Circuit Board Sizes and Shapes, How to Make a PCB

Created: February 2, 2018
Updated: January 4, 2021


For many years my career took me to a lot of different locations as I traveled to conduct business. One of the wonderful things about travel is how it opens you up to new experiences and individuals. You only truly begin understanding how diverse our world is after witnessing the differences throughout various of it. I just wish I brought a dog with me on those trips, so I could name it “Toto,” because I sure wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

Just as diverse people and cultures can open up our minds to new ideas, working with different boards will also open up our minds to new technologies and circuit board design practices. Some things to consider may be your ferric chloride, copper use, solder mask, and copper layer. When you work for one corporation and design the same shape and sized boards over again, you probably won’t get to see much variety in your boards. After working at many different companies and/or service bureaus, we have probably seen all kinds of different board shapes and sizes.

Circuit board shapes and sizes are designed to fit specific electrical components on the PCB layout. Matching the technology with the schematic design of the circuit board. Here are some of the different PCB board sizes and shapes that I have worked with over the years, what they were used for, and what it takes to create them. There’s a lot more to the world of schematic design than what we see in front of us on a regular workday. Fortunately, we don’t need a wizard to see it, even if we do live in Kansas.

Board Shapes of all Sizes

Having worked for many different corporations both small and large, as well as different service bureaus, I have seen lots of different boards. There’s no way that I’ll ever remember them all, but here’s a sampling of those that do stand out in my memory.

  • Standard computer-type boards including both plugin boards and motherboards.
  • Skinny little boards that had to tuck around the sides of a CRT.
  • “L” shaped boards that wrapped around a glass screen.
  • Huge industrial power boards for some kind of circuit box.
  • Tiny little boards that fit inside of a watch.
  • Round boards.
  • And lastly, a skull-shaped board. It was the general shape of a skull, and where the eyes should be there were two giant PGA sockets. Where the mouth should be there were two horizontal connectors. This one was kind of spooky as it really did look like a skull.

As I said, there have been much more than this short list, these are just some of those that are most prominent in my mind. I can honestly say that designing all of these different board shapes in my board design career never left me bored.

Different circuit boards stacked on each other
Circuit boards come in all kinds of shapes and sizes

Different Board Shapes for Different Purposes and Technologies

These different board shapes all served different purposes and had to fit in different component enclosures. Those skinny little boards were a prototype for one of the first touch screens back in the days of CRT monitors. The “L” shaped board wrapped around a display, while those huge power boards were able to handle a lightning strike and still function. The small board that went into a watch was years before IoT was a reality, and the round boards were for huge IC testing machines.

I honestly have no idea what that skull board was for, it was just pretty funny to come into work and have it peering back at me from my CAD system. But all of these designs used very different design rule technologies. The computer boards required high-speed design and HDI techniques while the large power board used primarily huge areas of copper pour. And the small board that fit into a watch took some of the smallest space and trace sizes at the time.

Picture of 3D PCB design from CAD system
3D design environments can help you to handle even the most unusual board shapes

Versatile Printed Circuit Board CAD Tools is How to Make a PCB with an Unusual Shape or Size

Designing all these different boards at several different companies has given me an opportunity to work with an assortment of Printed Circuit Board design tools. A lot of these tools are no longer around, and some of them you may never have heard of before. The first CAD tool that I ever worked on was a Calma GDS system, and before you even ask, yes I am that old. My best friend growing up was the Triceratops down the street until the mean T-Rex on the next block ate him for lunch.

I had to use a variety of PCB design tools for those different shapes, but today there are some great tools out there making jobs significantly easier. I wouldn’t have to trick the CAD system into doing something that it wasn’t designed to do, or manipulate the netlist or the output files in order to get what I needed. The answer to how to make a PCB shape layout that will guarantee your success is to arm yourself with the best PCB design tools that you can get.

I have found that Altium PCB dimensions layout design software has the versatility, power, and flexibility to handle anything that I can throw at it, including working in a 3D design environment. I obviously can’t go back in time to revisit those old designs. Going forward though, I’m very happy to have a design tool like this to help me handle PCB shape and size that is coming my way.

Would you like to find out more about how Altium can help you to design whatever the next PCB design is coming your way? Talk to an expert at Altium.

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