Surface mount electronics at home

Most of the coolest electronics parts are only available in surface mount (SMT) packages these days.  What is a modern maker to do?

I guess some folks start out with breakout boards and try to keep using their breadboards with SMT parts.  At some point, however, you’ll be ready for the next step.  And that involves designing your own circuit board and building your project.

When I was in college I used EAGLE for my electronics projects.  Even when I worked at Boeing we used EAGLE in our group, even though it wasn’t Boeing’s preferred package.  However, now I use KiCad and while it took a little getting used to, I love it.  Some of the features are way better than EAGLE and KiCad is free so how cool is that?

After your design is done you will want to have your boards fabricated, and I would recommend OSHPark.  Perfect…purple…prompt.  The cost is excellent for the quality and the delivery times keep getting shorter.  Awesome!

With boards in hand it’s time to start making!  We cut our own stencils in-house with a Silhouette Cameo.  With the Cameo and the gerber2graphtec code on GitHub you’ll be able to make your own stencils in no time.  We use 4mil Mylar as our standard for stencils.

The solder paste can be a little pricy, but if you don’t need much you can get a small tube of solder paste from Digi-Key.  Squeeze out a blob, smear with an old hotel key-card, and you’re ready to lay those tiny parts down.  To move the parts around by hand we use a set of vacuum tweezers.  The tips for the SMT parts are a bit pricy, so we just took the tip off of a mechanical pencil and use it as a tip.  Also, I highly recommend you watch the following for some awesome assembly tips:

After the parts are down, it’s time to put them in a convection toaster oven and get the paste to reflow.  Try to follow the reflow profile provided by the solder paste manufacturer.  You can monitor the temperature with a non-contact thermometer or with an Arduino and one of our RTD shields.

In minutes you’ll have your board made!  With just a few readily available tools, which really aren’t too expensive, you too can make professional circuit boards at home!

If you do decide to go this route, I would recommend getting a SMT hot air rework station as well.  Some of those SMD parts are expensive and if you need to do any rework, the hot air station will quickly pay for itself.  We use the Kendal rework station linked to above and it works great.  We don’t make much use of the soldering iron though so you might want to look for a station without the attached iron.

So?  What are you waiting for?  Go make something with surface mount parts!