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Converting an Inkjet Printer to Print PCBs

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SEE STEP 12 FOR NEW RESULTS AND AN ETCHING/PROJECT UPDATE!

Recently one of my focuses has been to find a way to make the PCB (Printed Circuit Board) creation process easier. I like being able to design something based on what I want in a circuit and just making it myself on the random weekend. While the toner transfer method has been my go to in the past it’s just not nearly as consistent as I would like it to be. The specific pressure of the iron and timing both make it a hit or miss approach. I’m not a fan of hit or miss I like to know something is going to work every time I try to do it. This sentiment got me exploring new ideas for PCB creation which is the topic of this project.

About a year and a half ago I found this webpage on modifying an Epson inkjet printer into a printer capable of printing on thicker materials such as copper clad board used by hobbyists such as myself to create custom circuit boards. As you'll notice that webpage is centered around an Epson C84 printer, but Epson printers are all somewhat similar so I decided to try this method on the C86 I had lying around the house.

Since I've been working on my own website (www.ryanpourcillie.com) I've documented everything about the project and thought it would be good to put it multiple places so hopefully numerous people can see it and try something new for themselves. I really tried to go into detail on everything I did in this process and the problems I had to troubleshoot because from looking around online there have been a few people who have done these modifications before, but no one really seems to have given a very good in-depth step by step build guide. Hopefully this Instructable can serve as just that.

So all that being said let's start with the tools and materials you'll need for this project:

Materials:
- Obviously you'll need some form of an Epson inkjet printer probably of the C80 family as those are the ones I have seen modifications to in the past.
- A sheet of aluminum or steel or some metal sheet (about 9 inches by 14.5 inches roughly)
- Approximately 4 feet of 1/4 inch bent (90 degree corner piece) aluminum rail
- Some type of brackets and screws to secure them with (I used 3, you'll see an image of them later on)
- Some 4 - 40 screws (I used 1/2 inch long ones)
- Nuts for said screws (I used about 16)
- A small piece of scrap plywood and some other random scraps of 2x4 or something of the sort
- Epoxy and/or hot glue
- The drivers for whichever printer and operating system you decide to use
- An ink kit from Inksupply.com (more details on this later)

Tools:
- A Dremel tool with grinding wheels to cut through metal
- Various screwdrivers
- Pliers or a socket wrench that fits the nuts or screws you'll be using
- A drill of some sort to attach the brackets
- A hot glue gun
- A heat gun

Once you've gathered all of those things you're ready to begin.
 
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shukata1 month ago

A good technique to remove all copper instead of ferric chloride is use 60ml of peroxide and 40ml of sulfuric acid, mix both and put in the plaque and it will be ready in a few minutes.

castleink3 months ago
Wow, I'm amazed that this is possible - never considered this as an option. Does the kind of ink you use matter (other than the fact that yellow works best)? Thanks, Bill Castle Ink 
dregalia4 months ago
Quick question, does it have to be yellow? Can I use magenta or some other color?
pourcirm (author)  dregalia3 months ago
From what I've seen online in various forums yellow seems to work the best so that's what I went with. I'm sure you can experiment though as I've seem magenta used before as well. Just need to make sure and get a thicker layer of ink on the board.
thrasher5299 months ago
Would this method/ink work with electrolytic etching using salt water and electricity? Or would this ink not withstand it?
pourcirm (author)  thrasher5298 months ago
I can't tell you for sure if it would withstand the salt water and electricity. I had some issues with hydrogen peroxide and hydrochloric acid eating right through the ink, but ferric chloride didn't damage it. Those are really the only two etching methods I've tried thus far with the PCBs.
fmubarik2 years ago
Can anyone tell me what is the minimum possible line thickness can be achieved
This depends on several factors the main three are (once perfect lines are produced)
The under-etching of the edges Due to (1)Etch-ant type,(2)time exposed, and the (3) irregularity of the mixes composition, (usually overcome by running through a low volume all plastic water pump ) design circuit to the amount of current the copper has to take,Otherwise eat away to zero.
pourcirm (author)  fmubarik2 years ago
Currently with the Ethernet Arduino board that I've printed and etched the thinnest trace printed would be about the size of the 74HC08 surface mount chips leads. That is to say that they are approximately .3 to .4 mm wide roughly. I don't have an exact way to measure something this small at the moment, but from the datasheet for the 74HC08 I can estimate them at about that thickness.

As for the thinnest etched spaces on the board I have a few areas that are even thinner and I would estimate at about .1 to .2 mm wide roughly. I'd venture to say probably more around the .15mm area.

I know there are a lot of others out there using this setup too and maybe some of them are getting different results, but that's what I can tell you from my experience so far. I'm working on my own board design for another project currently so once I can that board all designed and ready to print I may be able to give you more measurements straight from Eagle.
ahmed9211 months ago
thank you very much.
but have one question,can i use canon printer.
dennist11 year ago
Great write up, well written and covering all the bases. Excellent job.

I have been considering a very similar mod, but not had the time to attempt it yet. What I am considering is replacing the print head with a laser diode; which could then expose a presensitized board. This of course would require some new control boards/software - possibly Arduino based, but should be able to generate very high quality boards. First thoughts were of course just cutting the copper with the laser, but my guess on that would be a very powerful laser given the heat transfer properties of copper. Anyone ever tried either; or anyone want to take the idea that does have some time to work on it - feel free!
aliyousu1 year ago
Hello,

i had a question. I am working at a startup and we are making comic publications. We need to print rolls of size 4inch by 150 ft long! and this is on bible (thin paper). The question i had was, we cant afford these fancy large format printers which are able to do this. Neither can we outsource as the cost is too high per unit. We need to print these cheaply and with inexpensive equipment. Any ideas if it is possible to convert a normal printer into something which can print 150 feet long documents.

The print quality is only 300 DPI and black and white.

Would really appreciate some help.
aavs2 years ago
hi really like the idea, but having trouble with the ink, I thought it would be possible to use laser printer instead of ink jet....
pourcirm (author)  aavs2 years ago
I'm not 100% sure how to approach the idea of using a laser printer truthfully. There's a lot to consider that complicates the process. While you may be able to do it I don't think it will prove to be nearly as simple as this modification was. The laser printer has a more complicated system with the fact that it uses toner and then as the name suggests has a laser which melts or sets the toner powder into an actual ink. If you do try to modify a laser printer let me know as I think it would be quite interesting, but I don't know how much help I can give you without directly having access to the printer and seeing the inner workings that need modification.
The laser only writes the image onto the drum. The photo conductive drum is charged with a positive charge. The laser writes onto the drum, where the laser hits, the drum becomes conductive and discharges the positive charge. Positively charged toner particles then stick to the uncharged parts of the drum. The paper is negativley charged and the toner transfers from the drum to the paper. The paper and toner go through heated rollers (like a laminator) and the plastic toner melts and fuses to the paper.

Two main problems in conversion are,
The paper path is never straight, impossible to make it so without very major modifications.
The copper on the PCB will not hold a static charge as it is conductive.

Though if anyone does do it I would be very interested in seeing it. :)
beatyruth aavs2 years ago
I haven't tried it myself, but I have a friend that uses his laser printer to print out the PCB drawing on parchment paper, then transfers it to the board by ironing it on. I've heard of others using regular paper the same way
pourcirm (author)  beatyruth2 years ago
That's the typical method of making homemade PCBs. My upgrade to this system was to make more intricate and more consistent boards. There are a lot of options out there though if you search Instructables for other methods.
ryanbou1 year ago
Awesome work. Question- could a laser printer be modified in this same way to directly print toner onto a board?
I would say probably not.

The paper path in most laser printers is a sideways U.  That means the paper has to bend around the drum and rollers, a normal PCB won't.

Even if you could get a laser printer with a straight path the PCB is too thick and you would need to modify the actual drum/toner assembly and the fuser assembly.  Not easy at all.

Lastly the transfer of toner to paper relies on a static charge given to the paper to attract the toner.  I don't think the conductive copper will hold the charge well enough, if at all.
pourcirm (author)  ryanbou1 year ago
I have been curious about the same thing actually. The short answer is I'm not sure.

The longer answer is it would depend on the construction of the printer and how easily you could "lift" it. Factor into that the different printhead system and whatever other mechanisms a laser printer might have and it could complicate the build. I don't really have access to a "junk" laser printer so I haven't been able to test this idea out. I'd need to take it apart and look at the specific printer to decide how to go about modifying it.

If you do decide to try it and are successful or find some helpful things out make sure to let me know as I would like to try that in the future.
switch621 year ago
Well done, very thorough instructable.  Especially your experiments and results on etching.

I've been converting an Epson T21 but for various reasons haven't finished it yet (over 3 years !) 

The T21 has the whole printing mechanisim and electronics on a vertical steel plate that is held by 2 screws to the base.  I just need spacers under the screws to raise it, no cutting, no brackets.  I was lucky on that part.

 I really should finish it and put up an instructable.
fedey2k11 year ago
Hi, Did you modify the programming if not then how did you tell the printer to only print with the cartridge you filled with the yellow ink, or did you fill all of them???
pourcirm (author)  fedey2k11 year ago
You could fill all of the cartridges if you'd like to and then you wouldn't have to worry about what color printed, but I didn't go that far. I only filled the black ink cartridge.

I've just been designing things in all black and then printing them using a black and white option in the printer settings and that has been working fine.

Additionally the program I use the most with this printer is EAGLE and it has an option on the print screen to only print in black which thus far has worked fine for me.
No-Shi-De1 year ago
I just thought somebody has to say this... your a smart person...
rohanmk1 year ago
Dear Sir,Your video is not available here.
qualia2 years ago
i was recently thinking about hacking a printer like this for a slightly different purpose, and i checked instructables to see if it was already done by someone else, this was the closest. my idea was to mount a lightscribe DVD burner laser on the printer head of a cheapish $50 printer (bought the DVD drive, not the printer yet) and link it up so that as well as depositing ink it could reduce graphite oxide film into graphene, on a glass or, (optimistically)- a cellulose acetate substrate for the purpose of making an active matrix pixel array for creating OLED displays (including the field effect transistors+capacitors for each pixel in the same process, using the semiconducting and conducting properties of the graphite oxide and graphene, respectively), the electroluminescent doped polymers could possibly be dissolved in acetone or perhaps a weaker solvent that wouldnt attack a printer cartridge too much, then printed over the transparent graphene electrodes, one for each subpixel in alternating formation according to the RGB dopants and corresponding subpixel.

the idea i had was having the printer rollers actually moving the entire printer along rack and pinion type rails on each side of the build surface, and i wasnt sure if the steppers would be powerful enough, got some heartier steppers around though, but different current ratings to most printer steppers so i'd have to make a breakout board to drive them if i had to use them for it. (which would be fairly straight-forward, i got a cnc lathe/mill and a UV LED PCB developing glass table)

anyway, what my question really is, would you know of how to mess with the printer driver program and/or circuitry to use it as a plotter as well, so it could laser reduce graphene oxide in continuous lines while changing from one axis to another instead of rastering? rastering would be fine for the deposition of the EL polymer but i think the graphene would have a more continuous molecular formation if it was reduced as a continuous trace.

apologies for lack of caps and the grammar, i are retard.

i would very much appreciate a reply if you have any information i might find useful to achieve this objective.
booga0072 years ago
Very well done. Something that I might try in the future.

Is is just me, or does the final etched product seem rough around the edges for the copper pads and traces, doesn't look very clean in the pictures?
If this is the case, would a better quality printer be the way to a better etch, or is it simply the "DIY"ness of it all that produces the 'rough' results?
pourcirm (author)  booga0072 years ago
The first boards I did while still testing the printer and trying to iron out the kinks do have rough edges on them yes.

As I got everything fixed and calibrated right though the boards got better. I have pictures of the better board I made in there a few places, but now that I know exactly how long to preheat the boards for and how to set the ink better and have a better etching tank the boards are coming out smooth.

I haven't had a chance to post anything new recently because it's been pretty cold outside and I haven't been able to etch boards yet. The new etching tank is nice, but the bubbling ferric chloride isn't something I like to use inside very much. I'm working on designing a few of my own boards currently and when I get a chance to etch them I plan on posting updated photos.
ARJOON2 years ago
i still don't believe my eyes. this instructables is incredilble. big thanks. will make one because i have the same printer
skrubol2 years ago
Is there something about the MIS ink that makes it more suitable for this task than other pigment inks?
pourcirm (author) 2 years ago
Just wanted to post a comment and thank everyone who voted for me and viewed my Instructable. I'm a finalist in the Epilog Challenge and I really appreciate it. Here's hoping I can win and bring you more cool projects with that Zing laser cutter.
wizejester2 years ago
Thank you so much. I have been dreaming of something like this for a while but have been to busy (way too lazy) to go through the trial and error myself. I look forward to building one of these soon. You definitely have my vote for most awesome in show!
pourcirm (author)  wizejester2 years ago
The build really isn't all that hard once you've got a plan of attack for everything and it's definitely worth the time you put in because my new boards are coming out very nicely now that I have the heating and etching problems sorted out. Hope the build goes well for you and thanks for the vote it's much appreciated.
profpat2 years ago
interesting!!! great work!
pourcirm (author)  profpat2 years ago
Thanks. It was a fun project to work on and the goal of better PCBs made it even more so.
Hi, I'm moderator of Homebrew_PCBs and Inkjet_PCB_Construction on Yahoogroups, which is where a lot of the information on Massmind.com comes from.

I would suggest that you put MISPRO yellow in all four cartridges. It can be very difficult to get an inkjet printer to print from only one ink shade. More printheads printing may mean more dots filled in, too.

As for the curing, from all reports the temperature and hold time are very important. Volkan, the gentleman who first discovered this process of printing and heat curing pigmented ink, would heat it to the point where the copper just turns purple and hold it there. Others have experimented and found that holding it at 230C/446F for about 3 minutes does the trick, but that it is a very narrow window of temperature.

I just ordered a "Mini SMD Preheater" 21-10135 from MCM that is a hot air rework station, set the board on top of it and it heats between 100C and 350C, temperature controlled. My intention is to use it for pigment ink cure and SMD reflow soldering. I got it on sale earlier today for $40. A toaster oven with a better thermostat should work, too.

To the gentleman asking about using an HP inkjet printer, as you mentioned the MISPRO pigmented inks probably won't work since just about every desktop HP inkjet printer is a bubblejet and uses dye colors. However, there is the hybrid toner method - print using any ink, as long as it doesn't run, and dust laser toner across the ink. The ink stays tacky for quite a long time on a nonporous surface. Then heat until the toner turns shiny.
pourcirm (author)  Polymorph2 years ago
Thanks for the advice and info. I've been contemplating filling multiple cartridges, but I have yet due to the fact that I don't have any other empty ones to use at the moment. I figured that would get some better coverage.

You are correct that temperature window is very narrow. I bought that heat gun and it was effective, but so touchy to not overheat the board and to try and keep everything uniformly heated. You'll have to update me on that SMD Preheater. I've been thinking of moving to mostly or all SMD parts too, but just haven't quite committed yet. I like the idea of a dual function tool, hopefully that product works out for you.

Glad to hear more input and advice though for sure. I know you guys have quite a thread going and have more ideas and insight than I could probably imagine right now.
batmat2 years ago
Very well. Congratulations.
t.rohner2 years ago
Interesting instructable.

But the quality is not yet there...
Maybe you should try mild solvent inks.
I work with large format printers, that also use Epson Printheads.
Most of them use modified heads. The printhead itself withstands pretty harsch organic solvents, it's the plastic part on top, that needs to be of a different material. (compared to a standard waterbased printhead)
There are certain mild solvent inks, that work with unmodified Epson heads.
Used in "Freejet" nontextile printers for example.
And there are also inks with a completely different chemistry like these:
http://www.sepiax.com/anwendungen-en

What would work pretty sure, are the Roland UV-inks used for example in the LEF-12. But the price tag of those machines might be a bit prohibitive.
But i could make some experiments with different inks.

I have access to machines with many different inks. Many of them flatbed machines. Maybe i make some test boards.

So does this mean that an inkjet printer could directly print etchant onto a copper board ?

Then just a short wait and a quick rinse . . ? Now that would save some acid !

Hold on . . . wouldn't this cause massive unemployment in the acid industry ?
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