Using copper clad boards is one of the most cost effective ways to create hobby or prototype printed circuit boards (PCB). A copper clad board is a laminate of non conductive substrate (often fiberglass and epoxy) and copper, that is used to create printed circuit board tracks that connect components of a circuit soldered to it. They are quite cheap, and they can be made into professional looking boards with simple household materials.
- Cheap: Creating your board from a copper clad is most often cheaper than ordering a prototype batch from a manufacturer, since they often charge a setup fee or base price, which when buying a large volume isn’t a problem since it represents a small percentage of the overall order, but when buying one or two boards it can be as much as ten times the cost of a copper clad, plus shipping.
- Fast: Ordering from a manufacturer can take a long time. Most orders are shipped in five to six days for the basic shipping option, but if you need a board fast you can expect to pay quite a lot more, and it still takes two or three days to arrive. Making a board from a copper clad is very fast, specially if you already have the materials needed at home or in the lab.
- Customizable: Developing your own copper clad boards has the great advantage of creating custom shapes and sizes, thing that most manufacturers can’t (or won’t) do, or will charge exorbitant fees. This gives you the flexibility to make your circuits fit into odd shapes, or making really small boards.
- Chemicals: To develop a copper clad into a usable pcb, you need to work with some corrosive chemicals to remove the copper in order to create the tracks that connect the components. Using protective equipment, working in a well ventilated area and proper handling could mitigate the dangers, but disposing of spent chemicals is still an issue.
- The process: The process itself is one of the disadvantages of working with copper clads, as you will be working with heat, special paper and printing of the design if you use the popular toner transfer method. Since you will be doing it yourself and not using professional equipment, there’s a chance of the toner not transferring correctly or etching artifacts, which will make that particular board unusable.
- Soldermask: Soldermask is that commonly green lacquer that covers most commercially made circuit boards. It covers the copper tracks and allows for easier soldering, specially in high density boards where pads (area where components are soldered to the board) are close together. There are ways to apply a soldermask yourself for a professional appearance, but for hobby circuits that is most of the times purely cosmetic, since the same protection could be achieved by tinning the tracks.
- Tinning: Tinning of the tracks is another possible con if you don’t go for the soldermask finish. Manual tinning is quite monotonous and prone to bulking, since you are manually applying a layer of tin solder on top of the tracks. There are some chemicals that cover the tracks with a layer of tin, but they are hazardous and require special considerations in use and disposal.
When considering using copper clad boards for your project, have in mind these pros and cons and decide if making your own board is right for you.