at home, this has been something that has been done before. The Etchinator is a fantastic build capable of making everything from printmaking plates to printed circuit boards. That’s a build that requires a lot of work, and this small, compact etching station does everything you need without taking up too much space in the shop. Check out the video below.

42 thoughts on “A Complete Desktop PCB Etching Station

        1. I also use the vinegar/hydrogen peroxide method. It works great and I’ve done some (relatively) fine-pitch stuff with it. To speed etching, you can agitate the board, or wipe a sponge or brush gently across the surface of the board.

    1. I remember being able to do it at school. We had the tanks in the CDT labs and actively did circuit design, made PCB’s and soldered components to them.
      A year or two later it was considered unsafe to have heated acid being used by school kids so they ripped them all out.
      They also stopped teaching on the lathes and doing metal work / forging.
      Then they came for the wood working and vac form (heated plastic = bad) kit too.
      And we wonder why we dont make anything as a country any more…

  1. Etching your first PCB is like your first step into true hackery. Everything is fine, the world is at your feet, you can make anything… then the first drop of ecthant reaches your clothes. Some time after the first leaks start to appear, hoses/plastic joints and moving parts start to clog or crumble and that you need to maintain this contraption on a regular basis.

    Then you start to realize that is it really worth it:
    YES (if you lack financial resources or time to order a PCB. But time is the best reason to make your own PCB, no manuf. can make and deliver it as fast as you can do it yourself, the sense of speed and independence is awesome).
    NO (PCB’s are getting ridiculously cheap [if you are willing to wait a few weeks for delivery] the quality is far beyond what you can make your own, just make sure that the PCB you order is going to be functional the first time…)

    Regarding this project, anything that combines electronics, lights, fluids, pumps and hoses, is always fun.

    1. Few weeks? I got some from china in less than a week, but at a price.
      I remember a few decade ago, the worse thing was not doing the pcb but waiting component on back order

  2. Random question that is only somewhat related to what’s in the video. It sounds like he’s using one of the cheap ubiquitous Ebay encoders with the “very” loud buttons that require a fair bit of force to activate. Are there any cheap alternatives out there which features a more premium feeling button?

  3. seems like a lot of overkill when you can just drop a board in a container and give it a swirl every once in a while, with ferric chloride it takes like what 10 min

    1. ferric chloride is difficult to “regenerate” at home any you really should not pour it down the drain once it’s depleted, the copper compounds are to toxic to aquatic life…

      1. If your drains are going right to a river you have other environmental problems that just the disposing of a little of ferric chloride. And there are ways to inactivate it, from memory I think calcium carbonate would do the trick. Would need to

      2. My old bottle of ferric chloride from Radio Shack says on the bottle to slowly poor the spent fluid down the toilet… Not that I ever did or ever will. I had a friend that would regenerate ferric chloride by plating out the copper using two carbon electrodes from old carbon-zinc batteries. Outside of course.

    2. Perhaps you should read the article:

      “The chemistry for any etching setup is important, and in recent years the entire community has moved from ferric chloride to copper chloride for a very good reason: you can recharge copper chloride etchant by bubbling oxygen (or air) through it, whereas ferric chloride is a one-use etchant.”

  4. “…to your door in about a week for just a few dollars” – Please elaborate, sounds great! – It’s been a while since I’ve ordered boards, but ‘few dollars’ and ‘about a week’ were mutually exclusive from what I remember at the time, at least shipping to US.

      1. okay..
        How big where the boards?
        Single sided, double sided, 4 layers (unlikely, but who knows), special colors or finish?

        The information you shared is to limited to be of any value to anyone.
        Because 1.20$ per unit if the PCB is only 10x10mm is still a lot, but for a 100x100mm PCB it could be promising. Please be specific to make your comment count.

        1. k now that you made me go look it was actually 75 pcs and a tiny bit cheaper

          allpcb (about the same as all the other one’s) 82x62mm
          2 sided
          white mask
          black silk

          for 47$ and 35 + a 3$ paypal processing DHL shipping puts it at 1.13$ per unit
          took 1 day to build + a weekend cause I ordered them a Thursday, and ~5 days to get to the USA

      2. – That’s ~$100 though, not a ‘a few dollars’, as well as still no reference to a vendor or specifics. Getting prices down in quantity is easy most places, and somewhere like OSH park can do relatively good prices for small runs, but OSH is going to take a lot more than a week if you’re only spending a few dollars (only double sided, not-upgraded-shipping, @ 3x minimum qty, and a small board, you could probably come in at a ‘few’ dollars). The article eluded to ‘a’ board (single or very small run as I’d read it) to you in a about a week for a few dollars. This would be awesome, and what I was interested in the details of.

        1. Did you actually check out JLC PCB??? it’s $2 for five PCBs, $5 for 10 PCBs (that’s _total_, not each) plus shipping. 100mm x 100mm. *Ready to ship in 24 hours with DHL, 1-2 days for other Carriers. $6.33 Via PostLink US Registered Mail. Not a sustainable way of doing business, I would guess but available now as of July 7th 2019.

          1. – I did just now – not bad, but same I’ve seen elsewhere in the past, where you can’t see boards in ‘about a week’ for a few bucks. They have great board prices in low qty from the looks of it, but it’s shipping from overseas, and unless you spend much more than a few bucks for DHL, you’re looking at a few weeks shipping time.

    1. That is indeed funny. Many times we are “informed” here with info from companies nobody cares about with products nobody really want or can afford. But when things really get interesting “like PCB’s to your door in about a week for just a few dollars” no names are mentioned… sad really. Because I can really use the name of such a company!
      But perhaps there is a catch, there’s always a catch, most of the times it is hidden in the shipment costs…

      1. I’m sure using the ‘Search’ bar, or Google, will help you with your shopping needs… It’s really a topic for a whole other article, not to mention naming a company would be advertisement or endorsement. Wouldn’t sit well with sponsors of the site, if business is directed away from theirs, which is why they sponsor and advertise here. Somebody has to help pay the bills, and fortunately, we don’t have to pay a subscription to use this site. Now, in the comment section, I don’t see the problem with people posting the specifics on their own claims.

        The main ‘catch’ is in the minimal order. You can’t just order a single board, cheap, though there may be some workarounds for that, to some degree. Basically, though, you need to order multiple copies, and if the board isn’t right, you are stuck with them. They don’t check your work, or correct any obvious mistakes. This still makes it desirable to etch your own boards, if you can same buying a batch of useless boards, for a bad design, or silly mistake.

        Mostly, I only need one board, sometimes I might make a few copies, but usually it’s just a one time project, and want a nice permit board, over what usually looks messy, strip or perfboard. Breadboards are fine for testing on the bench, but usually not great for actual use circuits, that aren’t going to be changed.

        1. The opening line of the article is “Right now you can get a custom circuit board delivered to your door in about a week for just a few dollars.” i think it’s plenty fair to ask for minor details of this, since it (seems?) to be a pretty interesting claim. As you yourself said, ‘minimal orders’ is a catch. Not according to what the opening line of the article comes out as. Shipped, week, few dollars, ‘a board’. And in context of the article for small/one-off boards, I don’t think reading that as ‘a’ (single, or literally few) boards is inappropriate.
          – I think most everyone on here is familiar with google, not a helpful suggestion. You could spend hours on google trying to maybe find what the author was eluding to, if you ever find it, if it exists(?). It takes much research to dig into sometimes hidden minimum orders, shipping costs, find shipping/processing times, and the ‘great deal’ place mentioned might not be spending much on advertising to get them high enough search ranking that you even find them as a board vendor within whatever your search/research time budget is. We’re not asking for a full article, and I understand not advertising (possibly competition) in the main article, but I don’t think mentioning ‘hey, vendor ABC does small/single runs and can meet the mentioned ‘few dollars in a week’ criteria, because with minimums and shipping costs, not many can do this, and are not easy to find if they can.

          1. I think cheap pcbs in about a week goes against peoples beliefs so they don’t even bother googling. Check out JLCPCB. Seriously. You really can get (5) 100x100mm pcbs to your door for less than $10. I don’t know how long non-DHL shipping will take as I usually need my boards in days, not over a week. But I did order from the above a few times just to see if it was real and I don’t remember how long it took to arrive but way faster than the 1.5+ months I was expecting. And if you can’t afford to risk $10 on this, well, we are from two different worlds and I’m sorry I can’t relate to.

          2. – @Steve – Thanks for the specifics, but I guess this still falls back to even JLCPCB is not meeting the initial criteria – you get cheap or fast, but not both. If I was doing a project for profit, dropping $20+ on shipping is not a big deal. If I want to whip up a custom controller for my kids power wheels, $10 for a nice basic board in a week could be well worth the wait and would be awesome, but either having to wait 3 weeks or $30+ (or even $20+), I’d probably suck it up and hand-wire a perf board instead. It’s the ‘low budget want it soon’ type personal projects it’d be awesome to have something that could fit the opening line of the article for.

          3. The main reason for not being specific here: getting PCBs made has nothing to do with the hack that this article is about — indeed it’s a distraction.

            But it’s great that folks in the comments chime in with their experiences.

            In mine, there are many companies in China that offer cheap PCBs, and a couple in Europe and the US that offer them slightly more expensively, but maybe also of slightly higher quality.

            Everyone has their favorite, but it’s probably worth your time to shop around.

          4. I’ve used JLCPCB for a few years, most of my orders contain 5-7 PCB designs, 2 layers, 1oz copper, ~50x50mm, qty 10. It’s been $10 per PCB design. DHL shipping at $18.
            Can place the order Sunday, get the boards in hand Friday.
            My last order used USPS at $3 once and took 4 weeks, but believe the hold up was USPS judging by the tracking info. It was at one USPS location for ~2 weeks.
            Their sister company for components LCSC in China, I used USPS and got it in ~1.5 weeks.
            I haven’t tried other companies for PCBs but for order cost, delivery options, quality, I haven’t felt the need too.
            For quality, I’ve ordered total of about 800 boards with their min requirements, 5 mil Trace & Spacing, 0.3mm via drill, never had a failed board.
            10 PCBs & USPS $4.83 ($2 PCB special)
            10 PCBs & DHL $19.82 ($2 PCB special)

    1. This isn’t a particularly cheap solution, but getting a commercial board milling machine, like an LPKF, gets you very fine pitch double-sided boards with holes drilled. It does _not_ get you plated through-holes unless you pay a lot more yet, so you have to stick wires through and solder them on both sides. But wowie it is nice to have near-perfect alignment on all your vias and mounting holes.

  5. I can’t seriously consider a board technology that doesn’t do vias.

    Is it just me? I don’t believe I have seen a board in my entire life that doesn’t have vias. I looked at a Chinese Arduino Uno, and it has 92 of them.

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