I used to etch PCBs at home, and I still do when I need them fast and it’s easy enough to to etch on 1-layer copper clad. See my post about etching with vinegar!
But PCB making has become so cheap these days that it’s almost not worth bothering. I’ve used more expensive services and cheaper services as well. The more expensive ones tend to be higher quality when you have very fine detail. But for 95% of the cases, even with fine pitch SMD parts (0402 is the smallest I’ve ever used), hobby fabs like OSHPark, or SeedStudio are quite good. The chinese PCBs tend to be OK for most things but the finer SMD footprints you have the lower the quality gets.In this post I want to focus more on OSHPark because their boards are US-made, are very good quality, have great pricing and free shipping, and include gold finish (ENIG), a nice touch.
One of the really awesome features of OSHPark is that you can upload your Eagle board directly (WOW!) and don’t have to export Gerbers, even though you can upload Gerbers as well. Once you upload your board they show you nice purple renderings of what your board will look like, including all the layers which you can visually inspect to make sure everything looks like you want.
They also provide an Eagle DRU file (design rules) which you can run to make sure your board abides to their specifications. I think I saved many hours with these very helpful features. See the pictures below for some Moteino renderings on OSHPark’s website. You can try this with one of your Eagle boards right now, just go to their website and upload your .brd file.
Here’s the OSHPark produced Moteino under 10x and 15x magnification. The last 2 pictures show a VQFN-28 0.45mm lead pitch package. These are very small pads, and about 10-15% of the boards have skinnier pads, which may be usable, but maybe those were on another batch and got eteched longer. The soldermask is a little offset but won’t really see it with the naked eye.
Their solder mask also has a little depth to it which is only visible through the microscope. It doesn’t really affect quality but more expensive services like 4PCB make this less obvious. Here’s a PCB made by 4PCB.com, this is a MLF-32 0.5mm pitch footprint, the soldermask is offset a little but only visible under magnification.
I’ve also used BatchPCB but their quality leaves quite a bit to desire, it takes forever to get the PCBs (they outsource to china) and they are more expensive. They are run by Sparkfun so all of that doesn’t surprise me. In the picture below you can see how the pads are thinner at the end of the traces, even though they are the same thickness in the GERBER. This part is 0.5mm pitch. The silkscreen is not the best either. Their HASL finishing sometimes leaves extra solder which gets pancaked during shipping (see the fat pad in the middle?):
So I want to really give OSHPark a thumbs up and recommend it for small prototyping batches. I think they are superior to the chinese PCB makers in terms of quality and turnaround time. Pricing is very comparable if not better.
Here are links to some other services you might want to check out:
Comparison: Seeed vs ITead vs OSH Park
See LadyAda’s PCB manufacturers review for other PCB makers.