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Etch Your Own PC Boards!

eric j cuevas (N2RRA) on October 6, 2008
View comments about this article!

How to Etch Your First PC Board

Well! This article should really read more like, “Do’s and Don’ts when Etching your PC Board,” or “Instructions! Who needs them?” -- Trust me when I tell you that this article will save you some money and headaches if you are a first timer like me. I've done the footwork for you, so you will not have to make the same mistakes that I have.

This article is based on radio kit building from whom which a ham has inspired me to do. For the life of me I can't remember his call, but after he reads this article maybe he'll contact me.

I've always wanted to build a project of some kind like an HF amplifier or a 160-10 meter SSB/CW radio, but the bug of radio operating (appliance operating to some) has always consumed most of my time. Being that DX is limited these days and already accomplishing DXCC and working my way to Honor Role I decided to chase my next challenge. It's time to build my first QRP radio. Hey, you have to crawl before you walk! But first I wanted to build my own PC Board rather than have one made for me, which you can easily have done. The other route would be just to purchase one through Radio Shack cat. No. 276-158 but where's the fun in that? Not saying it's a bad thing at all because I have built smaller projects using a General Purpose PC Board. Now it's time for me to turn it up a notch!

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Radio Shack Cat. No. 276-1576

Priced at $14.99 the kit comes with two 3 x 4 ” circuit boards, etching solution, tank, resist-ink pen, 1/16” drill bit, stripping solution and polishing pad.

The instruction included with the kit is pretty straight forward. Following precisely to the tea even though I was eager to start soldering components to the board I didn't want to make mistakes. Here is how it starts!

The instructions tell you to use the polishing pad the comes with the kit clean off the film and oils that are on the board by running it under water while you lightly polishing it off with the small piece of polishing pad they supply.

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The next step is to choose a schematic diagram from a book or draw one out your self. I decide to retrieve a diagram from one of many ARRL Hand Books. This one was dated 1991 on page 13 pictorial titled Chapter 30, Fig. 50. While I'm reading they begin to suggest that after sketching out my schematic on paper I will need carbon paper to apply it to the PC board.

So I go to Staples department store and pick some up. Time wasted! Here are the results:

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Now I need to retrace the carbon schematic diagram to the PC board, which of course will transfer the image onto the board. I did this using a ballpoint pen as the instructions suggest I do. After carefully retracing and figure for line thickness and such between terminal points I finish. Now we are ready to take the carbon paper off and witness art at its finest.

Yeah right!

The next step is to use the resist pen they supplied which was nothing more than the sharpie that was really supplied and retrace the schematic using the solvent. OK! Hmm! Here I am thinking that the resist solvent applies some clear urethane on the board to keep the copper on it while the next solvent does its thing in the final steps which we're coming up on fast. We'll see!

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After letting the ink and solvent dry for about 2 hours as suggested I'm excited and ready to dip it in the PCB Etchant Solution that will dissolve the remaining copper off. So I prepare it and away she goes... Warning!

Please be careful how you treat this stuff. For one the small print says to do it in a ventilated area and that you should. The first thing that came to mind was the chemical reaction that's taking place must be hazardous. The gas or vapor if you will that's being released into the air must not at all be good for you to inhale. You can quickly smell the copper burn which means this stuff is pretty much acid or like it anyway. If you noticed I did this by the sink so that if I needed cold water to splash in my eye, or quickly was my hands I'm there. Not screaming like a little girl blindly trying to find my way to the sink. So as you can see the Etchant is doing its job on the copper.

0x01 graphic

After about 20 minutes I check on the board to see how it's coming out. So far I've followed the instructions to the tea and seems to be working. It says to leave for 20 minutes and return if needed if more time is required to dissolve all of the copper. Now 45 minutes later... Then an hour! Here's what I got:

Oh no!

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0x01 graphic

Well! I got something but nothing like I thought would come out. Turns out that after doing some research the instructions that “Radio Shack” provides with the kit is, guess what? Junk!

The kit is not a bad kit by any means and like anything else nothing is easy, but some other products are needed to really do a fine job besides some technical experienced know how. I find this site that gives a pretty good in depth procedure on how to keep your PC Board project from turning out like what you see above, to this below.

Step 1. Step 2.

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I now realize where I went wrong after evaluating the circus act I just performed. No sense in really going over it here because I'm directing you to the proper information.

The point of this article was:

  1. Most important in my book is “Handle the solvents with care” for all you younger lads.

  2. After you acquire the kit you still need material so make that list so you don't waste time or money.

  3. Start kit building because it's educational and lots of fun even if you don't do well the first time.

  4. Don't be afraid at the task.

  5. The material is there so use it. Don't cry later when Radio Shack pulls it off the shelves because no one is buying.

  6. Last but not least... DON'T FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS! At least not from Radio Shack.

My next article will be the QRP project I'm working on and how it turns out along with an update of my PC Board project. Weather or not you remember this article you will ask your self “Man how did he get his PC Boards to look so good?” Then you'll probably go “Oh, I remember now! Or you'll still be asking yourself.

Here's the link on how to get your PC Boards looking sharp and professional. So take notes and start building.




Member Comments:
This article has expired. No more comments may be added.
Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by K1CJS on October 6, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
Good for you that you figured it out--but you've done it one time and you're looking to tell us how to do it--when you didn't follow the instructions? Seems like you ought to get a little more practice before you try to teach, and you ought to keep your tea out of the etching solution. If you followed the instructions that you said you didn't, you probably wouldn't have needed your 'extra steps', and things would have worked out to a 'tee'.

I've used the kit you featured a few times (that one--and a newer version of it) and didn't have any problems to speak of. Everything came out OK, and I didn't have to make any side trips--or do any extra steps. Probably not everything was in the kit you had--and you didn't do the thing as it should have been done. One thing I can see to start--the carbon paper you used contaminated the PC board--and let the solvent get at the copper that shouldn't have been etched off.

Another typical 'teaching' article on e-Ham.
Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by KW4N on October 6, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
Excellent article and pix's.
73's Dave
RE: Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by K0BG on October 6, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
I've made more circuit boards than I care to think about, and I've discovered one very important point. And that is, let someone else do it!

Oh yes, you can layout a board in a variety of ways which circumvent a decent photo etch, but to me they always look crude. That is to say, the edges aren't all that neat looking. When you're doing DC or low frequency boards, they're passible, as long as you don't want to compress the size. But... get into RF and/or small size, and it takes a lot of equipment and expense! This is especially true when you get into layered boards, and there is a requirement for plated-thru holes. For my take....

Far Circuits ( makes and has on-hand most every QST and Handbook project dating back many years. He also does custom work, and turn around is rather fast in most cases. Nope! Notnomore!

Alan, KØBG
RE: Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by KF4HR on October 6, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
Thanks for the nice article Eric. I did something like that years ago for a small project and it worked really well. Best of all, it's a nice sense of accomplishment.

(Hey folks, let's stop criticizing people's efforts. No one is getting paid here. Rather than criticizing, time better spent writing your own article, eh?)

RE: Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by N2RRA on October 6, 2008 Mail this to a friend!

I was expecting for you to pop up!

"Tea" should've been "Tee" your right! Little typo, but as usual in 8 years I've been reading articles here on e-ham I've still yet see you write anything with a purpose for all of us. Don't think that's ever going to happen either being that it seems your "Mr. Know It All" and the ultimate "Critic". No offense but that does seem to be true.

I did double check to see if all the contents were in the box to answer one of your comments.

To answer your next comment this was my first introduction to PC Board Etching. Didn't want to cram to much at one time for sake of over whelming some people. Short simple and sweet step by step is how I like to keep it.

Has for contaminating the board with the carbon I thought that was the problem so I tried again. Nope! that wasn't the problem! As I carefully retraced the outlining with an ink sharpie, but this time tried a method of Ironing the sketch on the board which worked well. This is entirely another method which I'll talk about later maybe in another article. Of course same results following the same instructions as per Radio Shacks suggests for the exception of the carbon method.

Reason why the copper didn't stay well after etching!

If you notice in one of the pictures you can see the scuff marks made by the scuff pad Radio Shack provided. Just as Stefan's article stated and I quote

"You will make millions of tiny grooves in the board, which may not fill with etch-resist, and you'll get hairline cracks in the finished traces."

This obviously is true if you look at the results of my board the first time around. The second time I did this but ironing the sketch on held true even then. Third time would've been shame on me.

You sure you've done this before as per Radio Shacks intructions? Hmmm!

Hopefully you can grace us with your fine knowledge next article we read here on, or maybe your to busy making PC boards to indulge us with your professional experience. Better yet give us something original we haven't read yet! I'm sure you have plenty to offer us being that you've been there, done that!

All though I appreciate all sensible comments and except constructive criticism this article is to educate, share experiences and comment respectfully.

I'm Eric Cuevas and I approve this message! :)

RE: Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by N2RRA on October 6, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
Thank you guys for your respectful comments.

RE: Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by K2LRV on October 6, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
I have used the radio shack kit once to create a PCB... it can out fine for what it is. One thing that I did differently than your attempts is that I "agitated" the circuit card while in the etchant solution, which I seem to remember the instructions stated. Basically I set in the solution, and rocket it in and out of the solution every minute or so... Was it perfect?? No, the edges were a bit rough, but nothing like what you showed here...

Sounds like you are bashing the kit more than "teaching" people on how to etch a PCB...
RE: Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by N4CQR on October 6, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
I had a similar kint in the 70's. For what ever reason I came up with the idea of using a fish tank air pump for a solution agitator. I sat the tank on the pump and patiently waited. Beat the heck out of
hand (manual) operation.

Thanks for you time on the article and a nice memory.

C r a i g

And yes, perhaps, Chris, can take some time and write a nice article for us.
RE: Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by N2RRA on October 6, 2008 Mail this to a friend!

Yes! The instructions mention to agitate the solution, but what Radio Shack doesn't mention is to heat the solution.

Poor the etchet solution in something you can cover and microwave the etchet for about 1 minute. This should get it pretty hot then place the board in the hot solution while agitating it. This will make the world of difference on the final out come.

RE: Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by K1CJS on October 6, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
Well, Eric, I never claimed to be a 'know it all' -- and I don't write articles on things I just find out about either--then claim to be an 'expert' as you are doing yet again. You seem to want to follow your own ideas to begin with and then bash the instructions provided when the results aren't what is expected--instructions which are fine if they're followed.

Hey--you've got the right to write, you've done it before after a first attempt at something--and you've complained, and no doubt you'll do it again. Rather than try to hit me with an 'expert' label, trash your imaginary golden "I'm smarter that anybody else" trophy. You write and make outrageous statements and claims and then not expect to get your baloney thrown right back at you? This is a place where anybody can write just about anything, so be sure you know what you're talking about. In this article, it's plain you didn't.
RE: Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by KG6WLS on October 6, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
Here we go again, Folks. Somebody got their lil' itty bitty duck feelings hurt.

This should be a fun thread.
RE: Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by N2RRA on October 6, 2008 Mail this to a friend!

NO Comment!


RE: Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by K1BXI on October 6, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
I would be very careful about heating the "solution" for one minute in a microwave oven. It is meant to be used at around 70 degrees F, just the same as a developer for B/W film, etching silver instead of copper. Speeding up the process with heat will not help the final results. Agitate it just like processing a B/W film at the proper temp and you won't have the results you had. I have made several PC boards using this product and all etched perfectly.

RE: Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by KC9EII on October 6, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
I thought that the resist ink was in the pen and the resist ink solvent was for cleaning up any mistakes you made with the pen.
RE: Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by 5R8GQ on October 6, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
I would like to thank the author for taking the time
to share his experiences with us. However, nothing in this piece encourages me to go ahead and etch my own PC boards.

Over the years I have built 11 QRP transceivers, all of them from kits. I admire those who have the abilities to etch their own PC boards from scratch.
But I agree with the poster who said that for the majority of hams, when dealing with RF circuits, one should leave the job to people who know what they are doing. Sometimes it is difficult enough to diagnose (and fix) a flaky or drifty VFO without wondering if it is the traces themselves that are the problem.
RE: Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by K3AN on October 6, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
RE: Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by KB4EMF on October 6, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
This article brings back the memories of my child-hood. Thank you for taking your time to write it.

I, too, had some frustrating experience trying to draw my own traces using magic markers. The problem was, I could never paint the traces thick enough and consistently enough to withstand the etchant. It came out blotchy and full of holes like the one presented in the original article.

The only way I could do some decent job was to:

1) use plastic tapes and cut the traces using xacto knifes
2) use drafting tape and "rounds" and stick 'em to the traces
3) use photo resist method (but expensive)
4) use nail polish and put it on thick

While the end product may not be perfect, I must say I actually enjoyed the process now that I am looking back. (30 years or so). For one time production, it is certainly a waste of time but hey, it's a hobby. It is not suposed to be cost-effecient.

To heat the etchant, I just put mine in hot water bath (double boiler method but without heat) and to agitate, I just moved around the board with wooden stick. It certainly speed up the process.

Anyway, thanks for the virtual time machine.... I'm feeling old now.
RE: Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by N2RRA on October 6, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
Heating up solution!

As you can tell I'm in the learning process and is why I wrote this article to share my experience and fore warn other first timers.

The heating of the solution was found on other web sites and You Tube videos and non mentioned any warning as to heating up the solution except for getting Mom, or the wife upset as to why there was Etchet splatter all over the microwave. Your experience is duely noted and good points!

Etchet solvent in pen!

I thought so too, but back again to the instructions there was no mention of it on the content list of the package.


Well again this was to share my experience, and save some people the time and trouble. People are going to take this article and use it as a lesson or not pay attention. There has to be desire to perform this task and if there is none then I need not to mention anything furthur.

Cause of drifting VFO's!

Maybe! I think that one needs to experience the task for themselves instead of hear say. If we all allowed your experiences at a task to be acknowledged as written in stone there would be nothing for any of us left to perform. Everyone has different results! Some are successfull at it and some are not so I've read, or there would'nt be a kit out there.

"If you quit at the first few attempts then you will never reach perfection. Then again perfection probably will never be reached, but at least the attempt was made."

I appreciate all comments and good points to be reviewed.


RE: Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by K6CRC on October 6, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
I have tried homebrew PCB solutions, from RadioShack and others. In the end, I just do not build anything that is too big for a perf board unless there is a commercially available PCB. Lesson learned. Thanks for the article.
Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by G3VGR on October 6, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
Thanks for writing a stimulating article. I've tried various methods over the years with varying degrees of success. Simple PCBs, hand drawn with etch-resist pen seem to be not too difficult. I tried etch-resistant transfers, but these were too time-consuming. Attempts at photo-etching were a disaster. The best results I've had for homebrewing more complex pcbs was to use a special transparent film on which one can directly print the tracks on a laser printer. The film is then applied to the copper board with a hot domestic iron. After touching up any poor tracks on the board it can be etched and the end result looks quite professional.
I've also used Expresspcb's miniboards which are superb
(especially if you want to make 3 of everything) :-)
Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by KD8DEY on October 6, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
Been quite a while since I made any etched boards. Not since the mid 80's and my CB days.

I used the kit from Radio Shack since I didn't live too far from one. Didn't have any problems. Liked to draw the connections first with the sharpie, THEN apply the little circle pad stickers. If you did the pads first then drew the connecting lines the sharpie usually left a tiny gap at the pad where the line meets. I didn't polish the board before hand, I waited until after I etched the board.

Used nail polish no problems. Recall that in some of the old A.R.R.L. handbooks they used a mixture of crystal drano for etchant and used a light fixture to heat the etchant from above......
Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by WB3DWE on October 6, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
Years ago I made one or two circuit boards in the
basement using an old pyrex dish, an indelible marker and
ferric chloride solution. I made the traces fairly heavy. Turned out well and I still have one.
Is the solution in this kit ferric chloride ?
RE: Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by W4CNG on October 6, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
I used Red Nail Polish over raw boards, drew copies of commerical boards. Built several VHF Pre-Amps copied from a well known Commercial one. I used a 4 pin socket for the FET, compression trim caps, and commercial RF chokes, and wound the coils myself. I even did a two stage Pre-Amp, they all worked and went into my Blue M Mobile rigs and home rigs. After etching, took off the nail polish with Nail Polish remover, from the wife's drawer in the bathroom. I then tin soldered all of the traces before drilling the holes with a 1/32" drill bit. This was back in the early 1970's. No I do not do this any more, but have a couple of boards if needed, and a 15 year old bottle of etchant.

Good Luck
Steve W4CNG
Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by KB5DPE on October 6, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
A very nice article. I enjoyed reading it, as much for the memories it brought back of many of the very same mistakes, as for renewing my interest to try making a few boards again.
When I first tried making my own boards, in the early '60's, there was no "Far Circuits" and, as far as I know, no pre-packaged kits to work from. With coaching from a few friends who had "been there, done that", I made up a list of materials and started off on my own, armed only with an idea of what I was supposed to accomplish. In the course of my experiments (the results weren't good enough to be called efforts) I'm sure I made every mistake mentioned by the author as well as some he probably never even thought of. Given enough time and enough tinkering (they say God watches over drunks and fools) I finally came up with results that I wasn't ashamed to show to someone else. My wife had seen some of my earlier efforts and, for some reason, would walk back into the house laughing hysterically. I don't know why, I had never seen anything funny about a printed circuit board. Well, eventually I got the hang of it and even wound up making a project that the repeater club I belonged to sold to make money! IMAGINE THAT, the big time! They even looked pretty good. Of course, they were only single sided boards and what was "small" then is "enormous" by today's standards.
The best part of all of this is that it had long been forgotten UNTIL I read this article. Thanks, Eric.
Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by KB5DPE on October 6, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
A possible alternative etchant:!--A-better-etc/

RE: Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by W7ETA on October 6, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
Thank for taking the time to make the article and the link for more suggestions.

Remember. Dead fish don't float up stream. Just let the rotten ones keep floating by.

RE: Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by N2RRA on October 6, 2008 Mail this to a friend!

Awesome! Thanks for the link and comments. This gets better each post. Now I have a science project and an enviormentally friendly one too.

I thought that pouring the solution down the toilet was crude method of disposing of a substance that for sure wasn't healthy to our enviorment. As a healthy enviorment supporter that I am I appreciate bringing this other means of etchet solution to our attention. We're sure going to experiment now and enjoy doing it with a clear concious.

Thanks to everyone else for your input!
RE: Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by N2RRA on October 6, 2008 Mail this to a friend!

Thanks for the contribution! Your article is a great alternative and one I will try after I try to accomplish my goal with this one completely and successfully. Its also has given me a great idea as well.

Thanks and 73!
RE: Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by KC8LZI on October 6, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
First off, thanks for taking the time to write...many folks don't understand what it takes to actually put something out there. I've also used the Radio Shack kit...and had my own troubles - although none that one couldn't work around (half of them were my own fault anyway that were obvious in hind-sight). As an enhancement to the sharpie I did a couple of boards by laser printing on photo paper and ironing on (plenty of articles out about that) but found it took a long time to take off the paper backing leaving the toner plastic. It's cheaper and easier buying the proper trace transfer papers that work much better than the sharpie or the photo paper.

As for the acid in the microwave - please be careful where you put that stuff. It will eat through a bunch of things. As for the alternative solution - it is true it works well - and fast. But my own personally feelings are mixed. It will etch in about 1/5 to 1/10 the time of the ferric chloride. I used to keep it in my chemicals bin...but soon discovered that the vapors from it (the etchant itself was kept in a plastic bottle with cap screwed on tight) surrounded my nice TS-820 and corroded it inside and out, not to mention doing nasty stuff on my accordion which was along side the radio!

I've since placed the stuff in an air-tight container (the chemicals themselves where in their own containers, closed, inside) radios and accordion have stopped getting eaten alive, and my un-explained, nasty cough has cleared up. Please be careful!

But keep trying. Work at it. I have, on countless occasions, been very grateful to be able to quickly make up a board for a circuit.

Having said that...I don't etch much anymore. Instead of the chemicals, a CNC router/mill can do all the traces AND drill your holes much faster.

Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by KB2DHG on October 7, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
I applaud all you people that have the time on your hands to play! This was an interesting article and note worthy. I hope one day I can find the time to enjoy building and etching my own radio equipment.
I do try to build things and my best build to date is my G5RV full size antenna. It out performes any commercial built dipole antenna I ever purchased.
This hobby offers us so many different avenues of enjoyment, I just cannot see anyone getting tired of it. I think Amateur Radio is truly the best most relaxing and rewarding hobby out there! Affordable too!
Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by KE4ZHN on October 7, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
I had the pleasure of etching boards for a company I worked at years ago. Standard practice was to immerse the boards to be etched into the solution while its heated on a hotplate while agitating the solution. It was crude but it worked. Heating the solution was the key. The cold solution didnt dissolve the copper nearly as well. I cant remember how they used to draw the foils to be used on the boards though. I think they were using some sort of transparency to duplicate the traces from board to board. Anyway, it was a hoot. You dont want to breathe those nasty fumes though, bad news.
RE: Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by N2RRA on October 8, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
Ok! So it seems we've reached a climax to this story.

Thanks for all your views and points of experience. Seems like there's a little misconception as to certain practices, but that's what these forums are for.

Lessons learned:

A) disposal of toxic materials
B) a more cost efficient means of etchet by means of homebrew
C) think Green
D) the process works for some but not all
E) possibility crude boards can effect the VFO stability of a rig
F) heating the solution is questionable on how and time span
G) watch for toxic fumes
H) suggestions on how to store the etchet safely
I) contamination of boards
J) variety of ways to apply the schematic
K) you can't keep a good man from making a good board

Oh! Like I said if you didn't think this would either teach a lesson or save you time and trouble I'd hate to say I told you so.

RE: Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by KG4TKC on October 9, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
Thanks N2RRA for the article and starting a nice thread here. Thanks especially for taking the high road with the negative ninnies and allowing the thread to flourish.

There is a nice Yahoo Group about home brewing pcb's for anyone wanting to add to the info they have gathered here.

Thanks also should go out to those who added links and information that helped this thread to grow.

When a thread gets of develop like this one did,it shows how true Plato's simple statement on learning really is. It went-"One asks,Many answer,All learn". I think we got to see a little bit of that here. 73 to everyone.
RE: To Etch Is Human, To Scratch Is Devine.  
by K4JSR on October 9, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
Alan, K9BG, spouts good wisdom! Nothing new about that statement!

I have been a Journeyman C.E.T. for over 30 years.
In those 30 years I have discovered that having a "Brown Thumb" does not just apply to gardening.
I, like W4CNG, a great American, nice guy and the ultimate radio ham, have periodically made my own PCBs. Like Steve's they may not have been pretty, but we got them to work. I have been blessed with old age and diminishing eyesight. This leaves me to the same conclusion as Alan, K0BG; "Not no more!"
It is a Far Circuits better thing that I do now than I have ever done before.
W4CNG is seven years younger than I so he may continue to scratch wherever he etches!

73 K4JSR
RE: To Etch Is Human, To Scratch Is Devine.  
by K4DPK on October 9, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
Good article, thanks.

Couple of things I've found:

Office supply houses sell something called "Paint Pens" and they make a great etch resist medium for prototype boards. Washes off with laquer thinner or acetone after etching.

Heating the etchant really speeds the process, but I never tried it in a microwave. You can pour the etchant into a glass jar, then put the jar into a pot of water and bring the temperature up on the range top or a hot plate.

Agitation is a must! I use an aquarium pump. Seal the end of the tubing with your soldering iron, then drill the last few inches of the tubing (that will be immersed) with a small drill bit. anchor the end of the tubing in the bottom of the tank under the board so the air bubbles wash and abrade the surface being etched.

This reduces undercutting the etch resist. It also makes used etchant more effective, so it lasts longer.

Keep the etchant vapors away from tools, clothing and silverware. You can do this by putting the tank down in a cardboard box and close the lid while it is etching.

Phil C. Sr.
You did not follow the instructions  
by KASSY on October 9, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
I had one of those kits and got much better results.

You need to understand what a "solvent" is. "Etch resist solvent" dissolves etch resist - the ink from the pen. You are supposed to use the "etch resist solvent" after you etch the board, not before. I just drug out my old RS kit and read the instructions and it is clear.

You wrote "Here I am thinking that the resist solvent applies some clear urethane on the board to keep the copper on it while the next solvent does its thing"
Well there are two big problems there. Why would you think a "solvent" applies urethane? If something applied urethane, it would be called "urethane". "Solvent" means it dissolves something. Since copper cannot dissolve, the "solvent" obviously dissolves the ink you had just applied. Second, etchant is not a solvent - it does not mix and blend with the stuff it removes, it creates a chemical reaction, forming altogether new chemical compounds. You do not end up with dissolved copper at the end of etching.

You also wrote "After letting the ink and solvent dry for about 2 hours as suggested I" - NO NO NO NO NO!!! You do not let "the ink and solvent dry", you only let the INK dry. At this point, according to the instructions, you have not applied any solvent.

Try it again, it does work.

But - a very superior method, which results in very good boards, with a superior image transfer mechanism, was just written up in the latest QEX. I have been using a modified version of it for a while myself. Works well.

Read the instructions again, follow them in the sequence written, do not use the solvent before the etchant, and I think you'll get better results.

- k
RE: To Etch Is Human, To Scratch Is Devine.  
by N4ZAW on October 10, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
GREAT article,Eric!!! The whole learning process we all experience when trying something new in this hobby is clearly on display. And the links you have included to some fantastic source material were symbionic to that same learing curve! ANYONE interested in learning ANYTHING must learn by their mistakes ,IOW, to "crawl before they walk, baby-steps first"....
Kudos on illustrating it all (mistakes BEFORE triumphs), and even then, not blowing your own horn!
It is what the hobby should inpire in us all. It does... at least, it does to me. And it was contributed by someone who reprents the amateur, from the amateur's own perpective, as opposed to some appliance op out there who read lotsa books and then merely condecsends here to others less "knowledgeable"!! It is a pet-peave of mine when people assume we all have to be another Maxim from day-one. I, for one, would much rather learn from from those who constructively CONTRIBUTE, like you have with your article here!

73es hope to QSO on the aiwaves sometime.
Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by N6JSX on October 12, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
Nice to see another "How to" article.... but PCB making is a learn by fire & trial with many errors....

I've tried the toner, transparency, iron-on method - not easy or 100%. I layout PCB's with a CAD program.

Biggest things I discovered was the need for an agitator/tray-rocker to keep fresh chemicals constantly flowing over the PCB for a consistent and equal etch process.

I also added the use of a heating pad under the tray warming the etchant the extra heat appeared to reduce time and improve quality.

Making your own PCB's sounds easy but if you need good quality with fine PCB traces <0.125" wide or <1206 SMT parts, guess again!

And this is only good for a two sided PCB and then you have NO barrels for the via's or thru-holes.

Now that you have this etch chemical full of suspended copper switftly becoming unusable - what do you do with this used acid? Throw it in the trash, down the drain, or in your burn barrel? Hmmm don't tell the EPA/Fire Dept. Or wait for the annual Fire Dept free chemical disposal collection period.

What I'm looking for is a home-brew PCB Dremmel-router CNC that can use common Gerber files and make one-up PCB's. The cheapest I've seen is >$10K (way out of my hobby budget until I win the lotto).

For now I use the ~$51/PCB type services with their FREE PCB layout software that are plentiful - see Nuts-n-Volts Magazine ads for more.
Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by KA1VT on October 13, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
I have etched my own for over 25 years, I photo copied the sheet rather than using carbon paper. Cut the copy and the PCB to the size needed. Here is the kicker though; DATAK use to sell the resist donuts/pads/ and trace lines were from chartpak. These are no longer available - go figure.
Whatever supplies that are left on the market is it, I have not gotten any reply back from Philmore (Datak) as to when or if they will ever offer those items again!
Using this method was far more successful then using a magic marker or iron on transfers.
Dry transfers were the way to go but now what?
Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by N2QQF on October 14, 2008 Mail this to a friend!

Nice article and again nicely laid out with photos. while you may have had some trouble at least you tried which is more than we can say about most folks.

To many people are afraid of failure and always look to criticize others for their attempts by trying to show a group how smart they are or thin they are. A few guys play with radio and all of a sudden the acquire the engineer label. Anyone with any real EE/CS/RF Engineering degree would never think to shoot someone down for trying it is all the other fly by night amateur bread board engineers that want to prove how smart they are or think they are.

Please know the ones who criticize rather than add constructive criticism usually are trying to boost themselves because they obviously were not hugged as children. Anyhow, I do this for a living playing with Bi-directional amplifiers combiners, DAS systems and play with components all day and I personally have no desire to build my own PC board i just buy them but I commend you for trying. good going 73 buddy.
RE: Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by W2WP on October 16, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
Man Eric, this brings me back to the late 70's and being at DeVry.
One of the labs we had was to etch our own board and make a square wave generator.

I remember it as if were only 30 years ago! :)

Great article!
Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by K6LHA on October 19, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
After making four dozen or so PC boards by myself in about as many years, I'll pass on a few things common to all of those:

1. A 1:1 scale gridded vellum paper pattern is the baseline. Using two pencil colors, two-sided PC traces can be done. Office Depot and Office Max sell gridded vellum pads.

2. Tape the vellum pattern on the PC blank and DRILL THE THROUGH-HOLES FIRST. That's the location guide for next.

3. With a fine brush, paint on a LACQUER resist for traces. Use the removed vellum template as a guide. Lacquer dissolves easily in acetone, useful for cleaning the PCB after etching.

Note: This isn't going to pass QC for prettyness, but you aren't going to resell it as a product. Electrons, fields and waves don't give a #$%!! about human esthetics. Neat trace painting will still look good after etching.

Acetone is sold by the pint and quart in most do-it-yourself home improvement stores. I had formerly used model airplane dope (slang for that lacquer long ago) but that was exhausted years ago. Nail polish, diluted slightly with acetone, works well but is expensive. "Hot fuel proof" model airplane lacquer works as a resist but is not as dissolvable in acetone or toluene for later clean-up.

AVOID ENAMELS. Most seem to get undercut by etchants and don't hang on to the copper well, do not clean off as easily as lacquer. Plastic model kits use enamel paint.

4. Board mounting holes in corners can take rubber paint plugs. Plugs can be temporary feet to raise the board up in the etching tray, especially good for 2-sided boards. Paint plugs aren't commonly found in do-it-yourself stores. Some temporary nylon screws will work for that, will not bother any etchant. GENTLE agitation of the etching tray will help uniform etching. Corner feet enhance that agitation.

5. Warming etchant will speed up etching, especially with old ferric chloride. I use an old, old photo print dryer to do the warming. Warming an etching tray is optional. Photo "developing" stopped years ago for me with digital cameras. Using the print dryer as a warming platform is "recycling." Measured photo dryer temperature was 130 F.

6. Clean-up is with ordinary soap and water and a small, stiff finger brush (looks like a micro-hairbrush) sold in drug stores. If lacquer is used as a resist, it will come off as flakes or whole traces, can even be lifted off with an X-Acto knife blade, collected, dissoled in acetone and used again.

7. If the etched PC board will wait for many days before final assembly, I'd recomment a very light brush-over with liquid rosin, the kind with an acetate base (to dissolve in acetone). It won't do anything to the copper foil and may even hasten later component soldering.

Note: This method is fine with 0.1-inch through-hole pin spacings such as on DIPs. Trying for small 0.05-inch (or smaller) SMD pin and traces spacings depends entirely on how steady the hand is that paints the lacquer resist. It can be done (I've done it) but requires some effort. Diluting the lacquer with acetone will help. Fine brushes can be bought in crafts and arts stores.
I will add a "green" tip tried a few years ago. I found some old paper-phenolic PCB stock in a workshop clean-up effort, thought I had thrown them out long before. Very corroded and scrungy-looking. Having a fecund lemon tree in the back yard, I got some lemons, cut them in halves, used some coarse salt left over from my wife's preservation experiments. Sprinkle salt on corroded copper, rub the lemon half on it and BRIGHT, SHINY COPPER FOIL SHOWS UP! I was astounded at the results. Had not believed it possible. Four lemons and about a quarter-pound of cheap salt cleaned up two dozen 4" x 8" double-sided foil PC board blanks in about an hour. No great mess left in the hallway bath sink and the residue wasn't toxic. After drying the PC board blanks, they were stacked with paper separators to minimize corrosion from oxygen. Those are still bright after four years.

On this "toxicity" thing: Does anyone think that what NORMALLY goes down a toilet is "safe?" Or that a quarter pint of used etchant will "destroy" a quarter-acre of landscaping? Or be forever a "danger" to later generations from "poisoning?" I don't think so. Let's not knee-jerk to all these "warnings" from "informed sources" in the media.

A printed circuit board is really just a convenient, single-piece combination mechanical support with interconnecting "wires." It is better than the old, old method of hanging larger parts by their leads and soldering to terminals. Those who want "professional"
results can pay for a "finished" board with all the niceties of appearance, solder-mask, silkscreeing, etc. And PAY for it. In my homebrew PC board production, the resist application, etching, and clean-up might cost up to an astounding $1.50 per board at today's prices. No special PC Board kits required.

Len Anderson, AF6AY

RE: Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by K6LHA on October 19, 2008 Mail this to a friend!
A few addenda to my post -

PC board blanks should have 1 ounce copper foil or thicker. Half-ounce may etch faster but is also easier to scratch. Scratches allow undercutting of etchant and possible opens.

Blanks should be clean before hand-painting lacquer resist. I used to clean them with Comet kitchen cleanser, avoided using any steel wool. Now I just use the lemon and salt method.

"Glass Wax" cleaner will work, but it leaves a slight residue that can interfere with the etchant. It cleans off corrosion but must itself be cleaned off with soap, water, and rubbing.

For drilling the through-holes, I use the mini-drill-press stand for my Dremel tool with a variable auto-transformer to control the speed. Newer Dremel rotary tools have built-in speed control. Adjust speed for the best results for you. Getting the small drills can be a problem, takes some searching.

Lacquer is hard to get unless one buys 1 or 5 gallon minimums. I've used "sanding sealer" (undercoating for painted wood for later sanding smooth) with some success. Can get it at a lumber yard in quart cans but it isn't cheap.

One doesn't need any "auto-router" programs to make the traces on the paper template. Just follow the schematic and the IC pin-outs. It may take several tries before it feels comfortable. MAKE CERTAIN THE TRACES FOLLOW THE SCHEMATIC! :-)

For digital circuits with a few analog peripheral circuits, I prefer the "prototype" boards with 3-HOLE-PADS. That lets one daisy-chain parallel connections. I scrounged some #26 solid, teflon-covered wire from junk and use that for interconnections. Note: Most such prototype boards have only single-hole-pads and don't work out well for daisy chaining parallel connections. I've done that with 10 MHz clock rate digital circuits, no problems at all from bundling the interconnecting (and tied with nylon lacing cord) wires. Douglas Electronics DE-11 prototype boards can take a dozen DIPs for a 22/44-pin edge connector (0.176 inch spacing). Very expensive prototype board now although they've been made for three decades. The best I've found so far is the "Syntax" (a Taiwan company) that was sold by Circuit Specialists. Alas, it is no longer stocked. It can hold a whopping 36 DIPs on one board.

Cutting PCB stock to specific sizes, beginning with larger blanks, is best done by very careful scoring of the foil along the break line, then a deeper scoring into the substrate itself. I clamp some straight chip-core wood laminate pieces on either side of the cut line using C-clamps. The larger clamped side is itself clamped to the bench. The other side is carefully bent until you feel it give slightly. One has to get the "feel" of doing that.

For smaller PCB pieces, the Dremel rotary tool with a thin "cutoff wheel" is more convenient. Run it at normal high speed and it can slice into PCB stock or even 2-inch PVC conduit as if it were butter. Lowes and Home Depot both carry cutoff wheels along with Dremel and copycat rotary tools.

73, Len AF6AY
RE: Etch Your Own PC Boards!  
by N2RRA on October 24, 2008 Mail this to a friend!

Thanks for the great tips! Lot of great information and as I'm trying a little of everyones suggestions my boards are coming out better than the radio shack kit.

I'll be trying your tips next!

Thanks all for making this topic educational and worthy of an update towards the best way to PC Board construction with pro's and con's included.

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