Acid Etching Printed Circuit Boards

Introduction: Acid Etching Printed Circuit Boards

About: I have been working in IT since the mid 1980's. Most of that has been database and application development. I've been working on Internet application development since the late 1980's. I've just moved back ...

I've been playing with the toner transfer method of producing printed circuit boards for some time now and I've met with varying degrees of success. This is a reproduction of my blog article that I thought that I would provide here as an instructable.

Making your own printed circuit boards doesn't need to be expensive or difficult, but there are some tricks that I've learned along the way that may help you to be more successful than not.

In case you are not aware of the process ... here it is in a nutshell:

  1. Design your circuit in software. Fritzing is my preference, there are several others out there … but after evaluating a few, Fritzing is a good match for my knowledge, experience and the way I design.
  2. Print your circuit in mirror format on a laser printer. This really is the heart of the toner transfer method. Laser toner contains particles of plastic. These particles are “welded” together and onto the paper. When you heat the toner sufficiently, it becomes sticky and will adhere to another surface.
  3. Place the printed image (print side down) onto your copper clad board.
  4. Iron the paper into the board using a hot iron.
  5. Soak the paper away from the board.
  6. Immerse the board into an acid bath.
  7. Clean off the toner.


I do not take ANY responsibility for you playing the idiot with acid. If you are a minor, YOU MUST GET YOUR PARENT/GUARDIAN TO ASSIST OR GIVE IT UP NOW!

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Step 1: Paper

The paper that you use in your laser printer is important. Some folk swear by using (recycling) magazine paper. This is, typically, a thin, semi-gloss to glossy paper. Others say to use a good quality photographic paper. I’ve experimented with different papers a bit and, for my money, a fair quality A4 laser printing paper (80gsm) is good enough. I get more consistent results using printer paper than anything else.

When you put your printed image on the copper clad board, cut it down to size first.

I used to use sticky tape to hold the paper onto the board. I've experimented a little here and I think that the easiest approach is to iron a corner down first, being careful not to iron your fingers while you hold it down to the board. Remember, copper is an excellent conductor of heat, so it will burn you if you hold it too long.

Once you have a corner ironed down, cover the entire surface of the board and paper with the iron and press it down.

Step 2: Ironing

If you are ironing the PCB on an ironing board … the ironing board will be your enemy. It has too much give and the PCB will wobble away from the heat with pressure. Additionally, the paper will tend to cup away from the board and you will get a smeared transfer. By all means, use that ironing board, but put a piece of wood under your PCB (at least as long and wide as the iron is long). That’ll stop the PCB getting an uneven heat and will improve your transfer immeasurably.

The time that you take with the iron is another bone of contention. Some folk say to iron that board for 4 minutes, well, I’m here to tell you that I iron for about 2 minutes, 2 1/2 minutes tops. I’ve had the paper char and start to smoke if I go even close to 4 minutes.

Step 3: Soak the Paper Off

Soaking is good … but soak in hot water. I will boil the jug before I set the iron to the board. When I’ve ironed the transfer enough, I’ll set the iron aside and pour about 3 cm of boiling water into an old ice-cream container and then drop the board straight in. When the water is cool (that is, almost cold), then I’ll take the board out of the water and rub the paper away.If you need to, boil the kettle again and re-soak to get any persnickety bits of paper away from the board.

You can repeat the soaking process as many times as you like ... it's not going to ruin the board or the paper.

However, if your board is the really cheap bonded paper material, best not to soak it too much. Test the board to make sure. Really, you want a fiberglass or phenolic plastic base. Look for boards that are "FR".

Step 4: Cleanup and Testing

When you’ve removed the paper, you may notice that you’ve got some gaps or holes in your transfer. Well, that happens. The thing to do to recover from this situation is to fill in the gaps with a pen that uses an etch resistant ink. If you go online and you search for etch resistant pens … expect to pay a lot. If you are not as rich as Croesus, then go to your stationers or art shop and buy a Staedtler Lumocolor Permanent marker. They come in a range of thicknesses from (what I’ve seen, this isn’t a definitive list) M medium to F fine … there’s a S small? in there too … but I haven’t really looked at it’s nib. I have a Medium tip, and it does me pretty well and only cost me $4.05 AUD from the art supply store (Artery, in Hobart). I tried using a Chinagraph pencil as well, for comparison, and found that, while it does lay down an etch resistant material, the line is sketchy and leaves me with a pitted and scratched looking trace. I guess that is because of the way that the pencil works on a hard surface. I also tried some free-hand squiggles with the marker, and it worked out just dandy. Of course, Staedtler isn’t the only manufacturer that makes a permanent ink marker with etch resistant properties, but that’s what I’ve tried and succeeded with.

The art supply shop also showed me some other etch resistant materials. One, that comes in a 120ml bottle at $44 is used in lithography and so I guess that would work well. The other a snip at $22 for a 200ml bottle was a very thin latex that is used in a variety of other artistic pursuits, such as watercolour and silk screen printing. The down side to these other materials is that they are applied with a paint brush. Now, I have plenty of fine paint brushes from my war gaming days and I concede that on a per millilitre basis, even the $44 bottle is much cheaper than the marker, but I baulk at having to paint it on with a brush … my eyesight ain’t that good any more. At this stage, you should also clean off the sticky residue from the sticky tape with some Isopropyl alcohol (also from the Chemist). The sticky crap is also acid resistant and will leave messy copper splotches on your PCB.

Step 5: Acid Bath

When it comes to acid baths, there are really only two choices. Ferric Chloride or Cupric Acid. Ferric Chloride is too much of a pain for me and is much more expensive. Cupric Acid, on the other hand, is much cheaper and easily obtained. Simply mix 2 parts Hydrogen Peroxide with 1 part Hydrochloric Acid and you get the basis of your etchant. The Hydrogen Peroxide comes from the chemists (yes, that’s right, the stuff people use to make their hair blonde). The Hydrochloric Acid comes from the hardware store (in the brick cleaning section). The main downside to this acid is that the peroxide evaporates fairly quickly, so only make enough for what you are doing today, don’t expect it to be useful tomorrow. Also, make sure you add the acid to the peroxide, not the other way around. Exploding baths of acid in your face can be a bummer. Dispose of your waste material by taking it to a chemical waste site … NOT by tipping it down your sink (even if you neutralize the acid with salt, it is still poison). Cupric acid will take a while to etch your board, so don’t plan on either populating your board immediately, OR, leaving it unattended. It’s really not a good idea to sit your PCB in the acid and then go shopping, too many things could happen that could really ruin your day.

When your board is properly etched it will be a bit transparent. You can test the etchedness of your board by taking it out of the bath and giving it a thorough rinse and dry and then hold it up to the light. You should see your copper traces clearly through the board. If this is OK, then get out your multimeter and switch to continuity test. Test the board by placing the anode (or cathode, it doesn’t matter which) on a trace and the other one (cathode or anode) onto the field of the PCB … where there isn’t supposed to be any copper. If you get a beep, then it’s back to the bath. You might also want to do a regular continuity test from one end of each trace to the other to make sure that your traces are, well, continuous.

You will still end up with gaps, sometimes, the way to fix this is to make a solder bridge over the breaks.
The image above is of a 4 x 5 LED matrix that I made (a cheap desk lamp). There are two spots on the board (with red borders) that are such gaps in the trace. For these, I made a solder bridge by building up a fillet of solder at both ends of the break and then dragging the soldering iron across the gap, the solder followed the iron and a bridge was formed. If you have gaps that a solder bridge wont fix, solder in a small amount of copper core wire. Go over the entire board with a multimeter on continuity test to make sure all of the traces are complete. Sometimes, the gap is microscopic and this is the only way to find your faults.

Step 6: Rinse the Board and Clean Off the Toner

So now your board is thoroughly etched, rinsed and tested. Now you want to clean off the etch resistant toner/marker. For this, you’ll need to raid your wife/daughters vanity for some acetone. Alternatively, you can buy your own when you go to the chemists to buy your hydrogen peroxide. Apply some acetone to a cotton swab, cotton bud, tissue, thumb, and rub the offending marks away “Out! Out! Damned spot!” ( I thought that Lady Macbeth was trying to get rid of her dog). You may need to discard the blackened cloth/swab/bud and get another to complete the job.

Step 7: Populate the Board

At this stage, you should have a usable PCB that is just waiting to be drilled and populated. Compare it to your on-screen circuit design, it is not uncommon to have your PCB back to front because you mixed up the positive and negative images. I know I’ve done it enough. You can cut your dud PCB into little pendants and earrings for your Wife/Girlfriend/Daughter, honestly … they’ll love them (sure).

Step 8: Silkscreen

For a truly cheap alternative to silk screening on a PCB, simply print a copy of the silk side of the PCB and glue it to the top of the board. I spread poly vinyl acetate (white wood glue - PVA) over the board and then lay the paper over the top and then I coat the paper with more PVA to seal it.

The image above is of an Arduino shield that I made (an ICSP for an ATTiny85).

Alternatively, you can use the same toner transfer method to transfer the mirrored image onto the front of the board.

With careful management and good luck, you will be able to make your own PCB quickly and cheaply, just remember, you ARE creating toxic waste that you need to deal with.

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2 Discussions


5 years ago on Introduction

Wow! Lots of great information from your experience. I'll add one other method for repairing gaps in the mask. Back in the day, before laser printers existed, we had to lay out the graphics for PCBs using dry transfers. You can still buy sheets of solder pads and trace lines. In the US, a popular chain of electronics stores, Radio Shack, still stocks them. You can get them other places online, too. I wouldn't want to make a whole board that way. But for touching up a mistake, they work well. Thanks again for posting.


Reply 5 years ago on Introduction

Thanks for your kind words. I haven't played with transfers at all, so it's good to get some info about them, thanks!