Are you a do it yourself-er? There are plenty of us out there – but really, would you want to consider fabricating your own PCB? Well, if you say yes to that question – here is the “how to” on how to do it! If the process seems a little too complex for you, just send us your Gerbers or what you let us know what you want to and we can do the work for you!
Best of luck getting your wife let you do all this in your own home!
Make Your Own PCBs with Household Materials
Open up any electronic device and you’ll see the printed circuit board (PCB). Depending on the device it may be an extremely complex piece of hardware and the kind of thing that most people would never consider making on their own. Electronics hobbyists, though, though that PCBs are not made through some mysterious, unquantifiable process. If fact, you can make some simple ones at home with some relatively common supplies.
There’s a simple technique that will allow you to etch your own single-sided PCBs relatively quickly. It’s based on the concept of using the plastic toner (not ink) from laser printers and photocopiers to draw the PCB design. This plastic is resistant to the etching solution, so it’s really just a matter of getting the toner from the printer onto the copper (since it would probably void your warranty to try and feed a sheet of copper through your printer).
The trick is to use your laser printer to create a sort of iron-on decal. All you need is the right kind of paper medium, the right settings on your laser printer, and a few other easily acquired materials.
If you don’t have these items sitting around the home, most of them can be found at your local electronics store. Get everything together before you even start printing the designs to make sure the entire process goes smoothly. You are going to need:
- Laser printer – Your favorite one will do, preferably one that give you a lot of control over the contrast and blackness settings.
- Paper medium – Magazines or advertising brochures will work for this example.
- Plastic coated wire – You will need a bendable wire that is coated with insulated plastic.
- Copper clad laminate – FR4 laminate at 1.6 mm thickness should do the job.
- Etching solution – About 1 liter of ferric chloride. This is dangerous stuff so be careful.
- Clothing iron – Whatever you have in the house should be sufficient.
- Scrubbing material – The kitchen scrubs you use on your dishes will work.
- Thinner – You need an effective solvent, like those used for paint or as nail polish remover.
- Common tools – You may not necessarily need them all, but you should have a blade cutter, scotch tape, paper towels, sandpaper, cotton wool, a hacksaw and a vice on hand.
Start with the Paper
The first step is to make sure that you have the right kind of paper. It needs to be glossy, thin, and cheap. The easiest resource for this paper supply is your mailbox because the magazines and advertizing materials most people get every day can work just fine. You are looking for the kind of paper that will turn to pulp when it gets wet.
You don’t have to worry about the print on the pages because it’s ink, not toner. Still, it’s probably better to pick the pages that aren’t covered with lots of images and ink. You don’t want it accumulating on the copper. Cut it very carefully to fit your printer, and make sure there aren’t any staples, glue or anything else on the paper.
It may be better to feed the paper into the printer manually because they were not designed to handle this kind paper. (Which means you could be voiding your warranty if you do this, so take that into consideration.) Disable your economy modes if your printer has them – you want to get as much toner on the paper as possible – and set it to print at the maximum blackness and contrast.
When you print, be sure to do it as a mirrored layout. Remember this is going to be an iron on, so it must be reversed on the paper to make it correctly onto the PCB material.
Preparing the PCB Material
The next step is to cut and clean the raw materials. PCB material acts like fiberglass and you can cut it with a blade or glass cutter. You simply have to score a groove in the material and then bend it until it breaks along the line. You will want a piece that is slightly larger than the final PCB just to be sure you have enough material.
Give it a good cleaning before you start the transfer. The copper surface must be spotless and free from any grease that might affect the transfer. The kitchen scrubs should work fine, but you can use metallic whole or ultra-fine sandpaper.
Transfer to Material
Protect your table with heat resistant materials and stick the PCB material, copper side face up, to the table top with double sided tape. Align the printed PCB with the board, toner down, and then lock the paper into position with some scotch tame on one side.
Flip the paper back and then preheat the surface by placing the iron on top of the copper 30 seconds. Then put the paper back in place and press down as evenly as you can for at least a minute. Once it has cooled down you can trip excess paper and then submerge it in water for a couple minutes until the paper begins turning to pulp. You should be able to rub it right off.
Use the insulated wire to create your own dipping tool. With the PCB face down in your new holding device you can dip it into the etching liquid. There are a number of options, but ferric chloride is an affordable and reusable. Be very careful with the solution, though, because it can permanently stain anything it touches.
It will take around 10 minutes or so to start seeing results. Once you start seeing it work, stir continuously and check its progress repeatedly so you don’t overdo it. Once all the copper in the large areas is gone, rinse it thoroughly in water and carefully store the leftover liquid. Use a few drops of thinner and some cotton wool to remove the toner and expose the copper surface. Dry it, trim it, and sand the edges and you are ready to put it to use.
Now can you see how complex creating a printed circuit board really is? Leave it to the professionals so we can manage the chemicals and provide you a solution in a dramatically less amount of time and money!