You might assume that you need a lot of expensive stuff to make your own PCBs, but that isn’t the case: you can do it with a vinyl cutter and a few common chemicals and tools. [Emiliano Valencia] has laid out the entire process. While we’ve seen plenty of make your own PCB guides before, this one goes a bit further as it covers using the vinyl cutter to make solder masks, so you can use it for surface mount designs.
The end result of the process that [Emilano] lays out is the tinyDice, a cute little electronic die that can fit on a keyring. The whole process is very well written up, and even experienced PCB makers will probably find a few useful tricks here.
The really interesting part for us was using the vinyl cutter to make three parts of the process: the etching mask, the solder mask that protects the traces and the solder stencil that applies the solder to the pads for surface mounting.
That is possible because the solder mask uses Kapton tape which is tough enough to stand the heat of the reflow process, and is a lot easier to use than the UV resins that are generally used. The etching and solder stencils are made from the vinyl material that is most commonly used in these cutters, but the solder mask is made from thin Kapton tape which is attached to a vinyl backing but then transferred onto the PCB. It does sound a bit fiddly in places, but there are plenty of photos to show how it is done.
Kudos to [Emiliano] for also coming up with a neat way to make the solder stencil out of vinyl by stacking four vinyl cutouts on top of each other. That gives the applied solder enough thickness that it should melt and flow without problems, but also gives nice clean solder pads. Now, if only he could work out how to make a pick & place out of sticky-back plastic and popsicle sticks, we would be sorted…