Introduction: Fast and Easy PCB Prototyping With Vinyl!

Hello everybody !!!
One of the most aggravating things when creating DIY circuits is the making of the PCB.
Up till now, DIY methods require alot of work and time on each board.

If you have struggled with other methods of DIY PCB prototyping you've likely figured out the hard way that they can be frustrating - provide spotty results - and require alot of steps and work.

Well here's another method to throw into the bag of tricks that might just work out for you!
It's really only 3 steps and turns out perfect everytime!!!!

This method has served me very well over and over for dozens of boards!
It uses a vinyl cutter/plotter to create a mask in vinyl to resist the ferric chloride etchant.

WHAT YOU NEED:
- Prepared vinyl mask (if you don't have a vinyl cutter - sign shops and many hackerspaces do!)
- Etchant solution and glass or plastic tray
- Fingernail Polish remover and acetone safe container
- Blank copperclad PCB
- Standard chemical safety materials - gloves, eye protection, etc
- Pliers/Tongs

That's about it!

We will skim over how to design and cut the pcb design into vinyl and at this point assume that you have a cutter or know someone with access to one (local hackerspace or even a local sign shop!) 
It's the same as making any vinyl cut sticker.

See the additional pictures in this intro for some educational pictures of the preparation of a vinyl sticker in this step.

Next Step! - Placing the mask onto the PCB

Step 1: STEP ONE - PLACING THE MASK ONTO THE PCB

STEP ONE - PLACING THE MASK ONTO THE PCB

This only takes about one minute.
Notice that I'm doing two boards at once! 

This is much faster than the iron on method - you don't even have to clean the board or prepare it for the mask!

Place the vinyl mask paper side up and remove the wax paper backing by peeling it up and over.

The clear transfer tape holds the vinyl in place!

Line up the mask and lay it onto the blank PCB.
The clear transfer tape makes alignment as easy as it can be!

Once it's down - use a squeegee, plastic card, or just your fingernail to rub the top of the transfer tape thus pushing the vinyl to the board.

Starting from one corner - peel the transfer tape off and the vinyl mask will stay onto the copperclad PCB.


NEXT - STEP TWO  Etching the PCB

Step 2: STEP TWO - ETCHING THE PCB

STEP TWO - ETCHING THE PCB

FOLLOW ALL INSTRUCTIONS AND WARNINGS THAT APPLY TO YOUR PCB ETCHANT!

This step is the same with any method of DIY PCB etching!

CAUTION!   Regardless of how you make your mask - this is NASTY stuff if you are sloppy or careless.
again:

FOLLOW ALL INSTRUCTIONS AND WARNING THAT APPLY TO YOUR PCB ETCHANT!
Use gloves (stains and chemicals)
Etch in ventilated area (fumes)
Don't be CARELESS or SLOPPY (this can be serious stuff!)
Do not reuse the tray/bath for anything but etchant!

As far as how-to do this step - there are many instructables that cover it.
The best instructions are the ones that come with your etchant chemical.
You MUST ALWAYS follow instructions from your etchant manufacturer.

The basic steps are here in picture - and use paper towels to soak and wipe off any residual solution from your etched board when etching is done..
When doing the final rinse with water (not shown)  - again - observe precautions stated on your etchant manufacturer's directions.
DO NOT RINSE IN AN OUTDOOR AREA WHERE ANIMALS FREQUENT!

OK - that's enough BOLD and ITALICIZED warnings for you...

On to the rewards!

NEXT STEP - FINISHING!

Step 3: STEP THREE - REMOVE THE MASK AND BE PROUD!

STEP THREE - REMOVE THE MASK

You can peel the vinyl off by hand - one piece at a time but that would make this method as painful and time consuming as the other DIY PCB methods.

This method requires no work or scrubbing off toner by hand.
You can do 100 PCB's as easy as doing one!
Imagine ironing and scrubbing 100 PCB's.  EEK!

Here's the last trick -
Take some standard acetone based fingernail polish remover and soak the board for a minute or two.
The adhesive on the vinyl softens and the vinyl just slides into a nice bundle of synthetic "seaweed" to be scooped up.
The acetone in the polish remover can melt some plastics (notably ABS types) so make sure that your tub is acetone safe or just use a glass dish.
Do not reuse the container for anything but acetone.

Pull out the board... pat dry and rinse in water!

Yep - THAT'S IT!
I told you it was easy!

Step 4: FINISH !!!

FINISH!

I want to give special thanks to Yves Usson for allowing me to use his PCB design in this instructable.
The PCB shown is for a Quadrature LFO (Low Frequency Oscillator) from his amazing modular DIY synth -
The Yusynth at http://www.yusynth.net !

Check it out!  It's amazing!

I hope this technique will help you produce perfect pcbs every time, faster, and with less work!
It sure does for me!  I can make a dozen PCB's in FAR less time than it takes me to make ONE with the heat transfer/toner method!

Comments

author
mathew.adair.5 made it!(author)2015-02-06

Instructions look interesting, but you should know that a lot is two words.

author
rupin.chheda made it!(author)2014-05-09

I have tried the laser ablation method and it works wonders. I just cover my board with matt spray paint up to 3 coats and then laser etch away the color that needs to be exposed as copper.

the success of this process is highly dependant on a good solid stickiness of vinyl to copper. on straight planar surfaces, its never a problem, but its worthwhile to recheck that it has no bubbles.

vinyl is also stretchy when a little heat is applied, so make sure you don't squeege it too hard.

as an alternate, can we have the opposite parts weeded so that tracks are exposed, then spray paint as a stencil, remove the vinyl and then etch?

author
stevfuri made it!(author)2014-01-31

This is just the instructable I was looking for! I want to see this trick about getting all the holes in the right place. Seems like that's the really time consuming part.

author
rob342 made it!(author)2013-10-26

hey, found this using google. glad to see this works! I own a sign shop. just designed my first circuit board in corel draw and i'm getting ready to cut it out of vinyl. for etching do you use muriatic acid and peroxide, or vinegar, peroxide, and salt? -rob

here's my design. it'll be a arduino powered wifi car starter for a PT cruiser that will stack onto the arduino, held in place with header pins (:

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author
nelsonwong90s made it!(author)2013-06-30

Amazing!

author
jacoertze made it!(author)2013-06-21

Using vinyl worked like a charm, thanks man!

author
xKOBAYASHIMARUx made it!(author)2013-05-17

Firstly cudos! I'm really likin this method. Secondly, would it be possible to simply cut away the vinyl around the pads and leave the rest therefore creating a type of solder mask on the board? Maybe by using a high temp vinyl so that it doesn't melt when an iron is near to it?

author
HarveyH44 made it!(author)2011-12-09

Interesting, but got a hunch it's not much better than what I use. Also kind of disagree about not cleaning the copper before hand. Oxidation and greasy fingerprints can mess up an etch too.

I really like the toner transfer method, since I'm doing the design on the computer anyway. I use the Pulsar Fx paper, and seldom fails. I transfer it with a hot laminator. The paper releases quickly, completely. No need to soak, or scrub paper pulp. After the etching, toner wipes off easy with a paper towel soaked in acetone. And I mean wipes off, no scrubbing here either, it just dissolves away.

About the only better way, would be a CNC router, which could also drill those holes too. Maybe some day...

author
BitBoink made it!(author)2011-12-10

One of the big reasons I like the vinyl method is that it's very forgiving of stuff like prep work and such.
I honestly just take the new board with no care at all and put the vinyl sticker or mask on it.
Dunk in into the FeCl - pat excess off after etch... wash... dunk in fingernail polish remover - vinyl just falls off but stays solid for easy disposal - and then wash again. no scrubbing and stuff!

Thing is - cutting out a bunch of small steps is really useful when making a big board.

Also - if your cutter is calibrated well... SOIC and really small traces come out just as perfect - all depends on the quality of the cut!

It's just an alternative method... they each have their pro's and con's of course... and we all have preferences. I repurpose the use of a cutter in many ways... so I'm really used to weeding and applying really fast.

Maybe I'm just terrible at the toner transfer method... always a little spotty for me...and burning boards and finding out after is terribly expensive. Not to mention alot of prep work for say 10-20 boards in a run.

Cheers - thanks for the comment!

author
mincior made it!(author)2012-08-22

You can try vinyl sticker and laser printer for toner transfer pcb. I can show you If you want.

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author
pfred2 made it!(author)2011-12-10

I'm with you for cleaning the copper, it is essential.

I messed up 2 toner cartridges for my laser printer using the toner transfer method and PNP-Blue. At $150 a cartridge that can get a bit pricey. I don't do it anymore. Photo resist is the best method.

I can't agree with you that milling is better than etching. It is slower, the tooling costs more, and it cannot achieve anywhere near the resolution chemical etching does. Milling also sets you up for ragged edges and random string shorts because copper doesn't machine cleanly. It tears and smears a lot. Has a bad habit of sticking on bits too. It is a mess. I know people do it but then again people bungee jump naked too. Which is saying that not everyone is always doing the smartest things in their spare time.

I'd imagine if milling was better then every commercial board house on the planet would be doing it, but none of them do. They all etch. They CNC drill, but I bet if they could figure out a way to etch the holes they'd be doing that too!

author
bmcminn406 made it!(author)2012-05-28

Are you using any particular kind of vinyl? My ma runs a vinyl cutting business that I'm frequently doing designs for so I have access to the materials and it's far easier for me than acquiring a laser printer.

I've looked around and haven't seen any vinyl that is specifically chemical resistant, other than sand blast resistant vinyl, so most stock vinyl should be resistant to FeCl, right?

Just wanting to make sure before I dive into printing and etching 5 circuits and eats up the vinyl.

author
gtoal made it!(author)2012-04-29

"I think it is fairly safe to say that about 99.99999% of the population has no access to a vinyl cutter. I might be off +/- by a decimal place or two there though."

Actually you're way off. There are probably more vinyl cutters out there than there are CNCs (or guys making PCBs) - they're just in the hands of a totally different user base that you probably don't interact with much.

Next time you're in a Hobby Lobby or Michaels, check out the Cricut section.
Big mass market stuff. And the folks who take it seriously have a choice of dozens of other brands they can get (usually by mail order - Cricut has the high-street shops sewn up) with differing capabilities (bed sizes, cut depth, pressure settings, etc) and prices. But for around $400 you can get a well-engineered tool that will let you cut arbitrary designs. In comparison a CNC is more expensive, and an old style pen plotter is harder to find on the used market nowadays.

Now, to change the subject - has anyone experimented with paint-on etchant such as Armor Etch? Sold in Hobby Lobby etc for etching glass.

regards,

Graham

author
agguilar made it!(author)2012-03-07

WEEDING IS THE FUN PART!! LOL.... NICE WORK !!!

author
BitBoink made it!(author)2012-03-17

It is unless you weed 1000 things in one sitting! Haha

author
ovidiumincea made it!(author)2012-01-16

Hi,

What kind of cutter plotter do you use and what is smallest trace that you can achieve?

Thanks,
Ovidiu

author
BitBoink made it!(author)2012-01-27

I use a 15 year old GBC 101 I think?
I think it's a roland clone... very basic standard cutter plotter.
It's really not calibrated as well as it should be but even so I can get soic traces even though it's sometimes hard to weed because the condition of my cutter.

It seems to be limited by only how small the cutter can cut - which will vary from cutter to cutter and condition of it.

author
pfred2 made it!(author)2011-12-10

First off the instructions on your etching bottle likely aren't the best. Remember they're in the business of selling you solution, not to be confused with solutions. So it isn't in their best interests for you to get the life out of their product that you should. They're not going to tell you about HCL spiking. They're not going to tell you the optimum temperature to process at. They're also not going to tell you to oxidize during the process either. The sooner you declare your acid beat and buy more the sooner they can book that flight to Hawaii.

Second I've only ever seen one vinyl cutter once in my life. They're not very common equipment. So the whole premise of your article is like saying it is easy to get rich as long as you have a goose that lays golden eggs. The hard part of course is getting the goose to begin with. Any Jack with magic beans can tell me that!

If you have robots with lasers to make then I suggest you get to it. I don't think a Shopbot will help you with that task.

Aloha.

author
BitBoink made it!(author)2011-12-10

Hmm... not sure what to say to all of that.
As far as the chemical comments... I think it safest that someone unfamiliar should be urged to read the warnings. If you already know about it all - then those comments shouldn't really apply to you. I just went with what I felt was most sensible for the general public which sometimes involves children or teens - and it's usually best to push carefulness when regarding chemicals... I know that when I was young that I would have just jumped in fast! This is my first instructable - and as I have written laboratory manuals in the past - I was actually trying not to go too crazy on the overstressing safety issues. From my experience though - you never know what someone will assume and I feel it my responsibility in part if instructions are not stressing of safety and care. If a company doesn't have their customer in honest interest and tries to sell more product - I have no control or place to comment on that.

If you don't have a cutter or access to one - well it's not quite a goose that lays golden eggs. I know that they are much more common than they used to be (It was pretty high tech when I got my first one 15 years ago). I hope some people that have access to one might find this useful.

Your last comment makes me wonder if I offended you somehow.
I'm sorry if I did - but I was just trying to share!

Cheers!

author
pfred2 made it!(author)2011-12-10

I'm sorry you took it that way. It was not my intent. I was just sharing too!

You know water is treated with Ferric Chloride so it can't be that dangerous. Being as people drink the stuff all the time.

My comment about the label was more what the label lacks. Which is any decent information on how to get any performance at all out of the product. Nothing a little HCL and H2SO4 can't fix up though.

I think it is fairly safe to say that about 99.99999% of the population has no access to a vinyl cutter. I might be off +/-  by a decimal place or two there though.

You don't even know me so I am offended that you think you could offend me :) I was born and bred in Jersey. I'm a big boy. It takes more than most can muster to offend me. Although every time I say anything someone gets horribly offended. What? What'd I say?

I know some rivers not too far from where I grew up that if you dunk your boards in them you should get a good etch. heh

author
Uggswhiteguy made it!(author)2012-01-03

* Plotters are very easy to find, every sign shop has them. They can't make vinyl signs without them. Unless they are printing every single sign in color which at that point you need to find another sign company. You can also make your own CNC Plotter/Mill to cut your very own vinyl right on instructables. You can make quite a bit of money cutting vinyl at a flee market for stickfigure car stickers. So you estimate of 99.99999% is way off since anyone can walk to a sign shop (Or sticker booth). So please refrain from bashing someone elses ideas with bad information.

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