PCB Board Design Using KiCAD (Overfly Pacific 2021 Guide)

In this guide, we will show you a step-by-step PCB Board design through the Computer-Aided Design Tool KiCAD. The KiCAD design suite covers all aspects of engineering design from drawings to analysis and later on manufacturing.

In this article, we assume you have basic knowledge of PCB board elements (such as the substrate or the printed wires) and also have installed the most recent version of KiCAD.

(For the right Installation of this PCB design tool we recommend following this guide)!

However, we will go step by step, to explain thoroughly even such concepts – so stay tuned.

The PCB Board design we will create is an Nrf24 Board, and we will show the whole process via screenshots taken from my screen.

PCB Design 1
PCB Design – Final Image

Start a New Project

Start KiCAD, then click on file, and select New Project.

PCB Design 2

Since this is our first PCB Design Project, we need to save the directory. So create a folder named nRF24-breakout

PCB Design 3
PCB Design Folder

Then, we go in the directory and create a project, named nRF24-breakout (same as the directory). Press Save.

PCB Design 4
New Project for the PCB

Next, we will create a schematic with Eeschema, clicking the following button to start an Eeschema window.

PCB Design 5
Eeschema PCB Design Button

Once the Eeschema window appears, maximize it to gain a wider screen. Components will be going into this canvas, which is the white area inside the red border, in the middle of the screen.

Blank Space in Eeschema

While in this section, feel free to experiment using the mouse wheel or panning (to move around the canvas).

If you type Shift and the question mark then you’ll get the hotkeys list which contains all the most important and commonly used shortcuts.

After getting used to the tips and tricks of the commands, set the page settings. What this does is populate the text in the label down the bottom right corner of the schematic. To do that, click on File and then Page Settings:

Page Settings for the PCB Design in KiCAD

Then, fill in the attributes as you see fit. To fill the issue date click on the button with the three arrows; this will copy the date from the calendar into the issue date field.

Page Settings Window

Here you can fill the other details based on the details in the image given. You will see the results after pressing OK.

Starting the Schematic for Our PCB Design

Start by centering the schematic in the window to see the whole canvas. The board that we are building will only contain two components:

The first one is a straight 8-pin connector and the second one is an RF24 component that we will plug into the board.

The RF24 component does not exist yet in the component library, so we will have to create it. However, we have a straight connector, which is where we will start.

Zoom in the canvas a little and then hit the A key on the keyboard. This brings up the component chooser.

PCB Design Component Chooser
Component Chooser – PCB Design

You can manually drill down these libraries and look at the components and figure out which one is the one that you’re looking for. As you’re clicking on a component, you’re going to get a view of its schematic and some description of the component. Sometimes you will get a detailed description, some other times you will get almost nothing.

Details and Schematic View

Use a keyword to quickly find a component. In this case, the 01×08 connector is what we need. There are several components that are returned.

We are looking for a connector that is straight, so it’s got a single row of eight pins. The 01×08 connector is what I’m looking for. Click on the connector row in the list and then click “OK”. Drop it somewhere on my canvas. Your canvas now looks like this:

PCB Design Canvas
First Component in Canvas – PCB Design

This connector, just like most components for our PCB Design that have pins, has pins that are numbered one to eight. The component also has a unique designator, that starts with a P followed by a question mark “P?”.

This indicates that the final unique designator for the component
has not been decided yet. Fixing the designators is something we will do later on, automatically. There is also the name of the component, “CONN_01x08”.

You can edit the properties of a component by putting your mouse over it and hitting the E key. “E” stands for edit. You can change its name and several other values.

(The parameters usually are fine, so just click OK)

PCB Design Properties Window

Lets look for the RF24 part round here. Hit the A key to go back to the component chooser and let’s see if something like that exists. Type “RF24” in the filter. Unfortunately, nothing of that description exists in the library. It seems like we have to make a custom built RF24 component for the schematic. So for our next step in the PCB Design this is what we need to get going.

Creating a Schematic Component

To create a schematic component for our PCB design we need to utilize the library editor.

Library Editor for the PCB

After clicking on it you will see the following window:

PCB Design Image Of Tenure
PCB Design – Library Editor

Here, we will make symbol to represent the RF24 component.

The objective is just to have a symbol that represents the component and especially its electrical connections. As far as Eeschema is concerned, the symbol is the component.

Components of the PCB Design like the nRF24 are typically represented as a box. So we’ll create a new part through the part library editor and will start by clicking on the new component button to create a new component.

Component Button

We will call this new component NRF24. We leave the designator
like that as a “U” and this package is only going to have a single unit.

Component Settings – PCB Design

Above we have the component properties.

Imagine that other cases of—for example, integrated circuits that contain logical components like gates, for example, and/or gates and you could have multiple of those gates inside a single integrated circuit.

PCB Design Components

This PCB Design component contains 4 units per package.

If you have an integrated circuit with two “AND” gates in them, then you may want to indicate that to the user, so you would say “2” in the “units per package” box.

Click “OK” to close the properties box. In the Part library editor window, you can see the name of the new component, as we entered it in the component properties window.

PCB Design – Component Properties

Because we have two text labels, one on top of the other, we should separate them by moving them.

We can move a component by selecting it with the M key. Put your mouse
cursor over the text and type “M”.

Field the KiCAD label

Because there are two labels under the mouse cursor, Kicad is asking me to select which field or which label is it that I want to move.

Choose the first one and move that up the top and I’ll take the second label and just move it down here. Center the component where the two lines are intersecting, just to make it a bit more symmetrical.

Separated Labels

The two labels of the PCB design are separated.

Now we create a frame for our custom component.

PCB Design Custom Component

Choose the rectangle button and then draw the rectangle by adding a line starting from the top left corner of where I’d like the rectangle to be.

Right-click there and then drag a line to the bottom right corner where I’d like the rectangle to end.

RF24 – No pins

Next, we must add the pins. As you know, the actual RF24 part has its pins arranged in two rows of four pins each.

To make this schematic more readable, we will add connectors on one of the four sides of the box we just created, in a single row. There is no need for a one-to-one match with the real actual component – the real life component.

Later, we’ll connect these pins to the part footprint which we’ll also have to create from scratch and that will be modeled after the real, physical RF-24.

To add the pins, we click on the Add Pins button:

Pin Properties Window

You should look at the original part pin descriptions so that you can properly name the pins in your custom component. And on the original nRF24 part, “MISO” is pin number four.

The orientation is going to be to the right. The pin type should be input and the graphic style should be a line. When you are finished with these edits, click on OK to exit the editor.

PCB Design Window

In the editor window, you can see the new MISO pin #4 added to the schematic of the custom part. Notice the little dot on the edge of the line? this is where wires will connect eventually to/from other components.

This of the dot as the terminal for the pin. The line should be placed so that the dot is away from the border of the box.

Also, the number of the pin, in this example “4”, corresponds to the number of the MISO pin on the real part.

Consistent numbering makes it easier to figure out which pin is which eventually when you got to connect everything together.
If you want to make a change to this pin, you can just edit like any other component.

Place your mouse over it and then hit the E key. This will bring up the pin properties so you can make any changes here.

I have actually just spotted an error: in the real part, MISO is actually pin number three.

I am also going to move this pin a bit lower so that there is enough room above it for the other pins.
Here is the current state of the custom component:

Component Current State

Repeat the process described above 7 times, so that in the end, you have a schematic like this:

Pinned Components

Now we need to save this part, but before we can save it, we must choose or create a working library. In Kicad, you cannot have a schematic component on its own. A component must be a member of a library, even if the library contains only a single schematic component.

Let’s create a new library. To save the component to a new library, click on this icon here, looks like a book.

PCB Design – Library Content

Next, select the location on your computer for the library of the PCB Design. I recommend that you place this library in the same working directory as this project, so NRF-24 breakout, and the naming of the library—let’s call it “nRF24_schematic_library”.

Save the option – PCB Design Placement Folder

The new library and it’s content will not be available until it is loaded by Eeschema. Creating a new library will not automatically load it in Eeschema. You have to explicitly go into Eeschema and add this new library to the list of libraries that it has access to.

This is something that people get confused about and the way that the libraries work in Kicad is not very intuitive, to say the least.

In Eeschema, go to preferences and click on component libraries.

Component Libraries – Eeschema

Here, we will add the library that we just created.

Click on the Add button, and browse to the location where you saved the new library.

Schematic Library

Press the A key, and search for the library that we just created and here it is. You can drill in it and you can find the part that we just built.

Or you can just look for it using the filter. Select the component and click OK to add it to our schematic.

Wiring the PCB Design

Now it’s time to connect the pins from the component to the connector. The way to do this is by using individual wires and just wiring each pin with its counterpart.

Click W key or in the Wire button

Wire Button

After typing “W”, click on a pin circle to start a wire, move the cursor to the pair pin’s circle terminal and click again to finish the wire.

Writing and Wiring the PCB Design
Wiring the First Components of the PCB Design

Do the same thing with the second pair of pins. Repeat the process again for each pair of pins. At the end of the process, your schematic should look like this:

Linked Components of The PCB Design

If you make an error but don’t realize it, you can get Kicad to find it. Let’s pretend that you have made an error in your wiring, and have left a pair of pins un-wired.

Kicad has a the function called the “electrical rules check”, or ERC.

Bumblebee Icon

Click on the ERC button. The ERC dialog box will come up. Click on ‘run’ and do the test.

PCB Design Annotations

We can see from the scan that we forgot the annotations, so it is time for that.

Annotating the Schematic of The PCB Design

To do the annotation, we will use the annotator button.

Annotator Button for the PCB Design

Click on the annotator button. There are various parameters that control the way by which the components are to be annotated, however, the default settings work fine so just click annotate again.

Below we have the result:

Annotations for our PCB Board Design.

Now it is time to make an electrical rules check, thus completing the schematic process of our PCB Design.

PCB Design – Electrical Rules Check

We click again on the ERC (Bumblebee button) then click run.

PCB Design – ERC Button

If you have no errors – as you should – you save the project and continue for the next chapter. If not, follow the error log and complete the steps associated with it.

Associate Components to the Footprints

Unlike other PCB design tools, in Kicad, schematic components are not automatically linked to a footprint.

In Kicad, we must associate schematic components to
footprints using a tool called Cvpcb.

PCB Design Schematic

The straight pin connector that we’ve got on the schematic already has an associated footprint in the library and we’ll simply select it for that part.

Create Footprint

Now we create a new footprint through the Cvpcb button.

PCB Design Cvpcb

To start Cvpcb, click on the Cvpcb button. It takes a few seconds sometimes for all the panes to be populated with data and records because, in the background, Cvpcb is accessing the Kicad repository on GitHub.com for schematic components and footprints.

CV PCB Tool
CVPCB Tool

On the left pane are the footprint libraries. On the right side, are the contents of each library that is selected at a given time. And in the middle pane are the components from the current schematic.

You can see here that in the middle pane we have two components:
the connector component (P1), and the custom part, nRF24.
For the connector component, look through the contents of the “connect” library.

Once you click on the Connect library in the left pane, you will see in the right pane all of the components from all of the libraries. This is not very useful. I wish to narrow that down to just the parts that are a member of the connected library.

To do this we will use the three filter buttons, found in the right side of the top menu bar. Click on the filter marked “L”. In the right pane we now have only the footprints that are members of the Connect library. We can also narrow down the hit list further.

Select the straight connector component in the middle pane, and then click on the “#” filter. This will return only those components that match my selected component by pin count.

PCB Design – cvpcb

Once you double-click on the required footprint on the right pane, and with a component selected in the middle pane, the footprint and the component will become associated.


You can also preview a footprint and double-check that this is what you need. To preview a footprint, click on the preview button.

PCB Design – Preview Button

Now below we can see the preview of our PCB Design so far.

PCB Design – No Components

Save the current associations and let’s work on a custom footprint for the
nRF24 component.

PCB Design Custom Footprint

Start the footprint editor.

PCB Design Footprint Editor

From Eeschema, start the Footprint editor by clicking on the button with the IC and the pencil icon.

Blank Editor Design

We need to know as accurately as possible the dimensions of the pins of the NRF24. The circumference of each pin, the distance to the neighboring pins, clearances from the edges of the board, etcetera. Do that through a ruler.

Footprint Button

In the footprint editor, we would like to create a new footprint so click on the new footprint button and give a new footprint name, like NRF24.

New Footprint Name

Click ok, and see how the canvas now contains the name of the footprint and a reference designator.

PCB Board Design Eschema
PCB Board Design Eeschema

Creating the new footprint. We need to add boundaries and pins.
Move the two text labels so that there is enough space between them for the boundary.

Use the M key for this, just like you moved components in Eeschema.
Let’s continue with the holes for the pins. We need eight holes. We need to select holes that are wide enough so that the pins of the actual component will fit through them and that the exact distance from the adjoining pins as we measured earlier.

So, let’s start with a pitch. We know that the pitch (distance) between the pins is 2.54 millimeters, so to make it easy to space the pins at this exact distance, we’ll set the grid to be this size.

Grip Drop Down

The setting for the grid can be changed via the PCB Design grid drop-down menu, in the left side of the tool bar.

Click on the drop-down menu to open it, and select the grid to be exactly 2.54 millimeters.

Now, we can start adding pins right on top of the grid dots and they will be
spaced at exactly 2.54 millimeters apart.

Pad Button

Click on the pad button from the top of the right vertical toolbar. This allows you to drop pads on the canvas. We need two rows of four pins each.

So, select the pad tool and then click on the canvas to drop eight pads in two rows of four each. In the end of the process, you should have something like this:

PCB Board REF

Each one of these pads has properties that you can access by putting a mouse over the pad and hitting the E key (for edit).

Pad Properties

To access the properties for a pad, put the mouse cursor over it and type “E”. Next, fill in the details as in the image below:

PCB Design Details

Use the M key to move the pads
around, so that at the end of the process they are arranged like this:

Rearranged Pins

The next step in our PCB design is to draw the silkscreened border so that we have the layout for the component and the footprint as it will
appear on the PCB.

To do that, first, reduce the grid size to 1.27 so that we have finer
control about where the markings for the silkscreen will go.

Use the polygon tool to draw the silkscreen shape that will indicate the border of the custom footprint.

Silkscreened Button for PCB Design

With the polygon selected, draw a box around the pins and try to match the layout of the real life component.

The box can be approximately the size of the real part, but there is no need to be accurate about this. Double click to close the polygon.

Now click the text tool to label the pins.

Text Label

With the text tool selected, click on the right side of the pin numbered “0”. This will be the Ground pin. When you click, the footprint text properties window will come up.

PCB Design Board GND
GND Field

Type “GND” in the Text text field, and click “OK”. Fill the field of PCB design as above.

Kicad will adjust the thickness of the text based on the dimensions you chose.

Adjusted PCB Design text thickness


This is what your footprint should look like now:

Footprint State of PCB Design

You can see the GND text label next to pin 0. You may need to move it further to the right. To do this, change the grid size to a smaller value, and use the M key to move the label.

You can also rotate if you wish, by using the R key. Add the rest of the labels in the same way. A quicker way to add the rest of the labels once you have the first one configured the way you want it, is to duplicate the first one seven times.

Type “D” with your mouse cursor over the GND label, and this will create a copy. Repeat the process to create as many copies as you like, with the same height, width, thickness and orientation
as the original.

Then, place them on the canvas and edit their name. At the end of the
process, the footprint should look like this:

Labels are In Place

We are finished with designing this custom footprint for our PCB Design. KiCad will use the pin numbers in the schematic and footprint to figure out how the two are supposed to be connected.

To make sure that the pins match, you should compare the pin numbers across the two versions of the same thing, so the schematic version and the footprint version against the real part.

Pinning Numbers to The SCHEMATIC

In this image, I use an arrow to show how pin 0, labeled GND in the schematic, corresponds to pin 0, labeled also GND in the footprint.

Similarly, you should double check that all pairs have the same numbers and labels. I didn’t use arrows for all the pairs in order not to clutter the image here.

Click to reveal the footprint properties.

Properties of PCB Design

This is going to give us a way to add some properties for the footprint.

Footprint Properties Window

Fill the values same way as above and click OK. Now its time to save the module in a new library.

Saving the new footprint in the PCB Design

To create a new library, click on the New Library And Save Current Footprint button.

Folder Window

The Select Footprint Library Folder window. Browse to your project folder and save the new library there.

Click on the Browse button to browse to the location of our project. Give this library a name, something like “NRF24 footprints”.

Click OK. Kicad will save this new footprints library. Go to your project folder to verify. In the project folder, notice a new folder named “NRF24_footprints.pretty”.

Go inside this directory, and notice a file with the Kicad_mod extension to it. This file contains the new footprint.
Now we’ve created a new library, but to save the footprint in it, we must make it active.

Even though we just created it, Kicad doesn’t do this automatically so we’ve got to do it manually. Here is how to do this:

PCB Design Footprint Library

To make a library active, start by starting the Footprint Libraries Wizard.
We start by importing the library to Kicad.

In the preferences menu, start the Footprint Library Wizard.

New Folders Save

Browse to the location of the new library, in the project folder.
Look for the new library inside the project folder.

PCB Footprints

You can choose to make this library global or active for the current project only.
We will only use this library in the current project only so select the appropriate option in the last step of the wizard, and click on Finish.
The last step before we can finally save the footprint for PCB Design is to make the library active.

Footprint Editor

The Select Active Library button
To make the library active, click on the select active library button.

PCB Active library button

Scroll down to the bottom to find the one we added. The name is NRF24_footprints.

Click OK. This is now the active library.

PCB Active Library

You can see that the name of the active library appears at the top of the Footprint Editor window.

Click on the Save Footprint In Active Library button, and give a name for
the footprint, or just accept the default.

Now its time to enter the final stages of the PCB Design. We need to associate the new footprint and component.

Associate the New Footprint and Component

In this chapter, we will associate the new footprint with its schematic component.
Go back to Eeschema and start Cvpcb.

PCB Design Eeshema

From the Eeschema application, start Cvpcb. As you can see, the straight connector component has an association, but the nRF24 does not.

Straight Connector

To make an association for the PCB design of the nRF24 component, scroll down the list in the left pane.

At the bottom of the list, you will see the library we created in the previous chapter.

Library of the PCB Design

The new library is at the bottom of the list in the left pane.
Click on it to select it.

With the custom component selected in the middle pane, click
on the “#” filter.

Notice that in the right pane, the custom footprint for the nRF24
component appears. Double click on the footprint to select it.

Preview Button for The PCB Design

Let’s save the associations and close Cvpcb and again save the schematics file. Now let’s create the Netlist

PCB Design Netlist Creation

Start Kicad and then launch Eeschema if it’s not already started. This is the current version of the project.

PCB Design State of Project

Now we need to export the Netlist for this PCB schematic.

NETLIST BUTTON

Next we export the Netlist options and save the netlist file in the project directory.

Netlist Options

And into the project directory

NRF24 Breakout

Now we start the PCB layout editor, by clicking on Pcbnew.

Pcbnew Design

When Pcbnew starts, you will see a blank canvas. It is very similar to the PCB Design canvas that we use in EEschema.


At the bottom right corner of the canvas you can see the the information for the project. Let’s setup the contents of the label in the bottom right corner of the canvas.

To set up the components of the design, click on file and go to page settings.

Design Settings

Enter the following information (or fill as desired for your PCB Design Project).

Click OK and check the new updated information.

Updated Information about the PCB Design

Next, click on the NET button to read the Netlist file

NET Button Field

The parameters for this level are fine, so just save the report to the file. Close and review the footprints after the import.

Footprints of the PCB Design after the import

Now automatically separate the components by using the “Spread Out All Footprints” function as below:

Mode Footprint
PCB Design Mode

Through the right click menu, you can access the “Spread out all footprints”
function.

You will get a warning that locked footprints will not be moved. This is ok, as we don’t have any such footprints. Click “Yes,”.

This is PCB Design Layout of the footprints in the canvas until now.

PCB design layout

Now its time to fix the footprints placement

PCB Design Footprints Placement

Our project is now at the stage where the two footprints that compose our PCB are spread out in the Pcbnew canvas. Now we will do the footprint placement so that we can start giving shape to the final PCB.

To do that we place the connector on the right side of the breakout and the nRF24 component on the left side by position the cursor over the nRF24 footprint and hitting the ‘M’ key.

Move it so that it is on the left side of the straight connector.

PCB Footprint Connectors

Here consider the space that the final PCB is going to take. The smaller your PCB is, the cheaper it will be to make.

Edge Cuts

Edge Cuts for the PCB Design

First, we must define the boundary of the PCB. This boundary is created by drawing a box in a special layer of the PCB, the edge cuts layer above.

To do that, start by selecting the Edge Cuts layer from the Layer chooser on the right side of the Pcbnew window.

Polygon Tool PCB

Once you have selected the Edge Cuts layer, click on the add graphic line or polygon button.

To start drawing, with the polygon tool selected, click just outside at the top right corner of the straight connector. This will start drawing a line. Move the cursor horizontally towards the left, until it is over the top left corner of the nRF24 footprint, and click again to mark the left top edge of the box.

New Line Layout

Continue in a similar way to close the box.

Finished Boundary Box

Now whats left is to do the wiring.

Wiring PCB Design

Let’s start the routing process with the nRF24 footprint. Our objective is to connect the nRF24 pins to the straight connector pins.

nRF24

To do the wiring, we will place all of the wires on the front copper layer, named “F.Cu”.

PCB Design F.CU

Select F.Cu to place the tracks in the front copper layer.
Select the front copper layer.

Then hit the ‘X’ key to enable the wiring mode and simply click to start a wire, then click to change its orientation and its trace and then double-click once you reach the end.

First Track

Continue with the wiring process, so that eventually your PCB will look something like this:

Wiring Process

Before we move to the final stage, make sure you have a ERC check. Just to make sure things are going well.

If all is looking well then we go to the final stage.

Final PCB Design Step – Adding Text Labels

Click on the Text button , labeled as T shown as below:

Text Button – PCB Design Layout

Next, ensure that you have selected the front silkscreen layer (“F.SilkS”) from the list of Layers on the right side of the Pcbnew window. There should be a small blue triangle marking the selected layer.

F.Silks PCB Design

Let’s start adding the text. Start with VCC. Click somewhere on the left side of the bottom pad of the straight connector. The properties window will come up.

Adjust the text properties so that the width and height are set to 0.8 millimeters. The thickness will be adjusted by Kicad.

Properties of PCB Layout

You will again see a warning text.

Click OK to accept Kicad’s offer to adjust the thickness. You will now be able to finetune the position of the text next to the label. Click to fix the position. If you change your mind and you want to move the text label again, hit the “M” key.

We should create the labels on this board so that they are also uniform in the way they
look.

Now that we have created the first label, we can duplicate it several time, and then simply change the text, but not their other properties.

To do that, I’m going to put your mouse over the text and hit control D and this will create duplicates.

Do that for all of the connectors. You can also do this by using the C key, as this creates a copy.

Vcc Label

Now that the duplicate labels are in place, lets start editing their text. Start with the top put your mouse cursor over it and type “E” to edit.

Vcc to GND

Change the original Vcc to GND, and hit OK.
Do the same for the rest of the duplicate label and bring up the 3D view of the board.

Click on the View top menu item, and select 3D Viewer.

Front 3d View

And below the backside:

Back Side of the PCB Design

One more piece of text I’d like to put on the board is the version number. Since designing a board is an iterative process, it is a good practice to always version them before you send them for manufacturing.

This way, you will be able to tell them apart, especially if the difference between subsequent versions is small.

Create a new label and
place it on the board, so that you have something like this:

Final PCB Design

Congratulations for making it this far. This is your very own PCB Design nRF24.

This tutorial is meant to help you dip your toes in PCB Design and help out with your future career in the field.

To show support for our hard work visit us at:

OverflyPacific

January 29, 2021
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[…] If you are looking for a full tutorial on PCB Design, you can follow this guide! Our tool of choice for this tutorial is KiCAD, simply because we love the […]

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PCB size  10 X 10 cm
Material  FR-4
Thickness  1.6 mm
Surface Finish  HASL lead free
Finished Copper  1 oz
Solder Mask Color  Green
Silk Screen Color  White
Internal Cutting Off / Slots  0
Goldfingers  0
Impedance Control  No
Blind/buried Vias  No
Electrical Test  Yes
Min Hole Size  >= 0.3 mm
Min Trace/Space  >= 6 mil
Gold Fingers  0
Internal Cutting Off/Slots  0

Have a question, or need a quote for your project? Please email us at sales@ultimatepcb.com