Copper Electroplating part 3 (Activating ThroughHoleWalls)

testPCB curedTH grideCloseup

Before dunking a PCB into the copper plating solution – through-hole walls need to be “activated”. This is a fairly simple process that we’ll detail below.


{gallery link=electro3 index=2}testPCB BareHoleCloseup{/gallery}The first step is to drill all of the through holes (TH) into the FR4. There are a couple of .125″ registration holes on the bottom of our small test PCB, along with a grid of 40 mil diameter holes (IC’s), 23″ish” mils for plated through hole components (PTH) – resistors and caps, and 16 mil holes for vias.


Next, break out the conductive ink, mix it up very well and coat all the holes on the primary side with it. Using a shop vac, suck it out from the secondary side – the goal here is to suck ink through the hole to evenly coat the side wall. You can repeat the process from the secondary side for good measure if desired. Note that none of the through holes should be clogged after vacuuming out the ink/graphite – if they are, they won’t plate correctly.

{gallery link=electro3 index=4}inkAndPCB{/gallery} {gallery link=electro3 index=5}testPCB wetTH front{/gallery} {gallery link=electro3 index=6}testPCB wetTH back{/gallery}



Cure the ink by putting it in the oven at around 90 degC (~200 degF).  After curing, the ink will no longer be shiny and the graphite should stay in place fairly well.

{gallery link=electro3 index=9}inkCuring{/gallery} {gallery link=electro3 index=10}testPCB TH cured

{gallery link=electro3 index=11}testPCB TH cured cleaned


Now scrub both sides with a scotch brite pad – it’s important to not disrupt the continuity between the TH walls and surface of the copper (so don’t push down too hard). If there is a break here, then the walls won’t plate properly. If your target is mechanical milling – the worst that any residual ink will do is contaminate the plating solution. If you plan on etching the board, then you’ll want to take off all of the ink – since it will most likely act as an etch resist.


{gallery link=electro3 index=13}testPCB curedTH sideview2


When the PCB is cured and cleaned, the graphite should be visible on the through hole walls and there should be no residue on the surface of the board (there are most likely going to be some stains from the ink). The corner of our test PCB could have used a bit more cleaning – but since we’ll be milling it later on, the extra ink shouldn’t hurt anything.


Finally, here’s the complete gallery for your perusal:

{gallery id=electro3}electroplating3{/gallery}

Posted in Prototyping and Fabrication Tagged with: , , , , , , ,
  • Lisandro Bravo

    Hi, GREAT JOB!!!
    did you measure the resistance of the activated holes before plating?
    By the way, just build your constant current design and works flawessly.

    • bamos

       I didn’t measure the resistance of the holes before plating. However, I did a quick test with some “cured” graphite/ink on paper.  I think the resistance was somewhere around 0.7 ohms with the meter leads about a 1/4″ (~6mm) apart.  I’m glad the constant current supply is working out well for you, thanks for the comments!

      • Lisandro Bravo

         0.7 ohm? thats crazy low! maybe it was 0.7K? I try to make the same ink, tryed with diferrent graphites and the best I have was 300 ohms, 1k +- as average

        • bamos

          I retested the resistance of the ink/graphite on paper and it ranged from several hundred to several K ohms – just as you described.  So, definitely not something you’d want to use without actually going through the plating process!  After plating, I wasn’t able to get a reading across a PTH that was significantly above the lead resistance – but then again I am using a cheap hand-held DMM.

          • Lisandro Bravo

            another question: why did you change from 5v to 3.3v? its lower voltage producing better results? did you try both?
            try to get a sample of Aquadag graphite, it has lower resistance once dry.

          • bamos

            Thanks for the interest, Lisandro.  I put a reply in the forum: The comments are getting a bit clumsy for a ‘real’ conversation:) Feel free to reply or create new topics there (the comments are fine as well, I just prefer the forum for readability).

            Thanks for the tip on the Aquadag graphite.

guest post