Who Says Solder Paste Stencils Have To Be CNC Cut?

Imagine having a surface mount kit that you’d like to stencil with solder paste and reflow solder, but which doesn’t come with a solder stencil. That was what faced [Honghong Lu], and she rose to the challenge by taking a piece of PET sheet cut from discarded packaging and hand-cutting her own stencil. It’s not a huge kit, the Technologia Incognita 2020 kit, but her home-made stencil still does an effective job.

So how does one create a solder stencil from household waste? In the video we’ve put below the break, she starts with her packaging, and cuts from it a square of PET sheet. It’s 0.24mm thick, which is ideal for the purpose. She then lays it over the PCB and marks all the pads with a marker pen, before cutting or drilling the holes for the pads. The underside is then sanded to remove protruding swarf, and the stencil can then be used in the normal way. She proves it by stenciling the solder paste, hand placing the parts, and reflowing the solder on a hotplate.

It’s clear that this is best suited to smaller numbers of larger components, and we’ll never use it to replace a laser-cut stencil for a thousand tiny 0201 discretes. But that’s not the point here, it’s an interesting technique for those less complex boards, and it’s something that can be tried by anyone who is curious to give stenciling and reflowing a go and who doesn’t have a project with a ready-cut stencil. And for that we like it.

Making your own stencils doesn’t have to include this rather basic method. They can be etched, or even 3D printed.

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Exhaust Fan-Equipped Reflow Oven Cools PCBs Quickly

With reflow soldering, sometimes close is good enough. At the end of the day, the home gamer really just needs a hot plate or an old toaster oven and a calibrated Mark I eyeball to get decent results. This exhaust fan-equipped reflow oven is an attempt to take control of what’s perhaps the more challenging part of the reflow thermal cycle — the cool down.

No fan of the seat-of-the-pants school of reflow soldering, [Nabil Tewolde] started with a cast-off toaster oven for what was hoped to be a more precise reflow oven. The requisite temperature sensors and solid-state relays were added, along with a Raspberry Pi Zero W and a small LCD display. Adding the cooling assist started by cutting a gaping hole cut in the rear wall of the oven, which was then filled with a short stretch of HVAC duct and a stepper-controlled damper. The far end of the duct was fitted with a PC cooling fan; while it seems sketchy to use a plastic fan to eject hot air from the oven, [Nabil] says the exhaust isn’t really that hot by the time it gets to the fan. At the end of the reflow phase of the thermal profile, the damper opens and the fan kicks on, rapidly cooling the oven’s interior.

Unfortunately, [Nabil] still needs to crack open the oven door to get decent airflow; seems like another damper to admit fresh air would help with that. That would complicate things a bit, but it still wouldn’t be as over-the-top as some reflow builds we’ve seen. Then again, that calibrated eyeball thing can work pretty well too, even without a toaster oven.

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Adjustable Jig Eases PCB Stencil Alignment Process

PCB stencils make application of solder paste a snap, but there’s a long, fussy way to go before the paste goes on. You’ve got to come up with some way to accurately align the stencil over the board, which more often than not involves a jury-rigged setup using tape and old PCBs, along with a fair amount of finesse and a dollop of luck.

Luckily, [Valera Perinski] has come up with a better way to deal with stencils. The Stencil Printer is a flexible, adjustable alignment jig that reduces the amount of tedious adjustment needed to get things just so. The jig is built mostly from aluminum extrusions and 3D-printed parts, along with a bunch of off-the-shelf hardware. The mechanism has a hinged frame that holds the stencil in a fixed position above a platen, upon which rests the target PCB. The board is held in place by clamps that ride on threaded rods; with the stencil flipped down over the board, the user can finely adjust the relative positions of the board and the stencil, resulting in perfect alignment. The video below is mainly a construction montage, but if you skip to about the 29:00 mark, you’ll see the jig put through its paces.

Granted, such a tool is a lot more work than tape and spare PCBs, but if you do a lot of SMD work, it may be worth the effort. It’s certainly less effort than a solder-paste dispensing robot.

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Printed Jig Is A Welding Rig

[NixieGuy] was scheming to build robots with cable-driven joints when the pandemic hit. Now that component sourcing is scarce, he’s had to get creative when it comes to continuous cables. These cables need to be as seamless as possible to avoid getting caught on the pulleys, so [Nixie] came up with a way to weld together something he already has on hand — lengths of .45mm steel cable.

The 3D printed jig is designed to be used under a digital microscope, and even clamps to the pillar with screws. Another set of screws holds the two wires in place while they are butt welded between two pieces of copper.

[Nixie] adds a spot of solder paste for good measure, and then joins the wires by attaching his bench power supply set to 20V @ 3.5A to the copper electrodes. We love that [Nixie] took the time to streamline the jig design, because it looks great.

This just goes to show you that great things can happen with limited resources and a little bit of imagination. [Nixie] not only solved his own supply chain problem, he perfected a skill at the same time. If you don’t have a bench supply, you might be able to get away with a battery-powered spot welder, depending on your application.

Can Solder Paste Stencils Be 3D Printed? They Can!

3D printed solder paste stencil, closeup.

[Jan Mrázek]’s  success with 3D printing a solder paste stencil is awfully interesting, though he makes it clear that it is only a proof of concept. There are a lot of parts to this hack, so let’s step through them one at a time.

First of all, it turns out that converting a PCB solder paste layer into a 3D model is a bit of a challenge. A tool [Jan] found online didn’t work out, so he turned to OpenSCAD and wrote a script (available on GitHub) which takes two DXF files as input: one for the board outline, and one for the hole pattern. If you’re using KiCad, he has a Python script (also on GitHub) which will export the necessary data.

The result is a 3D model that is like a solder paste mask combined with a raised border to match the board outline, so that the whole thing self-aligns by fitting on top of the PCB. A handy feature, for sure. [Jan] says the model pictured here printed in less than 10 minutes. Workflow-wise, that certainly compares favorably to waiting for a stencil to arrive in the mail. But how do the actual solder-pasting results compare?

3D printed solder stencil on PCB, after applying solder paste.

[Jan] says that the printed stencil had a few defects but it otherwise worked fine for 0.5 mm pitch ICs and 0402 resistors, and the fact that the 3D printed stencil self-registered onto the board was a welcome feature. That being said, it took a lot of work to get such results. [Jan]’s SLA printer is an Elegoo Mars, and he wasn’t able to have it create holes for 0.2 mm x 0.5 mm pads without first modifying his printer for better X/Y accuracy.

In the end, he admits that while a functional DIY solder stencil can be 3D printed in about 10 minutes, it’s not as though professionally-made stencils that give better results are particularly expensive or hard to get. Still, it’s a neat trick that could come in handy. Also, a quick reminder that we stepped through how to make a part in OpenSCAD in the past, which should help folks new to OpenSCAD make sense of [Jan]’s script.

DIY Dispenser Places Solder Paste Without The Mess

When doing surface-mount assembly you can certainly use a soldering iron in the traditional way, but it’s far more convenient to cover the pads with solder paste, place the components, and bake the board in a reflow oven. If you’re lucky enough to have a precut stencil this can be done in one go, otherwise a tiny blob of paste must be laboriously placed on each pad by hand. [Kevarek] has made this a bit easier by designing a low-cost handheld solder paste dispenser.

The unit takes the form of a handheld 3D printed wand containing a geared motor and a threaded shaft, that engages with a syringe full of paste clamped onto its end. There’s a control box powered by an STM32 microcontroller that not only allows adjustment of flow rate, but provides advanced features such as performing a slight retraction at the end of dispensing to avoid excess paste. There’s a push-button on the wand for control, as well as a set on the control box to adjust its parameters.

If you’ve ever handled solder paste, you’ll know it can be a uniquely annoying and finicky substance. Either it’s too stiff and clumps together, or too runny and spreads out. No doubt some readers are lucky enough to always have fresh paste of the highest quality to hand, but too often a hackerspace will have a tub of grey goop with uncertain provenance. We like this tool, and while it won’t make up for poor quality or badly stored paste, at least it’ll make applying paste a breeze.

We’ve covered paste dispensers quite a few times in the past, but you might also wish to read our in-depth guide to the subject.

Dispensing Solder Paste Automatically

Through-hole chips are slowly falling by the wayside, and if you want to build something with new parts you will be using surface mount components. This means spreading paste and throwing it in the toaster oven. Of course, if you don’t want to take the time to get a stencil for your solder paste, you can always lay it down by hand. For that, [owhite] has created a tiny, handheld, robotic solder paste dispenser. It’s a robotic pen that dispenses just the right amount of solder paste on your pads.

The design of this solder paste dispenser is basically a syringe filled with paste and a stepper motor to push the plunger down. Devices like this already exist, and the i-extruder can be had for somewhere around two hundred bucks. Why buy when you can build, so [owhite] set out to create his own.

The key to a successful solder paste pen, it seems, is driving the plunger with a small NEMA 8 stepper motor, using a very fine pitch on the threads of the gears pushing the plunger down, and surprisingly finding a small-diameter syringe. [owhite] found the last bit in the form of a gas-tight syringe with a nylon gasket. The electronics consist of just a Teensy 3.2, DRV8825 stepper driver, footswitch, and an OLED for a UI.

With just a few parts, [owhite] managed to create a solder paste pen that’s better than the commercial i-extruder, and with a bit of practice can be used to place paste on some SMD pads.