Screaming Circuits: PCB Finishes

Gold Fever

We call it Gold Fever. It's when you've got a hankerin to have a nice flat surface to put that BGA on and the lust for that precious metallic surface turns into an obsession. It's all you can think of. You forsake your family, your job and even your level 68 Night Elf druid for but a glimpse of that resident of period 6, group 11. Ahhh, yes (or Auuu, yes), the all desired number 79...

Gold fever Okay, maybe we don't call it "gold fever", but it certainly can cause you a fever in your time line and budget if your gold board comes back with spots like this one did. In addition to the obvious four spots with visibly degraded Au layer, this whole set of PCBs probably has black-pad written all over it. If you have other boards that came from the same batch as one like this, you should give them a very close examination. At least make sure you've got a good healer class in your guild.

In case you haven't been caught by the scourge of black pad, just know that the Argent Dawn can't help you here. Black pad is caused (and I'm generalizing, not going into exact technical details) when there's a little contamination in the nickle layer of an ENIG (Electroless Nickle Immersion Gold) pcb during fab.

When the component is then soldered on, the solder mixes with the gold but not the underlying nickel layer and the part can later pop off or at least not conduct your signals or complete your quests. It's most commonly associated with BGAs, but can occur with other types of components too.

Duane Benson
It's safe back here in Goldshire, but all I can find is copper.

And Another Reason...

Another reason to inspect your PCBs before sending them on to the assembly house.

Missing barrel 

At first glance, these boards looked fine. But with a little closer inspection, you can see that the middle barrel isn't plated through. Bummer.

There are a number of possible causes for this.

  1. It could simply have been a goof at the board house. Sometimes a process will slip or someone in CAM will introduce an error.
  2. It could have been caused by improperly creating a library part. Maybe the symbol was built up by hand and ended up with a non-plated hole in that spot.
  3. It could have been built without a library part. Sometimes designers will just create a place for a thru-hole part using vias and traces instead of creating the library part. If that's the case, the center could have ended up with a non-plated hole instead of a plated via.

Myself, I'm betting this was a board fab problem. In any case - another good reason to check out those boards before sending them on for assembly.

And even better then just looking at them - also have them electrical tested at the fab house. Our fab partners at Sunstone Circuits can do that for you.

Duane Benson
Roll out the barrel...
and have a barrel of open solder joints

Oxidized Silver? What do you do???

I've written before about the shelf life of immersion silver PCBs. In that post, I alluded to the possibility of carefully cleaning an oxidized immersion silver pcb but I didn't say how to do it. Sometimes an oxidized board can be cleaned. Sometimes it can't.

Their are really only two industry recommended practices:

  1. Send the boards back to the fab house to have them re-plated
  2. Get new boards if re-plating is too expensive

That being said, you can sometimes use a large rubber eraser to clean them. It's easy to mess the boards up though so it won't always work. I would not do that in a production environment or with an expensive board. And it won't do anything for plated through holes for thru-hole parts. For that, you'll need to go back to your board house.

Here's what one of our engineers said about the process:

"The problem with immersion finishes, silver in this case, is that the oxidation or tarnish is the remaining oxide/sulfide/sulfate/chloride compound (depending on what's in the area to react with) conversion of original silver content. The immersion coating is so thin to begin with, cleaning away the tarnish would basically leave you with little to no silver and the undercoat (usually nickel) exposed. Also, the type of tarnish/contamination is a big factor. The sulfur compounds (sulfide/sulfate) are worse - i.e. cause more solderability problems, then the oxide/chloride compounds. I'm not a chemist, so don't ask why.... :) Of course, the only way to find out what particular type of contamination is most prevalent on a give board is to have it analyzed.... Probably cheaper to get new boards!"

I've heard about some studies at Sandia National Labs regarding the life and solderability of tarnished silver boards. I'll try to look that up and if I can find it, I'll post some notes about it.

Duane Benson
sulfide, sulfate
sulfide, sulfate
Swiftly fly the years
One season following another
Laden with happiness and tears

Immersion Silver and Other Lead Free PCB Surfaces

I just had a comment on an old post requesting a little more information on silver surfaced lead free boards.

"Hi, im currently doing a project regarding Immersion Silver PCB.
Pls share me more info for this kind of finishing PCB such as why must use immersion Ag for LF PCB, how to handle, and also how to prevent it from yellowish?"

Unfortunately, nearly two years after RoHS came into effect, there's still a lot of confusion and conflicting information about board surfaces. I don't think the Industry has yet agreed to a "universal" or "near universal" answer to the question either.

Back in the old days, it was fairly easy. You used SnPb HASL (Tin-lead hot air surface leveled) pcbs for 180px-SilverUSGOV most things and OSP for the lowest cost, largest volume stuff. Anything else was specialized or exotic and not mainstream. Now, though, we have quite a few choices. Still, if we stay away from the exotic and odd, we can limit our choices to a small set:

  • Immersion Silver is a good reasonable cost surface.

It delivers a very flat precision surface which is important for small components. And it's not too expensive. The biggest downside is that it needs better care during handling and storage before use. Keep it in a dark, low moisture place. Don't touch the solder surfaces with your bare hands. Be careful of the air quality. It's extra susceptible to tarnish in areas with high levels of ozone and hydrogen sulfide.

  • ENIG (Electroless nickle immersion gold) is another good surface, but more expensive

ENIG also delivers a very flat precision surface, perfect for small components. It does cost more though. It's not as susceptible to tarnish. If cost isn't an option, gold is probably your best bet for a RoHS board. However, you should still avoid touching the solder surfaces. If the gold layer is too thin, your finger oils can cause real problems on it. We do still see some ENIG boards with black pad problems. That's caused by poor process control at the PCB fab house. I've also heard that some low-cost ENIG boards will have a gold layer that is way too thin. That can cause problems with corrosion and solderability.

  • Lead-free HASL is a good low-cost option

It doesn't provide the flat surface and precision of Immersion silver and ENIG, but it is lower cost and very robust. If cost is important and you don't have really small parts, a lead-free HASL board might be your best choice for lead-free.

There are other lead-free (and leaded) board surfaces, but the three listed above are the most common and one of the three will cover just about all needs. I hope this helps.

Duane Benson
Jered says "What?"

Halogen Free PCB

80pxdibromine2ddimensions Halogen free PCBs still aren't that common and all of the bugs aren't worked out of the systems yet, but they are starting to show up here and there. I suspect that like RoHS a few years back, we will be seeing more and more as time goes by.

If you do feel the need to try out a Halogen free PCB, our experience here suggests that they are more sensitive to moisture than standard FR-4 and are a bit more brittle. That might be an issue when de-panelizing boards or when putting a lot of mechanical stress on a pcb.

An article in "Future Circuits International" suggests that some of the replacement flame retardant chemicals may have other environmental risks too, but I guess that seems to be the case with just about everything we pull up these days to replace something that is a known hazard.

Anybody with some good practical experiance here, feel free to chime in.

Duane Benson
No matter where you go, there you are

RoHS Options Close By

Sometimes you feel like a nut and sometimes you don't. I hope that phrase isn't copyrighted by the Peter Paul Mounds candy company. Hmm. I'll just claim "fair use." I'm pretty sure that when I started writing this, it fit in somehow but now I can't really remember where I was going with it.

Oh yeah. Sometimes you feel like Immersion Silver and sometimes you feel like ENIG. Right? Well, if that's the case, we have some good news for you. A lot of you are loyal pcb customers of (or the old name and have to build RoHS boards. Sunstone has been offering Immersion Silver for quite some time now and they have just recently added ENIG finished pcbs.

Silver is pretty good but ENIG can have a longer shelf life and better corrosion resistance. Check it out at

OSP PCB Finish Problems

Osp_bad_bga_finish800 OSP (Organic Surface preservative, not Oregon State Patrol) isn't all that commonly seen in our shop. It has been a pretty common pcb finish for high-volume, low-cost products for quite a while and I've heard that it's starting to show up more frequently on complex boards these days too. Some of the new formulations are pretty good for RoHS applications.

We got a set of OSP pc boards in just the other day with a lot of fine pitch parts and a few big, honkin BGA lands. Click on the two thumbnails for bigger images that do a good job of illustrating one of the potential pitfalls of OSP boards. In the close-ups, you can clearly see two different colors of copper land pads. That's not normal. It indicates an unsolderable, contaminated finish. If you look at an OSP board and see a pretty multi-colored pattern like that, get on the phone with your pcb fab shop and get the boards re-done.Osp_bad_bga_close

Take a second look at the closer close-up here. This board also does a good job of illustrating the use of NSMD (Non Solder Mask Defined) pads. Most BGA manufacturers recommend the use of NSMD pads. This allows the BGA ball to sag down a little more and grip on the side of the pad too. It also illustrates the proper way to mask the trace between the pad and the via. That's very important too. That mask will keep the solder balls from being sucked off of the BGA.

Duane Benson
Suddenly, State Patrol...

Restoring Immersion Sliver PCBS?

I've written before about immersion silver finished boards and some of the challenges associated with that technology. It's a popular choice for RoHS these days because it's inexpensive compared to some of the others, has a nice planar surface and, conveniently, is, in fact, RoHS compliant.

Silver_sampleIt has a somewhat high nuisance factor though, because of its proclivity to tarnish and susceptibility to fingerprint grease and other surface contaminants. All the board houses will say it doesn't have any of those issues, but it does. Immersion silver pcbs need to be kept clean, dry and dark. Even then they still have a shelf life. A silver board doesn't take solder well if it's been stored too long, poorly or mishandled. Nag, nag, nag. Okay - got that out of my system...

So, what do you do if your boards have surface issues? Do you toss them? Do you send them to a psychologist? Do you turn them into expensive cubicle art? Do you use them like a FrisbeeĀ®? One of my manufacturing engineers told me that some board houses will re-plate them for you. For a fee, of course.

Apparently, in some cases, they can dip the boards and etch the old silver surface off and then re-plate them. I don't know if all board fab shops can or will do this, but if you have a couple of hundred dollars worth of unusable PCBs, it would certainly be worth a call to your Board fab shop to see if they can re-plate them for you.

Has anyone already had silver boards replated? Drop me a comment - I'd like to hear how it worked out for you.

Duane Benson
No Tarn-X, please

Lead-free pcb finishes

Sc_rohs_on_grey_100 RoHS became Euro-law more than a year ago but it seems like the Industry still hasn't agreed on what an ideal RoHS pcb finish might be. Part of the problem is that we aren't just dealing with RoHS issues these days. The advanced packaging just adds to pcb-grief.

More and more components are showing up in QFN, micro BGA and wafer-scale packages. All of these are more sensitive to surface flatness. Lead-free HASL (Hot Air Surface Leveling) is decent for solderability, but it can have a bumpy surface which those little packages don't like.

ENIG (Electroless Nickle Immersion Gold) gives a nice flat and level surface with good solderability and high resistance to tarnish. But if the processing at the board fab house isn't spot-on, it can suffer from black pad problems - especially with BGA and QFN packages. Silver, again has a flat surface and good solderability, but it can corrode in salty or high sulfur environments (like near the coast or in industrial facilities) and is  susceptible to tarnish and oxidation.

I ran across an interesting article on the subject in the online Lead-Free Magazine. The first half is interesting but mostly about pot soldering. If you don't find that interesting, scroll down to about paragraph 12 for their take on the board surface issue.

Duane Benson
Warning: Plot complication
Warning: Plot complication
Warning: Plot complication

Immersion Silver

Immersion Silver seems to be gaining popularity as a RoHS board finish. It is less expensive than Electroless-Nickel Immersion Gold (ENIG), safer then Immersion Tin, easier to use than Organic Solder Preservative (OSP) and has a more level surface than Hot Air Surface Leveling (HASL).

Early versions of the process tended to create boards with a very short shelf-life due to silver migration, microvoids and tarnish. Current processes are much better but we have found that silver boards still need better handling and closer inspection to maintain solderability.

Siver_tarnished_smb_4Here is an example of simple tarnish. This board has been exposed to the air for about three months. This board could probably still be used but would need some careful cleaning. At first glance, the pattern looks a bit like the uneven surface that is common with HASL boards, but the surface is perfectly flat. The dark area is tarnish, not a shadow. Click on the image to see it in close up.

In the second example, the silver has migrated leaving a completely unusable patch-work board surface. Siver_migration_problem_1This is more of a worst case, having been exposed to air for nearly a year. We would never attempt to assemble parts on a board like this. It also illustrates why solder mask is so important on Immersion Silver surfaced boards.

If you do choose to use Immersion Silver boards,

  1. keep them sealed and avoid storing them in bright areas.
  2. Use them as soon as you can.
  3. Carefully inspect them before use.

As time goes by and the industry gets more experience with this surface, I'm sure it will become as reliable and robust as we all want and need it to be, but until then, use it but use caution.

Duane Benson
And silver kills salmonella bacteria too.