Twitter: lvl1hackerspace

Announcing: LVL1 Summer Camp!


Sign up now on EventBrite:

This summer only, at the LVL1 hackerspace in Louisville, KY, you can learn how to Design, Etch, Solder and Program your very own microcontroller project.

This series of four workshops will take place across every Saturday in June, from 1pm to 5pm.  The first Saturday, you’ll learn how to use EagleCAD to route PCBs for manufacture.  No more perfboard!

The second Saturday, you’ll learn how to use dangerous chemicals to turn a blank copper board into a functional AVR programmer!  With this clone of LadyAda’s USBTinyISP, you’ll be able to program almost ever AtTiny and AtMega chip ever manufactured, freeing you from the surly bonds of the Arduino develoment environment.

The third Saturday, you’ll learn extremely useful skills in prototyping with surface mount components, soldering tiny parts on to the boards you etched the week previous.  Surface Mount soldering is  an important skill, as projects and parts get smaller and more powerful.

Finally, on the fourth Saturday, you’ll learn how to program a CapsLocker, a nefarious device which masquerades as USB keyboard.  This device is capable of entering any key sequence at any interval, super useful for makinG SURE YOUR MARK ALWAYS TYPES LIKE THIIS.  Or p#erha#ps #ann#o#yin# him# in ##eve#n #mo#r#e interes#ting #ways.

If you want to enroll in all four workshops, purchase the four-pack and the four pack only!  If you’d like to participate in just the etching and building, purchase the “Etching It and Soldering It” ticket.  If you’d like to participate in any just the Eagle or Programming workshop, without the fun parts to take home, simply purchase those tickets separately.  If you’re confused, or would like any combination of the above workshops, contact us!

LVL1 members, you get a discount! Contact the appropriate authorities!

Sign up now on EventBrite:


Toner Transfer and Muriatic Acid Etchant: Making PCBs at LVL1

Originally posted on my personal blog, Meat and Networking.

LVL1 is great.  A place for creative and motivated people to get together and goad each-other into doing more creative things.  It’s also a great gathering place for tools, as well as knowledge.  A few months ago, the spoiled electrical engineer that I am, I never would have considered making my own PCBs.  Any project worth taking off the breadboard was worth sending to China to get made “right.”

Of course, there isn’t always time and money to send something to China.  Today’s installment is the Sumo-bot board I’m trying to put together for the Hive13 sumobot competition.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like poor Snoopy bot will make it to the ring, but the board making process itself is worth talking about.

Laying out a PCB using software like Eagle is beyond the scope of this post.  If you can follow the appropriate Sparkfun Tutorial, it’s pretty easy to pick up.  Something to note:  for single sided home-made PCBs, put all traces and surface mount components on the BOTTOM layer.  Put any necessary jumpers on the top layer.  When you’re ready to print, just turn off all the layers you don’t want turned into copper.

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Fabbing PCBs in China for Fun and Profit

For the White Star Balloon project, one immediate need was for an extensible Main Flight Computer platform.  In order to facilitate development, a completely modular design was needed.

In three weeks, we went from this

To This

In brief, this board uses the I2C bus to communicate with multiple slave modules and sensors in order to accomplish the task of managing our balloon’s flight.  More information can be found at our wiki.

To fabricate these PCBs, we chose Gold Phoenix, located in Hubei, China.  They offer some really incredible deals on PCB manufacturing, including $100 for a 2-layer board, 155 Square Inches, 5 day turnaround + 3 days shipping.  We chose this fabrication house since Sparkfun uses them for their own products, as well as BatchPCB services.

Much more below the break.

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Experimenting with DIY PCB dyeing

This past weekend I experimented with dyeing some etched PCBs. I used Rit dye easily found in grocery stores. It was quick and dirty. I just boiled some water, mixed in a heavy concentration of black dye and let it sit for a couple of hours.
dyed pcbs

The dye worked well enough. Rather than just soaking in a cooling dye, I should have been applying a constant heat and agitating the solution in order to get a darker saturation. And when removing flux after soldering the board, dye came off as well. But in general this is a promising way to make nicer looking DIY PCB boards in the future.

Triple sensor board building

The SALAMANDER triple sensor boards arrived and are under construction by students in the Gadget Lab at the University of Louisville. We used a laser-cut mylar stencil from Pololu to stencil solder paste onto the pads, then students placed the parts and we reflowed the solder on a hotplate. These boards were previously hand-soldered, but we need 50 of them for the summer so that had to change. If you’re considering the hotplate method, it is very very good and you should try it. The Gadget Lab has a fancy “lab” hotplate but I have just acquired the $20 Target skillet and will try it soon with that. We do all the surface-mount parts this way, then stick on a few through-hole connectors. The staggered SparkFun connector footprint does hold the connectors in place nicely (though much better for the 3-pin ones than the 2-pin parts) Now we have 27 working boards, and the bottleneck has moved to testing and sensor calibration. One person’s bottleneck is another person’s summer research project!

Finishing the custom front panel Klee

Here’s some video of the Klee sequencer in action. Along with details on finishing up from previous posts. Continued from

So we left off with a PCB ready to go. I used my trusty tin snips to cleanly cut off the excess board. It’s a tight fit underneath the panel.
Trimmed panel

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Triple sensor board

Eagle layout for triple sensor board

This sensor board is for summer 2010 research students to carry out studies of sediment transport in streams. It’s for the SALAMANDER project: Serial Amphibious Linear Arrays of Micro And Nano Devices for Environmental Research.

It is mostly connectors with a few chips in between to sense ambient light levels, flow velocity and temperature. For the first time, I tried the SparkFun staggered Eagle footprints that are supposed to hold the connectors tightly during assembly and soldering. A solder stencil for the red pads is also on the way.

Creating Custom PCBs for a Front Panel

This is continued from my previous post about using Inkscape to draw pcb and front panel designs. When I last left you, I had created a multi-layered inkscape drawing that had front and back designs for the PCB along with a drill pattern for the panel.

First I’m going to get out my Toner Transfer paper. This is thick stock paper with a water soluble coating. It allows you to fuse a printed image to a surface and then remove the paper when submerged in water. The stuff is a little pricey at about $1 a page, but it’s well worth it for making good clean transfers.

I’m using my home laser printer to make the PCB transfer. Ink from a laser printer is fused to the paper when heat and pressure is applied. Note that an inkjet printer uses a different method not suitable for the process I’m describing here. LASER PRINTERS ONLY. I keep a spare laser printer cartridge that I use solely for making PCBs. It’s best to have a dark layer of ink. Regular printing jobs will run down the cartridge and I do this often enough that it makes sense to have a separate cartidge.

I start the print job and manually feed the Toner Transfer paper. Make sure you’re printing on the shiny reflective side!

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Using Inkscape for front panel layouts and PCBs

I’m working on a new synthesizer module for my rig called a ‘Klee’ sequencer. I’ll detail more throughout the build process, but I want to share my experience using Inkscape to design a front panel.

Inkscape is great! It’s an open source, cross platform vector graphics program with many uses. I started playing around with it a couple of years ago to create show fliers. I’m by no means proficient, but I know how to get around.

Back to the panel… I’m trying to cram lots of potentiometers, jacks and LEDs into a smaller panel in order to save space. I found some Alpha clear-shaft potentiometers that you can position a 3mm LED underneath. Very cool, although I have yet to find clear acrylic knobs to match.. In addition, I want to layout the sequencer lights in an oval pattern. Normally I’d use gEDA’s pcb program to do a circuit design. But my components are very uniform and the layout is straightforward so I’ll draw it up in… inkscape!

First I can use the datasheets for my components to get precise dimensions. Inkscape allows you to create shapes with precise units in px, mm, inches, etc. I make the footprints for each component and they look like this.

The blue circles are guides for drilling holes in the panels. The red shapes show how large the components are. The black circles are via pads for a solder mask. I copy, move, rotate all of these elements to fit everything into my panel layout. Then I draw traces between these pads for the PCB layout. I can also label them so I remember what’s what. I’ll come back to this with a more detailed process at some point, but here’s the final drawing after all of that.

Click on the image for the full size awesomeness. Next I can separate all the colors into different layers with Inkscape’s XML editor. Here’s what I’ll use to etch the PCB bottom layer.

There’s also a top layer, but we can skip that. Here’s the drill layer template I’ll use to drill out all the panel holes.

That’s all for now. Next in this series, I’ll show you how I prepare and etch the PCB. Inkscape rules, it’s good for lots of things beyond making web graphics.

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