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I very much enjoy making my own circuit boards. It’s a satisfying process that ties together my love of electronics with materials I used back in my art school days. It’s also the most accurate way to build a circuit short of sending away to a PCB manufacturer, and it’s much more fun.

Subscribe to the MAKE Podcast in iTunes, download the m4v video directly, or watch it on YouTube.

I actually got my start in electronics etching others’ designs I’d found online — long before I understood how they worked! Churning out fully-functional devices early on proved to be a great way to keep me motivated and making. The above video documents the ins and outs of my process, and can hopefully serve as a starting point for your own.

Materials I use for printing, etching, and drilling my own boards:

  • Transparency stock for laser printers (inkjet setups are likely as effective)
  • Nitrile gloves (thicker reusable gloves are good too)
  • Dust mask & eye protection
  • Good ventilation (if you can smell it – you’re breathing it!)
  • Inexpensive photo frame (or specialized exposure frame)
  • Red safe-light (optional – brief exposure to dim light is ok)
  • Chemicals – positive type developer, ferric chloride, nail polish remover (or acetone)
  • Pyrex dishes w/ lids (plastic storage containers work as well)
  • Desk or clip lamp + ~30W CFL bulb
  • Drill bits, .8mm, 1mm, 1.5mm (+ others, dependent on source design)
  • Small drillpress (or suitable dremel attachment)
  • Misc. tools – xacto knife, metal ruler, permanent marker, vacuum, etc.

Additional tips I’ve found helpful:

  • Warm developer and etchant do speed up the process, but keep an eye on your board’s progress!
  • Orient your design before printing (text should appear reversed in most cases)
  • Keep etchant away from any metal you don’t want etched – including stainless steel sinks!
  • Drilling holes systematically (i.e. left to right, top to bottom) can help prevent oversights
  • Keep the board clear while drilling to improve visibility/accuracy
  • Dedicate a workspace & prepare materials ahead of time (plastic drop-cloths are handy!)

As part of their sponsorship of these Circuit Skills videos, Jameco is offering two product bundles to help jumpstart those new to the realm of homemade PCBs -

Collin Cunningham

Born, drew a lot, made video, made music on 4-track, then computer, more songwriting, met future wife, went to art school for video major, made websites, toured in a band, worked as web media tech, discovered electronics, taught myself electronics, blogged about DIY electronics, made web videos about electronics and made music for them … and I still do!


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Comments

  1. Everlasting Phelps says:

    I originally read the first paragraph as “It’s also the most accurate way to build a short circuit.” Unfortunately, that’s true for most of my boards (the first time through). Xacto knife FTW!

  2. Dan Fekete says:

    You can add a silkscreen to your board by printing a mirrored version of it on your laser printer, then ironing it onto the board.

    Its basically the same process used for etching with a laser printer (http://www.riccibitti.com/pcb/pcb.htm), but without the etching…

    1. Collin Cunningham says:

      huh – good idea! How’s the text legibility of the final product. (I’ve often struggled w/ toner transfer myself)

  3. Gareth Branwyn says:

    I just wanted to take a moment to publicly thank Jameco for being such a great company to work with on this project. We were fans of theirs before we worked with them and they’ve again proven why. It’s great that we can partner with them on this sort of really useful content. There are more “sponsored by Jameco” videos in the works, so stay tuned…

  4. bramm says:

    Thanks, I’d like to try this.
    Just how dangerous is the etchant and its fumes?

    1. Nate says:

      I’ve never used the stuff they’re touting, so I can’t speak for the fumes…but if you just want to try your hand at it, check out the various Instructables on the subject.

      Use cupric chloride as the etchant (also on instructables) — it’s way cheaper for something you’re unsure of.

      My two favorite ‘ibles:
      http://www.instructables.com/id/Mostly-easy-PCB-manufacture/

      http://www.instructables.com/id/Stop-using-Ferric-Chloride-etchant!–A-better-etc/

      DEFINITELY not as clean and “professional” as the stuff in the video, but it’s a great starting point to see if it’s something you really want to invest in.

    2. Collin Cunningham says:

      I’ve nearly always worked with ferric chloride near a window fan so I haven’t gotten too familiar with its fumage. I do recall picking up a slightly metallic smell in the air on one or two occasions. I have also accidentally splashed it on clothing/hands back in the early days causing no physical damage (unless you count stubborn rust/orange stains).

      Suffice it to say, ferric chlorides nowhere near as stinky/noxious as acetone, or even cupric chloride (which I found has pretty narsty & acrid fumes). Of course, smell alone is by no means a scientific assesment, for that you should check the appropriate material safety data sheet -
      http://www.mgchemicals.com/msds/english/liquid/415-liquid.pdf

  5. Unclegummers says:

    Hey Collin.

    I don’t think this is a big deal, but When your taking your board out of the picture frame to put it into the developer, you need to keep the lights out.

  6. ksr says:

    Thanks for the great video, Any thoughts or links that discuss proper disposal of used chemicals?

    1. Collin Cunningham says:

      Ferric chloride etchant can be disposed as a solid by mixing with Baking Soda -
      http://www.mgchemicals.com/techsupport/ferric_faq.html

  7. Charley Jones says:

    Collin,

    I’ve wanted to burn my own circuit boards for years, like 25+ or so. It’s always been too expensive with too much equipment to buy. The really simple Jameco setup was excllent, your video fantastic, and I’ve been able to create my own boards successfully using this system. And the boards come out FANTASTIC, I’m truly floored and amazed at the detail. Thank you so much for turing me onto this fast and easy system.

    As a follow up, yes, please amend your video if possible for proper disposal methods. There’s been a lot of conflicting information on this. Secondly, please demonstrate if this system could be used to create dual sided boards. Single sided is great, but is dual layer possible with these crude methods?

  8. bramm says:

    Thanks a lot! I’m trying it myself now, but my results aren’t this good. How can you tell when you need new ferric chloride? Or do you use fresh etchant each time?

    1. Collin Cunningham says:

      Once I start to see some copper collect on the bottom of my etchant container, I know it’s on its last legs. I definitely get quite a few uses per batch – hard to say how many … 10-15 boards maybe?

  9. bramm says:

    Thanks to your tutorial, I’ve just printed my first PCB!

    My first attempts failed because because there was a thin layer of photo resist left, almost invisible in red light, that caused the etching to be messy.

    I found out I had to use different timings, because I used PCB’s from Conrad (apparently they need more exposure) and natrium hydroxide as a developer.

    These timings worked well:
    - exposure: 25 minutes with a 11W energy saving bulb at about 6″ from the board
    - developing: 400ml water at 24°C + 1/2 spoon natrium hydroxide (you think it’t OK to flush the used solution?)
    Develop for about 15 minutes, agitate frequently.

    1. flaxen says:

      You shouldn’t flush it down.
      It contains some toxic stuff, so i wouldn’t.

  10. flaxen says:

    Is the 13 Watt CFL bulb like minimum?
    Or will around 13 Watts or +/- a few Watts do?

  11. sparky3489 says:

    So these type of boards are only available in 3″ X 4″? I also noticed Positive Pre-sensitized boards. What the difference between what was used in the video and these?

    I’ve been using the Iron-on Transfer method for years with very good results. An example – http://sparky3489.webs.com/pcinterfaceproject.htm

  12. SJ says:

    What is the cheapest software to make the circuit board design?

    1. Scott says:

      CADsoft Eagle http://www.cadsoftusa.com/
      Can’t be any cheaper than free.

  13. Essam Power says:

    thanks for tutorial.. but is this process depend on the heat come out the UV bulb or it’s frequency ?
    and what’s the Chemical compound of the positive type developer??

    thanks in advance

    1. Boegi-Z says:

      … but is this process depend on the heat come out the UV bulb or it’s frequency ? …

      It depends on the *frequency*. This is also the reason, why he uses RED light as working light source prior to the exposure process.

      On lightsources we talk about *wavelength* instead of frequency – the higher the frequency, the lower the wavelength.

      The RED light has a much lower frequency = much *longer* wavelength – it has a wavelength from 650 nanometers to 750 nanometers ( = 462 500 000MHz … 400 500 000MHz ). UV light has a wavelength *below* 400 nanometers ( = above 831 000 000MHz).

      It’s like listening to an AM-radiostation on 831kHz … any broadcast from a station at 462kHz cannot be heard in the radio. It (normally!!!) doesn’t even interfere to the broadcast of the 831kHz station.

      The same counts to the photoresist. It cannot “receive” any “transmissions” below a frequency of … let’s say ~ 750 000 000MHz (depends on the manufacturer of the photoresist layer and its production tolerances). This is, why you can use a light source of up to 462 500 000MHz (bright red) as a working light source for preparing the exposure itself without affecting the photoresist.

      … what’s the Chemical compound of the positive type developer?? …

      Basically it is sodium hydroxide (NaOH). Also known as caustic soda or sodium hydrate. You can even use *pipe cleaner*, because it mostly consists of sodium hydroxide too.

      You may give the pipe cleaner a try. Of course it depends on the make of your pipe cleaner. On all accounts it is *far* cheaper than any official “developer” you would buy at radio shack or from MG-chemicals.

      Just take a look at the content list of the pipe cleaner. NaOH or sodium hydroxide must be listed *first* – then it is the major ingredient. Sadly you will never find any percentages of the ingredients, because the makers want their formulas to be keet secret. But in *most* cases the amount of sodium hydroxide in pipe cleaners will be far above 50%.

      Due to that use the pipe cleaner as careful as the “real” developer on making the mixture. DON’T use too much, or it will eat away the photoresist your tracks in the same way it does it on the exposed parts.

      On my first try I didn’t take the pipe cleaner serious as a developer and I got a (nearly) *blank* PCB. My first thougt was: “… aahh this shit doesn’t work, but *then* I recognised a small tiny rest of my artwork on one outer edge of the PCB – nearly invisible”.

      Then I put a lot more water into my developer solution to make it less weaker and gave it a second try – it worked extremely fast again, but this time I could manage to take out the PCB, before my tracks have been eaten away. They still went a little bit thinner, but I could etch the PCB sucsessfully and later use it regulary.

      Now i make a very weak solution with about 12 grams pipe cleaner per liter water and I only payed two bucks for one kilogram of it. It works like regular developer.

      So, this was a very extensive statement. I hope that it *did* help you instead of only boring you.

      If I just bored you I want to apologize.

      -=Boegi-Z=-