Ultimate Guide to Selective Gold Plating PCBs

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What is Selective Gold Plating?

Selective gold plating is a process where gold is precisely deposited onto specific areas of a PCB, such as contact fingers, connector pads, or high-frequency signal traces. This targeted approach allows for the benefits of gold plating where it matters most while minimizing costs associated with using the precious metal.

Advantages of Selective Gold Plating

  1. Enhanced Conductivity: Gold is an excellent conductor of electricity, making it ideal for high-frequency applications and critical signal paths.

  2. Corrosion Resistance: Gold is highly resistant to corrosion, oxidation, and tarnishing, ensuring long-term reliability of the plated areas.

  3. Improved Durability: Gold-plated surfaces are more resistant to wear and tear, extending the lifespan of the PCB and its components.

  4. Better Contact Performance: Gold-plated contact points provide superior electrical contact and minimize contact resistance, especially important for connectors and switches.

  5. Cost-Effective: Selective gold plating uses less gold compared to full plating, reducing overall costs while still providing the necessary benefits.

Gold Plating Processes

There are several methods for applying gold plating to PCBs, each with its own advantages and considerations.


Electroplating is the most common method for Gold Plating PCBs. It involves immersing the PCB in a gold electrolyte solution and applying an electric current to deposit the gold onto the desired areas. The process typically consists of the following steps:

  1. Cleaning: The PCB is thoroughly cleaned to remove any contaminants or oxides that may interfere with the plating process.

  2. Activation: The surface is activated using a mild acid or alkaline solution to ensure proper adhesion of the gold.

  3. Plating: The PCB is immersed in the gold electrolyte solution, and an electric current is applied to deposit the gold onto the targeted areas.

  4. Rinsing: The plated PCB is rinsed with deionized water to remove any residual electrolyte solution.

  5. Drying: The PCB is dried using hot air or an oven to ensure the gold plating is fully adhered.

Electroless Plating

Electroless plating is a chemical process that deposits gold onto the PCB without the use of an electric current. This method is less common for gold plating but can be useful for plating non-conductive surfaces or complex geometries. The process involves the following steps:

  1. Cleaning: As with electroplating, the PCB is cleaned to remove contaminants and oxides.

  2. Activation: The surface is activated using a catalyst, typically palladium, to initiate the gold deposition.

  3. Plating: The PCB is immersed in an autocatalytic gold solution, where the gold ions are reduced and deposited onto the activated surfaces.

  4. Rinsing and Drying: The plated PCB is rinsed and dried as in the electroplating process.

Immersion Gold Plating

Immersion gold plating is a simple and cost-effective method for depositing a thin layer of gold onto exposed copper surfaces. This process does not require an electric current or additional catalysts and is often used as a final finish for PCBs. The main steps include:

  1. Cleaning: The PCB is cleaned to remove any contaminants or oxides.

  2. Microetching: A mild etching solution is used to remove a thin layer of copper, creating a fresh and activated surface for gold deposition.

  3. Plating: The PCB is immersed in the immersion gold solution, where a displacement reaction occurs, depositing a thin layer of gold onto the exposed copper.

  4. Rinsing and Drying: The plated PCB is rinsed and dried to complete the process.

Selective Gold Plating Techniques

To achieve selective gold plating, various techniques can be employed to control where the gold is deposited on the PCB.


Masking involves covering the areas of the PCB that do not require gold plating with a temporary resist or tape. This protects the masked regions from the plating process, allowing gold to be deposited only on the exposed areas. Common masking materials include:

  • Photoresist: A light-sensitive polymer that can be patterned using photolithography.
  • Tape: Adhesive tapes, such as polyimide or vinyl, can be cut to shape and applied to the PCB.
  • Screen Printing: A thick, screen-printable resist can be applied to the PCB and cured before plating.

Spot Plating

Spot plating, also known as brush plating or pen plating, is a manual technique for selectively applying gold to specific areas of the PCB. This method uses a handheld tool with a small anode and a gold electrolyte solution. The operator carefully applies the tool to the desired areas, depositing gold only where needed. Spot plating is useful for:

  • Rework and repair of gold-plated areas
  • Plating small, isolated features
  • Prototyping and low-volume production

Jet Plating

Jet plating is an automated selective plating process that uses a directed stream of electrolyte solution to deposit gold onto specific areas of the PCB. The PCB is typically mounted on a computer-controlled stage that moves beneath the plating jet, allowing for precise control of the plated areas. Jet plating offers several advantages:

  • High precision and repeatability
  • Faster plating speeds compared to immersion methods
  • Reduced masking requirements
  • Ability to plate complex geometries and hard-to-reach areas

Design Considerations for Selective Gold Plating

When designing a PCB for selective gold plating, several factors should be considered to ensure optimal results and cost-effectiveness.

Gold Thickness

The thickness of the gold plating is a critical factor in determining its performance and durability. Typical gold thicknesses for selective plating range from 0.05 µm to 2.54 µm (2 to 100 µin), depending on the application and requirements. Thicker gold plating offers better wear resistance and durability but comes at a higher cost.

Application Typical Gold Thickness
Contact fingers 0.76 – 1.27 µm
Connector pads 0.25 – 1.27 µm
High-frequency traces 0.05 – 0.25 µm
Wire bonding pads 0.63 – 2.54 µm


To improve the adhesion and durability of the gold plating, an underplating of nickel or palladium is often used. This layer acts as a barrier, preventing the diffusion of copper into the gold and enhancing the overall plating performance.

Underplating Material Typical Thickness Advantages
Nickel 1.27 – 5.08 µm – Low cost
– Good barrier properties
– Hardness
Palladium 0.05 – 0.25 µm – Excellent barrier properties
– Softness

Clearance and Spacing

When designing for selective gold plating, it is essential to consider the clearance and spacing between the gold-plated features and adjacent components or traces. Adequate spacing helps to prevent bridging or short circuits during the plating process and ensures proper electrical isolation.

Feature Minimum Clearance
Between gold-plated pads 0.15 mm
Between gold-plated traces 0.10 mm
Between gold-plated and bare copper 0.20 mm

Masking and Artwork

For selective gold plating using masking techniques, the artwork for the plating resist must be carefully designed to ensure proper coverage and alignment with the desired plating areas. The artwork should account for any shrinkage or expansion of the masking material during processing and include appropriate alignment marks for registration.

Quality Control and Testing

To ensure the quality and reliability of selectively gold-plated PCBs, various inspection and testing methods can be employed.

Visual Inspection

Visual inspection is the first line of quality control, allowing for the identification of any obvious defects or irregularities in the gold plating. This can be performed using a microscope or high-resolution camera to check for:

  • Plating coverage and uniformity
  • Pinholes, voids, or cracks in the plating
  • Bridging or short circuits between features
  • Contamination or foreign materials on the plated surface

Thickness Measurement

Measuring the thickness of the gold plating is essential to ensure compliance with design specifications and to predict the performance and durability of the plated areas. Several methods can be used for thickness measurement:

  • X-ray fluorescence (XRF): A non-destructive technique that measures the thickness of the gold layer by analyzing the characteristic X-rays emitted when the surface is exposed to high-energy radiation.
  • Cross-sectional analysis: A destructive method where a sample of the plated PCB is cut and polished to reveal the cross-section of the plating layers, which can then be measured using microscopy.
  • Beta backscatter: A non-destructive method that measures the thickness of the gold layer by analyzing the backscattered electrons when the surface is exposed to a beam of beta particles.

Adhesion Testing

Adhesion testing is performed to evaluate the bond strength between the gold plating and the underlying substrate or underplating. Common adhesion testing methods include:

  • Tape test: A pressure-sensitive tape is applied to the plated surface and then peeled off at a specified angle. The amount of plating removed by the tape provides a qualitative measure of adhesion.
  • Scratch test: A diamond-tipped stylus is drawn across the plated surface under increasing load until the plating fails or delaminates. The critical load at which failure occurs is a quantitative measure of adhesion.

Electrical Testing

Electrical testing is crucial for ensuring the functionality and performance of selectively gold-plated PCBs. Some common electrical tests include:

  • Continuity test: Verifies the electrical connection between gold-plated features and ensures there are no open circuits.
  • Insulation resistance test: Measures the resistance between adjacent gold-plated features to ensure adequate electrical isolation and the absence of short circuits.
  • High-frequency signal integrity test: Evaluates the performance of gold-plated high-frequency traces and ensures signal quality and integrity.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

  1. What is the difference between selective gold plating and full gold plating?
  2. Selective gold plating deposits gold only on specific areas of the PCB, such as contact fingers or connector pads, while full gold plating covers the entire surface of the PCB. Selective plating is more cost-effective and targeted, providing the benefits of gold where it is needed most.

  3. How does the thickness of the gold plating affect its performance?

  4. Thicker gold plating offers better wear resistance, durability, and corrosion resistance. However, thicker plating also increases costs and may impact the dimensional tolerances of the plated features. The optimal gold thickness depends on the specific application and requirements of the PCB.

  5. Can selective gold plating be applied to both rigid and flexible PCBs?

  6. Yes, selective gold plating can be used on both rigid and flexible PCBs. However, the plating process may need to be adapted to account for the different material properties and handling requirements of flexible substrates.

  7. What are the environmental considerations for gold plating processes?

  8. Gold plating processes can have environmental impacts due to the use of chemicals, energy, and water. Proper waste management, recycling of gold-bearing solutions, and the use of eco-friendly chemistries can help mitigate these impacts. Compliance with local environmental regulations is essential when implementing gold plating processes.

  9. How can I choose the right selective gold plating process for my PCB?

  10. The choice of selective gold plating process depends on factors such as the substrate material, feature size and geometry, plating thickness requirements, and production volume. Consult with a qualified PCB manufacturer or plating expert to determine the most suitable process for your specific application.

In conclusion, selective gold plating is a powerful technique for enhancing the performance, reliability, and durability of PCBs in critical applications. By understanding the processes, design considerations, and quality control methods involved in selective gold plating, PCB designers and manufacturers can effectively leverage this technology to create high-quality, cost-effective solutions for a wide range of industries and applications.