Mar 16, 2020|Product Innovations and Design, Technological Advancements and Materials

Printed circuit boards have numerous uses in technology. Before committing to the PCB manufacturing phase, though, it’s more cost-effective to test out the concept first. PCB prototype boards allow for a less expensive way to approve an idea before getting the full printed version made.

In this article, we’ll cover the different available types and how to use PCB prototype board to plan your final circuit board design.

How to Use PCB Prototyping Board

Before we get into the details of how to use PCB prototype board, it’s essential to understand the different types of prototype boards available to use.

Learn more about what is PCB is here.

Perf Board

Perf boards are one of the available types of prototype boards. This category is also known as the “Pad per hole” design, where each hole has its own conductor pad made from copper with it. With this setup, you can test connections by running solder between individual pads. Additionally, you can also run wires between pads on a perfboard as well.

arduino protoboard shield
Arduino Protoboard Shield by Marlon J. Manrique licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Pros and Cons of PerfBoard

Perf boards (or breadboards) are a convenient platform when prototyping electronic circuits. They’re a quick, easy way to mount and connect leaded electronic components together. They’re also easily interchangeable with testing all new configurations. Perf boards come in a wide variety of patterns and sizes, with holes that fit most standardized components. Perf boards also have surface mount components and come in two basic types: solderable and solderless. All solderable boards come with solder spots—some boards consist of a perforated board without solder spots. This allows connections to be permanent and not as easily interchangeable.

Solderless boards allow you to plug in components with wire jumpers to make connections, meaning they’re less permanent. Changes are easier, with less overall component damage. Since they don’t have to be soldered, it’s much easier to add or remove components. While perfboards are often better for prototyping and don’t require the initial investment of PCB, they may not give you the polished result you’re seeking.

Stripboard

Like the other common type of prototype PCB, stripboards also have the individual hole set up. Instead of each perforation having a single conductor pad, strips of copper run parallel under the length of the board to connect the holes—hence the name. These strips substitute as wires, and you can also break connections as well.

metal grid
IMG_20141122_134732 by rafacouto licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Both types of PCB prototypes can work well for planning boards. Stripboards can also work well for planning simple circuits, thanks to the already existing copper connections. Either way, you will use protoboard soldering and protoboard wires to test a potential board.

Now, you’re ready to get into more details of how to use prototype board designs.

Pros and Cons of Stripboard

Stripboards are a fairly common type of prototyping board intended for assembling one-off circuits. Stripboards are often made from insulating material, such as resin-bonded plastics or fiberglass. There are many advantages to using this kind of prototyping board, such as low cost compared to PCBs, less messes from chemical hazards and plotting, and a faster building time. Stripboards are adaptable, with a more modifiable layout that suits locally available components. They’re a versatile option with more functions and circuits on a single board, and they’re compact enough to be built into smaller enclosures. The widespread availability of stripboards means you can find them virtually anywhere in the world, decreasing the cost of these types of builds.

For all their advantages, there are also considerations. Stripboards can be labor intensive, especially if you are building more than one unit. There is also less component density compared to a PCB that’s well laid-out, though you still might be able to succeed in some compact layouts with a prototyping board.

Perfboard vs Stripboard: What are the main differences?

Perfboards, overall, are less impact-resistant when compared to traditional circuit boards. Perfboards differ from stripboards because each pad on the perfboard is isolated. Stripboards, made up of rows of copper conductors for their default connections, are broken up into isolated segments—this makes them similar to the default connections of a solderless breadboard. Because of this, perfboards give the designer more freedom to position components, which can be appealing to those who don’t require default connectivity. Stripboards are software-aided in their design, with traditionally-positioned components.

How to Plan Your Protoboard Build

Even if you know how to use a PCB prototype board, you don’t want to drive straight into building one. While protoboards are way less costly than a printed circuit board, they still have more permanent configurations. Before you get started putting components into place, you should spend some time on the planning stage to give yourself the best results.

A straightforward way to get started is to use a board-planning application on your computer. Software like this gives you a choice to visualize circuits before putting any components down. Be aware that some programs are suitable for working with both perf and stripboard, while others only work well with one type, so plan your protoboard purchases accordingly.

If you want a less digital solution, you can also use graph paper to give a protoboard layout. The idea is that each place where lines cross is where a hole would be on your board. You can then draw in your components and connections. It can also be helpful to indicate places where you plan to break the strip if using a stripboard.

Digital programs can allow you to edit your ideas more quickly, but drawing things out by hand can help orient you with your project in a different way. Either way, don’t skip the planning stage, as you’ll save yourself time and energy when moving into building your protoboard.

What is the best board-planning software?

While we are not affiliated with them, Altium and Eagle are two terrific options for board-planning software. While Eagle has the better options when it comes to integrated design, Altium has a fantastic user interface that we’ve found to be reliable and powerful. With more advanced features, Altium has high speed digital processing, with better designs. While Eagle is across the board more affordable than Altium, it doesn’t quite have the creative library of the latter. Eagle also has better options for simulations, with Altium’s only true limitation being that it is only supported by Windows. You can use Eagle on any OS, which is very attractive to some users.

How to Cut Your Prototype Board

When it comes to working with protoboard, you’ll likely not need a whole sheet. Since the sizes of circuit boards can vary, there’s a chance you’re going to need to cut a piece. However, be careful, as this process can be complicated.

Part of this is because of the materials in the protoboard. The design often laminates paper with a resin that can resist the heat of soldering, which is great when you get to that stage. The downside is that this resin makes it very easy to crack a protoboard, so it’s best to exercise caution.

One of the most effective and accurate ways to cut protoboards is with the use of a straightedge and a sharp knife. You can use the edge as a guide to score a line along where you want to cut the board. Repeat this action on the other side, then set the protoboard on the edge of a flat surface, like a table. You can then snap the board cleanly along your marks.

Pro Tip: If you make your scoring marks along where the holes are in your board, you’ll get a cleaner break since you have less stable protoboard to break and risk snapping.

It is possible to use band saws and other band tools, but these have a much higher probability of damaging the protoboard in the process.

The Benefits of Moving Your Breadboard to Stripboard

If you’ve already done any work with prototyping PCBs, then you’ve likely already come across breadboards. These prototype boards are much more suitable for developing designs as you can move and change components out to set up your plan. Breadboards are also reusable.

breadboard power supply
Breadboard Power Supply by Cyberspice licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In that regard, it’s possible to move a component layout to a stripboard for further testing. Additionally, strip and perforated prototype boards have fewer limits, as you can build more complex connections. If you plan to transfer from a breadboard to a stripboard, it can help to buy a stripboard with a matching orientation or break the stripboard traces.

If you want to have a more sturdy and permanent configuration for a temporary circuit, moving the components from bread to stripboard is one of the most convenient ways.

How to Break Stripboard Traces Using a Drill Bit

As mentioned, stripboard PCBs come with copper strips along the bottom, which serve as connections. However, you’re not going to want to have all your components connected all the time, so you’ll need to break these strips.

Thankfully, you can handle this process with nothing more than a drill bit. All you need to do is take a four mm bit and press the tip against the hole where you want the connection to break. With a little twisting and pressure, you can cut away the copper and have isolated strips. When learning how to use a double side PCB prototype board, stay aware that copper will be on both sides.

If you want something fancier than a standard drill bit, there are specific tools to break these connections available, but the DIY method is just as effective.

FAQ

Are Breadboards and Prototypes the Same?

Breadboard and prototype are often used as interchangeable terms, but they do carry some differences. A prototype implies that there are soldered connections of some type on the board, typically where copper traces are used to build interconnections. Solderless breadboards do not have permanent connections, and breadboards can be reused again and again to fashion different circuits. There are many techniques for developing prototype circuits on PCBs, though it can often be more time consuming. Solderless breadboards are a more practical solution for constructing hardwired circuits.

What is the difference between a breadboard and a prototype?

Breadboards are a great way to learn the basics of electronics or to build quick test circuits on, but there are also benefits to creating via prototype boards with included PCB layouts. Breadboards are chiefly designed as project platforms, to test out temporary circuits or prototypes. You can also test a new part by building a quick circuit to run a new part through its paces. Since breadboards come in different sizes, and also come as solderless or solderable, there are many options for components.

Prototypes also have their advantages, because you can create the size of the circuit board you need or use any component. PCBs are more robust than breadboards, which often will bend beneath the weight of larger devices. PCB copper is also more durable, and the components of a PCB are soldered in for a stronger connection. Prototype boards also carry a better current, though they can be more difficult to work with than a breadboard.

Why do we use PCBs instead of breadboard circuits?

While there is a time and place for both, a printed circuit board has many advantages making it the common choice to be used for actual electronic devices. You can develop your PCBs after testing out the breadboard, and find the perfect design for your project. Since PCBs are permanent (because they are soldered) the boards are more commonly used. PCBs carry a better current, they allow you to add terminals and heat-sinks, and they’re widely used in most electronic devices. Plus, PCBs have a tidier appearance than a breadboard when manufactured correctly, and it’s easier to follow the circuit on the board without looping wires going off in many directions. The difference between PCB and a breadboard are important to consider depending on your project.

Do engineers use breadboards?

Some engineers will use breadboards for basic circuits, and others have actually built entire working computers out of them. While breadboards are meant for training, hobbyists and engineers alike will use breadboards to save time, effort, and money. They allow you to prototype and test a simple circuit, as the permanence of PCBs means they’re not always the best for testing out an idea. When designing a simple circuit that operates at a low frequency, many engineers will go this route.

Can You Connect Two Breadboards Together?

Depending on how much current you are drawing and what frequency your connection operates on, you can connect two breadboards together with a jumper. Solderless breadboards can be fitted together for larger projects, and many modern breadboards come with notches, tabs, or grooves.

Conclusion

Understanding when and how to use protoboard is a critical skill for anyone who wants to design and test circuit boards without committing to the cost of printing. With a prototype circuit board, you can make a lot of progress to having a completed product.

Author Profile

Sunny Patel
Sunny Patel is the Engineering and Sales Manager at Candor Industries. Sunny is trained as a IPC-A-600 trainer, AS9100 Lead auditor, IPC CID and got his Engineering degree at the University of Toronto.