Printed Circuit Board Art

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Printed circuit boards (PCBs) are an integral part of most electronic devices. They provide the physical structure and electrical connections between components in a circuit. While PCBs may seem purely utilitarian, some creative engineers and artists have found ways to turn these functional boards into works of art.

PCB art involves modifying or designing circuit boards to create visual images and designs beyond their intended purpose. This can involve etching intricate patterns into the copper layers, using the circuit paths themselves to form shapes, or embedding components like LEDs to add lighting effects. The result combines the technical and aesthetic into a unique art medium.

In this article, we’ll explore the world of PCB art, looking at different techniques used, notable artists, and how this blend of technology and creativity offers new possibilities for self-expression and design.

A Brief History of PCB Art

Printed circuit boards first emerged in the 1950s as a way to build more advanced, compact electronics. Early PCBs were quite simple, with all components soldered to one side. As technology advanced, double-sided and multilayer boards became possible, allowing for more complex circuit routing.

It didn’t take long for engineers to realize the potential of PCBs as an art medium. Many early computer companies, such as Apple, would etch their logos and designs into boards used in their products. However, this was still primarily for marketing and branding.

PCB art as we know it today traces its origins to the homebrew computing movement of the 1970s and 80s. Amateur engineers would design their own circuit boards for hobbyist computers and electronics. Without commercial constraints, they were free to experiment with more creative board designs and layouts. The elaborate board art from this era can be seen as a precursor to the maker culture prominent today.

In the 1990s and 2000s, more PCB artists started emerging, aided by the availability of design software and fabrication services. Some early pioneers created intricate portraits and nature scenes using only the copper traces on boards. Others designed complex layered light sculptures by embedding LEDs and other components. The number of artists working in this medium continues to grow as the technology becomes more accessible.

PCB Art Techniques and Methods

PCB artists employ a range of techniques to turn functional circuit boards into works of art. Here are some of the most common methods used:

Etched Illustrations

One of the most straightforward techniques is to etch illustrations directly into the copper layers of the PCB. This involves selectively removing unwanted copper to leave behind the traces forming the artwork. Most PCB art employs this method to some degree. The etching can be done by hand using chemicals or by using a CNC machine for precision milling.

Etching allows for very detailed artwork. Photographic portraits and landscapes are possible by etching thousands of fine lines. Etching alone produces a monochrome, line-based style. However, more advanced PCB fabrication can overlay multiple etched layers to create colored images.

Circuit Trace Art

Rather than etching new patterns, some artists use the existing circuit board traces as part of the artwork. By carefully routing the paths between components, it’s possible to form letters, shapes and abstract designs. This requires planning the circuit logic around the visual elements.

Trace art has the benefit of keeping the PCB functional. The boards can have electronic components mounted on them to create circuit sculptures. Multi-layer boards provide more scope for elaborate trace art spanning across layers.

Creative Solder Masks

The solder mask is the protective layer applied over the top of PCB copper traces. Normally this is a uniform color like green or black. However, custom solder masks can become part of the artwork. Using masking techniques, painters can selectively apply colored masks to create designs and textures. The result is a vivid and lively surface blending electronics with artistic flair.

Component Integration

In many PCB art pieces, the components themselves become part of the aesthetic. LEDs can be arranged to form light displays. Older transistor packages and vacuum tubes can create retro-futuristic styles. Integrated circuits with exposed dies inside transparent cases reveal the inner circuitry as abstract patterns.

Creative component placement lets the PCB tell a visual story about its function. The components are both electrical devices and artistic elements working together. Component height, shape and color all offer possibilities for the enterprising PCB artist.

Mixed Media and Hybrids

PCBs don’t have to be the only medium used. Many artists combine boards with other materials to enhance the artwork. PCBs etched with designs may be framed alongside photos of the same image for comparison. Or a PCB can be embedded within a larger sculpture as an interactive lighting element. Some also use printmaking-like processes, applying ink to the PCB to transfer the circuit patterns onto paper.

By merging PCBs with other arts and crafts, new visual forms can emerge. The technology blends seamlessly with traditional artistic mediums in these hybrid art pieces.

Notable PCB Artists and Artworks

Printed circuit board art remains a relatively niche art movement. But over the past few decades, many remarkable PCB creations have been made by talented artists. Here are some of the most prominent PCB artists and their most famous pieces:

Brendan Harmon

Brendan Harmon is an electrical engineer known for his nature-inspired PCB artwork. Using an etching technique, he creates stunningly detailed illustrations of insects, plants and landscapes on multilayer boards. His works look like drawings or paintings translated into PCBs. They exemplify the ability to turn these functional boards into works of art.

One of his most famous pieces is “Hemlock”, an etched PCB depicting a hemlock tree in autumn. The different copper layers give the illusion of pencil sketching. His works have been featured in numerous art exhibitions and maker faires.

Bill Beutler

Bill Beutler was one of the first PCB artists, active starting in the 1990s. He pioneered many etching, masking and circuit tracing techniques still used today. His artwork has a distinctive retro-futuristic style, often depicting robots, spacecraft and sci-fi themes.

One iconic piece of his is “PCB Man”, a self-portrait etched entirely using PCB traces shaped into the features of his face. Beutler also created minimalist abstract designs like “pcb158”, manipulating the copper fills areas into geometric patterns. His technical skill helped establish PCBs as a valid artistic medium.

Windell Oskay

Windell Oskay is an engineer who uses PCBs to create elaborate light art sculptures. By embedding LEDs and custom circuits into his boards, he makes kinetic installations that blur the line between technology and art. Many of his pieces take inspiration from nature, such as cherry blossom trees or jellyfish.

His most famous work is “FireFly”, a tabletop sculpture using 100 LED-lit PCBs moving in wave-like patterns to simulate fireflies buzzing through the air. Oskay is a pioneer of incorporating lighting, motion and interaction into PCB artwork through creative circuit design.

Shawn Liu

Shawn Liu is a maker renowned for his skill at circuit trace art. He can route PCB traces into incredibly detailed shapes and illustrations. His artwork looks deceptively simple, until you realize every line is a real conductive copper path on a functional board.

One stunning example of his is “The Vitruvian Man”, which recreates Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous anatomical sketch using only PCB traces. Liu’s PCB drawings demonstrate an unparalleled mastery of complex circuit routing. He embraces the challenge of squeezing artwork into the constraints of a PCB layout.

Frank Krueger

Frank Krueger uses a hybrid approach in his PCB art, combining etched PCBs with painting and printmaking techniques. He etches designs based on antique lace patterns, botanical illustrations and other vintage artworks. He then hand paints and prints over the PCBs to complement and enhance the imagery with vivid colors.

His series “Relics” incorporates PCB elements into assemblage sculpture pieces. Krueger blends technological, antique and artistic themes into mixed media pieces that encapsulate a retro-industrial style. His approach marries old and new, showing how PCBs can be incorporated into traditional art forms.

PCB Art Communities

Part of the appeal of PCB art is sharing skills and techniques with fellow artists. Online communities have helped connect and inspire PCB art makers around the world:

Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories

This DIY engineering community was founded by Windell Oskay. It features PCB artwork alongside other technological creative projects. Their blog is a great source for guides, ideas and artist interviews.

Circuits Bizarre

This online magazine publishes articles focused exclusively on PCB art and electronics art. It covers projects, artist profiles, techniques and industry news relevant to the PCB art scene.

Reddit r/PCBart

This subreddit is dedicated to sharing and discussing PCB art. Members post photos of their latest creations and ask for feedback or help. The community troubleshoots issues and provides encouragement.

Oddly Specific Objects

This blog by Brendan Harmon features his own spectacular PCB art alongside other maker creations. The site has helpful tutorials on PCB etching processes for beginners.

Dangerous Prototypes

This maker forum has a section dedicated to PCB art and electronics art projects. It’s a good place to get advice and find collaborators for ambitious creations.

Through these online groups, PCB artists form a far-reaching community to elevate the possibilities of the medium.

Creating Your Own PCB Art

Want to try making your own PCB artwork? Here is a general process to get started:

1. Design the Artwork

First create the design you want to transfer to a PCB. This can be done digitally with CAD software or by hand drawing a sketch to scan. Keep in mind any constraints like the board dimensions and number of layers available. More complex designs will need to be simplified to translate well into PCB artwork.

2. Lay Out the Board

If designing a functional circuit board, layout the board schematic and routing plan. The visual elements can be integrated into the copper fills areas and trace routing. For art-only boards, plan the layer stackup and how artwork will be divided across layers.

3. Transfer the Artwork

There are a few options to move artwork onto the PCB:

  • For etching, use a CNC machine to mill out sections of copper foil based on your digital design.
  • For tracings, export route files and use CAD software to plot traces into the desired shapes.
  • For masks, convert designs into film sheets for photolithographic patterning of solder mask layers.

4. Fabricate the Board

Send board design files to a PCB manufacturer or etch boards in your own shop. For small boards, toner transfer or vinyl cut masking methods also work. Review the fabricated boards carefully for any errors before final assembly.

5. Finish the Artwork

Apply any final touches like solder masks, labels, components or hardware. Mount boards onto stands or frames if needed. Correct any flaws or make enhancements to complete the PCB artwork.

With some creativity and basic electronics skills, you can turn humble PCBs into spectacular circuit sculptures. See where your imagination leads as you bridge technology with art.


What is the history of printed circuit board art?

PCB art originated in the 1970s-80s homebrew computing era, as hobbyists began etching creative designs into their homemade circuit boards. It developed into a niche art form in the 1990s and 2000s as more artists discovered the artistic possibilities of PCBs. Early pioneers like Bill Beutler established many of the etching, masking and circuit tracing techniques still used today.

How is artwork created on a printed circuit board?

Common techniques include etching illustrations into the copper foil, routing circuit traces into shapes, applying creative solder masks, and integrating components like LEDs. Multilayer boards allow more complex artwork spanning across layers. CAD software and CNC machines help transfer digital designs onto PCBs.

What are some examples of notable PCB artworks?

Some famous PCB art pieces include Brendan Harmon’s photo-realistic insect etchings, Windell Oskay’s interactive LED sculptures, Shawn Liu’s incredibly detailed circuit trace drawings, and Frank Krueger’s mixed media creations combining PCBs with painting/printmaking. Their art demonstrates the creative diversity possible with PCBs.

What online communities exist for PCB art?

Key online forums include Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories (PCB blog), Circuits Bizarre (PCB art magazine), the r/PCBart subreddit, Oddly Specific Objects (artist blog), and Dangerous Prototypes (maker community). These let PCB artists connect, get inspiration, share techniques, and get feedback.

How can I get started making my own PCB artwork?

The general process includes: designing the artwork, laying out the board schematic/routing, transferring artwork to the PCB using etching/tracing/masking, fabricating the boards, and finishing with any final touches. Start simple, learn the processes, and develop skills over multiple projects before tackling complex designs.