Years ago, when I co-ran Dorkbot DC, Peter Blasser came down from Baltimore to talk to us about circuit bending (which was all the rage at the time) and homemade electronic instruments in general. During Peter’s presentation, he started showing us some of the hand-drawn circuit boards he’d designed for his instruments. I’d seen hand-drawn boards before. I’d seen crudely hand-drawn boards before. But I’d never seen PCBs designed to look like art, like mandalas, flowers, cities, and interesting free-form shapes.
My circuits were blown by this. I’d never bothered to think outside of the grid of conventional circuitry. Production boards obviously need this precision and the efficiency of a grid layout for all sorts of reasons. But homemade boards, one-offs, circuits designed as art — these can all be designed however your imagination dictates.
Since Peter’s talk, I’ve become a great appreciator of hand-made PCBs and those making art with circuits and circuit board designs. Here are a few examples of PCBs-as-art and a few resources for creating your own arty circuit boards.
BTW: Peter Blasser also introduced me to paper circuits that night and was the first person I ever heard explain wabi sabi (finding beauty in the broken and the old), a Japanese aesthetic concept that’s since become very important to me.In this video by Collin Cunningham and Adafruit, Collin records an ode to the artful necessity of the hand-drawn PCB. He pulls out spaghetti-pots-full of tangled homemade hardware and pans the camera across each circuit board, all while the wonderful Bartlebeats (Adafruit employee Tom White) bleeps and bloops away in the background.
This hand-drawn board was obviously built out of necessity. It is part of the head electronics on a B9 Lost in Space robot replica. But it’s also a wonderful example of a lovely hand-drawn and homemade PCB.
This maker, Alon Gruss, has developed a tool that converts image brightness values into PCB layers. This allows you to etch photographs and other complex artwork onto circuit board material. You can access the GitHub files here.
I love this free-form riff on an existing board, done by MIT Media Lab Designer and Technologist Raphael Schaad.
And, of course, we need to give our propers to Peter Blasser of Ciat-Lonbarde who first got us to appreciate the beauty, whimsy, and the sort of punk rock defiance of the non-linear and art-aspiring PCB. Here is the PCB for Peter’s Sidrassi Organ, a “strange synthesizer” that he built many years ago and eventually sold on eBay.
We couldn’t cover the art of the free-form PCB and neglect Gijs Gieskes, one of the early audionauts exploring circuit bending, digital sound art, and PCB improvisation.
The NovaDrone is a sound and light synth kit collaboration between Casper Electronics and musical collage artist, G. Lucas Crane AKA Nonhorse. It definitely gets our vote for one of the most beautiful PCBs we’ve ever seen. They did a great job of designing it so that the key details of the image are not obscured when the board is fully populated.
If you want to try your hand at digital rendering of some non-linear PCBs, PCBmodE is software for designing boards that are “functional as well as beautiful.”
If you’ve never hand-drawn and etched your own PCBs, there are numerous tutorials available on sites like Instructables and YouTube. Here’s one to get you started.