How to create your own Printed Circuit Boards?

As described here, it is quite convenient to put rather complex things into programmable logic devices these days. However, what makes probably many people hesitating to enter the fascinating world of electronics is to produce printed circuit boards (PCBs) that carry the chips.

Creating the Layout

First of all, the layout (the artwork :-) has to be done. There are many software packages (CAD programs) available that are specially developed for PCB layout design. Personally, I'm using Eagle from CadSoft. Eagle might be not the best layout program but it offers a very good price/performance ratio and is being improved permanently. Once I successfully designed an highly complex 10-layer board with Eagle. For small designs there is also a limited free version available. And the best thing is: It is available for Linux as well.

Producing the Printed Circuit Board

Although the heading of this page might suggest that I'm giving here instructions how to produce PCBs from schematic to the ready board, I'll not do this.
In fact, I produced my first PCBs completely by myself in mother's kitchen. I guess there are lots of websites available that descibe how to do this in various ways.

My projects got soon just too complicated to produce the boards by myself. Especially the vias are a big problem. Not to speak of multi-layer PCBs. Also many modern FPGAs etc. are only available as tiny surface mount devices (SMD) with a fine pin pitch. Here are very precise PCBs required.

So when it's almost impossible to manufacture the PCBs self, what to do? Well, there are companies that have specialized in PCB production. Many of these companies have a special service for the production of prototypes in common technologies such as boards with one, two, or four layers. The prices are not very high. To quote an offer from one of the companies that I have used so far: Around 40 Euros for a 1 sqare decimeter two layer board including solder resist mask. That's really not much when compared to the first-class PCB that you receive.

Soldering the Devices

Assuming there is a good PCB available, the parts have to be soldered. With a quiet hand it shouldn't be a problem to solder SMD ICs with pin pitches down to 0.65mm with a more or less standard soldering iron. "Standard" means not a very big one but also not some expensive special-purpose thing. For finer pitches it becomes problematic, however. What is almost completely impossible is to mount BGA (Ball Grid Array) packages without special tools. But here are also companies out there that know their job and can do this mounting for a fair price. So it is the best to have the complicated packages soldered by a professional company and do the remaining things by hand.

Here follows a link to CadSoft and two PCB companies that I have used so far:

Last modified: 23. January 2017 by Mario Trams