The Perfect PCB Prototype

Interested in constructing perfect PCB prototypes? Richard Haendel has the solution for you. In this article, he explains how five simple steps—print, mount, punch, fit, and evaluate—can save you a lot of time and money.

The following article first appeared in Circuit Cellar 156.


Who designs and builds your prototype circuit boards? The other department? Oh. Well, in that case, nice seeing you. Just flip past this article and enjoy the rest of the magazine.

On the other hand, if you’re a do-it-yourself engineer like me, then perhaps my technique for prototyping prototypes will interest you (see Photo 1). It’s so easy, cheap, and obvious, I have trouble believing that no one else has done it before. If you have, please let me know. I’d love to compare notes. The entire process can be described in five words: print, mount, punch, fit, and evaluate.

Photo 1: It doesn’t get any easier than this (or cheaper). Just remember to print, mount, punch, stuff, and evaluate.

Photo 1: It doesn’t get any easier than this (or cheaper). Just remember to print, mount, punch, stuff, and evaluate.

PRINT

Your printer must be able to print a full-scale, moderately accurate representation of your PCB layout. I say “moderately accurate,” because, after all, a 10% error on a 0.4″-spaced resistor is only 0.04″. That’s close enough for most through-hole designs. Surface mounting, however, can be a problem. But because I don’t normally do surface mounting, it’s not a problem for me.

I use two printers for development: a color ink-jet and a black and white laser-jet. Both are fairly old, but they still have more than enough accuracy for this purpose. The laser-jet is probably a little better, but not by much.

Your printed layout must show (at minimum) the holes and component layout. You may or may not need to see the traces; it depends on what you’re hoping to accomplish. The traces are superfluous for test fitting (e.g., to make sure that components don’t touch each other); however, if you’re building a full-scale concept model, you’ll need as much detail as is practical. In fact, with a little more effort, you could print the top traces on one sheet and the bottom traces on another, glue them to the foam board on opposite sides (taking care to line up the holes, of course), and make yourself a full-scale PCB model. Cool.

MOUNT

Trim the excess white space from the sheet containing your printed image, because it will just get in the way. Next, cut a piece of foam board slightly larger than your layout. A utility knife and metal ruler work well for this. Peel the backing from the foam board’s adhesive side; of course, if you don’t have the self-adhesive kind, simply apply dry glue (from a glue stick) to either the board or paper. After that, carefully position one corner of your image on the foam board and smoothen it. Rub gently but firmly with a soft cloth or paper towel to permanently “seat” the image.

If you get air bubbles or wrinkles, throw it away and start over. Remember, your pattern must be accurate. You can probably make a new one faster than you can fix a damaged one. A little practice goes a long way toward achieving perfect results.

PUNCH

Using a pushpin (or a similar instrument), carefully punch your holes. As you can see in Photo 2, I use metallic pushpins with longer-than-usual shafts. Naturally, the shorter plastic pushpins will work just as well. Thumbtacks, however, are not a good choice; they’re pretty rough on the fingernails.

Photo 2: A small pin is my favorite tool for punching holes in the foam board.

Photo 2: A small pin is my favorite tool for punching holes in the foam board.

Note that this stage can be tedious, especially if you have a large board with many holes. Take your time. The holes should be centered as accurately as possible. Also, don’t push the pin all the way through; it’s merely intended to puncture the paper front so the component’s pins can penetrate the foam and have it “grab” them. In other words, you want a snug fit so the pieces don’t (easily) fall off the board.

That’s how it works for IC sockets and connectors with short leads (i.e., less than the thickness of the board). However, resistors and other parts with longer leads are a different matter. In this case, you must either trim the leads—which is fine if you’re not planning to reuse the component—or extend the hole to the backside with something like a map pin. That’s what I usually do.

FIT

That’s right. Simply fit (or stuff) your components as you would a real circuit board. Components with short leads should be easy to fit; however, those with longer leads may need persuading. Simply insert the part, grab one lead close to the board’s surface with needle-nose pliers, and gently (but firmly) coax it through the hole. Sometimes this can be a pain, especially with small-gauge component leads (e.g., ceramic capacitors). You may need to enlarge the hole from the front or backside. Remember: practice, practice, practice.

EVALUATE

In other words, use it for whatever purpose you need. Most of the time, I make these models just to test my board design and confirm that all parts will fit before committing to a manufactured prototype. After that, it’s trash. If the design is significant (pronounced “expensive to produce”), then I may make others until I’m confident of perfection.

I must confess, though, most of my models are nowhere near as neat and attractive as the one pictured in this article. Frequently, the images are slapped on a piece of scrap foam, tested, and tossed within 5 min. or less.

SO, WHAT’S IT COST?

Not much. Just the other day, I purchased a 20″ × 30″, 3/16″ thick sheet of white self-adhesive foam board at a local hobby store for $4.99. (The nonadhesive type was about $1 less.) Therefore, the cost is $4.99 divided by 600 square inches, or a mere $0.00832 per square inch—that’s less than a penny. At that rate, this board cost only $0.07.

IS IT WORTH IT?

You bet! I’ve caught numerous board design and layout errors with this technique. I’ve also learned that legends on the silk-screen layer don’t always match the physical part as closely as you may expect. This is good to know when you’re tight on board space and need to fudge a little.

Photo 3: Notice that D1 will not actually touch J2, as the PCB layout program’s silkscreen outline indicates.

Photo 3: Notice that D1 will not actually touch J2, as the PCB layout program’s silkscreen outline indicates.

I was able to crowd D1 between J2 and J3, because J2 is 0.08″ smaller than its silkscreen outline (see Photo 3). So, even though D1 appears to touch J2, there’s actually 0.04″ between them, which is more than enough for my design.

So, did I lie? Is this not as simple as can be? And cheap! Try it yourself and see.—By Richard Haendel (Circuit Cellar 156)