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Learn to Solder Kit (Part II)

If you haven’t read the first installment, check out Learn to Solder Kit (Part I) to get up to speed.

Since I’m etching my own boards, there’s a number of steps in the process. I’ve covered it all in the photos below, and I’ll add in a bit of text to explain things.

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I start with cutting vinyl on a Silhouette Cameo. Any vinyl cutter will do, this just happens to be the one I have at home. (We have the same model at Milwaukee Makerspace, and the DCRL has a much larger vinyl cutter.)

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The vinyl after being cut. I’m using old scraps of various sizes, and I’ve got an old blade, and an old cutting mat, and sometimes it cuts almost all the way through the vinyl, but for this application it all works out fine.

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Next is weeding, or removing all of the bits of vinyl we don’t need. I tend to use an X-ACTO knife to pick and grab off the pieces. It works well for tiny things like this.

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The vinyl is all weeded and we’ve got a piece of transfer paper ready to apply. (The transfer paper sticks to the top of the vinyl just enough to pull it from the backing sheet.)

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Once the transfer paper is down on the vinyl I press hard and rub it on good so it’ll adhere to all the tiny pieces.

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Peeling back the transfer paper is best done slowly, checking to see if any vinyl doesn’t get pulled up. Occasionally you have to press it down again to grab a piece of vinyl that didn’t stick properly.

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Here’s the transfer paper with all the bits of vinyl stuck to it. At this point we can stick it down onto the copper board that will be our PCB. (I usually give the copper board a light scrubbing with steel wool before sticking the vinyl on.)

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Once again we press hard and rub the transfer paper onto the copper board, and then peel back slowly making sure we don’t lose any tiny bits of vinyl in the process…

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And here’s our copper board with the vinyl resist in place. The vinyl works as a mask to protect the copper from being etched away. Anywhere you don’t see vinyl you won’t see copper when we are done.

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Over to the PCB etching machine! It’s what we might call “janky” because I constructed it very quickly to etch some PCBs and it worked well enough that I never built a better one. I did upgrade from a servo to a DC gear motor at some point, but the bearings are still riding on smooth rods much smaller than they should be. Again, it works, so I don’t mess with it.

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After adding equal parts hydrogen peroxide and vinegar to the tank (which is a food container from Noodles & Company) I put the copper board into the solution…

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The board tends to float at first so I push it down with a brush. (I also use the other end of the brush to wipe away the solution while the board is etching.)

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Yes, my chemical mix is hydrogen peroxide and vinegar, with a dash of salt. There are other things you can use, but this combo isn’t really dangerous, and can be easily disposed of by pouring down the drain with plenty of water. If I can avoid harsh acids, I will. It does take a bit longer to etch, but that’s where the salt comes in.

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Once I start the agitation process to keep the board and liquid moving back and forth, I throw a bit of salt into the mix, which activates things and tends to foam up a bit. The foam means it’s working!

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This is about 45 minutes into the etching process. You can see that the copper is nearly gone all around the edges, but not as much in the middle.

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Here’s the 50 minute mark after adding a pinch more salt to the mix. It’s mostly etched but still has more copper to eat.

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At about an hour and ten minutes the board is fully etched. Time tends to vary depending on if I reuse the solution or start fresh. I’m typically not in a hurry and tend to reuse solution a lot, which does take longer, but means I’m wasting less solution.

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Once the board is done I pull it out and use a razor blade to gently remove the pieces of vinyl. They tend to come off fairly easy, but they are wet and stick to everything, including fingers, razor blades, the board, and anything else within 50mm of the work area.

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After the vinyl is removed I wash and rise the board and then dry it and give it another quick scrub with steel wool.
We’ve now got a PCB, or a “Printed Circuit Board” as they are commonly known. (Somehow almost everything I do revolves around “printing” somehow…)

That covers the etching, so the next steps are to drill all the holes and to cut the boards apart.

Oh, you’ll also want to check out this mesmerizing video featuring the PCB Etching Machine in action. Agitation is the name of the game!

This is just one post in a series, check out the other posts as well:

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Learn to Solder Kit (Part I)

Zoom Milwaukee

Some of the folks I know at UWM are putting on a symposium called Zoom Milwaukee, which will focus on craft, culture, innovation and making. They’ll also have a Maker Plaza which they described as a sort of “Mini Maker Faire” environment. They also asked if I could do a hands-on make-and-take workshop, so I decided to do a Learn to Solder activity. I’ll attempt to walk through my process for developing it in this and future posts.

Fritzing

Since I’ve been using Fritzing to design PCBs I thought I would play around with some ideas. The basic Learn to Solder kit tends to revolve around an LED or two, a battery, and maybe a pin of some sort. They are typically wearable badges. (Here’s a prototype and final board from Milwaukee Makerspace. Maker Shed has some nice ones as well.)

Fritzing

Oh, and ignore than second resistor, that was just to determine some spacing issues. Same with the battery. Fritzing isn’t the greatest tool for PCB design, but it (mostly) works and it’s simple to use. I did end up checking a version of this board with OSH Park to determine pricing and specs, but eventually I decided that this isn’t the board I wanted fabbed, and with a deadline quickly approacing I decided to go another direction.

I did use the work from Fritzing as the basis of the design I did in Inkscape though… And why Inkscape? Because my plan was to create this kit as cheaply as possible, which meant I’d be etching my own boards. I visited my friends over at ebay.com and started searching for components. I’ve ordered blank copper boards before so I got a bunch of those, and some LEDs and the appropriate resistors, and some batteries.

PCB versions

The evolution of design. The nice thing about etching your own boards is that you can do a few, test them out, and make some changes, and do it all again. You can do these revisions fairly quickly and very cheaply. Here’s a number of my design tweaks as I etched boards. Some things got larger, some got smaller. I needed something I could easily cut from vinyl using a Silhouette Cameo, so super-small pieces had to be avoided. The minus sign caused the most problems. You can see it change in size as we go. (The outline around each board is to assist with cutting them out.)

PCBs

Here’s the design 6-up so I could fill a blank copper board for etching. Weeding the vinyl wasn’t a nightmare, but pulling all the tiny pieces off the final board wasn’t fun.

Silhouette

The copper boards I used are about 4″ x 3″ so the 6-up layout I did was loaded into the Silhouette Studio software to cut the vinyl. This worked well as I tend to have a lot of little scraps from bigger jobs to use up. (I did mention doing this on the cheap, didn’t I?)

Vinyl on copper

Here’s a shot of one of the earlier design revisions with the vinyl applied to the copper board pre-etching stage. Once the etching is done all the copper you can see will be gone, leaving copper just where the vinyl is. The vinyl is the resist in this process.

This is just one post in a series, check out the other posts as well:

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Teensy LC BOB v1.2

Teensy LC BOB v1.2

Update: If you’d like one of these boards, there’s a newer version of this board, and you can purchase it on Tindie.

Woohoo! My new boards came in from OSH Park. The Teensy LC BOB v1.2 looks good! It’s purple, it has labels, it has places to put screw terminals and holes for mounting… There’s even a version number now.

Teensy LC on Perma-Proto Board

If you saw my previous post, I mentioned how I was doing things, which looked a bit like the photo above. There’s nothing wrong with this, but I wanted it a bit cleaner, hence the Teensy LC BOB PCB.

Teensy LC BOB v1.1

Here’s a photo of one of the v1.1 boards in an interactive museum exhibit. I had to drill the holes a bit larger to get it mounted, which is the reason the new version is v1.2.

I’m still not totally sure about the pin I labeled “17v” as it could be mistaken as “17 volts” but it’s really “pin 17 at Vin voltage”. This means the thing labeled “17v” will be whatever your input voltage is… and if you plan on using Neopixels, it should probably be 5 volts. I’ll assume users can read about the Teensy LC and figure it out.

OSH Park

And hey, you can order this PCB now! Get it from OSH Park. It’s shared publicly on the site. There doesn’t seem to be a way to set a license on OSH Park, but I’d consider it Open Source Hardware. If I had known how to add the OSHW logo, I would have. (Of course the Teensy itself is not open-source, but hey, not everything can be. It is a great piece of hardware, though!)

Note: The needed screw terminals are 2.54mm pitch, so these or these will work.

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Fritzing + OSH Park = PCB!

Teensy BOB v1.0

I recently created my first “real” printed circuit board. By “real” I mean one that I sent out to get fabricated, not one I did at home by etching it myself. The board is for a Teensy LC, and breaks out most of the pins to screw terminals. (Pictured above is version 1.0, which has been revised due to a few spacing issues and the mounting holes being too small. You can see I had to drill them a bit larger.)

Teensy Proto

The Teensy LC BOB (BreakOut Board) came about due to my use of the Teensy for a few museum projects that were using the controller as an input device for a computer. I had been putting the boards onto Adafruit Perma-Proto Breadboards which are great to work with, but after building a few of these that were very similar to each other, I thought I could just design my own PCB to get the job done. (The board I designed probably cost about $2.15 more than the Adafruit boards, but it’s also designed to be exactly what I need.)

Breadboard in Fritzing

I started by designing what I needed in Fritzing using the breadboard view. I added in the screw terminals I wanted, and wired it all up. At this point spacing doesn’t matter too much, as it’s just to get all the components and connections in place.

PCB in Fritzing

Once all the pieces are in place and connected up I switched to PCB view where you get to see what the actual printed circuit board will look like. Here the positioning and spacing is just like the real world. This step probably tool the most amount of time, and I found the tools a bit lacking compared to something like Inkscape or Illustrator for precise positioning. Part of this could be due to my still learning how it all works. There’s some good info here on designing PCBs in Fritzing. (Eventually I’d like to do custom shapes.)

Export Gerber

After I was happy with the PCB layout I exported it using Export > for Production > Extended Gerber (RS-274X) from the file menu.

Gerber Files

It will output a whole bunch of files to the folder specified. Once I had this folder I made a ZIP file from it, and named it Teensy-BOB.zip and uploaded it to OSH Park.

OSH Park

OSH Park’s web site will check your files and show you previews during the upload process. (Hopefully you can figure out what you’re looking at!) As I mentioned, the first version had a few issues, so I corrected those and put in a new order. For the new version I added the name of the board and the version number. Once I get these back and test them I’ll share the project so anyone can order some if needed. (At least one person at Milwaukee Makerspace was interested.)

I should note that the Teensy 3.x board could also be put on one of these, though the pin labeling is a little different. I’ll probably create another version that is specific to the Teensy 3.x for a future project I’m doing for Maker Faire Milwaukee this year.

Update: OSH Park has some docs on using Fritzing.

Update: Download the TeensyBOB Fritzing file!