First-time PCB creation

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JMan

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I'm looking to get some pcbs made. It would be a small section of a larger build that is originally on a breakaway board, but the way I want to mount it requires some sort of standoffs, for which the original doesn't have holes (or any other mounting options, so why put it on a breakaway board...? But I digress). I also want to change one or two of the footprints, which will not affect nearby components in this case. So I'm basically recreating a bit of an existing board to fit my build layout better.

It seems to me that the best way to do this is to simply get the pcbs made by one of the common services that I see folks here using. The problem is, I have zero knowledge of how to create a Gerber file use pcb design software. However, like many who get into DIY, I'm more than happy to invest some time in learning. So my question is, is there a good and (relatively) simple software out there for a beginner to work with -- ideally one that isn't terribly expensive since I'm really just dipping my toe in the water for the first time and have no idea if this will be something I do routinely? Oh, and since it probably matters, I am on a Mac.

Thanks in advance for any suggestions!
 
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JohnRoberts

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PCB layout software programs generally provide the capability to generate gerber files for output.

JR
 

JMan

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Okay, so my ignorance is even more on display here, because I didn't even know to differentiate between the two things. 😬 So, I guess I'm asking for recommendations on a decent beginner-friendly PCB layout software program.

Edited the title of the thread to perhaps more accurately reflect my query.
 
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JMan

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Well, I've gone ahead and downloaded the free version of Eagle, which I think is a commonly used program for this, and I'm going to dive into the tutorials. If anybody has tips or tricks, I'm happy to receive them! Otherwise, I'll be over here in my corner figuring this out. 😅
 

JohnRoberts

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I am actually using 20 year old version of eagle.... I expect the newest version to be better.

For a one time project eagle will be fine, if you plan to do PCB layouts for years or decades, maybe ask around and kick some tires before learning the quirks (they all have quirks).

JR
 

abbey road d enfer

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Since having been acquired by Autodesk, Eagle has become a very unfriendly package.
I also use a 20 yo Eagle version, that I like, but wouldn't consider one second using a new version.
There are many free PCB design packages of excellent capabilities, such as KiCad and Design Spark PCB.
Ian here (ruffrecords) is active on the KiCad forum. personally, I don't like Kicad too much; I would prefer DSPCB, except the schematics are ugly and disorienting (opamps and XLR's are shown as rectangles!).
You have to try several before you find the one you like. Whatever anyone tells you, the most important factor is how easy it is to create your own parts. Many rely on libraries and dedicated sites for their models. They are seldom what I would use.
I suggest you google "free PCB design software" and test them...
Beware of cloud-based software; you don't own your designs.
 

john12ax7

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I agree you should try out a few different ones. You might find that one is more intuitive for you. Eagle is popular in DIY but free version might be a bit uncertain with the new owners. Kicad seems to be getting better and is open source. Diptrace is another, has differing price points.
 

zvukofor

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I'm using EasyEDA for 6 months now and it seems to be a nice solution!
Not to mention you can buy directly from LCSC and order PCBs from JLCPCB directly from a program.
A lot of useful libraries, very easy to learn... i like it, just got my first SMD PCBs made in EasyEDA.

It is cloud-based, but i don't mind it - what can happens? Someone can steal my designs? — c'mon, it is ridiculous.

Never liked Eagle because of some old quirks and interface from '90s...
 

JMan

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Well, I've been checking out the free version of Eagle that I downloaded and I'll admit, I don't absolutely love it. But to be fair, I always find CAD software interfacing to be very...let's say "designed by an engineer's mind." (I used to use AutoCAD when I worked in land surveying in my late teens, and just hated it). So it may be that I will just have to get over it, regardless of which program I end up using! Still, I think I'll do as you all are suggesting and try out a few others as well, and see if there's one that agrees with me a bit better. I'll start with some of the suggestions in this thread!
 

JohnRoberts

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All of these programs have their own "secret handshakes". I am repeating myself but for a one-off don't worry about it. If you plan to do years of PCB work, keep getting opinions from users before you invest the time and effort to learn a unique set of handshakes.

That is the real value of a forum like this being able to learn from other member's real world hands-on experience.

Another observation there is no such thing as a free lunch so many "free" (cough) offerings are a hook to get you to buy components or PCB from a related vendor... Again not bad for a one time project, but no way to run a serious enterprise.

JR
 

JMan

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All of these programs have their own "secret handshakes". I am repeating myself but for a one-off don't worry about it. If you plan to do years of PCB work, keep getting opinions from users before you invest the time and effort to learn a unique set of handshakes.

That is the real value of a forum like this being able to learn from other member's real world hands-on experience.

Another observation there is no such thing as a free lunch so many "free" (cough) offerings are a hook to get you to buy components or PCB from a related vendor... Again not bad for a one time project, but no way to run a serious enterprise.

JR
Thanks for that perspective, John. Yes, for now I'm just looking at a one-off, but who knows what may lie down the road. Probably no "serious enterprise," though, if I'm being honest with myself.

I definitely didn't catch on quickly to Eagle's "secret handshake" (probably because it's secret :LOL: ), but what threw me was that with the free version it is only possible to have two layers, and of course I need three. I realize that I might find a similar situation with other free programs, but it won't hurt to try a few out. I also could not, even after some Googling, figure out how to change the dimensions of the default board that it was creating. I followed the instructions that I found online, but there always came that crucial moment when "the thing" was supposed to happen if I followed the steps and it just didn't, so clearly I haven't cracked the code yet.
 

john12ax7

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PCB layers usually go in multiples of 2. If you can do two layers that will be cheapest for fabrications. If you need more then do 4 layers.
 

ruffrecords

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As others have mentioned, I run one of the Kicad boards. The reason is that more than10 years ago I was in exactly your position and Kicad looked like a very strong contender as far as completeness and zero cost of ownership was concerned. But in fact I hardly use it because its development has been sporadic and for me its original user interface was too obscure. Now that development has been taken under the wing of CERN things have improved considerably and the soon to appear version 6 could be the one that eventually persuades me to migrate.

In the intervening decade I have been using a very straightforward program called freePCB. The opening paragraph from the use manual is "FreePCBis a free, open-source PCB layout editor for Windows, that I starting writing because I was unhappy with currently available free or low-cost PCB editors. The ones that I tried were either crippled by pin and layer limits, or buggy and difficult to use. I finally decided that any idiot could write a better one,and I was just the idiot to do it!"

The result is a PCB layout ptogram that does just what it needs to and no more coupled to a very simpe user interface where actions are tied to both function keys and aright click menu. 16 layers and board sizes up to 60 inches square. It does not even have a schematic capture package but it can import netlist from some other programs. I often use a paper schematic and do back annotation in my head. It is a Windows program but it runs fine on Linux under Wine. Not sure if it will run on a Mac. 1

Cheers

Ian
 

JMan

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Ian, thanks for that! It looks like there isn't a Mac version, but maybe I can convince my wife to give up her laptop for me to try it out/work.
 

JMan

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You could also try running a Windows virtual machine on your Mac.
That's not a bad idea either! Luckily I've got a great wife, so I think borrowing her laptop will be easier! 😜

As a side note, I just want to say that all of you guys are the best. I feel so out of my depth with this, and you are helping me out in a big way. Obviously I've got a lot of learning to do, but I feel encouraged!
 

ruffrecords

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You could also try running a Windows virtual machine on your Mac.
The manual says it can run on a Mac using VirtualPC whatever that is.

I also meant to mention that whatever package you decide to use, your will have to create lots of footprints yourself. Ignore statements like 50,000 symbols in our footprint library, you will not use the vast majority of them and there will always be parts you want to use that are not in the library. Be prepared to invest a significant amount of time in creating footprints.

Cheers

Ian
 

industrialarts

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I just did my first project (FET effects loop for a B&H rebuild I did) and used KiCad. I had some prior drafting experience but no PC board layout xperience. I found it easy to learn and easy to use; the community support is great and for using for a smaller project I found nothing lacking. From my browsing on their forums I believe there has a been a lot of improvements lately. I did look at others - Eagle, the one that SparkFun has, maybe one more - and KiCad was the easiest for me to wrap my head around. I would imagine for advanced PCB designers some of the methodology might be less than intuitive but, as a beginner, it made sense to me. Plus, I am a Linux user so it runs native on my system but I just looked and there is a MAC version - and it's FOSS

Also, this gentleman's tutorial videos provided invaluable, I don't think I would have finished the project without him - John's Basement. This is not the first video but it will give you a good look on getting started, all his videos are on YouTube.

Lastly, review and re-review your final layout so you don't have some obvious mistakes like me - for example; pads for the goesinya and goesoutya wires :rolleyes:
 

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