How it started
Earlier this year I had the urge to get back into an old hobby, Electronics!
When I was younger and living with my parents I had my own workshop. In this workshop I would prototype some ideas on breadboard and when I was finished would design a printed circuit board. The traditional method of etching a printed circuit board is using a ultraviolet light box and chemicals to etch away the copper.
However I no longer live with my parents and have no access to a workshop. I am a proud dad with a small office in my house. Having these chemicals in my office was not a option!
After some research on Google I discovered that it’s possible to etch a copper clad board using a CNC router. This seemed ideal, and a very fast way to prototype. YouTube clip
Must have one!
Trying to find a local supplier for such a small CNC router was actually quite hard. I turned to eBay. On eBay I found a series of Chinese CNC routers of various sizes at prices that are much cheaper than standard suppliers. This of course led me to review the forums and read some feedback.
It turns out that these cheap CNC routers are actually great value, but with the value does come some compromise. People talk about poor wiring that breaks after a couple of hours of use, used stepper motors… However this didn’t bother me as even if I had to make some modifications, it would be fun to fix… I felt confident!
I should say that the majority of hobby CNC enthusiasts recommend self build. On almost all of the forums, it was a regular statement. It is felt that it’s the only way to guarantee a quality machine. This didn’t phase me too much as I didn’t want to mill aluminium or something tough, I just wanted to etch a thin layer of copper. I would have enjoyed to build one from scratch, but my main goal was a PCB. Maybe in the future!
I placed my “Buy It Now” order on a Monday morning for £415 plus delivery, which is stated was shipped from within the UK (Where I live). On Thursday it was sitting in my living room. The packaging was crazy, very, very well packed, but more foam and padding than you could shake a very large stick at!
To my surprise, it doesn’t accept USB, it uses a parallel lead similar to the type printers used to use. Now I have a quite modern PC, which of course doesn’t have a parallel port. After buying a PCI parallel card, I then discovered that parallel ports are not supported in 64 bit operating systems, this meant I had to install a 32 bit version of windows.
The instructions that are supplied are in English, but you can tell it has been translated. Some things were not so clear, but it’s enough to get started. They recommend using control software called Mach 3. This is available to download as a limited version for free and costs $175 for a full licence. Having installed it and configured the settings as stated in the documentation, I quickly started to look for sample designs on Google to make a test cut.
I found a scorpion and a smiley face. In the picture to the left you can see the results on a piece of wood. What I didn’t realise at this point is that the cuts were 50% too small! The documentation wasn’t so accurate as it appears my stepper motors not the same as documented, they were more accurate!
The result though was great! It took about 2-3 minutes to mill it and besides the size, it is precisely to design. I’m really happy with it and can’t wait to put it to good use.
If anyone is interested in the settings or information about the CNC router, feel free to ask.
I will post more on the PCBs very soon.