For serious electronics hobbyists, there are few things as essential as printed circuit boards. For some time now, hobbyists have been designing their circuits using breadboards before transferring their design to a PCB. There are now a variety of components that are available in surface-mount packages. These components are designed to be applied to a PCB, where they are mounted directly to the board.
PCBs have never been as affordable as they are now, making it possible for just about anyone to start designing and building their own PCB. You can order custom built PCBs online, but this isn’t the same as building your own. Once you factor in the cost of ordering your own PCB, it makes economic sense to build your own.
But while building your own PCB is a much easier and more realistic proposition than many people realise, it isn’t something that you can pick up and do with no experience or guidance. Using specific circuit software to design the layout of your PCB is relatively straightforward, but what about the actual production of the board? Let’s take a look at the basics of actually making your own PCB.
Milling or Etching
The majority of PCB manufacturing can be divided into two categories, milling and etching. There are advantages and drawbacks to both methods, and the best one for you will depend on your individual circumstances and the features of the project you are attempting.
However, you should be aware that getting the most out of each method will require experience. If you are going to commit to one of these choices, you should commit fully and develop your skills. The only way to get better is to make more PCBs.
Milling involves using a cutter to remove excess copper from the PCB substrate, thereby forming traces and other features on the board. This process is usually entirely automated, which makes it both very precise and very cheap. This is also the fastest way of producing PCBs, especially if you are going to produce multiple circuits.
Another advantage of using the milling process is that it is relatively easy to replicate the setup in your home. The machines used to produce PCBs through milling can be also be used for a variety of similar projects
Chemical processing.is a little bit more involved and specialised than machine milling. There are a couple of different chemical processes that can be used, so the specific steps will vary. However, they all offer the same advantages and drawbacks.
In general, the traces on chemically produced boards are larger than those on the milled boards. If your board requires smaller traces then you should opt for the more precise manufacturing process. Where the chemical process really shines is when you need to produce a larger number of boards in a short amount of time.
One final factor to consider when deciding on a production method is the practicality. If you are going to be producing PCBs in your home, buying a CNC machine to mill with is probably a more realistic proposition than buying all the necessary chemicals and making space in your home for a lab.