Custom PCBs on a CNC Router

I bought a CNC router last spring to do some woodworking and to mill aluminum. I’m also an obsessive electronics tinkerer, and I later realized that I had inadvertently taken my tinkering abilities to another level when I added the router to my shop.

Unfortunately, simply knowing that I could use the router to make my own Printed Circuit Boards (PCBs) wasn’t sufficient to make them suddenly appear in front of me. There’s a reasonably steep learning curve. Also, I had zero previous experience in producing or thinking about how to produce a PCB. There is a fair amount of information on the Internet, but it’s pretty fragmented, and it took me a while to find everything I needed and put it together in a way that made it possible to go from start to finish. I hope to remedy that problem for others with this Instructable.

This will go step-by-step through the process of creating your own PCB from nothing but your imagination (and hopefully at least a little electronics know-how). A very basic outline of the process looks like this:

Design your PCB in Fritzing to generate “gerber” files
Turn the gerber files into gcode using FlatCAM
Send gcode to the router using Universal Gcode Sender (or any gcode sender) to cut a PCB
Everything except the tools and raw materials for this project are free, and all the software is cross-platform. What a wonderful world.

Before we get to it… I know that this is a fairly long Instructable with lots of words. I contemplated starting it, “Call me Ishmael.” If making a custom PCB is something you want to do, don’t get discouraged - work through all of the steps. I haven’t found another guide that goes all the way through the entire process, so I think this is the place you want to be if you’re getting started. The “lots of words” aspect comes from the fact that there are a lot of choices to be made along the way. Also, carving a PCB is a complicated and technical process, and I want to provide you with enough detail so that you can walk away feeling confident that you know what you’re doing. Once you have gone through the steps two or three times and have a basic understanding of what you’re doing, it’s actually quite simple. Believe it or not, I am able to perform this entire process, start to finish, in about an hour - and without referring to any documentation. You’ll be able to do the same before long.

So, let’s get started with the Moby Dick of Instructables about producing a PCB with a CNC router!”