Get Your PCBs Made at the Mall

As we’ve seen with some recent posts on the subject here at Hackaday, there seems to be a growing schism within the community about the production of PCBs. Part of the community embraces (relatively) cheap professional fabrication, where you send your design off and get a stack of PCBs in the mail a couple weeks later. Others prefer at home methods of creating PCBs, such as using a CNC, laser engraver, or even the traditional toner transfer. These DIY PCBs take some skill and dedication to produce, but the advantage is that you can have the board in hand the same day you design it. But there may be a third option that seems to have slipped through the cracks.

[Virgil] writes in with a very interesting method of producing professional looking prototype PCBs that doesn’t involve weeks of waiting for the results, nor does it require any complicated techniques or specialized equipment. In this method, a UV printer is used to deposit your mask directly onto the copper clad board, which you then etch with whatever solution you like. Don’t have a UV printer you say? No worries, there’s probably somebody at the mall that does.

As [Virgil] explains, the little kiosks at the mall which offer to personalize items for customers generally use a UV printer which allows them to shoot ink on nearly any material. Instead of asking them to put a logo on the back of your phone, you’ll just be asking them to put the vector file of your mask, which you can bring along on a USB flash drive, onto the bare copper board. They may tell you they can’t guarantee the ink will stick to the bare copper, but just tell them you’re willing to take the risk. It’s one of those situations in which your money will be glad to speak on your behalf.

After the UV printer does its thing, the mask might be somewhat fragile. [Virgil] likes to wrap the boards in plastic for the ride home to make sure they don’t get damaged. Then it’s a quick dunk in the etching solution followed by a rinse and some isopropyl alcohol to get the remainder of the UV ink off. The results really do speak for themselves: nice sharp lines with exceptionally little manual work.

We’ve covered some relatively easy ways of quickly producing nice PCBs at home, as long as you don’t mind spending a couple hundred US dollars to get the hardware together. This seems to be the best of both worlds, though it does have the downside of requiring you speak with another human. We’d love to hear from any readers who give this particular method a shot.

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IBM PCjr Revived by an ATX Power Supply and Many False Starts

The IBM PCjr was a computer only the marketing geniuses of a multi-billion dollar corporation could love. On the face of it, it seemed like a great idea – a machine for the home market, meant to complement the “big boy” IBM PC in the office and compete against the likes of Apple and Commodore. What it ended up as was a universally hated, only partially PC-compatible machine which sold a mere half-million units before being mercifully killed off.

That doesn’t mean retrocomputing fans don’t still snap up the remaining machines, of course. [AkBKukU] scored a PCjr from a thrift store, but without the original external brick power supply. An eBay replacement for the 18-VAC supply would have cost more than the computer, so [AkBKukU] adapted a standard ATX power supply to run the PCjr. It looked as if it would be an easy job, since the external brick plugs into a power supply card inside the case which slots into the motherboard with a card-edge connector. Just etch up a PCB, solder on an ATX Molex connector, and plug it in, right? Well, not quite. The comedy of errors that ensued, from the backward PCB to the mysteriously conductive flux, nearly landed this one in the “Fail of the Week” bin. But [AkBKukU] soldiered on, and his hand-scratched adapter eventually prevailed; the video below tells the whole sordid tale, which thankfully ended with the sound of the machine booting from the 5-1/4″-floppy drive.

In the end, we’ve got to applaud [AkBKukU] for taking on the care and feeding of a machine so unloved as to be mentioned only a handful of times even on these pages. One of those articles marks the 25th anniversary of the PCjr, and lays out some of the reasons for its rapid disappearance from the market.

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Stylish Business Card with a Stylophone Built In

If you’re in the electronics business, PCB business cards seem like a natural fit. They may be impractical and expensive, but they can really set you apart from that boring paper card from Vistaprint crowd. But they need to make sense for what you do, so for a musician and MIDI pro, this MIDI-controller stylophone business card is a real eye- and ear-catcher.

This business card is an idea that [Mitxela] has been kicking around for a while, and he even built a prototype a couple of years ago. The homebrew card, made using the spray paint, laser etching, and ferric chloride method, worked well enough as a proof of concept, but it was a little rough around the edges and needed the professional touch of a PCB fabricator. We’ve got to say that the finished cards are pretty darn sexy, with the black resist contrasting nicely against the gold-immersion pads. He selected a 1-mm thick board and made the USB connector as a separate small board; snapped off of the main board and reflowed back on, it builds up the edge connector to the proper thickness. The parts count is low — just an ATtiny85 and a resistor ladder to encode each key, with a simple jumper used as the stylus. The device itself is just a MIDI controller and makes no music on its own, but we still think this is a pretty creative way to hang out a shingle.

[Mitxela] has quite a few interesting builds, and is no stranger to our pages. Check out his recent servo-plucked MIDI music box, or these amazing miniature LED earrings.

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A Brushless Motor on a PCB, Made from PCB

At Hackaday, we really appreciate it when new projects build on projects we’ve featured in the past. It’s great to be able to track back and see what inspires people to pick up someone else’s work and bring it to the next level or take it down a totally new path.

This PCB brushless motor is a great example of the soft collaboration that makes the Hackaday community so powerful. [bobricius] says he was inspired by this tiny PCB BLDC when he came up with his design. His write-up is still sparse at this point, but it looks like his motor is going to be used to drive a small robot. As with his inspiration, this motor has the stator coils etched right into the base PCB. But there are some significant improvements, like increasing the stator coil count from six to eight, as well as increasing the overall size of the motor. [bobricius] has also done away with the 3D-printed rotor of the original, opting to fabricate his rotor from stacked PCBs with cutouts for 5-mm neodymium magnets. We like the idea of using the same material throughout the motor, and it also raises the potential for stacking a second stator on the other side of the rotor, which might help mechanically and electrically. Even still, the prototype seems to hold its own in the video below.

This is [bobricius]’ second entry in the 2018 Hackaday Prize so far, after his not-a-Nixie tube display. Have you entered anything yet? Get to it! Prizes, achievements, and glory await.

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Making Fancy Dice PCBs at Home

These days, it’s easy to get high-quality custom PCBs made and shipped to your door for under $50. It’s something that was unfathomable only a decade ago, but now it’s commonplace. However, it doesn’t mean that the techniques of home PCB production are now completely obsolete. Maybe you live somewhere a little off the beaten track (Australia, even!) and need to iterate quickly on a project, or perhaps you’d like to tinker with the chemical processes involved. For your learning pleasure, [Emiliano] decided to share some tips on making SMD-ready PCBs with the TinyDice project.

The actual project is to create a small electronic dice, and [Emiliano] touches on the various necessary considerations such as how to decrease power consumption, and how to source good quality, organic random numbers from your local microcontroller. Though its far from an exhaustive discussion on either topic, it shows an understanding of the deeper factors at play here.

However, the real meat of the write-up is the PCB production process. The guide goes through several stages of etching to not only prepare the PCB but also to add solder mask and produce a solder paste stencil as well using an aluminum can. This gives the boards that colored finish we’re all used to and lets the boards be reflowed for easy SMD assembly.

It’s a tidy guide as to how to approach producing your own boards to be used with SMD components, and it’s complete with clear photos and instructions throughout. If you want to take your designs up another notch, why not consider putting your components inside the circuit board?

The Fine Art of Acid Etching Brass

If you were building a recreation of the James Watt micrometer, where would you start? If you’re [rasp], the answer would be: “Spend a year trying to find the best way to make etched brass discs.” Luckily for us, he’s ready to share that information with the rest of the world. While it’s rather unlikely anyone else is working on this specific project, the methods he details for getting museum-quality results on brass are absolutely fascinating.

The process starts with sanding down the bare brass and applying a layer of clear packing tape to the metal. [rasp] then covers the piece with LaserTape, which is a special tape designed to make laser-cut masks for sandblasting. But the masking principle works just as well for painting or chemical etching.

With the LaserTape in place, the piece is then put into the laser and the mask is cut out. Once cut, there’s the tedious task of peeling off all the cut pieces of tape, which [rasp] does with a dental pick. Once the pieces are pulled off, the brass is ready for its acid bath.

Anyone who’s etched their own PCB with ferric chloride will recognize these next steps. The piece is put into the acid bath and agitated every 10 minutes or so. It’s interesting to note that [rasp] places the piece in the bath upside-down, using little 3D printed “feet” to suspend the brass sheet off the bottom of the container. This allows the debris from the etching process to fall down and away from the piece. After about an hour out in the sun, the piece is pulled out of the bath and carefully washed off.

Once clean off, the piece is sprayed with black spray paint to darken up the etched areas. The moment of truth comes when the paint has dried and the layers of tape are carefully peeled back to reveal the etching. [rasp] then wet sands the piece with 1000 and 2000 grit paper, and a final pass with polishing compound brighten up the surface to a mirror-like shine. It’s quite a bit of manual labor, but the end result really is spectacular.

In the video after the break, [rasp] breaks down the entire process, including the additional machine work required to turn these brass plates into functional components of the final machine. As an added bonus, he even includes a lot of his failed attempts in an effort to keep others from making the same mistakes. Something we love to see here at Hackaday.

The process used here is similar to the snazzy brass name plates we showed earlier in the year, and has even been done without a laser using photoresist.

[via /r/DIY]

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Three Ways to Etch Snazzy Brass Nameplates

It’s the little touches that make a project, and a nice nameplate can really tie a retro build together. Such badges are easy enough to make with a CNC machine, but if you don’t have access to machine tools you can put chemistry to work for you with these acid-etched brass nameplates.

The etching method that [Switch and Lever] uses to get down to brass plaques will be intimately familiar to anyone who has etched a PCB before. Ferric chloride works as well on brass as it does on copper, and [Switch and Lever] does a good job explaining the chemistry of the etching process and offers some tips on making up etching solution from powdered ferric chloride. But the meat of the video below is the head-to-head test of three different masking methods.

The first method uses a laser printer and glossy paper ripped from a magazine to create a mask. The toner is transferred to the brass using an office laminator, and the paper removed with gentle rubbing before etching. For the other two candidates he uses a laser engraver to remove a mask of plain black spray paint in one case, or to convert special laser marking paint to a mask in the other.

We won’t spoil the surprise as to which gave the best results, but we think you’ll be pleased with how easy making classy nameplates can be. You can also use electrolytic methods for a deeper etch, but we think acid etching is a little more approachable for occasional use.

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