How to print your own PCBs

Most individuals’s relationship with know-how is distant or obscured. The common shopper doesn’t have direct management over their tech — it’s often closed off to them, slightly field given to them that often breaks and ultimately dies. 

However what DIY freaks, keyboard nerds, and synth weirdos have identified for a really very long time is that it’s trivial and, in truth, very enjoyable to simply get a stack of PCBs of your own design despatched to your home. What’s extra, with slightly know-how in KiCad, you may really customise your circuit boards and switch it into a private canvas for enjoyable artwork, and there’s not a rattling factor that God, the Pope, or the Man can do to cease you. Let’s dive in.

Ha ha, yes!

Ha ha, sure! Photograph by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge


Table of Contents

a:hover]:shadow-highlight-franklin darkish:[&>a:hover]:shadow-highlight-franklin [&>a]:shadow-underline-black darkish:[&>a]:shadow-underline-white”>Why would I would like to do that?

You might be asking “Chris, why would I would like to get PCBs made?” That’s a wonderful query! My preliminary need to do that got here from my expertise with the mechanical keyboard group. A lot of the designs locally are open supply, which means that when you have the urge you will get a rack of keyboard PCBs made for you and your pals for subsequent to nothing. It’s dust low-cost. Simply order some components from AliExpress or a keyboard components provider in your nation, assemble (maybe with your model new pencil), and also you’re golden.

What’s extra, many keyboard designs typically make use of the fiberglass plates of PCBs as sandwich fashion circumstances for a keyboard (suppose three items of circuit board stacked along with the highest and backside forming a case). It’s a attractive canvas for silkscreening all kinds of bizarre doodles. Get slightly artistic with Photoshop and the footprint editor in KiCad, and you’ll create a singular piece of drugs that solely you’ve. In case you have pure expertise with artwork, you utilize your own artwork. I suck at drawing, so as an alternative, I opted to create a Bootleg Bart that I might sort on. Don’t do that to make a residing off of artwork that isn’t yours, although; that’s corny and evil, and you might be right here to have enjoyable with computer systems.

An image of a silkscreen taken from Tetsuo: The Ironman.Tetsuo, the Keyboard man. Photograph by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

In fact, it doesn’t cease at keyboards. Synths, vintage game mods, and extra are all on the market, free and open supply, for you to print out and maybe doodle on. Dig via GitHub slightly bit, and you’ll be shocked on the quantity of bizarre little initiatives you could find. Having a primary familiarity with the method of ordering PCBs can go a good distance for the aspiring gear nerd. Heck, you don’t even have to do any doodling for those who don’t need to, having the ability to get boards made is only a helpful talent to have.

a:hover]:shadow-highlight-franklin darkish:[&>a:hover]:shadow-highlight-franklin [&>a]:shadow-underline-black darkish:[&>a]:shadow-underline-white”>Alright, you’ve bought me. How do I do that?

So as to get PCBs made, you’re going to need to choose a challenge, often a GitHub repo for the circuit board of your selection. Then you’re going to have to find the Gerber information. Arrange your account and clone the repo, or for those who aren’t comfy utilizing GitHub (comprehensible), you should use instruments like DownGit to simply obtain it manually.

Image of a board that has Popuko from Pop Team Epic on it.Popuko themed Nijuni case. Photograph by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

As a result of I’m a dweeb, listed below are a handful of keyboard (predominantly ergonomic break up keyboards) to begin with which have PCBs you may simply obtain, print, and doodle on. These ones don’t require too many tiny surface-mounted components and are simple to solder in your own house, though many firms like JLCPCB will promote you components and do meeting when you have the information, however that’s exterior the scope of this publish.

Right here’s some basic boards:

Corne by FoostanSofle by Josef AdamcikNijuni by krikun98Sweep (primarily based on the Ferris) by David BarrCantor by Diego PalaciosLMN-3 (a DAW in a field) by Basic Frequency

You’re going to need to obtain KiCad. It’s a free, open-source electronics design suite, and an enormous share of folks that make PCBs on-line use it. Take the challenge from the repo of your selection. Draw or choose your picture. You want one thing that pops visually in black and white, so a high-contrast picture or one thing with very nice patterns. Normally, I strive to dither and resize my pictures in one thing like Photoshop earlier than bringing them into my challenge, that approach the silkscreen isn’t too sophisticated and doesn’t want to be resized in KiCad.


The Bitmap to Component Converter in KiCad takes a second to get used to.

The Bitmap to Part Converter in KiCad takes a second to get used to. Photograph by Chris Particular person / The Verge

Now that you’ve your picture, open KiCad and choose the “Picture Converter” on the right-hand aspect. From there, you’re going to need to choose “load bitmap” and cargo no matter picture you wanna print on your PCB. You’re going to want to consider the utmost DPI that your PCB producer can deal with (300 dpi is often an excellent rule of thumb). For me, this course of is all the time lots of trial and error, however don’t get pissed off if this system crashes.

You may make liberal use of the assorted tabs to see how the picture goes to look in black and white and invert the picture if it doesn’t work with your silkscreen. More often than not, you’re going to be working with a white silkscreen, until you might be working with white FR4 wherein case the silk might be black, so preserve that in thoughts when establishing the damaging house on your artwork. You’ll be able to even up the distinction in KiCad to make the file slightly extra legible. When it appears good, it can save you it to KiCad’s footprint library. You’ll be able to all the time come again right here if the silkscreen isn’t good if you drop it on your board, and also you most likely will.

Load up your challenge. On this case, I’m going to go along with the Cantor, an exquisite PCB to begin with for numerous causes: it makes use of very low-cost STM32 “blackpill” controllers that value subsequent to nothing on AliExpress, it doesn’t use hot-swap sockets so you may see your artwork clearly, and it doesn’t require a case which reduces the variety of components you want to order or make. 

Adding your logo. In this instance, I disabled some of the silkscreens that were already on the board.

Including your brand. On this occasion, I disabled a few of the silkscreens that have been already on the board. Photograph by Chris Particular person / The Verge

As soon as your PCB is loaded up, you’re going to press “O” or click on the “load footprint” button on the right-hand aspect of the toolbar. This brings up all of the “footprints” in your library, which incorporates any silkscreens you’ll have beforehand generated. You should utilize the filter up high to rapidly slim down your selections to the artwork you simply generated. If your silkscreen is just too massive or small for the world you’ve chosen, refine it in one of many earlier steps and take a look at once more. In case you see one thing that appears like “G***,” double click on your silkscreen and choose properties, then untick “seen” to make that a part of the footprint invisible. The layers you’re going to be modifying on are often known as “F.Silkscreen” and “B.Silkscreen” for back and front, respectively. In order for you the silkscreen on the opposite layer, press “F,” and it’ll flip the silk to the opposite aspect of the board. That is useful if you would like a picture on each side of a board. Place your silk on a comparatively clear and empty a part of the board or get artistic — it’s design! To preview how the board goes to look, you may open up the 3D viewer in KiCad and rotate your board round.

A Cantor PCB with our logo.A Cantor PCB with our brand. Photograph by Chris Particular person / The Verge

Now that you’ve your artwork on a board, you’re going to have to discover a firm that manufactures PCBs. I’ve had luck with PCBWay and JLCPCB, however there are tons of them on the market like OSH Park in addition to on-line instruments you should use to compare prices

If you find yourself accomplished, you’re going to need to generate your gerber information utilizing KiCad’s fabrication options. If you’re ordering from JLCPCB particularly, there are literally useful plugins for JLCPCB and PCBway that you should use to simplify the whole course of. If you find yourself accomplished, simply zip the information up and add the compressed archive to your producer of selection. Relying on who you purchase from, it ought to generate a preview the place it’ll present you what the board appears like and offer you a number of choices for supplies, variety of layers, colours, and extra. I really like a board that pops, so I have a tendency to go along with Blue FR4 with a white silkscreen or White FR4 with a black silkscreen, however the choices range from producer to producer. OSH Park, for instance, affords a phenomenal black “After Dark” PCB with a transparent solder masks (the polymer applied to the top of copper traces — this implies you’ll have the ability to see the copper beneath it). It’s undoubtedly a premium, nevertheless it’s very good-looking, and you are able to do some very neat stuff with it.

An example of your bog-standard PCB order.

An instance of your bog-standard PCB order. Photograph by Chris Particular person / The Verge

Okay, so in my instance, I get 20 PCBs in purple FR4 with lead-free HASL from JLCPCB, which is sufficient to make about 10 boards earlier than you think about components. As with most issues, the extra you purchase the better the low cost, so think about making a bunch of those for you and your pals. The tough value right here is about 25 bucks plus delivery. If you actually need it now, you may pay a premium for one thing like DHL. I personally have a tendency to go along with the mega-cheap delivery as a result of I’m simply doing this for enjoyable and don’t care if it takes a couple of months to get right here. Your mileage, after all, could range! 

When it arrives, it’ll come vacuum-packed in slightly field and be prepared to solder and assemble. In case you acquired a keyboard, you’re going to want keyboard components, so it is sensible to order these on AliExpress on the similar time so that they get there at any time when. Alternatively, you may assist one of many many positive keyboard suppliers. However after all, this goes past merely making low-cost keyboards. I’ve gotten domesday duplicators made together with multiple arcade sticks and trackball PCBs (for sophisticated boards, it’s possible you’ll want some soldering and assembly accomplished on the manufacturing facility). The examples I’ve laid out are pretty easy. I identical to placing Pop Workforce Epic characters on my devices, however for those who grasp instruments like KiCad, you cannot solely print silkscreens, you may create elaborate artwork that integrates the prevailing copper layers into the artwork itself. (The Sweep, Urchin, Smitheii and the Draculad are good examples of this). And for those who’re really good at drawing and design? You’ll be able to turn into a power to be reckoned with. 

a:hover]:shadow-highlight-franklin darkish:[&>a:hover]:shadow-highlight-franklin [&>a]:shadow-underline-black darkish:[&>a]:shadow-underline-white”>What subsequent?

So now you’ve your circuit board with a phenomenal customized silkscreen on it. But when you concentrate on it, you’re actually only a hop, skip, and a soar away from beginning to make your own customized circuit boards. An excellent place to begin is utilizing one thing like Ergogen as an entry level into circuit design to design your own board from scratch. There’s nothing stopping you. I imply, you have already got the software program on your laptop in spite of everything. And you know the way to get boards made. When you concentrate on it, you may as properly make the leap…

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