DIY Capacitive Rotational Encoder on the Cheap with FR4

Rotary encoders are critical to many applications, even at the hobbyist level. While considering his own rotary encoding needs for upcoming projects, it occurred to [Jan Mrázek] to try making his own DIY capacitive rotary encoder. If successful, such an encoder could be cheap and very fast; it could also in part be made directly on a PCB.

First prototype, two etched plates with transparent tape as dielectric material. Disc is 15 mm in diameter.

The encoder design [Jan] settled on was to make a simple adjustable plate capacitor using PCB elements with transparent tape as the dielectric material. This was used as the timing element for a 555 timer in astable mode. A 555 in this configuration therefore generates a square wave that changes in proportion to how much the plates in the simple capacitor overlap. Turn the plate, and the square wave’s period changes in response. Response time would be fast, and a 555 and some PCB space is certainly cheap materials-wise.

The first prototype gave positive results but had a lot of problems, including noise and possibly a sensitivity to temperature and humidity. The second attempt refined the design and had much better results, with an ESP32 reliably reading 140 discrete positions at a rate of 100 kHz. It seems that there is a tradeoff between resolution and speed; lowering the rate allows more positions to be reliably detected. There are still issues, but ultimately [Jan] feels that high-speed capacitive encoders requiring little more than some PCB real estate and some 555s are probably feasible.

This project is a reminder that FR4 (whether copper-clad, etched, or blank) shows up in clever applications: copper tape and blank FR4 can be used to quickly prototype RF filters, PocketNC built an entire small CNC tool around FR4, and our own [Voja] wrote a full guide on making beautiful enclosures from FR4.

More Homemade PCB Tinning

[Marko] styles himself as a crazy chemist. His video showing a fast tin plating solution for PCBs (YouTube, see below) doesn’t seem so crazy. We will admit, though, it uses some things that you might have to search for.

The formula calls for stannous chloride — you could probably make this by dissolving tin in hydrochloric acid. There’s also thiourea — the main chemical in silver-cleaning dips like Tarn-X. Sulphuric acid and deionized water round out the recipe.

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Making Braille Signs out of PCBs

[jg] recently passed some damaged Braille signs and took on the challenge of repairing them. Informed by his recent work on PCB lapel pins, [jg] immediately thought of using circuit boards for this project. He’d noticed that round solder pads made for uniform hills of solder, and this reminded him of the bumps in Braille.

He began by reading up on the standards of the Braille Authority of North America, which stipulates a dot height of 0.6mm. He loaded up the PharmaBraille font system and laid it out the dots in photoshop, then and imported it into KiCad and laid out the boards. When the PCBs had arrived from OSH Park, [jg] soldering up the pads (lead free, but of course) to see if he could get the hills to 0.6mm. He’s experimenting with different methods of melting the solder to try to get more even results.

Braille interfaces crop up a surprising amount in hacker projects. This refreshable Braille display and keyboard and the Braigo LEGO Braille printer are prime examples.

[thanks, Drew!]

Heavily Hacked Printer for DIY PCBs

Sometimes we get tips that only leave us guessing as to how — and sometimes why — a project was built. Such is the case with this PCB printer; in this case, the build specifics are the only thing in question, because it puts out some pretty impressive PCBs.

All we have to go on is the video after the break, which despite an exhaustive minutes-long search appears to be the only documentation [Androkavo] did for this build. The captions tell us that the printer is built around the guts from an Epson Stylus Photo 1390 printer. There’s no evidence of that from the outside, as every bit of the printer has been built into a custom enclosure. The paper handling gear has been replaced by an A3-sized heated flatbed, adjustable in the Z-axis to accommodate varying board thicknesses. The bed runs on linear rails that appear custom-made. Under the hood, the ink cartridges have been replaced with outboard ink bottles in any color you want as long as it’s black. The video shows some test prints down to 0.1 mm traces with 0.1 mm pitch — those were a little dodgy, but at a 0.2 mm pitch, the finest traces came out great. The boards were etched in the usual way with great results; we wonder if the printer could be modified to print resist and silkscreens too.

[Androkavo] seems to have quite a few interesting projects in his YouTube channel, one of which — this wooden digital clock — we featured recently. We’d love to learn more about this printer build, though. Hopefully [Androkavo] will see this and comment below.

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Tinning Solution From the Hardware Store

Making your own printed circuit board at home often leads to a board which looks homemade. Exposed copper is one of the tell-tale signs. That may be your aesthetic and we won’t cramp your style, but exposed copper is harder to solder than tinned copper and it likes to oxidize over time. Tinning at home can bring you a step closer to having a full-featured board. In the video after the break, famed chemist [nurdrage] shows us how to make tinning solution at home in the video below the break.

There are only three ingredients to make the solution and you can probably find them all at a corner hardware store.

  • Hydrochloric acid. Also known as muriatic acid.
  • Solid lead-free solder with ≥ 95% tin
  • Silver polish containing thiourea

Everything to pull this off is in the first three minutes of the video. [nurdrage] goes on to explain the chemistry behind this reaction. It doesn’t require electricity or heat but heat will speed up the reactions. With this kind of simplicity, there’s no reason to make untinned circuit boards in your kitchen anymore. If aesthetics are very important, home tinning yourself allows you to mask off certain regions and have exposed copper and tin on the same board.

[nurdrage] is no stranger to Hackaday, he even has an article here about making your own PCB etchants and a hotplate to kick your PCB production into high gear.

Thanks for the tip, [drnbutyllithium].

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Chemotransfer for DIY PCBs

Making PCBs with the toner transfer method has been around since you could buy your traces at Radio Shack. There are a million techniques for removing copper from sheets of fiberglass, from milling to using resist pens, to the ubiquitous laser printer toner transfer. Here’s a technique we haven’t seen before. [Darko Volk] is calling this ‘chemotransfer’. It’s mostly a laser printer toner transfer process, but the toner is transferred from paper to copper with the help of a special mix of solvents.

This chemotransfer process is almost identical to the usual process of making a toner transfer PCB. First, the design is printed in reverse on dextrin-coated paper, the paper is placed down on polished copper, the entire assembly is sent through a laminator, and finally the board is etched with the chemical of your choice. The key difference here is a solvent applied to the copper just before the design is laid down. [Darko Volk] made a mixture of 25% “cleaning petrol” (benzene, naphtha, or gasoline, or some sort of light hydrocarbon, apparently), 5% linseed oil, and 70% isopropanol. This apparently aids in releasing the toner from the paper and sticking it down to the copper.

From there, the process is effectively a standard toner transfer process. [Darko Volk] is using a solution of sodium persulphate for the etch, and rigged a camera up to a CNC machine for the drilling.

This process can be expanded to two-layer boards very easily using a light table to align the layers of paper before placing them down on the copper. You can check out a video of the fabrication of a single side and double sided board below.

Thanks [Andrej] for the tip.

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Why Not Expose Your PCBs Through An LCD?

Most people who have dabbled in the world of electronic construction will be familiar in some form with the process of producing a printed circuit board by exposing a UV sensitive coating through a transparent mask, before moving on to etching. Older readers will have created their masks by hand with crêpe paper tape on acetate, while perhaps younger ones started by laser-printing from their CAD package.

How about a refinement of the process, one which does away with the acetate mask entirely? [Ionel Ciobanuc] may have the answer, in the form of an exposure through an LCD screen. The video below the break shows how it’s done, starting with a (probably a bit too lengthy) sequence on applying the photo-resist coating to the board, and then sitting LCD on top of UV lamp with the board positioned at the top of the pile.

It’s an interesting demonstration, and one that certainly removes a step in the process of PCB creation as it brings the pattern direct from computer to board without an intermediate. Whether or not it’s worth the expenditure on an LCD is up to you, after all a sheet of acetate is pretty cheap and if you already have a laser printer you’re good to go. We’re curious to know whether or not any plastic components in the LCD itself might be damaged by long-term exposure to intense UV light.

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