I may be easily amused, but I’m not easily impressed.

Everything I have read about pcb prototyping using photolithography claims I needed to use a laser printer and some sort of transparent or translucent medium. Armed with this knowledge, I used acetate, or overhead projector transparencies. The film claims to be designed for laser printers and copiers, but it still distorts some when printed on. Anyway, the problem with my laser printer is toner pin-holes. For whatever reason, the output would have these little holes everywhere, and these little holes would swiss-cheese my traces and ground plane pours. This forced me to use thick traces, which would still get swiss cheesed, but generally retained enough composure to be electrically conductive. The pin hole problem seems to be getting worse … the last test I performed on my printer as an exposure test of varying width lines and different sized holes and pay layouts. In general, the performance was pretty bad and was not acceptable for more advanced designed I wanted to make, involving very small SMT components.

So, I tried printing the same exposure test, on paper, to my inkjet printer. The results were stunning. The lines were sharper, the holes clearer, the pads better defined. What a difference it makes going from a 600 dpi laser to a 4800(?) dpi inkjet. So, I felt it worth the risk, and decided to run my exposure test with the inkjet. Using some inkjet transparencies (they’re kinda coated with some type of fiber?), I printed my patterns. I exposed my board, and then developed it… the results were WOW! Of course, I messed up a few things with this first run, mostly I let the light cook for too long. So in the best un-scientific manner possible, I changed a bunch of variables at the same time, and tried another pass.

photolithography inkjet pcb

That is the result! … Please ignore the greasy thumbprint on the left side of the board – that was acquired after etching, and has no effect on anything aside from mild embarrassment on my part. My setup was fairly simple. I printed my design at best quality, monochrome mode onto a transparency. Next, in my darkroom that doubles as a furnace room, I laid down my PCB, emulsion up, then the transparency, then a sheet of 1/4″ plate glass. About 4″ above that, I have two 15 watt under cabinet lights, each loaded with a GE Daylight bulb. The lights are connected to an extension cord, so I can turn them on and off together. After making sure everything is lined up, I start my stopwatch and plug in the lights. After letting it cook for eight minutes, I turned off the lights and slid the pcb into a waiting bath of developer. The developer had been sitting for about a day, so it was a little slow. I left the board sit for about 2 min, before turning on the room lights. As the emulsion started to dissolve, I could see the results were good, real good! With the room lights on, I stirred the developer and lightly brushed the pcb using a foam brush (as recommended by the manuf.) My image grew sharper and sharper.

After I was sure all the emulsion that needed to be gone was gone, I rinsed the board and slid it into a waiting bath of ferric chloride etchant. A few min later, I pulled the pcb out, to make sure all the copper had turned pink. If the copper is not pink, it means some emulsion remains, and its time for another trip to the developer. Fortunately all the copper was pink, no problems here. I let the pcb soak for about 30 min while I had some lunch. After lunch, and without washing my hands i might add, I extracted the PCB from the etchant and rinsed it off. The results are excellent.

So, no longer will I shy away from tiny SMTs, since I can now lay down traces as thin as 8 mils without issue (determined by the earlier exposure test). Granted there were three flaws I had to fix on this board, I suspect they were caused by either dust on the transparency or those fibers that are embedded in the plastic. A quick touch-up with the sharpie solved them without a hitch.

Next stop, de-panelize with the PCB “suicide” saw.

pcb saw depanelize