Using Photo Paper to Make Printed Circuit Board Transfers

By John Fisher

Every once in a while you come across a very simple idea that helps change your way of doing things or saves you a lot of time and money. This just so happened to be one of those ideas for me. I love ideas that can be had using locally available materials as not to depend so much on specialized sources giving me a slight feeling of freedom and immortality. Ha!

Designing circuit boards, making them, and then drilling the holes in the board has always been a headache for me. So much so, that I have resorted to my "Alternative" method of making circuit boards for most of my projects for many years now. Life seems too short to go through the headache of painfully figuring out how to layout your circuit board or trying to copy some pre-made PCB design.

Thanks to a great suggestion by Mark hammer it is possible to use normal photo print paper as iron on transfers for making PCB's. (Printed Circuit Boards)

There are other materials available for this such as "print and peel" but they are quite a bit more expensive and in most cases they will have to be mail ordered from some distant land. Within walking distance from my house I was able to spend 90 cents for three sheets of photo paper. A very cheap low risk experiment.

 

Here's how it's done

This idea works for pre-drawn PCB's that you would find in a book or on the Internet. For example: A good place for some PCB designs for guitar effects pedals is at: http://tonepad.com/links. www.generalguitargadgets.com and there are many others not including other more general electronic sites.

Layout several PCB designs on a single sheet of paper in your computer. For example: I used the program Photo Shop to put up to 11 PCB's on one page. (Not bad for just 28 cents) Each PCB layout must be laid out to scale so that when it is printed, it will be the correct size. I did all this in Photo Shop but I'm sure there are other programs too that can do this.

After the circuits are laid out properly you can make a test copy by printing one on normal paper. I used a black and white laser printer that uses powdered toner that I believe is basically the same that is used in a photocopy machine. Bubble jet ink printers will not work for this. Make sure that the image of the PCB's are of high contrast. If not, Photo Shop or other photo editing programs can help with this by increasing the contrast. It is important to set the printer to make the copying as dark and as good quality as possible as the more toner that is printed on the paper the more reliable will be the transfer on to the circuit board. Make sure that the printer is not set up to "print to fit on page" as it has to print to the actual size of the PCB's.

Now that things look good, it can be tested on a normal sheet of paper, you can now copy it onto the photo paper. Presto! you now have a sheet full of PCB transfers for several projects. I put 11 projects on mine but if I would have planned it better I probably could have put more on.

Above is a sheet with 11 circuits printed on it. If I tried harder I could have easily added more

 

Cut out of the photo paper sheet the circuit that you want to build. This idea is also great you want to make several PCB's exactly the same.

Above is the cut out circuit for the "Red Fuzz" distortion that I built. You will notice that the pixel resolution was a little low but it worked OK anyway. The next time that I do this I will use a higher resolution in Photo Shop because sizing down the image to about 2 inches wide made it lose some of the pixel resolution.

 

Prepare a piece of blank circuit board that you want to use for your project. Make sure that it is clean and dry. I usually use cowering cleanser or steel wool to clean off the board well from dirt or copper oxidation. (Not sandpaper as the board should be flat and scratch free if possible). I tried using lacquer thinner which was a mistake as it left the circuit board with a very fine oil film, so even soap and water is better for making it grease free. When the board is nice and shinny then it is ready to be printed on. It is vital that there are no greasy finger prints on the board as if so, the transfer won't stick well in that area.

Heat up a normal household iron (without the steam). I have an old one that I got just for my workshop for doing different things like gluing veneer or for anything else that needs heat. Laying the circuit board on a flat surface place the iron (with moderate heat) on the circuit board for a few seconds. Make sure it's not too hot as I have had the copper bubble away from the circuit board by getting it too hot. Now that the circuit board is hot, place the printed photo paper with PCB designs on the circuit board with the image facing down. (Of coarse)

Now with the hot iron, iron the paper to the circuit board. Make sure that you get thorough with this using a circular motion with the iron. You can also place the iron flat on in for a few seconds. You will also see the image as it is being heated bleeding through the paper confirming that it is sticking to the board.

6- When you are pretty sure that it has been ironed on, let it cool down then carefully pull the paper away from the board. If you start to see that part of the image didn't stick to the board you can try applying more of the iron. I won't say exactly how hot the iron should be or how long you should apply it as you will have to experiment with that as different papers will probably vary in how they work. Glossy paper was originally suggested but I used mat paper that was cheap with acceptable results.

OK! Here is what it looked like right after I removed the paper. You will notice that some of the paper stuck to the board. I believe that this will depend on what brand and type of paper you are using and maybe some other factors like the amount of heat used. You will have to experiment with what you have available. I am not enough of an expert (yet) to give you much detail on it as I haven't tried all kinds of papers. I was able to successfully peel off the unwanted paper from the board without any problems.

Here is the board pretty much finished. OK,It's not the greatest thing in the world as my chemicals are a bit bad and my printer is not so hot. I have had better results at other times under better conditions but it worked. I also patched up some questionable areas using a "Sharpie" or permanent fine tipped marker.

Here is the board after burning it. Not fantastic but it worked good.

 

So I hope you are as thrilled with this idea as I am. I have other things that I would like to try, like using different kinds of paper. I tried paper similar to magazine glossy paper which in some cases gave moderate results but there is a lot of different types of paper that don't work or don't work well but I will keep my eye out for new ideas.

Well, here is my "Red Fuzz" clone. I really like it for a good rock and roll sound. I built the box from one of my enclosure ideas that is also on my web site. (See Here). I need to get a DPDT pushbutton switch for it but for now I just used a toggle switch.

You may wonder how far you can go using this idea as far a complexity of circuit boards is concerned. It can go a lot further then what you see in the simple circuit that I made but it would be difficult to do overly complex micro circuits for example.

 

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