Homemade PCB Making Woes

I’ve been trying for several weeks now to perfect the process of homemade PCB creation. So far I haven’t had much success. When I made the PCB for the vUSB Powered Easy Button I used the coveted Staples Inkjet Photo Paper with my HP LaserJet printer and it worked wonderfully. It did take a few tries but the results were pretty good in the end.

I’m working on a very large LED matrix message board/sign that will be the topic of several posts. The current design of the sign uses over 160 small circuit boards. I’ve chosen to do small boards since I’ll be able to run most of the wire over shorter runs and lose less power in wire length. The problem is that I need to make 160 or so identical boards and I don’t want to have to give multiple tries on the same board.

So… I did a lot of research. I bought different kinds of paper, tried various techniques of ironing on the different kinds of paper, and even looked into cheap(er) CNC solutions. There were a few ideas/solutions/techniques that came up a ton - Press n Peel Blue, Pulsar brand Toner Transfer Paper with their GreenTRF for sealing the toner, Staples brand paper, and standard used magazine paper. That is only for the printing of the circuit design. There is a slew of solutions for transferring that print out to the copper clad board – household iron, laminator (looks promising), and I saw one guy that took 2 plates of metal, screwed them together and put them on a gas stove for 10-15 minutes…

I’ve tried most of these methods and never could get consistently good results. Most of my attempts end up looking more like this…

IMAG0225

That was using Pulsar’s Toner Transfer Paper with an iron. This iron in fact:

IMAG0217

The board was cleaned with Acetone and then dried prior to the transfer. The board shown above was one of the best transfers I was able to make using the Pulsar paper with an iron…

Most of the boards would come out looking more like this:

IMAG0222

Looks great while in the water. Remember, the toner is supposed to stick (VERY WELL) at this point or it failed to do it’s job. One thing I thought was freaking awesome, the paper just slide right off. This picture was taken without agitating the water at all. I walked into the other room and back and it was off like this, maybe 45 seconds wait time. Anyway, here is what happens when you dry it off:

IMAG0228

This was after several hours of constant printing, cutting, cleaning, ironing, dipping, wiping, and finally getting disappointed. The results were always failure. I couldn’t find anything I was doing that was inherently wrong. I even made a simple ‘jig’ for my iron to keep it from slipping as I tried applying various different amounts of pressure.

<Jig Picture Coming Soon>

At my wits end I finally went over to the computer to start doing some more research as to what is going wrong. With the different keywords I was using now I started to find more and more people saying they gave up on using an iron because of inconsistent results, but even they said they had success using an iron… It seems like a good majority of people suggest using a laminator and resorting only to an iron if you either don’t have one or can’t justify spending the money on one. And well.. I was to the point that I would buy something that worked ALMOST no matter what it cost!

Since I just forked the money for the Pulsar paper I also figured I might as well email them and ask what they suggest. I also told them that their laminator was discontinued no matter where I looked. To my surprise, the next day the Pulsar site was updated with a new suggested laminator! It seems they noticed the problem sometime in January and have been looking. Within about 10 minutes (and about $80) of following their link to Amazon I had a laminator on the way. I’ll update you guys with the results of using a laminator instead. I’ll also retry using magazine paper with the laminator and see how that goes.

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