Many of the free PCB design packages are offered by PCB manufacturers that offer affordable low
volume PCB prototype manufacturing which is often a great alternative to making a PCB at home.
Low Cost PCB Manufacturing
Making PCBs at home, while it can be very affordable, imposes several limitations. Typically thin traces are very hard to make reliably, vias or plated through holes must be manually installed as miniature rivits or soldered in wires or not used at all, and multilayer boards are not possible.
The limitations imposed by homemade PCB manufacturing are addressed by even the lowest cost PCB manufacturers.
Even though PCB Prototyping services address many of the limitations of homemade PCBs, they do not include the most advanced features and tightest specifications. While the typical PCB capabilities are quite good, with trace widths as small as 6 mils, the most advanced components, such as dense BGA components, are too demanding for these PCB manufacturer options and full service PCB manufacturing solutions will be needed. Also, board layers are often limited to two layers and at most 4 layers before prices begin to go up substantially. For the most part, a four layer PCB prototype will suffice for all but the most demanding hobbiest work.
Several companies offer a quick PCB prototyping service. Below are a several companies that offer such services and a summary of their service and capabilities.
PCBWay is a low cost PCB manufacturer based in China and offers up to 100 sqcm of PCB starting at $13. PCB specs start out with 6 mil spacing, 12 mil min. hole size, 1 oz copper, 2 layers, and 4-day lead time (plus 3-4 day shipping). Tighter spacing is available for tighter spacing down to 4 mil spacing. Small minimum drills are also available for additional charges with drills going down to 8 mils. Up to 10 layer boards, multiple colder mask colors, copper thicknesses, and other advanced options are also available.
Advanced Circuits offers several low cost PCB manufacturing services, each aimed at a different market and offered at a different price point. Through their BarebonesPCB service you can get a bare two layer board without silkscreen or solder mask starting at $35 plus a per sq.in. fee. Students can take advantage of their $33 each deal which is a 60 sq.in. board with soldermask and silkscreen. There are no minimum orders for students, but shipping is extra. Non-students must order at least three boards at $33 each.
BatchPCB (SparkFun Prototyping)
SparkFun operates a PCB manufacturing batching service called BatchPCB that uses Gold Phoenix to build their orders. Their prices start at $10 + $2.50 per sq.in. Turnaround time is slow at about 3 weeks depending on how many PCBs are in the order and the number of higher priority jobs at Gold Phoenix.
OSHPark is cheaper for small boards than SparkFun's BatchPCB with pricing at $5 per sq.in. for three copies for two layer boards and $10 per sq.in. for four layer boards. The boards are manufactured in the US and shipping is included in the price with a maximum turnaround time of about 12 days. The minimum specs are 6 mil traces with 6 mil spaces, and 13 mil drills with 7 mil annular rings. Internal cutouts are supported. Also medium volume runs start at $1 per sq.in. with a minimum order of 150 sq.in. Multiple designs may be ordered but they must be ordered in multiples of 10.
SeeedStudio's FusionPCB service is similar to ITead's PCB manufacturing service. Both offer 6 mil spacing, PCB solder mask available in green, red, yellow, blue, white, and black, one or two layer boards, electrical testing and multiple board thicknesses. SeeedStudio allows board sizes up to 20cm x 20cm as standard with for $129.90 for 10 pieces. Only one or two layer boards are available through SeeedStudio.
Hackvana is operated out of Shenzen in southern China by an experienced Australian hacker. You can deal with someone who understands the needs of people who want a few small boards, speaks something very like English or American and who has close connections with fabricators in China.