Printed Circuit Board stencils or solder stencils are thin sheets made typically with stainless steel and nickel alloys. These sheets contain series of apertures that are aligned with the pads on the PCB where the solder paste needs to be deposited. The function of solder stencils is simple – help soldering professionals accurately deposit the right amounts of solder paste onto specific regions of the component terminals. The solder joints between the PCB pads and component terminals form strong bonds due to this accurate deposition of solder paste. These strong soldering bonds create electrical connections and make electronic devices functional.
All soldering professionals must feel at ease using solder stencils. It’s a fundamental piece of equipment that they must master to find high-paying jobs in the electrical components manufacturing industry. To do so, soldering professionals must realize what features the best solder stencils possess. Here are the features that soldering professionals ought to be looking for while shopping for effective solder paste stencils –
To ensure you make accurate prints of solder pastes onto the PCB pads, your solder stencil needs to have the correct alignment. Or else, solder paste may get deposited in the wrong areas and cause short circuits and device failures. Soldering professionals maintain alignment while placing solder stencils on PCBs by creating ‘fiducial marks’ on both of them. These registration marks on the PCBs and the solder stencils enable them to align the two accurately. For accurate placements, solder stencils need to have high degrees of flatness. Only super-flat solder stencils can offer the dimensional stability required for consistent printing or solder deposition processes.
The Holes on the Stencils
The holes and apertures play a vital role in solder deposition processes – they prevent disproportionate amounts of solder from passing through. If extra solder passes through these apertures, problems like solder bridges and solder beads arise. The extra solder goes on to cause havoc for the components on the PCB. If insufficient amounts of solder pass through the solder stencils’ apertures, the connection isn’t strong enough, and the assembly is guaranteed to fail quickly. That’s why accurately sized solder stencil apertures are vital.
Usually, apertures on soldering stencils are smaller than the pads on the PCBs. Soldering professionals know exactly how much solder needs to go through these slightly smaller apertures. However, creating accurately-sized apertures on every solder stencil is difficult for manufacturers, especially the ones who don’t use advanced laser-cutting devices. Soldering professionals must look for solder paste stencils that are manufactured using YAG lasers. These lasers use Yttrium, Aluminum, and Garnet crystals to achieve maximum cutting accuracy. Stencil apertures cut by these devices are always equally-sized.
Solder stencils need to be no thicker than .002 to .016 inches. Or else, free release of solder paste from the apertures becomes difficult. Stencils that are too thick retain solder in the apertures’ inner walls. Bear in mind – solder paste is just a mixture of solder powder and flux. It stays in a molten state for a short period of time. 90% of the solder paste’s mass is made up of alloy powder. So, it’s easy for solder paste to solidify and find solace in thick stencils. That’s why regular cleaning solder stencils is so important for industry professionals.
The Material Used to Make the Stencil
The smoother the material used to make the solder stencil, the better the ability of the apertures to release solder paste evenly. AISI 304 stainless which contains 8% nickel, is usually the preferred material for creating high-quality solder stencils. But, Nickel is costlier than stainless steel. So, if your solder stencil contains high amounts of Nickel, its high price is justified. Thanks to the presence of Nickel, soldering professionals don’t have to apply additional coatings on their solder stencils to improve the release of solder paste from the apertures. Stainless steel solder stencils with high nickel content feature extremely fine aperture walls, and the paste release is perfect.
Using a High-Quality Solder Stencil for PCB Assembly
To start using high-quality stencils, soldering professionals need to take two steps –
- Firstly, they need to master the IPC-7525A. This standard called ‘Stencil Design Guidelines’ published by the Institute of Printed Circuits (IPC) offers professionals the perfect introduction into the topic of solder stencils. It discusses specifics of frameless stencils, framed stencils, prototype SMT stencils, repair/rework stencils, and plenty more.
- Soldering professionals also need to work with high-quality design software that allows them to maintain consistency in all printing processes.
Buying Solder Stencils
While buying solder stencils, people need to set up some non-negotiable requirements. Avoid stencils that aren’t 100% laser cut. The stencils need to be no thicker than .002-.016 inches, and the aperture tolerance should be within .00025 inches. The stencils must allow users to register fiducial data and panelized data. Watch out for these specifics while shopping for your next solder stencil!