Making A Solder Paste Stencil From What You Have On Hand

Sometimes there are moments when an engineer has to use whatever materials they have to hand in order to complete the job on time. Such a situation arose at the RevSpace hacker space in Den Haag, Netherlands, as they were the assembly venue for a conference badge.

Their problem was that the badge PCB had no solder paste stencil, and the solution was to laser cut one out of an unexpected material. The backing paper for self-adhesive vinyl sheet has properties not unlike those desired of a stencil, so they tried laser-cutting one from that material. The result was a robust stencil that outperformed the Mylar they had previously used, enabled the manufacture of 350 boards.

They think that the polymer layer on top of the paper may be silicone, and found that the laser didn’t unduly melt the edges of the cut. We’re not sure we’d feed random unknown plastics into our cutter, we’re guessing they have good quality ventilation. It’s mounted into a plywood jig in much the same way as a conventional stencil might be.

The badges were destined for WICCON, a Dutch conference from an organisation for women in cybersecurity. Sadly we’ve not seen a completed one so we’re not sure what it does, however we’re pleased to hear they were completed before the event. That’s a hurdle all badge designers will know well.

Long term readers may remember, that RevSpace have something of a history when it comes to assembling badges.

LED Matrix Displays Get New Look Thanks To SMD Stencils

Even if surface-mount skills aren’t in your repertoire, chances are pretty good that most of us are at least familiar with SMD stencils. These paper-thin laser-cut steel sheets are a handy way to apply a schmear of solder paste to the pads of a PCB before component placement and reflowing. But are stencils good for anything else?

It turns out they are, if you’ve got some plain old 8×8 LED matrix displays you want to jazz up a bit. In this case, [upir]’s displays were of the square pixel type, but this trick would work just as well for a matrix with circular elements. Most of the video below is a master class in Adobe Illustrator, which [upir] used to generate the artwork for his stencils. There are a lot of great tips here that make creating one simple shape and copying it over the whole array with the proper spacing a lot easier. He also details panelizing multiple stencils, as well as the workflow from Illustrator to manufacturing.

When lined up properly over the face of the LED matrix, the stencils have quite an effect. We really liked the narrow vertical bars, which make the LED display look a bit like a VFD. And just because [upir] chose to use the same simple shape over all the LEDs in a matrix doesn’t mean that there aren’t other options. We can see how you might use the same technique to create different icons or even alphanumeric characters to create custom LED displays. The possibilities are pretty much limited to your imagination.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen [upir] teaching old displays new tricks.

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A New Way To Produce PCBs With Your 3D Printer

With the low-cost PCB fabrication services available to hackers and makers these days, we’ll admit that making your own boards at home doesn’t hold quite the appeal that it did in the past. But even if getting your boards professionally made is cheaper and easier than it ever has been before, at-home production still can’t be beat when you absolutely must have a usable board before the end of the day.

If you find yourself in such a situation, this new method of DIY PCB production detailed by [Adalbert] might be just what you need. This unique approach uses a desktop fused deposition modeling (FDM) 3D printer throughout all of its phases, from creating a stencil based on the exported board design, to warming the UV soldermask to accelerate the curing process. It may not be an ideal choice for densely packed boards with fine-pitch components, but could definitely see it being useful for many prototypes.

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RC Car Repair With Beer Can Solder Stencil

Sometimes it might seem as if your electronics are just jinxed. For [Niva_v_kopirce] it was the control board of his nephew’s RC car that kept frying the transistors. In situations like this, you can either throw it in the bin, invest your time in troubleshooting, hoping to find the error and try to fix it then, or get creative. He chose the latter, and designed and etched a replacement board.

Of course, etching your own PCB isn’t that noteworthy for the average Hackaday reader, although [Niva_v_kopirce] did go the extra mile and added purple solder mask to it, turning the stylishness definitely up to 11. This is also where it gets interesting, when you think of the solder mask as complementary layer for a solder paste stencil. Growing tired of manually applying solder paste, he thought to give a DIY stencil a try this time — using a beer can.

After cutting the can open and flattening it, along with some sanding, he transferred the cutouts from the solder mask onto it, and started etching holes in it. While the result may not be exactly precise, it did the job, especially for a homemade built.

Despite their convenience, stencils are still a rather exotic addition for hobbyists as they rarely pay off for a one-off project with limited SMD component usage. But maybe this was a new inspiration for you now. And if etching metal is outside your comfort zone, cutting plastic can be an alternative, as well as 3d printing.

Solder stencil vacuu assist jig

Stencil Vacuum-Assist Helps Avoid The Heartbreak Of Smeared Solder Paste

While using a stencil should make solder paste application onto PCBs a simple affair, there are a number of “gotchas” that make it more art than science. Luckily, there are tools you can build, like this 3D-printed vacuum-assist stencil jig, that take a little of the finesse out of the process.

For those who haven’t had the pleasure, solder paste stencils are often used to make the job of applying just the right amount of solder paste onto the pads of a PCB, and only on the pads. The problem is that once the solder paste has been squeegeed through the holes in the stencil, it’s not easy to remove the stencil without smearing. [Marius Heier]’s stencil box is essentially a chamber that attaches to a shop vac, along with a two-piece perforated work surface. The center part of the top platform is fixed, while the outer section moves up and down on 3D-printed springs.

In use, the PCB is placed on the center fixed platform, while the stencil sits atop it. Suction pulls the stencil firmly down onto the PCB and holds it there while the solder paste is applied. Releasing the suction causes the outer section of the platform to spring up vertically, resulting in nice, neat solder-covered pads. [Marius] demonstrates the box in the video below, and shows a number of adapters that would make it work with different sized PCBs.

If you think you’ve seen a manual vacuum stencil box around here recently, you’re right — we featured one by [UnexpectedMaker] not too long ago.

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Streamline Your SMD Assembly Process With 3D-Printed Jigs

Your brand-new PCBs just showed up, and this time you even remembered to order a stencil. You lay the stencil on one of the boards, hold it down with one hand, and use the other to wipe some solder paste across…. and the stencil shifts, making a mess and smearing paste across the board. Wash, rinse (with some IPA, of course), repeat, and hope it’ll work better on the next try.

openscad window
A PCB jig generated by OpenSCAD

Maybe it’s time to try Stencilframer, a 3D-printable jig generator created by [Igor]. This incredibly useful tool takes either a set of gerbers or a KiCad PCB file and generates 3D models of a jig and a frame to securely hold the board and associated stencil. The tool itself is a Python script that uses OpenSCAD for all 3D geometry generation. From there, it’s a simple matter to throw the jig and frame models on a 3D printer and voilĂ !– perfectly-aligned stencils, every time.

This is a seriously brilliant script. Anyone whose gone through the frustration of trying to align a stencil by hand should be jumping at the opportunity to try this out on their next build. It could even be paired with an Open Reflow hot plate for a fully open-source PCB assembly workflow.

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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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