For any aspiring EE hobbyists: Manufacturing your own PCBs is almost never worth the effort. You'll spend days or weeks getting the process and tooling right, and you still have to manually wire any vias that connect the front and back sides of the PCB. These DIY PCB manufacturing projects are fun if you're in it for the experience, but very impractical for getting work done. It's quick and easy to order small quantity PCBs online.
OSH Park is a popular option: https://oshpark.com/#services You can get 3 boards in 9-12 days for $5/square inch. If you need the boards sooner, $10/square inch will get you a 4-5 day turnaround time. You won't save any money by buying all of the gear to DIY etch your boards, and you certainly won't save any time.
I don't know, for me, since I already had an entry-level 3D printer and Dremel, I was able to mod it to engrave the negative of a PCB onto these copper plates in a few days. Now I can get from design to finished PCB in an hour.
I suspect many people getting into EE might have some of these tools already, and being able to iterate quickly with locally-available supplies is a huge advantage, especially for people new to PCB design.
Edit: I would like to add that my method was rather poorly though out and the method in article is much better. Putting a Dremel on a 3D printer is not a good idea, it was just the first thing I came up with and it happened to work ok-ish for my very basic needs.
The Snapmaker (1) is a 3d printer with changeable heads. For mine I mostly use the 3d printing head or the low-power laser engraving head, but it also came with a milling head and they sell a higher-power laser head that can cut some materials.
I looked around and people have had trouble trying this with the milling head. The bit usually breaks and the X axis isn't stable enough. Maybe v2.0 will be more sable since it has a second Z axis mount.
That being said, their mounting platform is modular. There's nothing to stop you from fabricating a dremel mount and ripping apart an existing milling head to interface it with the dremel.
I think people who are impressed by 3d printers often aren't very experienced with how easy it is to make or get made the things they are printing. I can draw a board in my EDA program, hit a button at 6pm and come back to work with the boards on my desk at 8am the next morning, if I want to pay for that. Same deal for parts: I can order a box full of crap from Digi-Key at 10pm Pacific Time and the Fedex guy will drop it on my desk 10 hours later. Electronics prototyping is extremely well developed, fast, and dirt cheap.
though, i just did a quick quote and they are quoting some seriously high prices so i am not sure where you are getting that number from?
Worthiness is something that every hobbyist needs to evaluate themself. You cannot do that for them.
For a hobbyist, time, money, efficiency, quality may all be totally irrelevant.
I was inspired by Ben Eater's YouTube series about making a breadboard computer. Rather than copying his schematics, I designed my own. Took a very long time. Went on digikey and Amazon and dropped probably around $1k in parts and tools. Now I'm building the damn thing and it's very time consuming.
I also recently bought a new laptop for $200 which is many orders of magnitude more capable than my breadboard computer eventually will be. Does that fact mean my time, effort, and money spent on the breadboard computer is a waste? Hell no.
Manufacturing PCBs isn't electrical engineering, it's process engineering. I'm sure there are some process-engineering hobbyists, so if people want to spend their time doing that, then cool. But his point is that if it's the electronic engineering part you're interested in, spending a lot of time tweaking and improving your DIY PCB manufacturing when you can order dirt cheap boards from China that arrive in less than two weeks, that are far and away better than what you could do at home, that generally isn't worth it.
Well you did spent $1k in parts and tools instead of building theses parts and tools yourself, didn't you? His argument wasn't that it's not worth the experience, in fact he even mention how the experience can be worth it if that's what you want to experience. If your goal is just to get a PCB, then paying for a professionally made PCB will worth it (just like in your case spending $1k in parts and tools will worth it).
Sometimes it really is just passion that drives us.
Iteration speed can make a huge difference in outcome. I read that the average consumer electronics company goes through 3-7 physical product iterations. Apple, on the other hand, went through more than 100 generations of prototype for the first iPod.
Obviously what you've done here is just getting started, but it points in a really interesting direction. A 3D printer with swappable heads for plotting and an add-on PCB etching kit should definitely have a market. That would mean recurring revenue for PCB supplies at a good margin, too.
4-5 day turnaround from OSH park is quite fast. Keep in mind that you usually need to order parts from Digi-Key or another supplier when you finish the design anyway. If you have a mistake on a PCB, it's faster to use a tiny stitch wire than to make a whole new PCB.
On a professional level: You can always buy fast turn PCBs if you need them ASAP, but you'll pay for it. Usually cheaper than paying engineers to fiddle with finicky PCB milling or etching machines, though.
> Obviously what you've done here is just getting started, but it points in a really interesting direction. A 3D printer with swappable heads for plotting and an add-on PCB etching kit should definitely have a market.
Chemical etching is more of a novelty these days. A cheap CNC mill produces much better results without the mess and uncertainty of chemical etching: https://hackaday.com/2018/01/04/guide-why-etch-when-you-can-...
On the professional level, several manufacturers make dedicated PCB mills: https://www.lpkfusa.com/products/pcb_prototyping/machines/ These machines have helpful features to index tools to the surface and align the panels as you flip them over for two-layer designs.
Or avoid PCBs completely, what is clearly the best option whenever possible (what is becoming less and less common).
I wholeheartedly recommend KiCAD if you aren't already using it.
If you don't get it immediately, don't worry, that's normal. Just watch some tutorials and you'll be good to go in a few hours.
Sorry for the confusion, and thank you for reminding me of how hard it was for me personally to start.
It depends on the target device. For analog or simpler digital circuits prototypes where single side boards can be used it's still very convenient, with the only annoyance being the etchant treatment and disposal. In the old days I made things easier by adding one intermediate step in which I redrew the schematic as the ICs and keyed parts were seen bottom up, that is, ICs had the 1 pin up right, etc. Also the schematic wasn't arranged functionally, like an opamp drawing for example, but it rather showed how the pcb was going to look from solder side. From then on, copying it on the actual pcb became a breeze. As for drawing on the pcb, I did all by hand, using both transfer sheets with pads where necessary and thin (1mm or less) normal water resistant markers for connections, buses etc. Faber Castell and Staedtler were my favorites, as I found those specific for pcb drawing were a lot worse quality wise, not to mention like 4x more expensive.
This method would of course not scale with circuits complexity, more than one layer and or series production, still I enjoyed a lot being able to design, etch and solder even moderately complex circuits in one evening or a week end in "mom's basement" (actually dad's attic...:). With time I also trained myself to draw my schematics directly that way, so I could get rid of one step between drawing on paper and the final drawing on the pcb. I miss those days...
Fancy! At school we had a UV box & bath, and made single-sided PCBs. I assume you can use the same process just with boards that have copper both sides. It was great for demystifying the process, and I suspect economical in a school setting.
(Aside: I then studied EE (+CS mix) at university, and there was none if that. Many of my peers without the opportunity to take Electronics at GCSE & A Level would be nonethewiser. Maybe that's fine, lines have to be drawn, but seems to me like an easy extension of existing lab assignments.)
As a hobbyist, if I had the room I'd certainly want the kit. Nothing beats the immediacy for prototyping , or turning around fixes/modifications. The basic stuff isn't prohibitively expensive, we're not talking even hundreds of units before break-even.
I had twelve boards recently from OSH Park for a whopping $3.37 total, which includes shipping. They were small boards.
You can buy PCB of other materials such as compressed papper (F2?) but they are not easy to get hold off.
The compressed paper PCBs have horrible properties. The RF laminated all have specific properties for electrical performance; dielectric constant, low loss tangent, low surface roughness, homogeneity, controller thermal expansion, thermal conductivity.
If you don't have time, but have money- send it to overnight PCB service.
If you have time, don't have money- do it yourself.
If you have both- send it to regular PCB service.
Now the last one is the least desirable quadrant to be in- if you don't have neither time nor money and this is the first time you're doing this- expect to find either (or even both) of those, at least until you have gotten the equipment and gone through the process a couple of times.
Looks like they do SMT mount now too which wasn't the case last time I looked at their offering.
(Print mirror image onto glossy magazine paper, transfer toner to copper with clothing iron, wash paper away with water, etch, drill.)
I have used markers for touching up toner-transfer boards (not that one). I found that markers do not resist the etching solution as well as toner. Toner provides a higher build of plastic resin material on the surface than the trail left by a marker. (Perhaps doing multiple coats with the marker could build it up.)
I would also highly recommend doing "copper pours" as I did with the above board. Etch away as little copper as possible. The etch will be efficient and fast.
The circuit board in my above images was etched inside a tiny container, in minutes! In fact, the "etching tank" I used was a plastic bottle cap from a 1.9 liter V-8 juice.
If you etch away most of the copper and insist on getting those large, etched areas very clean, that may take so much etching that it will eat into the traces that you want to keep, leaving them in rough shape, and maybe even nonworking.
The resist only protects the copper from the top. The sides of every trace are exposed. Leave it in the solution long enough and the etchant will work its way under the resist and etch them away.
Of course, copper pours require large black areas, which probably doesn't translate to good economics if you're using markers. A mixed approach might be possible: do smaller copper pours in the the nooks and corners around the traces and pads, and cover large areas with rectangular pieces of electrical tape.
That's what I'll be doing from now on, thank you!
Sodium persulfate is a strong oxidizer, which is what makes it an effective etchant, but that also makes it a fire risk. In storage, keep it cool and dry; silica gel moisture scavenger packets probably aren't a bad idea. And, of course, keep it away from anything flammable.
Finally, it's a good idea not to dispose of the used etchant solution down a drain. Check with your municipality to find a safe disposal method, rather than add it to the ecosystem where it will poison wildlife.
If it were me, instead of a sealed container I'd just run the process under an open window with a fan propped in it to exhaust whatever fumes develop, and maybe under an improvised fume hood made of a cut-open garbage bag and masking tape. (If you do that, make sure to leave space at the bottom for intake air. The idea is to make a funnel that will pull room air in, mix it with process gas, and exhaust the lot outside instead of into your living space.)
The window-and-fan method worked well when using vinegar-based iron acetate stain, and later polyurethane sealant, on a quite large table I made back when I lived in a tiny apartment; for a low-volume process like this, it'll probably do just fine, I'd think.
I might try a sealed container with some kind of valve or loose seal and see, thank you!
Why TPU or Ninjaflex? Does that make it easier to eventually remove the mask? Or is it that other materials would break down in the etchant?
I have also tried using adhesion glues and hair sprays. Sometimes a thin application of hair spray (removed with a quick spray of isopropyl before the etching) helps a bit to define the edge traces. However I found that cleaning the copper very well, having a clean chamber in the printer and controlling well the etching temperature to reduce the etching time has the same effect and is less burdensome.
It'd be cool if it does because PETG is a lot easier to print because of its rigidity (especially in bowden drives)
And comparing this to Chinese PCB manufacturing services is weird, too. If you want double sided, with vias, down to tiny traces, with plating and solder-stop and text, then you may be willing to pay the shipment and wait a few days.
Yes, I admit that this is a fun method. But what is the advantage over laser printing and then, say, using UV light to transfer to a photo PCB?
Honestly, I do not get why laser printers are a dark art, please explain!
Huh? Aren't they a complete commodity? $250 will get you a half decent one.
At most, I might go to a printing place and ask them to print a page, but my 3D printer is right there and this saves me a trip.
This post is basically saying "if you don't have a laser printer but have a 3D one, you can still make PCBs!" :)
A given-away laser printer (that is, $0) and $25 laminator deliver 15 mil / 0.4 mm traces easily and consistently.
I very much doubt any pen can do that, even with proper mount - the rubber band will just ruin any accuracy and consistency, and even if the pen is hard fixed, the tip will still wobble, plus always imperfect levelling will mess with the track width.
How do you use the laminator with the printer?
This ensures that the temperature and pressure are uniform across the entire PCB and toner is never smeared.
If the toner gets low or photodrum dies, I just get another one.
Something like this, perhaps: https://shop.circuitscribe.com/
I think that'd be even cooler, as it would save a step and not involve etching chemicals.
Based on what Circuitscribe's website says, their ink has about 100x the resistance of a standard 1oz copper PCB (for the same length and width), so I can imagine that you would have to be extra careful about how you route your power traces and position your decoupling capacitors.
Having made a few PCBs at home, my experience is the etching if the weak link. It's hard to get consistent, high quality traces - particularly if there is any kind of high density layout.
With some effort you can to double sided PCBs using this kind of technique, but any kind of through-plating has to be done manually.
Being from the 90's and only ever seeing CAD-designed PCBs, this blew my mind the first time I took it apart.
Audio people are notorious for detecting noise. That hand drawn circuit might be less artistic and more practical than you’d expect.
It was fun, but kind of a pain.
Here's a very old (1966, before I was born) article giving instructions for how to do this: http://www.rfcafe.com/references/popular-electronics/etch-pr...
Sure, but I had neither a 3D printer nor magazines nor an iron, and I didn't really want to get into that whole process, as it sounded like a hassle. Exporting gerbers directly to my 3D printer is trivial enough that I can do it in one minute.
> It's hard to get consistent, high quality traces - particularly if there is any kind of high density layout.
That is very possible, I still need to refine my etching technique. It's certainly been the hardest part in the ones I made, but that doesn't say much because the rest of the process was trivial.
> With some effort you can to double sided PCBs using this kind of technique, but any kind of through-plating has to be done manually.
I really want to experiment with that as well, but drilling will be harder. I wonder if it would just be easier to route some traces to the edge and solder them there instead of drilling a via.
However, that brings you closer to being able to prototype a PCB for something with 0.5mm pitch.
If you really want to do that kind of work, you'd be better off with something like a CNC-equipped Proxxon micromill. But that's several thousand dollars' worth of investment for a tool that's honestly not good for much beyond what you're already doing with it - those things are tiny, so unless you're making intricate model parts or something like that, you're going to have a hard time finding uses for it that don't run up against the physical limits of what it can handle.
And, after all, we're only talking here about removing a thou or two of material that can be oxidized away just fine. Not that machining isn't an absolute joy, but a chemical process makes a lot more sense here.
What do you mean by "drive that kind of load"? Are you talking about the weight, or pulling the dremel through the material to cut it (resistance)? If the latter, it seems that just going slow with the steppers and a high speed on the dremel would eliminate that?
Other people have converted their 3d printers to CNC machines. I'm not sure why this wouldn't be possible with a little effort. It seems cleaner/safer than dealing with chemicals?
First, you'll get loads of wobble. Normally cnc machines use a 2 smoothrod with a leadscrew in the center for strong stability and smooth motion. Once you turn on a source that spins in X000 rpm, it will send motion through the whole system.
Secondly, once you start cutting anything stronger than foam, cutting will introduce shear forces on the gantry head itself. All 3d printers don't need to worry about XY rotational motion. That's usually a non-constrained degree of freedom.
Third, you need to mount the piece you're cutting or it'll move (duh!). But tabletop vises are HEAVY. Your bed probably can't support it. The only bed I know that could would be a 3 point Z leveling bed. Those're rare.
Feel free to try, and not take my word for it. But this has been attempted, and failed on many accounts.
However, this would be a good place to try. And this tool is good up to alu cutting. https://all3dp.com/2/mostly-printed-cnc-mpcnc-all-you-need-t...
They're really cheap and work perfectly for PCB routing.
My experience is mostly with warmed Ferric Chloride as the etchant, so perhaps ymmv with other etchants. However, in my case, glossy photo paper + laserjet transferred with clothes or hair iron (a tedious and awful process) works well, but Sharpie has not been able to help me touching up any areas damaged by the transfer.
If anyone else has a better mask suggestion than Sharpie, I could try out that sort of thing instead.
For me, that is the number one things that needs to be solved: using nasty chemicals to etch copper away.
Not drawing on the copper. That's easy (and there's a million ways to do it).
It works very well, and there's no need to use nasty chemicals anywhere in the process.
Yeah, instead you get lots of microscopic airborne fiberglass strands (a known carcinogen). Yay....?
I wonder how would a thin plastic film cut with one of those vinyl sticker cutters would fare for masking.
To me that's completely unacceptable. I'd throw them in the garbage but I guess I'm too OCD and obsessed about quality to work with hand-etched PCBs.
But yeah, that isn't pretty!
No chemicals involved, no hacking a machine that wasn't designed for the task.
Can’t remember the exact software in used but it was a script that converted a png to gcode.
Through the years I have done many PCBs using different methods: Sharpie markers, Posca pens, inkjet and laser printing, transfers of different materials, etc. Except perhaps for pro laser etching or routing, nothing beats photomasks. In my experience the quality I get with 3D filament compares to a DIY routing table, so if you have a 3D printer and don't mind chemical etching, you don't need one.
but I still haven't gotten over the activation energy of getting kicad output into gcode for the dirt cheap grbl machine I got
Instead of etching copper, some people directly print the circuitry with a solder extruder . The idea's been around for a while  but circuit complexity is usually very limited. Here's a guide  (to a similar method) that uses a hobbyist 3D printer.
To improve on the article's pen-masking method, you can mount a laser instead of a pen to the 3D printer and expose a specially coated PCB . Or expose UV light through an LCD .
One can also just mount a milling tool to the printer and cut away the copper directly . A 3D printer's not designed to take the forces from milling well, so similar but specially designed machines are made .
The most impressive methods are geared toward industry:
A cutting-edge industry-grade electronics 3D printer looks like : an inkjet-style printer with conductive and insulating (dielectric) inks.
Somewhat related, you can use a laser etching and electroplating process ("3D Moulded Interconnect Devices" "3D MID") to make PCBs on 3D printed weirdly shaped (i.e., definitely not flat) surfaces.  is an impressive example, and definitely check out a search engine's image results .
But 3d printing, CNC routing, all those methods are an order of magnitude coarser production and not suitable for anything except very simple projects, and veroboard/stripboard is about on-par signal integrity wise.
Also the importance of latency in some cases is significant. When the goal is to iterate a board quickly several times and a diy board is good enough, being able to have a board in an hour or less could mean multiple board iterations in one day where sending out to fab might draw out each board iteration to a week long wait.