Laser-Cut Solder Masks From Business Cards

There are plenty of ways to make printed circuit boards at home but for some features it’s still best to go to a board shop. Those features continue to decrease in number, but not a lot of people can build things such as a four-layer board at home. Adding a solder mask might be one of those features for some, but if you happen to have a laser cutter and a few business cards sitting around then this process is within reach of the home builder too.

[Jeremy Cook] is lucky enough to have a laser cutter around, and he had an idea to use it to help improve his surface mount soldering process. By cutting the solder mask layer into a business card with the laser cutter, it can be held on top of a PCB and then used as a stencil to add the solder paste more easily than could otherwise be done. It dramatically decreases the amount of time spent on this part of the process, especially when multiple boards are involved since the stencil can be used multiple times.

While a laser cutter certainly isn’t a strict requirement, it certainly does help over something like an X-acto knife. [Jeremy] also notes that this process is sometimes done with transparency film or even Kapton, which we have seen a few times before as well.

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Journey Through The Inner Workings Of A PCB

Most electronics we deal with day to day are comprised of circuit boards. No surprise there, right? But how do they work? This might seem like a simple question but we’ve all been in the place where those weird green or black sheets are little slices of magic. [Teddy Tablante] at Branch Eduction put together a lovingly crafted walkthrough flythrough video of how PCB(A)s work that’s definitely worth your time.

[Teddy]’s video focuses on unraveling the mysteries of the PCBA by peeling back the layers of a smartphone. Starting from the full assembly he separates components from circuit board and descends from there, highlighting the manufacturing methods and purpose behind what you see.

What really stands out here is the animation; at each step [Teddy] has modeled the relevant components and rendered them on the PCBA in 3D. Instead of relying solely on hard to understand blurry X-ray images and 2D scans of PCBAs he illustrates their relationships in space, an especially important element in understanding what’s going on underneath the solder mask. Even if you think you know it all we bet there’s a pearl of knowledge to discover; this writer learned that VIA is an acronym!

If you don’t like clicking links you can find the video embedded after the break. Credit to friend of the Hackaday [Mike Harrison] for acting as the best recommendation algorithm and finding this gem.

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Bandpass Filters From The CNC Mill

A bandpass allows a certain electrical signal to pass while filtering out undesirable frequencies. In a speaker bandpass, the mid-range speaker doesn’t receive tones meant for the tweeter or woofer. Most of the time, this filtering is done with capacitors to remove low frequencies and inductors to remove high frequencies. In radio, the same concept applies except the frequencies are usually much higher. [The Thought Emporium] is concerned with signals above 300MHz and in this range, a unique type of filter becomes an option. The microstrip filter ignores the typical installation of passive components and uses the copper planes of an unetched circuit board as the elements.

A nice analogy is drawn in the video, which can also be seen after the break, where the copper shapes are compared to the music tuning forks they resemble. The elegance of these filters is their simplicity, repeatability, and reproducability. In the video, they are formed on a CNC mill but any reliable PCB manufacturing process should yield beautiful results. At the size these are made, it would be possible to fit these filters on a business card or a conference badge.

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Customizable PCB Business Card

[Corey Harding] designed his business card as a USB-connectable demonstration of his skill. If potential manager inserts the card in a USB drive, open a text editor, then touches the copper pad on the PCB, [Corey]’s contact info pops up in the text box.

In addition to working as a business card, the PCB also works as a Tiny 85 development board, with a prototyping area for adding sensors and other components, and with additional capabilities broken out: you can add an LED, and there’s also room for a 1K resistor, a reset button, or break out the USB’s 5V for other uses. There’s an AVR ISP breakout for reflashing the chip.

Coolly, [Corey] intended for the card to be an Open Source resource for other people to make their own cards, and he’s providing the Fritzing files for the PCB. Fritzing is a great program for beginning and experienced hardware hackers to lay out quick and dirty circuits, make wiring diagrams, and even export PCB designs for fabrication. You can download [Corey]’s files from his GitHub repository.

For another business card project check out this full color business card we published last month.

The Evolution Of A DIY Circuit Board Plotter

In this three part video series we watch [Dirk Herrendoerfer] go from scraps to a nice 3D printed assembly as he iterates through the design of a pen plotter for making circuit boards.

[dana] mentioned [Dirk]’s work in the comments of this post which describes a different process. Many permanent markers stick to copper well enough to last through the chemical etching process. While hand drawing definitely produces some cool, organic-looking boards, for sharp lines and SMDs it gets a bit harder; to the point where it becomes advisable to just let a robot do it.

Of course, [Dirk] was aware of this fact of life. He just didn’t have a robot on hand. He did have some electronic detritus, fishing line, an Arduino, scrap wood, brass tubes, and determination.  The first version‘s frame consisted of wooden blocks set on their ends with holes drilled to accept brass rods. The carriage was protoboard and hot glue. Slightly larger brass tubing served as bushings and guide. As primitive as it was the plotter performed admirably, albeit slowly.

The second version was a mechanical improvement over the first, but largely the same. The software got a nice improvement. It worked better and had some speed to it.

The latest version has some fancy software upgrades; such as acceleration. The frame has gone from random bits of shop trash to a nicely refined 3D printed assembly. Even the steppers have been changed to the popular 28BYJ-48 series. All the files, software and hardware, are available on GitHub. The three videos are viewable after the break. It’s a great example of what a good hacker can put together for practically no money.

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DIYing Huge BGA Packages

One day [Andy] was cruising around eBay and spotted something interesting. Forty Virtex-E FPGAs for two quid each. These are the big boys of the FPGA world, with 512 user IO pins, almost 200,000 logic gates, packed into a 676-ball BGA package. These are not chips designed for the hobbyist. These chips are not designed for boards with less than six layers. These chips aren’t even designed for boards with 6/6mil tolerances from the usual suspects in China. By any account, a 676-ball package is not like a big keep out sign for hobbyists. You don’t turn down a £2 class in advanced PCB design, though, leading to one of the most impressive ‘I just bought some crap on eBay’ projects we’ve seen.

halfbuiltThe project [Andy] had in mind for these chips was a generic dev board, which meant breaking out the IO pins and connecting some SRAM, SDRAM, and Flash memory. The first issue with this project is escape routing all the balls. Xilinx published a handy application note that recommends specific design parameters for the traces of copper under the chip. Unfortunately, this was a six-layer board, and the design rules in the application note were for 5/5mil traces. [Andy]’s board house can’t do six-layer boards, and their design rules are for 6/6mil traces. To solve this problem, [Andy] just didn’t route the inner balls, and hoped the 5mil traces would work out.

With 676 tiny little pads on a PCB, the clocks routed, power supply implemented, too many decoupling caps on the back, differential pairs, static RAM, a few LEDs placed just for fun, [Andy] had to solder this thing up. Since the FPGA was oddly one of the less expensive items on the BOM, he soldered that first, just to see if it would work. It did, which meant it was time to place the RAM, Flash, and dozens of decoupling caps. Everything went relatively smoothly – the only problem was the tiny 0402 decoupling caps on the back of the board. This was, by far, the hardest part of the board to solder. [Andy] only managed to get most of the decoupling caps on with a hot air gun. That was good enough to bring the board up, but he’ll have to figure some other way of soldering those caps for the other 30 or so boards.

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Tools Of The Trade – Component Placing

Recently we started a series on the components used to assemble a circuit board. The first issue was on dispensing solder paste. Moving down the assembly line, with the paste already on the board, the next step is getting the components onto the PCB. We’re just going to address SMT components in this issue, because the through hole assembly doesn’t take place until after the SMT components have gone through the process to affix them to the board.


SMT components will come in reels. These reels are paper or plastic with a clear plastic strip on top, and a reel typically has a few thousand components on it. Economies of scale really kick in with reels, especially passives. If you order SMT resistors in quantities of 1-10, they’re usually $.10 each. If you order a reel of 5000, it’s usually about $5 for the reel. It is cheaper to purchase a reel of 10 kOhm 0603 resistors and never have to order them again in your life than it is to order a few at a time. Plus the reel can be used on many pick-and-place machines, but the cut tape is often too short to use in automated processes.

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