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What's a PCB?

Printed circuit board is the most common name but may also be called "printed wiring boards" or "printed wiring cards". Before the advent of the PCB circuits were constructed through a laborious process of point-to-point wiring. This led to frequent failures at wire junctions and short circuits when wire insulation began to age and crack.


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A significant advance was the development of wire wrapping, where a small gauge wire is literally wrapped around a post at each connection point, creating a gas-tight connection which is highly durable and easily changeable.

As electronics moved from vacuum tubes and relays to silicon and integrated circuits, the size and cost of electronic components began to decrease. Electronics became more prevalent in consumer goods, and the pressure to reduce the size and manufacturing costs of electronic products drove manufacturers to look for better solutions. Thus was born the PCB.

PCB is an acronym for printed circuit board. It is a board that has lines and pads that connect various points together. In the picture above, there are traces that electrically connect the various connectors and components to each other. A PCB allows signals and power to be routed between physical devices. Solder is the metal that makes the electrical connections between the surface of the PCB and the electronic components. Being metal, solder also serves as a strong mechanical adhesive.



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FR4
The base material, or substrate, is usually fiberglass. Historically, the most common designator for this fiberglass is "FR4". This solid core gives the PCB its rigidity and thickness. There are also flexible PCBs built on flexible high-temperature plastic (Kapton or the equivalent).

You will find many different thickness PCBs; the most common thickness for SparkFun products is 1.6mm (0.063"). Some of our products- LilyPad boards and Arudino Pro Micro boards- use a 0.8mm thick board.

Cheaper PCBs and perf boards (shown above) will be made with other materials such as epoxies or phenolics which lack the durability of FR4 but are much less expensive. You will know you are working with this type of PCB when you solder to it - they have a very distictive bad smell. These types of substrates are also typically found in low-end consumer electronics. Phenolics have a low thermal decomposition temperature which causes them to delaminate, smoke and char when the soldering iron is held too long on the board.


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Soldermask
The layer on top of the copper foil is called the soldermask layer. This layer gives the PCB its green (or, at SparkFun, red) color. It is overlaid onto the copper layer to insulate the copper traces from accidental contact with other metal, solder, or conductive bits. This layer helps the user to solder to the correct places and prevent solder jumpers.

In the example below, the green solder mask is applied to the majority of the PCB, covering up the small traces but leaving the silver rings and SMD pads exposed so they can be soldered to.

Soldermask is most commonly green in color but nearly any color is possible. We use red for almost all the SparkFun boards, white for the IOIO board, and purple for the LilyPad boards.