How to Make Copper-Clad Boards With the Best PCB Layout Software

Zachariah Peterson
|  Created: March 22, 2021
Design Your Copper-Clad Board With the Best PCB Layout Software

Some designers prefer to build their own prototypes in their home or company lab as it gives them a firsthand view of potential quality problems in their boards. While designers can go this route if they’re comfortable using etchants and cleaning solutions needed to remove copper from PCB laminates, they’ll need design tools to create their etching stencils. An at-home designer will need to procure PCB copper boards to use for etching and create their designs around these copper-clad laminates.

When you want to create accurate stencils for etching copper-clad laminates, the best set of design tools will take your circuit board layout and generate fabrication files automatically. Whether you want to send your board off to a fabricator or etch with a homemade stencil, Altium Designer includes the tools you need to create your layout, route traces, design copper-clad boards, and prepare your design for etching.


A unified PCB design application with a full suite of manufacturing tools for professional designers.

Copper-clad boards are simply PCB laminates that can be used in a board stackup as part of the etching process. These core layers are sometimes sold in standard thicknesses of 1.57 mm, and designers can use these for their own etching projects. Copper etching can be dangerous if chemicals are not handled correctly, but it’s a simple way for a designer to create their own circuit board without sending a design off to a fabricator. Designers can use these for simple proof-of-concept prototypes, as educational tools, or to experiment with unique designs.

Even though a designer might want to make a simple prototype by etching their own copper-clad PCBs, they still need to create a PCB layout using professional design software. Once a layout is created, it can be converted to a native CAD file and printed as a negative etching stencil. Altium Designer is the perfect design tool to create these CAD files. When you’re satisfied with your etched copper-clad board and you want to move into production, Altium Designer can generate professional fabrication files and help you get through manufacturing quickly.

Designing on Copper-Clad Boards

Copper-clad boards carry some simple design requirements, but these are meant to ensure that the design can be reliably etched with a ferric solution. Copper-clad boards that will be etched manually tend to have larger traces, they lack small drill holes, and they tend to have larger pads. They are also fabricated as one-layer or two-layer boards as stacking and pressing steps are unavailable in these boards. Be sure you are familiar with the limits of your etching solution and whether over-etching occurs before you fabricate your board.

Altium Designer Lets You Set Feature Size Limits to Ensure Successful Etching

When you use Altium Designer, you can set your feature size limits as design rules to help ensure your etching run is successful during fabrication. In addition to feature size limits, you can design holes and pads for your components to ensure they can be reliably placed on a copper-clad PCB. The layout, polygon placement, and routing features in Altium Designer are the industry’s best and easiest to use, allowing any designer to create reliable PCBs from copper-clad boards.

PCB copper board

Routing and placing components on copper pads in Altium Designer.

How to Create Your Etching Stencils

Once you have a PCB layout created for your circuit board design, you’ll need to create a CAD file that can be converted to a negative image of the copper in your circuit board. Tools like AutoCAD can help with this conversion process, which will give you a file that can be used to create an etching stencil for your circuit board. This is a simplified version of the process a professional circuit board fabricator will use to create stencils for etching copper from your PCB.

To make this process quick and easy, the at-home designer needs a way to convert their files into a native CAD file format and print their own stencil. Many PCB design applications make this process difficult or they do not support native file formats used by other popular CAD formats. Altium Designer includes support for a range of file formats, as well as a simplified interface for generating and exporting documentation needed for fabrication and assembly.

Altium Designer’s Toolset Exports to Native CAD Formats

When you want to export your design to native CAD formats like DXF/DWG, Parasolid, STEP, 3D PDF, and more, use Altium Designer’s complete set of CAD tools. Altium Designer was built for the home designer and the professional electronics engineer, and Altium Designer can take your layout and export data to the file formats you need to prepare for etching. When you’re ready to send your boards off for fabrication, Altium Designer will also generate accurate Gerber files and other documentation to get your boards fabricated by a professional board shop.

PCB copper board

Altium Designer automatically generates Gerber files from your PCB layout.

Control Everything in Your Copper-Clad PCB Design

Copper-clad circuit boards need to be created with the same set of design tools as complex circuit boards. Routing, polygon design, component placement, and pad/via design are needed in any circuit board layout to provide required electrical functions. Don’t waste time with budget design tools that don’t help you generate stencils and prepare for manufacturing, use the complete set of design utilities in Altium Designer.

Altium Designer Ensures Reliable PCB Fabrication

When you want to ensure the reliable fabrication of your copper-clad PCB, use the complete set of PCB design features in Altium Designer. Everything needed for layout, routing, simulation, circuit design, sourcing, and much more is included in Altium Designer and is accessible in a single application. Best of all, you can define your board feature requirements as design rules to help ensure your new product is fabricated correctly.

The rules-driven design environment in Altium Designer is key to integrating everything needed to work with copper-clad boards, simple prototypes, and advanced electronics in a single application. No other design platform provides the type of unification and productivity you’ll experience in Altium Designer.

PCB design software Altium Designer

Use the complete set of layout tools in Altium Designer to create high-quality circuit boards.

Whether you want to etch your own copper-clad boards or send a complex PCB into fabrication, you’ll need the best PCB design platform to help create high-quality designs. Altium Designer gives you everything you need to implement set design rules for your PCB and prepare stencils for etching. No other design application provides a complete set of layout, sharing, and design verification features in a single application.

Altium Designer on Altium 365 delivers unprecedented integration to the electronics industry until now relegated to the world of software development, allowing designers to work from home and reach unprecedented levels of efficiency.

We have only scratched the surface of what is possible to do with Altium Designer on Altium 365. You can check the product page for a more in-depth feature description or one of the On-Demand Webinars.

About Author

About Author

Zachariah Peterson has an extensive technical background in academia and industry. He currently provides research, design, and marketing services to companies in the electronics industry. Prior to working in the PCB industry, he taught at Portland State University and conducted research on random laser theory, materials, and stability. His background in scientific research spans topics in nanoparticle lasers, electronic and optoelectronic semiconductor devices, environmental sensors, and stochastics. His work has been published in over a dozen peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings, and he has written 1000+ technical blogs on PCB design for a number of companies. He is a member of IEEE Photonics Society, IEEE Electronics Packaging Society, American Physical Society, and the Printed Circuit Engineering Association (PCEA), and he previously served on the INCITS Quantum Computing Technical Advisory Committee.

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