Open source software has come a long way – including the stuff used for PCB design.
There are a number of ‘free’ options for PCB design software, some of it more popular than others. Broadly, I put them into 3 categories:
- Open Source software
- Cut down free software to tempt you to buy the ‘full version’
- Free software to tempt you to have your PCB’s made by the software supplier.
It seems the most popular PCB design software in the hobbyist community is Eagle PCB. I believe this falls into the 2nd category. I’ve not used it much myself, so I’ll leave you to look up what other people think of it elsewhere.
I’m still deciding between two open source projects: KiCAD and PCB. KiCAD appears to be software that the author wrote in order to teach himself C++. It is pretty capable, and include a suite of tools for library editing, schematic capture and PCB layout. Like all new software there is a learning curve, and it took me a few hours with a tutorial off the web to get the hang of it. Now that I know what I’m doing, I can knock up boards fairly quickly. It runs on Windows and Linux.
DIY PCB Design Guidelines
I try and keep my boards simple – single sided if possible, and using surface mount components as much as possible. This makes the board easier, cheaper and quicker to make. There is also a certain satisfaction to be had in carefully routing all your tracks to get rid as many vias as possible. Try and keep your tracks as thick as you can and with as much space between them as possible – this improves the chances that the first board you make will actually work…
Once you’ve designed your board, print out the design on paper at 100% scale and place the components on the printout to check it all fits nicely. Inspect the design for tracks which are too close together and pads which are too small. Remember that you will be drilling a ~1mm hole in the middle of each through-hole pad – will you have enough room to solder?