BEAM Techniques is a BEAM
How to make your own PCB
Printed Circuit Boards -- how to
make nice looking ones of your own designs
There are a handful of ways available to the hobbyist to
turn your own designs into PCBs. They yield results of
different qualities, where the quality seems to be inversely
proportional to the amount of mess you make (in most cases),
and amount of money you spend (in all cases). I'll talk a
bit about each, and then compare them all at the bottom of
Any process that involves making your own board will have
a number of steps in common. At a high level, here's what
- Procure a bare board (coated with a thin layer of
copper on either one or both sides). Most methods will
use a plain board; photolithography requires one coated
with special light-sensitive chemicals.
If you have a plain board, scrape off any burrs along the
board edge (you want a flat copper surface; I use a fine
file for this), and clean it well to remove oxidation and
finger oils. I start with fine steel wool, follow up with
denatured alcohol to remove any oils or grease, and
finish by buffing with a very clean towel. From this
point on, you'll want to handle your board only by the
edges to avoid getting finger oils on it.
- Design your circuit. Depending on how you plan on
actually producing the board (read on...), your design
will take one of a number of different forms -- a
hand-drawn set of lines on paper, a computer-drawn
diagram, a design file you'll send off to a manufacturing
- If you'll be producing the board yourself, transfer
your design of desired copper traces to the plated
side(s) of your board; the transferred traces are
resistant to your etching liquid (more on this later).
Most home-brew board production methods differ only in
how they accomplish this step. If you are generating a
design via computer, you'll have to put some thought into
which way your printed design faces (i.e., printed "right
way up" vs. mirrored). There are enough ways to approach
this that I split this information out onto its own page
- Etch the board you've traced -- here, an etchant
chemical removes all non-masked copper; after it's done,
give the board a good wash under running water to remove
all traces of the etchant. In most cases, the etchant
will either be Ferric Chloride or Ammonium Persulfate
(Ferric Chloride is more popular). These are available in
both liquid (i.e., premixed) and powder form; the powder
is generally quite a bit cheaper, but requires care when
Also note that etching proceeds faster with (1) warmer
etchant, and (2) agitation. Along with saving you time,
fast etching also produces better edge quality and
consistent line widths, so fast is good in this step. I
pre-heat Ferric Chloride etchant in the microwave for 40
seconds or so (you want it hot enough to be
barely-comfortable to the touch), and slosh it around by
hand as it's doing its work. An old plastic freezer
container (with lid) is good for this (it allows for
vigorous agitation, without making you wear any of the
etchant). You can keep the etchant warm by putting the
etching tray inside a larger tray or sink filled with
Note that you don't want to get Ferric Chloride solution
too hot, since it will start generating
Hydrochloric acid fumes if you do (very corrosive, bad
for eyes and lungs).
Use lots of running water when you dispose of your used
chemicals (and when you rinse off your finished board),
as etching chemicals will stain plumbing and fixtures
(and clothes, and exposed skin...). Ferric Chloride, in
particular, attacks most metals -- including stainless
steel. This stuff will also cause permanent eye damage,
so be careful out there...
I've heard good things about Sodium Persulfate (it's a
clear solution so you can see what's going on, is
non-staining, doesn't generate any hazardous fumes), but
haven't tried it myself.
- Cut the board to final size and shape, and drill
holes in the board for component leads. These need to be
very small holes (about 0.8 mm); occasionally you can
find resharpened carbide industrial bits for sale from
surplus houses -- this is a good way to save money as
resharpened bits cost about $1 US each, whereas new ones
cost about $10 US.
You'll find these bits described in a variety of fashions
-- fractions of an inch, decimal inches, decimal mm, even
"numbered" sizes -- I've got a conversion table on
a separate page. Ideally, you'll want to buy carbide
bits (they're stiffer, and thus "wander" much less than
steel bits), and you'll want to buy a number of them
(they break pretty easily, particularly if you don't have
a drill press, and so are drilling by hand).
- Carefully scrub off the mask (with fine steel wool
under running water), and populate the board (i.e.,
solder on your components). You should only scrub off the
mask when you're ready to start soldering, as the copper
traces oxidize quickly (i.e., within a few days).
After the board is populated (i.e., all the components
have been soldered on), I usually follow up with a quick
coat of spray polyurethane varnish -- this keeps the
shiny copper traces looking shiny, and (more importantly)
provides a bit of insulation against "shorts" due to
stray wires brushing up against the board.
Third-party board builders
You can also cheat and pay someone to build
a PCB for you. 'Nuff said.
For more information...
If you need some PCB designs to start off with, in
various places I've posted PCB designs for the
Meanwhile, Ian Bernstein has some preliminary
PCB designs here,
and you should definitely check out Bill Bigge's
has its own take on building PCBs here;
the Seattle Robotics Society's take on things is
Bill Boucher's PCB building page is here.
Bruce Robinson posted some handy tips on PCB
building to the BEAM list here.
I've now got a page on drill bit sizes (for use
in PCB building) here.