PCB Etchant Solutions

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A Guide to Chemicals and Methods for Etching Printed Circuit Boards

Printed circuit boards (PCBs) are an essential component of modern electronics. Etching is a key process in PCB fabrication that selectively removes unwanted copper from the board to form the desired conductive circuit traces. Choosing the right etchant solution is important for achieving high quality PCB etching results. This comprehensive guide covers the most common PCB etchants, application methods, and tips for improved etching.

Overview of PCB Etching

Printed circuit boards are made from a copper-clad laminate material consisting of a non-conductive substrate such as FR-4 fiberglass with a thin layer of copper foil on one or both sides. The goal of PCB etching is to remove unwanted copper to leave only the desired conductive circuit traces that connect the electronic components.

There are two main methods of etching PCBs:

Subtractive Etching

This involves coating the entire copper surface with an etchant-resistant mask material, then selectively removing areas of the mask to expose the copper regions to be etched away. The remaining masked areas form the circuit traces.

Additive Etching

This starts with an uncoated blank laminate. The circuit pattern is selectively plated onto the board with copper, leaving blank areas where copper is not deposited.

Subtractive etching is more common for hobbyists and small-scale PCB production. Additive processes are used in high-volume commercial PCB fabrication.

Both methods depend on etchants to reliably and accurately remove copper from the board. Choosing an appropriate etchant solution is key for the etching process.

Desirable Etchant Characteristics

  • High copper etch rate for fast etching
  • Excellent selectivity for etching copper without excessive base laminate attack
  • Easy to control etch rate and endpoint
  • Non-hazardous and environmentally friendly
  • Low cost and readily available chemicals
  • Safe to handle and dispose etchant waste

No single etchant perfectly meets all criteria. The most suitable option depends on factors like etching scale, quality needs, cost constraints etc. Here are some of the most popular PCB etchant solutions with their pros and cons.

Common PCB Etchants

Ferric Chloride

Ferric chloride (FeCl3) is a widely used traditional PCB etchant. It efficiently etches copper but has several limitations:

  • Attacks fiberglass, reducing accuracy
  • Dark color makes it hard to see etch progress
  • Limited bath life as iron compounds accumulate
  • Corrosive and stains skin and clothes
  • Toxic chemical hazard


  • Fast etching
  • Inexpensive chemical
  • Readily available


  • Poor selectivity
  • Dark solution color
  • Finite bath life
  • Hazardous waste

Ammonium Persulfate

Ammonium persulfate ((NH4)2S2O8) is a powerful copper etchant. Advantages over ferric chloride:

  • etches rapidly with minimal undercutting
  • Bright blue color for easy etch monitoring
  • Less fiberglass attack for accuracy
  • Long bath life, only needs periodic copper replenishment

Limitations include toxicity, sensitivity to contamination, and instability.


  • Excellent etch rate
  • Bright solution shows etch progression
  • Minimal undercutting of traces
  • Long bath life with copper replenishment


  • Toxic chemical hazards
  • Thermally and chemically unstable
  • Sensitive to contamination

Hydrogen Peroxide-Based Etchants

Hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) mixed with acid makes a clean, safe PCB etchant. Common formulas:

  • Hydrogen peroxide + hydrochloric acid
  • Hydrogen peroxide + sulfuric acid

Benefits include:

  • No offensive fumes or hazards
  • Slow acting, easy to control
  • Low cost, easily sourced chemicals

Drawbacks are slow etch rates and susceptibility to contamination. Frequent bath changes may be needed.


  • Safe, non-hazardous etchant
  • Easy to obtain chemicals
  • Low cost
  • Slow etch rate allows control


  • Slow etching
  • Requires frequent bath changes
  • Prone to contamination

Sodium Persulfate

Sodium persulfate (Na2S2O8) is an inorganic salt gaining popularity as a PCB etchant. Features:

  • Powerful etchant with excellent copper selectivity
  • Clear solution shows etch progression
  • Stable for long bath life
  • Non-corrosive and low toxicity

Downsides are slower etch rate than other persulfates and relatively high chemical cost.


  • Strong etchant with good selectivity
  • Clear solution for etch monitoring
  • Chemically stable for long bath life
  • Non-corrosive and low toxicity


  • Slower etch rate than other persulfates
  • Higher chemical cost

Nitric Acid

Concentrated nitric acid (HNO3) aggressively etches copper with very high selectivity. Useful where fast localized etching is needed without attacking the fiberglass laminate.

Major hazards limit its use. Nitric acid is extremely corrosive, toxic, and prone to uncontrolled exothermic reactions. Strict safety precautions are essential.


  • Extremely fast, localized etching
  • Excellent selectivity for copper
  • Preferred for dissolving unwanted internal copper layers


  • Very hazardous acid, risk of burns and toxic fumes
  • Potential for dangerous runaway reactions
  • Requires extreme safety precautions

Other Etchants

Some less common PCB etchants include:

  • Hydrochloric acid – cheap but extremely non-selective, attacks fiberglass
  • Sodium persulfate – similar properties as ammonium persulfate
  • Hydrogen peroxide-salt mixtures – can tune etch rate by salt type and concentration
  • Commercial proprietary etchants – optimized performance but higher cost

There are also “do-it-yourself” etchant formulas using chemicals like vinegar, salt, hydrogen peroxide etc. These work but are generally slow and unreliable compared to dedicated etchant solutions.

Etchant Application Methods

Immersion Etching

This involves submerging the PCB in a tank or tray of liquid etchant solution. Simple and effective for small scale etching. Difficulties controlling agitation and temperature can lead to uneven etching.


  • Simple etching setup
  • Easy control by adjusting immersion time
  • Suitable for small-scale etching


  • Uneven agitation can cause non-uniform etching
  • Hard to control etchant temperature

Spray Etching

Etchant solution is sprayed onto the board surface. Uniform etching action but requires an enclosed spray equipment system not practical for hobbyists. Used mainly in large scale commercial PCB fabrication.


  • Promotes uniform etching across the board
  • Facilitates temperature control
  • Continuous etchant flow prevents depletion


  • Complex spray equipment needed
  • Difficult for small scale use
  • Significant etchant waste

Brush Etching

Etchant is repeatedly brushed onto the PCB surface. Allows selective etching of specific areas. Labor intensive but can be useful for rework etching on populated boards.


  • Targeted etching of selected areas
  • Minimal equipment or chemicals needed
  • Suitable for PCB rework


  • Very labor intensive
  • Hard to achieve uniform etching
  • Only practical for small scale work

Tips for Improved PCB Etching

Follow these guidelines to get consistently good etching results:

Use Good Quality Materials

  • Start with clean, high quality copper clad laminate
  • Use etchant-resistant ink or photoresist for etching masks
  • Handle boards carefully to prevent mask damage

Optimize Etchant Temperature

  • Elevated temperatures significantly increase etch rates
  • Optimal temperature is 40-50°C for most etchants
  • Use heater or water bath for temperature control

Agitate Etchant Solution

  • Agitation promotes fresh etchant contact and uniform etching
  • Use pump, stirrer, bubbles or manual agitation
  • Avoid excessive agitation that damages mask

Allow Sufficient Etching Time

  • Check boards frequently to prevent under or over-etching
  • Expect etching to take 30-60 minutes with fresh etchant
  • Increase time for depleted baths or reduced temperatures

Clean Boards Thoroughly After Etching

  • Residual etchant solution can corrode tracks or lift pads
  • Wash boards in clean water and dry completely
  • A brush scrub helps clean out etched channels

Adjust Chemistry for Optimal Performance

  • Replenish exhausted etchant baths with fresh chemicals
  • Add accelerators like hydrogen peroxide to speed etch rate
  • Closely monitor bath contamination to detect reduced etch rates

Proper etchant selection, solution handling, and etching technique will reliably produce high quality PCB etching results. Evaluate different etchants to find one that best fits your specific etching needs.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the simplest etchant solution to use at home?

For home etching, hydrogen peroxide + hydrochloric acid provides a simple, safe option. Go for a dilute 3% hydrogen peroxide solution mixed at a 1:1 ratio with 18% hydrochloric acid. Take safety precautions and etch outside or in a fume hood.

What temperature should ferric chloride be kept at for etching?

For fastest etching, keep the ferric chloride solution at around 50°C. This can be achieved with a hot plate or water bath setup. Higher temperatures near 60°C are possible but increase fumes. Avoid going above 60°C.

How long does it take to etch a typical PCB board?

With a fresh etchant bath at the optimal temperature, allow 30-60 minutes for complete PCB etching depending on board size and complexity. Double check every 10-15 minutes after the first 30 minutes to avoid over-etching.

Can I reuse etchant solution after etching a board?

It’s generally not recommended. Most etchant baths become depleted after one use. Reusing will take much longer to etch and risks poor quality results. Dispose of spent etchant safely and mix a fresh bath.

How do I dispose of used etchant chemicals safely?

Refer to the safety data sheet for your specific etchant. Neutralization with a dilute base is required before disposal for acidic etchants. Ferric chloride can be reduced to iron with sodium metabisulfite. Always follow local hazardous waste disposal regulations.