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Learning to make PCBs by breaking my arm

In late August of 2021, I fell on my bike. I initially didn't think that it was a very serious fall. However, after being in pain, some x-rays, and a visit to the orthopedic department, I accepted that my arm was broken and I probably wouldn't be able to do much with it for a while. That meant that work was out (yay!), but also most of my hobbies as well (boo).

Inevitably that ended up with me sitting around my apartment browsing YouTube for anything vaguely interesting to watch, and I ended up finding a video series about designing printed circuit boards. It looked fairly well produced and very basic (perfect for me, who had never designed a circuit board before), so I watched it.

I've done electronics projects before, and I feel like I had a pretty good grasp of how circuit design works. (I tried to explain how digital logic works to my girlfriend on our first date by bringing a bunch of transistors and LEDs. Note: do not attempt this) I used to work with Ben Eater and was around when he first built his 8-bit computer, and I also have seen videos online about circuit design and reverse engineering from folks like Big Clive and EEVBlog. I had some experience in soldering from my days in FIRST robotics. And of course I'd seen circuit boards around by taking apart all of my dead electronics. But I'd never understood exactly how PCBs are designed, and how they end up getting made.

Watching the YouTube series helped me understand a bunch of that. They walked through the entire process of creating a PCB in KiCAD (an incredible, open source piece of software), ordering the PCB from a manufacturer, the process of ordering matching parts from DigiKey, and even had a final video where they put everything together. It was so well presented that I felt confident following the steps that they presented. The circuit that they presented was pretty simple, just flashing some LEDs on and off using a 555 timer with through-hole components, but a simple start felt good to me.

So, I downloaded KiCAD and started working. Luckily, as I found, using KiCAD is a pretty mouse-centric program. Though there are keyboard shortcuts for everything, by default it has nice toolbars which let you do most operations only using the mouse. This was perfect for me, because it was hard to use the mouse and keyboard at the same time. I could type for short bursts of time to do things like visiting the KiCAD website, but long sessions of typing hurt too much.

I followed the instructions in the video almost to a tee (I made some small adjustments, like moving the LEDs to the back, but was a bit too scared to make any more drastic changes yet). Eventually, I got to a point where things diverged from how many of my other projects worked: I had to order things and wait! I am so used to writing code, where I change something and get instant feedback, that the prospect of having to wait several weeks in order for the PCB to be made and shipped seemed like an eternity.