Introduction: Making PCBs at Home (Toner Transfer Method)

Picture of Making PCBs at Home (Toner Transfer Method)

There are lot of times when we, as a maker, face obstacles such as circuit complexity, wiring problems and untidy projects while using prototyping boards. Since any good project must be neat and tidy if it's meant for demonstration purposes. So to get rid of the above stated issues, we start looking for alternatives. Clearly, we have an idea that PCBs are the way to go but still, for some of us, there are equipment restrictions and we feel that its not possible. But believe me, it is!

This instructable focuses on guiding the reader to make his/her own PCB using the remedial Toner Transfer method. There are a lot of instructables and websites out there covering how to make PCBs at home affordably, and I too have followed them, but still there are some skills and hacks that one develops with time and experience and this instructable covers how I make my PCBs.

I don't like posting content which's already there on the internet, but this time I had to, because most of my projects revolve around custom PCBs and I didn't want to keep writing the PCB manufacturing process in them over and over again in all my instructables. I also wanted to detail the process a little more and so here we are.

That's all I have to say about this instructable. So, without further ado, let's begin this!

Step 1: Gather Around Some Stuff

Picture of Gather Around Some Stuff

The stuff which you are going to require for making a PCB are mostly hardware and building tools. They're neither too cheap nor too expensive and are easy to come by.

The Requirements:

  • Copper Clad Board
While buying this, keep in mind to buy a grease-free board, that is there should be almost no green spots on the board.
  • Ferric Chloride Etching Solution
This is the etching solution which will be used for converting copper into a non-conductive compound.
  • Drilling Machine
It is up to you whether you use a full-on drilling machine rather than a hand-held mini one. I use a handheld drilling machine myself. Here's how to make one yourself.
  • A Permanent Marker
  • Zero Grade Sanding Paper
  • The Printed Layout
The printout of the circuit which you're going to make. Note that the paper on which this layout has to be printed must be glossy, the kind of paper in magazines which has smooth texture. Also make sure it's printed using a laser printer.
  • A Clothes Iron

That's all for the requirements. Proceed to the next step.

Step 2: Preparing the Copper Clad Board

Picture of Preparing the Copper Clad Board

The copper clad board which you have is prone to passivity.

Passivity is the process of formation of oxide layers to prevent corrosion.

In any copper clad board, there's copper which is a passive metal, and therefore by the above definition, it, by itself, forms a layer of Copper Oxide whenever it comes in contact with the atmosphere to prevent corrosion. Since copper oxide is quite conductive, it will cause a problem in our PCB. Therefore our first job is the removal of this layer.

Removing the Copper Oxide layer:

Pick up the zero grade sandpaper and start sanding the copper board until you are able to see a metallic lustre.

You can clearly distinguish between the sanded and un-sanded boards in the above posted picture.

Cutting the Board:

Now that we've removed the copper oxide layer, let's cut the copper board according to the printed layout. Try to have extra keepout regions near the borders to allow cutting errors.

To cut the board, I use my handy scissors and sometimes my thermocol knife. If you have a circular saw, then use it because it is the best way to cut copper boards.

Step 3: Transferring the Toner

Picture of Transferring the Toner

In this step, we'll be transferring the laser tonerfrom the printed layout to the copper clad board.

To transfer the toner:

  1. Pick up your clothes iron.
  2. Set it to max temperature and turn off the steam.
  3. Pick up your copper board and layout and place the layout on the board such that the toner on the printed layout must be in contact with the copper side of the board.
  4. Heat the entire set-up through the back side of the paper for 2 minutes using the clothes iron with great amount of pressure. Keep moving around the iron in a circular manner around the board to ensure consistent transferring.
  5. Once you feel all the toner has been transferred onto the board, stop the ironing.
  6. Drop the hot board in a water bath instantly.
  7. After a few minutes, pick it up and gently rub off all the paper so that you have only toner traces on the board as shown in the above picture.

Now the toner has been successfully transferred. If you notice some incomplete traces, no need to panic. You can easily complete them using your permanent marker.

However if a lot of toner hasn't been transferred successfully, repeat the process by sanding the toner and re-transferring it. It took me two attempts to do this. The failed attempt picture has been included above.

Step 4: Etching the Board

Picture of Etching the Board

Right now our board has been carved onto with a layout. It's much like a piece of code left to be executed. Therefore to make it much closer to a finished PCB we'll have to etch it using an etching solution. I'll be using Ferric Chloride since it's easily available to me.

We'll be etching our board to keep only the useful amount of copper as conductive traces. The main concept of etching is basically converting surrounding regions of copper into a precipitate, in my case it's copper chloride,

and removing it along with the etching solution after the reaction's complete.

The useful traces part is kept from reacting by concealing it with toner. That's all that's happening over here.

To etch the board:

  • Pour some ferric chloride solution into a non-metallic container.
Ferric Chloride is highly corrosive in nature therefore I'd like everyone to avoid using metallic containers because it reacts with the containers. Using plastic containers is a good choice. Also prevent any contact of your skin with this etchant. Instead, prefer wearing gloves throughout the process.
  • Drop your copper board in it and leave it for some time.
In my case, the whole etching process took about 45 minutes.
  • Keep watching your board in intervals of 15 minutes and pick it out when you feel it has been etched completely.
The way I test if a copper board has been completely etched or not is by looking whether it looks partly translucent or not. However the PCB that I had this time was wonderful. On etching, it turned yellow.

Now that your PCB has been successfully etched, let's remove the residual amount of toner to gain our printed circuit board.

Step 5: Removing the Residual Toner

Picture of Removing the Residual Toner

Now our PCB is almost finished. All that's left to do is to remove the residual toner to expose the copper traces. So let's just get on it.

To remove the residual toner:

EITHER

  • Sand the whole PCB using a zero grade sandpaper.

OR

  • Using acetone-dipped cotton bale, clean the whole board thoroughly.

I have observed that using acetone for toner removal is better if you're wanting your PCB to be neat and clean. But it doesn't mean that the sanding method doesn't stand a chance, because it's not like that sanding is untidy. It just leaves a few scratches.

Step 6: Drilling

Picture of Drilling

The PCB is done, the copper traces are there but where to insert the components? To be able to insert our components, we'll have to begin drilling holes for them.

Use any kind of drill you like for this purpose.

The only tip that I'd like to give to beginners is that while using drilling machines, first place the drill bit perpendicularly over the to-be-drilled spot and then power it up temporarily whilst exerting a small amount of pressure. This prevents the drill bit tip from straying off and produces good drilled holes.

Step 7: Tinning the Traces

Picture of Tinning the Traces

In some cases, the traces of the PCB are narrow. This is the case for most SMD PCBs. In such cases, there's a risk of the wire breaking off the board due to excess while long soldering. To prevent this, what I, and many others do, is to apply solder on the traces, this process is known as tinning.

Thanks to sergeweb1 for pointing out that this process' main aim is to prevent corrosion of copper traces, that is the reduction of conductive copper due to formation of Copper Oxide caused by exposure to the atmosphere.

Not only does it strengthen the traces, but also it eases the soldering of components. Therefore it's a win-win.

To do this, simply apply some amount of solder on the soldering iron tip and gently slide it across the traces.

Applying flux on the traces before doing this produces better results.

Once you're done with the soldering, your PCB will look like the one posted above, cool.

Step 8: Congratulations!

Picture of Congratulations!

Congratulations on making a PCB at home yourself and on learning how to do it. Now you're open to a whole new world of electronics where you can easily conquer complicated circuits with PCBs which seemed impossible using prototyping boards.

After completing the PCB, just insert and solder the components by referring to the schematic of the project you're making.

I've attached pictures of my PCB after all the components were soldered in to give you an idea of how a finished PCB looks like.

That's it for this instructable. If you have any doubt, feel free to comment. Don't forget to follow me if you liked this instructable. Also, post pictures of how your PCBs turned out!

Keep Tinkering!

By:

Utkarsh Verma

Thanks to Ashish Choudhary for lending his camera.

Comments

BigCthulhu (author)2017-12-09

Hi! This is the best method to make perfect home made PCB-s.

Some innovations I do for the safer and faster etching:

1. I use so called "quick solution liquor" instead of FeCl, because the FeCl is very slow, and this is not too optimal when you are etching narrow lines on the PCB; they may corrode at te edge when a long time etching is done. My quick liquor is made of 3 ingredient: 1 units of water, 3 units of hydrogen-peroxide, and 2-3 units of HCl (hydrochloric acid). This fluid can etch a smaller PCB for about 1-2 minutes, but beware of the toxic gas, which is arising from the fluid. Try to move the panel in the bath, to make the procedure more quick. Use glover and some mask, and avoid the contact with the etching material.

2. After the polishing I fill a small amount of alcohol into a tiny bottle or a larger plastic syringue, and dissolve some scraps of resin in it. (The resin is good when you solder to remove the copper oxyde, and the simplest way to get it to ask some used ones from a violinist; they use it always, and they have a lot of debris in their instrument case. That amount is enough for this procedure.)

Get some drops of this tincture on a tissue, and polish the coppered surface with it. This removes any fat from it, and cover it with an anti-oxidation layer, but during the soldering even the tin will "run" perfectly on the surface. No pre-tinning is necessary using this method.

Try it.

Fhtang

UtkarshVerma (author)BigCthulhu2017-12-09

Your suggestions are great and I'm sure it would be of great help to any reader. But sadly I won't be able to try these suggestions because I have a really limited budget (being a high school student) and a lot of difficulties in attaining stuff, relating to electronics and making, in my home-town. That's why I really lay emphasis on using only commonly available materials in my instructables.

Thanks again for increasing my knowledge base, I'm sure it would be of use to me some day in the future.

BigCthulhu (author)UtkarshVerma2017-12-11

Hi, UtkarshVerma,

Thanks for it; you are perfectly right to promote the common materials in the DIY-projects!
The good news are, these ingredients are very cheap and simple ones; the materials for the quick liquid is available at any hairdresser's shop and pharmacist for very low price, I got a litre of 33% HCl for about 1-2 eurs (or almost the same $) in a barber shop, and a bottle of 1 litre hydrogen-peroxide in 30% for some euros too, and this amount of ingredients have been using by me for 3-4 years. Not a big budget, at all. And the pure alcohol is more cheap in pharmacies, while the resin is also found with a little luck, when you have musician friends - I have, being a musician myself, too:-)
When using, the recommended amount of these liquors are centiliters, so the price is even more comfortable, because you don't need to buy them so often.
The HCl is used as solution or primer detergent, while the hydrogen-peroxide is for making the hair blonde. It's my fault, I haven't mentioned that these ingredients are very widely available.

Ah, well, and one more tip: when someone doesn't have at home a laser printer, print it by an inkjet, and ask a copy of it in a local Copy Shop, or in a copier at your school, college, etc. - all those copying machines are lasers, so you will have a laser printed copy of your PCB. And use glossy paper if you can, for the optimal result; that sheets transfer the lines when ironing.

Have a nice day!

UtkarshVerma (author)BigCthulhu2017-12-11

Thanks for detailing the ways to attain the stuff for bettering the etching process. It'll be helpful to a majority of viewers. Will add this to my instructable when I get the time.

But I'd like to state again that hacks and articles vary region-by-region and hence it still isn't applicable to me here in India. But still I will try searching thoroughly and see if I'm able to test your method in the near future!

BigCthulhu (author)UtkarshVerma2017-12-12

I see! Thanks for the ible, because this method (with FeCl or other solution, with or without the dissolved resin) is the best way to make DIY semi professional PCB-s. The ironing and toner transferring is my favourite; I've tried some methods, and found this one perfect. Have a nice day, and warm greetings to India from Hungary!

ГеоргиВ (author)2017-12-10

Nice instructable!

The edges never will be perfect. The solution is simple - add 2.5 to 5 mm to each side of the copper board around the printed area. After etching remove (cut or sand) the excess.

Great workaround!

Couki24 (author)2017-12-10

wonderfully convenient and it very useful for cheap prototyping

Congratulations

e.ma.niak (author)2017-12-09

Had little success with this method. So i've built myself a laser cnc whitch i use to burn traces into vinyl sticker on those pcbs. One just has to clean them with alcohol and toothbrush. G-code is generated directly from Eagle (addon). If you screw up, scratch the sticker of and do it again. It has its limitations, but it works just fine for me. Nice instro tho.

UtkarshVerma (author)e.ma.niak2017-12-09

Thanks.

sergeweb1 (author)2017-12-07

Can I just point out few things. First, it is NOT INK, it’s a laser toner and this method only applies to laser printed artwork. Second, is that etching doesn’t convert copper to anything, it simply disolves unprotected by toner areas, that’s all. Third, acetone is the only way the toner have to be removed from etched board, as it can be hard to remove it by sandpaper from large PCB’s and you also risking completely sand off some tracks from the boards if the copper layer is too thin. Next, about applying “great amount of pressure” to the board while ironing. It’s very easy to spread the tracks in all directions, especially by doing circular motions. Instead do carefully start motions in one direction only. “Strengthening” refers to tinning the tracks in order to protect them from corrosion. In my opinion this is highly important part of developing a PCB, and not optional, but necessary step. And finally, your board is not gonna work, because you can’t just chose to solder components on other side, it have to be redrawn and in some cases it’s extremely complicated thing to do. Your particular PCB have an IC’s marking of first leg in a wrong place if components are placed where you put them, effectively indicating that the board made is useless, sorry.

Thanks for reading.

UtkarshVerma (author)sergeweb12017-12-07

I have now replaced ink with laser toner. Thanks for pointing out that this method only works for laser artworks, that is printouts from Laser printers. I somehow forgot to mention it but have not added this to my instructable.

Regarding the etching processes, formation of Copper Chloride does happen and it precipitates in the etching solution. Therefore, what you're merely stating as copper removal is actually the formation of copper chloride precipitate and its removal from the board. Because had it been the way you have described, your Ferric Chloride would last for eternity. But I think it was my fault for stating that Copper Chloride forms on the board and I have corrected it now.

What you've said about not using sandpaper might be wrong. Because I've used this method to manufacture over 50 PCBs up-till now, big and small, and not even once there have been unsatisfactory results. Also, I have emphasized on the sand paper to be zero grade, the finest that there is. It isn't rough enough to damage the copper. Therefore its usage is safe until and unless you are solely wanting to damage your PCB by ridiculously-long sanding.

I have also renamed Strengthening with Tinning and made it a necessary step.

Regarding my board, it did work because I had designed and mirrored my layout before making the PCB so that I'm able to sustain the schematic on the top layer.

Regarding the first leg marking, it was a mere hack. I had accidentally broken one of my IC socket's legs and coincidentally, it was unconnected when I reversed the socket, so I soldered it in opposite manner.

Anyways, I really appreciate you for finding out the errors and reporting it in a comment. It makes my instructable better. Also, I yearn for such discussions because there's always something more to learn and so they are always welcomed.

Thanks!

Jacks how2s (author)2017-12-07

this is so cool I have only ever bought my PCB's made. I will have to give this a try! Thank You

gm280 (author)2017-12-06

Interesting concept. While I do pretty much the same procedures, I usually solder on the opposite side of the parts placed on the board. I see you solder the parts on the cupper side. Wouldn't your idea be more beneficial using SMD for that type setup? Either way, Nice project and method. I use a transfer paper called PNP Blue. It is specifically designed just for the transfer method. And then I use wire drill bits from sizes #80 to #60 or larger if necessary. Nice project.

UtkarshVerma (author)gm2802017-12-06

Thanks!

Yes, I too like the PNP blue method because of how accurate it is, I don't think there are ever incomplete traces when using the transfer paper. But I don't have access to it in my city and my country's online seller overprice things.

Also, this PCB was made on copper side because it was supposed to be a shield for Arduino and I didn't wan't any contact between the Arduino and the components..

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Bio: I am a 16 years old hobbyist who finds a great drive in tinkering with electronic circuits. I also enjoy making gadgets myself rather than ... More »
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