BuildBrighton PCB making workshop

Yesterday (Saturday) was BuildBrighton‘s PCB making workshop, as part of the Brighton Digital Festival.
From a worryingly quiet start, we ended up with six people taking part in yet another successful practical workshop – 100% success rate!

Over six hours, we introduced the attendees to schematic drawing using ExpressPCB (it’s much simpler and easier to get going with than Eagle for anyone new to electronics/PCB layout) and their PCB layout software. A few people had brought along projects that they were working on and we helped them create PCBs for their own creations, while everyone else set about recreating the famous BuildBrighton Drawdio  kit.

(all the tools needed for making your own PCBs, including ExpressPCB software, press-n-peel blue paper, ferric chloride, a sanding block and a heavy duty laminator!)i

Sadly, the workshop was such as success and everyone was having such a lovely time that we forgot to take any more photos! But, for reference, for anyone who attended and would like to know more:

The first step was to create/draw your schematic (the bit with the little squiggles and symbols for electronic components). The most important thing to remember here is to give every component on the drawing a unique Part ID (the name can be anything, it’s that part id that’s referenced in the PCB layout software)

Then we drew our actual PCB layout using ExpressPCB.
File -> Link schematic to import the list of part IDs used in our circuit. A lot of people found it easier to drop symbols for all components used onto the screen before starting the layout process (menu Component -> Component Manager). Make sure that all components are drawn on the top (red) layer!
The most important thing to remember here is no crossing the lines!
In a few instances, some people ended a trace with a round pad, allowed another trace to pass “through” and started the trace again the other side, with another pad

Where a trace is continued after allowing another to “pass through” we tend to draw a connecting line on the silkscreen (yellow) layer, to act as a reminder when assembling the final board.

Once the PCB layout was complete, it was time to get on with the toner transfer.
For our workshop, we used Press-n-Peel (blue)

Toner transfer paper tends to be quite expensive, so rather than just print straight onto the blue sheet, we printed our PCB layout onto plain paper first (using a laser printer – inkjet just won’t work for this!). Then cut out a piece of p-n-p blue just a bit larger, stuck it over the printed image with regular tape (shiny side down, powdery side up) and re-printed the image. This gets the PCB image onto the smallest sized bit of press-n-peel, meaning you’ve got plenty more left for another go!

With the image on the press-n-peel, we cleaned up some copper clad board (available from various online suppliers – eBay sometimes is a cheap source) using a fine-grit sanding block.
Sanding the board not only cleans it up (it needs to be bright and shiny and all traces of oxidation removed) it also provides a slight “key” for the toner image to stick to when transferred.

Tape the image (face down) onto the shiny copper board using paper-based masking tape, preferably cut to fit into a corner of your copper board (so it takes less cutting later). It’s important not to use sellotape or similar plastic backed tape, as this will melt during the transfer process.

We used a heavy-duty laminator, but you could also use a regular household iron.
After three passes through the laminator, the image is transferred onto the copper board. Douse in cold water (carry the board by its edges, it gets very hot!) and carefully peel off the backing.

When done correctly, there should be no black traces left on the backing sheet. Check all traces carefully on the copper board. Where necessary, touch up any missing detail with a fine-tipped permanent (black) pen.
When happy with the transferred image, it’s time to actually do some etching!

Ferric Chloride (FeCl) is messy stuff. Make sure you’re wearing your old clothes and get ready to clean up any spillage immediately (it stains!). We made up a small batch using hot water and about a quarter of a pack of crystals. Etching in warm solution is quicker than in cold, although the end result(s) are the same.

The Ferric Chloride solution should be a dark brown in colour. If it’s pale yellow, you need to add more crystals. If it’s an orange-y colour, it will probably work but will take a long time. If you’re re-using old solution (that’s already had a few boards etched) and it’s a dark green-y colour, it’s getting a bit old and you should consider refreshing it. A dark brown (which is a golden yellow colour at the edges) is the perfect strength mix.

Submerge the board and either tip the container slightly to wash the mixture over the board (large boards in a small, shallow contianer) or dip the boards in and out of the mixture (smaller boards, suspended in a tall container on bits of wire). It will take 10-15 minutes for the board to etch completely.

The copper board etches in a couple of stages and if you keep checking it regularly, you’ll see:
Firstly, the board goes a very vibrant pink.
Then the edges of the board (where the copper is exposed) start to look a little bit green.
Finally, the edges of the board turn a beige colour (the natural colour of the board the copper was stuck to) and the etching continues, usually from the edges, towards the centre of the board)

When no trace of copper remains (double-check for little bits of pink between the black traces on the board) your PCB is fully etched. Congratulations!

Some people prefer to drill then clean their boards – we did it the other way around.
You can use nail-varnish remover or similar acetone-based cleaner, or simply scrub with a fine-grit sanding block until all traces of the black toner are removed and you’re left with a shiny new PCB.

During our workshop, everyone successfully made their PCB, etched and drilled to a finished standard! A few brave souls even populated their boards with the Drawdio components provided - and they worked!!

All  in all, another successful BuildBrighton workshop and a great day making stuff!

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