What Is PCB Milling in Your PCB Fabrication

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Introduction to PCB Milling

PCB milling is a subtractive manufacturing process used to fabricate printed circuit boards (PCBs). It involves using a computer-controlled milling machine to remove unwanted copper from a PCB substrate, leaving behind the desired circuit pattern. PCB milling is an alternative to traditional PCB Fabrication methods, such as etching, and offers several advantages, including faster turnaround times, lower costs for small-batch production, and the ability to create complex circuit designs.

How PCB Milling Works

The PCB milling process begins with a PCB substrate, which is typically a laminate material made of fiberglass and epoxy resin, with a layer of copper on one or both sides. The substrate is placed on the bed of a CNC milling machine, which is equipped with a high-speed spindle and a variety of cutting tools.

The milling machine is controlled by a computer that reads a digital file containing the PCB design. This file, usually in Gerber or DXF format, is created using PCB design software and contains information about the circuit layout, drill holes, and other features.

As the milling process begins, the machine’s spindle moves across the surface of the PCB substrate, following the path defined by the digital file. The cutting tool, typically a small carbide or diamond-coated bit, removes the unwanted copper, leaving behind the desired circuit pattern. The depth of the cut is carefully controlled to ensure that only the copper layer is removed, without damaging the substrate underneath.

Advantages of PCB Milling

PCB milling offers several advantages over traditional PCB fabrication methods:

  1. Faster turnaround times: PCB milling machines can fabricate a PCB in a matter of hours, compared to the days or weeks required for traditional etching processes.

  2. Lower costs for small-batch production: PCB milling is more cost-effective for small-batch production, as it eliminates the need for expensive setup costs associated with creating masks and stencils.

  3. Ability to create complex designs: PCB milling machines can create intricate circuit patterns and fine details that may be difficult or impossible to achieve with traditional etching methods.

  4. Environmentally friendly: PCB milling does not require the use of harsh chemicals, making it a more environmentally friendly option compared to etching.

Types of PCB Milling Machines

There are several types of PCB milling machines available, each with its own set of features and capabilities.

Desktop PCB Milling Machines

Desktop PCB milling machines are compact, affordable, and ideal for hobbyists, students, and small businesses. These machines typically have a working area of around 200 x 150 mm and can mill single or double-sided PCBs with a minimum feature size of about 0.1 mm.

Some popular desktop PCB milling machines include:

  • Bantam Tools Desktop PCB Milling Machine
  • Othermachine Othermill Pro
  • Carbide 3D Nomad 883 Pro

Industrial PCB Milling Machines

Industrial PCB milling machines are larger, more powerful, and designed for high-volume production. These machines can handle larger PCB substrates, up to several square feet in size, and can mill multi-layer PCBs with a minimum feature size of 0.05 mm or smaller.

Examples of industrial PCB milling machines include:

  • LPKF ProtoMat S104
  • AccurateCNC A584 High-Speed PCB Router
  • T-Tech Quick Circuit 7000

PCB Milling Bits and Tools

The success of the PCB milling process depends largely on the selection of appropriate milling bits and tools. These tools come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and materials, each designed for specific applications.

End Mills

End mills are the most common type of milling bit used in PCB fabrication. They have a cylindrical cutting surface with sharp edges that remove material as the bit rotates. End mills come in a range of sizes, typically from 0.1 mm to 3 mm in diameter, and can be used for cutting traces, outlines, and large areas of copper.

Drill Bits

Drill bits are used to create holes in the PCB substrate for through-hole components, vias, and mounting points. PCB drill bits are typically made of carbide or high-speed steel and range in size from 0.2 mm to 6 mm in diameter.

V-Shaped Bits

V-shaped bits, also known as engraving bits, are used to create isolation channels between traces on the PCB. These bits have a v-shaped cutting profile that creates a narrow, angled groove in the copper layer, helping to prevent short circuits and improve signal integrity.

Material Selection

The choice of material for milling bits depends on the specific application and the type of PCB substrate being used. Carbide bits are the most common choice for PCB milling, as they offer good wear resistance and can handle a wide range of materials. Diamond-coated bits are also used in some applications, particularly for milling abrasive substrates or for achieving very fine detail.

PCB Milling Software and File Preparation

To create a PCB using a milling machine, you’ll need to prepare a digital file containing the circuit design. This file is typically created using PCB design software, such as KiCad, Eagle, or Altium Designer.

Once the PCB design is complete, the next step is to generate machine-readable files that can be interpreted by the milling machine’s control software. The most common file formats used in PCB milling are Gerber and DXF.

Gerber Files

Gerber files are the industry standard for PCB fabrication and are supported by most PCB design software packages. A Gerber file contains information about the copper layers, solder mask, silk screen, and drill holes of a PCB. Each layer of the PCB is represented by a separate Gerber file.

To generate Gerber files from your PCB design software, you’ll need to follow these general steps:

  1. Define the layer stackup and materials for your PCB
  2. Assign each component and feature to the appropriate layer
  3. Generate Gerber files for each layer (e.g., top copper, bottom copper, silk screen, etc.)
  4. Generate a drill file containing information about hole sizes and locations

DXF Files

DXF (Drawing Exchange Format) is a CAD data file format developed by Autodesk. Some PCB milling machines, particularly desktop models, can directly import DXF files containing the PCB design.

To create a DXF file from your PCB design software, you’ll need to export the PCB layout as a 2D drawing. Make sure to set the appropriate units (metric or imperial) and scale factor before exporting.

Machine Control Software

Once you have your Gerber or DXF files ready, the next step is to import them into the milling machine’s control software. This software typically provides tools for setting up the milling job, defining tool paths, and generating machine code (G-code) that controls the movement of the milling machine.

Some common PCB milling machine control software packages include:

  • Bantam Tools Milling Machine Software
  • Otherplan for Othermill machines
  • FlatCAM for LPKF ProtoMat machines

PCB Milling Process Steps

The PCB milling process involves several steps, from preparing the PCB substrate to the final inspection of the milled board.

Substrate Preparation

The first step in PCB milling is to prepare the substrate. This involves cutting the PCB Material to the desired size, cleaning the surface to remove any dirt or grease, and securing the substrate to the milling machine bed using tape or a vacuum hold-down system.

Tool Setup and Calibration

Next, the appropriate milling tools are installed in the machine spindle and calibrated to ensure accurate positioning and depth control. This may involve setting the Z-axis zero point, measuring tool offsets, and running test cuts to verify settings.

Milling the PCB

With the substrate prepared and tools calibrated, the actual milling process can begin. The machine control software reads the Gerber or DXF files and generates tool paths that guide the movement of the milling bit across the surface of the PCB.

Milling typically starts with larger tools to remove the bulk of the unwanted copper, followed by smaller tools for finer details and trace isolation. The milling process may involve multiple passes with different tools to achieve the desired results.

Drilling Holes

Once the milling is complete, the next step is to drill any required holes for through-hole components, vias, or mounting points. This is typically done using a separate drilling cycle, with the machine automatically changing to the appropriate drill bit size for each hole.

Cleaning and Inspection

After milling and drilling, the PCB is removed from the machine and cleaned to remove any debris or burrs. The board is then inspected visually and with a continuity tester to ensure that all traces are properly connected and there are no short circuits or open connections.

Additional Processing

Depending on the requirements of the PCB, additional processing steps may be necessary, such as applying solder mask, silk screen, or surface finishes like HASL or ENIG. These steps are typically done using separate equipment and processes.

Troubleshooting Common PCB Milling Problems

While PCB milling is generally a reliable and efficient process, there are several common problems that can arise. Here are some troubleshooting tips for addressing these issues:

Broken or Worn Milling Bits

Milling bits can become dull or break during the milling process, resulting in poor cut quality or damage to the PCB substrate. To avoid this problem, make sure to:

  • Use the appropriate bit size and material for the job
  • Set the correct feed rate and spindle speed for the material being cut
  • Replace bits at the first sign of wear or damage

Inaccurate Milling or Inconsistent Depth

Inaccurate milling or inconsistent depth can be caused by several factors, including:

  • Incorrect tool offsets or Z-axis zero settings
  • Loose or worn spindle bearings
  • Mechanical backlash in the machine axes

To troubleshoot these issues, check the machine settings, re-calibrate the tools if necessary, and inspect the machine for any mechanical issues.

Overheating or Melting of the PCB Substrate

Overheating or melting of the PCB substrate can occur if the milling parameters are not set correctly, or if the milling bit becomes clogged with debris. To prevent this problem:

  • Use a coolant or compressed air to remove chips and debris during milling
  • Reduce the feed rate or spindle speed if overheating occurs
  • Use a vacuum or dust collection system to remove debris from the milling area

Incomplete or Missing Traces

Incomplete or missing traces can be caused by several factors, including:

  • Incorrect Gerber or DXF files
  • Worn or broken milling bits
  • Improper machine settings

To troubleshoot these issues, double-check the Gerber or DXF files for accuracy, inspect the milling bits for wear or damage, and verify the machine settings are correct for the job.


1. What is the minimum trace width and spacing that can be achieved with PCB milling?

The minimum trace width and spacing that can be achieved with PCB milling depends on the specific machine and tools being used. Desktop PCB milling machines can typically achieve a minimum trace width and spacing of around 0.1 mm (4 mil), while industrial machines can go as low as 0.05 mm (2 mil) or smaller.

2. Can PCB milling be used to create multi-layer PCBs?

Yes, PCB milling can be used to create multi-layer PCBs. However, the process is more complex than single or double-sided boards and requires specialized equipment and techniques, such as blind and Buried vias, and precise alignment of the layers.

3. What is the maximum size of PCB that can be milled?

The maximum size of PCB that can be milled depends on the working area of the specific milling machine. Desktop machines typically have a maximum working area of around 200 x 150 mm, while industrial machines can handle much larger boards, up to several square feet in size.

4. How does the cost of PCB milling compare to traditional etching methods?

For small-batch production and prototyping, PCB milling is often more cost-effective than traditional etching methods, as it eliminates the need for expensive setup costs associated with creating masks and stencils. However, for large-volume production, etching is typically more economical due to the higher throughput and lower per-unit costs.

5. What file formats are used for PCB milling, and how are they generated?

The most common file formats used for PCB milling are Gerber (RS-274X) and DXF. These files are typically generated using PCB design software, such as KiCad, Eagle, or Altium Designer. Gerber files contain information about the copper layers, solder mask, silk screen, and drill holes, while DXF files contain the 2D drawing of the PCB layout.


PCB milling is a versatile and efficient method for fabricating printed circuit boards, offering several advantages over traditional etching processes. By understanding the basics of PCB milling, including machine types, tools, software, and process steps, you can successfully design and manufacture high-quality PCBs for your projects.

As with any manufacturing process, PCB milling requires attention to detail and proper setup to achieve the best results. By following best practices, troubleshooting common problems, and staying up-to-date with the latest techniques and technologies, you can unlock the full potential of PCB milling for your PCB fabrication needs.