Fab for PCB art?

I’m making some boards where the board will be visible to the end user, and appearance is very important.

The fab I’m currently using is good in most respects: fast, inexpensive, and the boards seem to be of good quality from an electrical standpoint. However, many of the boards have small cosmetic defects (scratches, or other sorts of blemishes on the soldermask that can’t be wiped off). I’m currently only able to use about half the boards I get from the fab, due to the rate of cosmetic defects.

I was wondering if anyone could recommend a fab with a low rate of cosmetic defects?


DigiKey sent us a gift pcb straight edge. It was really first class. I can check out the www address (presumably of the manufacturer) which was printed there when I get to work, if you want that. But I guess it will be expensive…

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This thread is a spammer magnet. Any PCB vendors popping up will get deleted :cop:


Hehe, I got that straight edge in the mail the other day.

If they take ideas, I’d love a pcb with a couple of modern SMD packages on it as samples… especially for the power ICs :wink:

Sorry about that. Is there a different forum that would be more appropriate for asking this sort of question?

Now I’m feeling left out. :wink: I guess I’m not a good enough Digi-Key customer. Although I did purchase a ruler from Adafruit a while back which sounds similar.

No, but any discussion about PCB fabs always attracts the flies

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Have you contacted your fab and explained your issue? It might not take that much more effort on their part to meet your needs IF these are handling and not processing issues.


I’d been assuming there wasn’t much they could/would do, since they are an inexpensive Chinese fab, and I’m ordering small quantities (usually about 30 boards at a time, so far). But you are right, I should at least give them a chance instead of assuming. I will contact them.

You need to carefully explain your cosmetic requirements on a fab drawing, and work with a vendor who is actually going to read your drawing and act on it (i…e not a quick-turn shop that just loads in your gerbers). The defects are very hard to prevent, so it is likely that they will end up throwing away some percentage of the boards rather than you, so expect your price to go up accordingly. But at least you’ll be paying for boards that meet your requirements.


Yeah, I recently asked for a quote from a fab here in Los Angeles, and they quoted me $10/board. I’m getting boards for $3/board from China, so even after I throw out half, that’s $6/board. I’d been hoping that higher quality might result in environmental benefits and/or lower overall cost, since fewer boards would have to be thrown out. But if somebody has to throw out those boards anyway, it might as well be me, I suppose.

BTW, speaking of a “fab drawing”, the first time I heard of that was when the fab here in LA asked why I hadn’t sent one with my request for a quote. I read this thread, but I’m still a little unclear on what should go into a fab drawing and how to make one. It looks like you can draw the fab drawing in KiCad, but it’s still mostly free-form (and more text than graphics), and the software doesn’t really assist in putting it together.

Yes, a fabrication drawing is generally “free form” in that it’s not automatically generated like a Gerber file, although you can use templates to make them.

They are engineering drawings like you would see for a part to be made by a machine shop, etc.
They usually contain a view of the board (sometimes with critical dimensions called out), information about the stackup, information about drills used, and a set of notes. The notes are free-form and call out requirements for the fabricator. That is where would add any cosmetic requirements.

Here’s a good overview:


I’ve bought some pcb’s from China for < USD1. If I remember well it was an order of 30 for USD 27 or so, inclusive shipping.
I had to play a bit with the parameters of their input web frontend.
If I only ordered 10 I did not get “free shipping”.
Ordering 20 was “free shipping”, but at about the same price/board ast the order of 10.
Just for Kicks I tried “30 boards”. It was the exact same price as an order of 20 boards.

If you want to complain to your board manufacturer a few photographs of the PCB help a lot in explaining your issue.
You seem to buy regular batches. Maybe try some random companies and compare?

Another Idea:
Are the scratches alsways on the same side? You can swap top and bottom to put your “artwork” on the other side of the pcb.
Does your PCB fab also put those ugly numbers on the PCB?

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I’ll bet that’s with lead HASL and green soldermask. I want to go lead-free for environmental reasons, and for esthetic reasons I want ENIG finish and another color of soldermask, usually blue. (My product is a butterfly, and butterflies aren’t usually green.)

Yes, I will try to get some photos, although I don’t have a macro lens for my DSLR, and I don’t have a way to attach a camera to my microscope.

Yeah, I’m buying in small-ish batches because I’m not sure how much demand there is for my product, and I don’t want to be stuck with a bunch of boards I won’t use. Also, I’ve been tweaking my design a little bit each time.

Yes, I think I’ll just experiment with different fabs and see. I’ve been using JLCPCB so far, but I think I might try Elecrow next, unless anyone here has a better suggestion to try. (The only minor annoying thing is that I’m selling on Etsy, and Etsy requires you to list your “manufacturing partners”, so I have to update that when I change manufacturers, though that’s not hard to do.)

I haven’t really been paying attention to whether there are scratches on the “non-art” side. Yes, JLCPCB puts numbers on the front of the board, so I already flipped the board so that the front is really the back and vice-versa.

Here are a couple of pictures.

A scratch:

A small lump of some substance embedded in the soldermask:

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