Conducting layers are typically made of thin copper foil. Insulating layers dielectric are typically laminated together with epoxy resin prepreg. The board is typically coated with a solder mask that is green in color. Other colors that are normally available are blue and red. There are quite a few different dielectrics that can be chosen to provide different insulating values depending on the requirements of the circuit. Some of these dielectrics are polytetrafluoroethylene (Teflon), FR-4, FR-1, CEM-1 or CEM-3. Well known prepreg materials used in the PCB industry are FR-2 (Phenolic cotton paper), FR-3 (Cotton paper and epoxy), FR-4 (Woven glass and epoxy), FR-5 (Woven glass and epoxy), FR-6 (Matte glass and polyester), G-10 (Woven glass and epoxy), CEM-1 (Cotton paper and epoxy), CEM-2 (Cotton paper and epoxy), CEM-3 (Woven glass and epoxy), CEM-4 (Woven glass and epoxy), CEM-5 (Woven glass and polyester). Thermal expansion is an important consideration especially with BGA and naked die technologies, and glass fiber offers the best dimensional stability.
Typical density of a raw PCB (an average amount of traces, holes, and vias, with no components) is 2.15g / cm3.
The vast majority of printed circuit boards are made by bonding a layer of copper over the entire substrate, sometimes on both sides, (creating a "blank PCB") then removing unwanted copper after applying a temporary mask (e.g. by etching), leaving only the desired copper traces. A few PCBs are made by adding traces to the bare substrate (or a substrate with a very thin layer of copper) usually by a complex process of multiple electroplating steps.
There are three common "subtractive" methods (methods that remove copper) used for the production of printed circuit boards:
- Silk screen printing uses etch-resistant inks to protect the copper foil. Subsequent etching removes the unwanted copper. Alternatively, the ink may be conductive, printed on a blank (non-conductive) board. The latter technique is also used in the manufacture of hybrid circuits.
- Photoengraving uses a photomask and chemical etching to remove the copper foil from the substrate. The photomask is usually prepared with a photoplotter from data produced by a technician using CAM, or computer-aided manufacturing software. Laser-printed transparencies are typically employed for phototools; however, direct laser imaging techniques are being employed to replace phototools for high-resolution requirements.
- PCB milling uses a two or three-axis mechanical milling system to mill away the copper foil from the substrate. A PCB milling machine (referred to as a 'PCB Prototyper') operates in a similar way to a plotter, receiving commands from the host software that control the position of the milling head in the x, y, and (if relevant) z axis. Data to drive the Prototyper is extracted from files generated in PCB design software and stored in HPGL or Gerber file format.
"Additive" processes also exist. The most common is the "semi-additive" process. In this version, the unpatterned board has a thin layer of copper already on it. A reverse mask is then applied. (Unlike a subtractive process mask, this mask exposes those parts of the substrate that will eventually become the traces.) Additional copper is then plated onto the board in the unmasked areas; copper may be plated to any desired weight. Tin-lead or other surface platings are then applied. The mask is stripped away and a brief etching step removes the now-exposed original copper laminate from the board, isolating the individual traces. Some boards with plated thru holes but still single sided were made with a process like this. General Electric made consumer radio sets in the late 1960s using boards like these.
The additive process is commonly used for multi-layer boards as it facilitates the plating-through of the holes (to produce conductive vias) in the circuit board.
The dimensions of the copper conductors of the printed circuit board is related to the amount of current the conductor must carry. Each trace consists of a flat, narrow part of the copper foil that remains after etching. Signal traces are usually narrower than power or ground traces because their current carrying requirements are usually much less. In a multi-layer board one entire layer may be mostly solid copper to act as a ground plane for shielding and power return. For printed circuit boards that contain microwave circuits, transmission lines can be laid out in the form of stripline and microstrip with carefully-controlled dimensions to assure a consistent impedance. In radio-frequency circuits the inductance and capacitance of the printed circuit board conductors can be used as a delibrate part of the circuit design, obviating the need for additional discrete components.
Some PCBs have trace layers inside the PCB and are called multi-layer PCBs. These are formed by bonding together separately etched thin boards.
Holes through a PCB are typically drilled with tiny drill bits made of solid tungsten carbide. The drilling is performed by automated drilling machines with placement controlled by a drill tape or drill file. These computer-generated files are also called numerically controlled drill (NCD) files or "Excellon files". The drill file describes the location and size of each drilled hole. These holes are often filled with annular rings (hollow rivets) to create vias. Vias allow the electrical and thermal connection of conductors on opposite sides of the PCB.
Most common laminate is epoxy filled fiberglass. Drill bit wear is in part due to the fact that glass, being harder than steel on the Mohs scale, can scratch steel. High drill speed necessary for cost effective drilling of hundreds of holes per board causes very high temperatures at the drill bit tip, and high temperatures (400-700 degrees) soften steel and decompose (oxidize) laminate filler. Copper is softer than epoxy and interior conductors may suffer damage during drilling.
When very small vias are required, drilling with mechanical bits is costly because of high rates of wear and breakage. In this case, the vias may be evaporated by lasers. Laser-drilled vias typically have an inferior surface finish inside the hole. These holes are called micro vias.
It is also possible with controlled-depth drilling, laser drilling, or by pre-drilling the individual sheets of the PCB before lamination, to produce holes that connect only some of the copper layers, rather than passing through the entire board. These holes are called blind vias when they connect an internal copper layer to an outer layer, or buried vias when they connect two or more internal copper layers and no outer layers.
The walls of the holes, for boards with 2 or more layers, are made conductive then plated with copper to form plated-through holes that electrically connect the conducting layers of the PCB. For multilayer boards, those with 4 layers or more, drilling typically produces a smear of the high temperature decomposition products of bonding agent in the laminate system. Before the holes can be plated through, this smear must be removed by a chemical de-smear process, or by plasma-etch. Removing (etching back) the smear also reveals the interior conductors as well.