Crowd-sourcing meets digital fabrication to bring PCB manufacture down to affordable levels.
If you get into DIY electronics, sooner or later you’re going to want to design and build your own circuits. If your circuit is really basic, you can probably get away with using a solderless breadboard. Because you don’t need to solder anything to make connections, breadboards allow you to try things out really easily, but they’re no good if you want something more permanent.
The next logical step is stripboard (aka veroboard, perfboard) which is essentially a piece of fibreglass with a grid of holes drilled into it. This provides a physical foundation to lay out your circuit. This is an affordable and flexible solution, but it gets less and less viable as the complexity of your circuit increases: it’s really easy to wire something up incorrectly.
The ideal solution is to use a printed circuit board (PCB), which has all the holes to mount your components, as well as all the copper connections in place. If you’re really keen you can make your own PCBs at home with a laser printer, toner-transfer paper, laminator, and chemical etching bath.
In the last few years however, a couple of services have popped up that have opened up the technology of professional PCB manufacture to hobbyists. The first of these was BatchPCB, a Sparkfun offshoot that allows users to have their designs professionally manufactured for $2.50/square inch (+ $10 setup fee), with no minimum. Another option is a service that started out as a branch of Portland’s Dorkbot group. These boards are $5/square inch for 3 copies and beautifully manufactured. I got my first order back from them recently so I thought I’d document the process.
I’m trying to resurrect the Maestro Fuzztain, an old guitar effects pedal that hasn’t been in production in over 40 years. I found a schematic online and went about designing a PCB layout for it in Eagle (free schematic and layout editor).
Then I sent the order through to Dorkbot (they make it especially easy for Eagle users), and got three of these back about 5 weeks later:
Obviously the wait time could be an issue, but having 3 copies manufactured to such a high standard and delivered for USD40 is unbeatable in my opinion. I’m in limbo while I move into a new workshop so it’ll be another couple weeks before I get to test it out, so stay tuned!