Creating schematics and PCB layouts with open source tools

On my quest to build the electronics for my LED RGB matrix gadget, I’ll be dealing with gEDA and KICAD for the next few weeks. For windoze users, there’s also FreePCB.

The prototype will still be finished using perfboard and should hopefully be done by x-mas, but the remaining 4 pieces are crying for PCBs. Maybe I’ll make them myself (it turned out that I had forgotten my UV-box at my parent’s), or I’ll send the job to a fab. The latter would spare me to buy some more tools for now and look much better for sure. You just can’t make black (or white) PCBs at home.

Some 15 years ago I used a very old DOS demo version of Ranger to build a score board for some judo club. A few weeks ago I tested the latest free version on Eagle. Inspired by Meggy Jr RGB made by the people of I’ve decided to give open source tools a chance.

Stay tuned for my findings… (on vacation).

Update 1: 17.12.2008:

This will be short, as I don’t have much time at hand and as Terry Pratchett might put it: I’m ‘quite disadvantaged in the health department’.

Warning, this is strongly biased and just my personal thoughts.

Compared to KICAD, the autorouter seems better. Creating new symbols or footprints is bloody utterly painful. I did not find a single tutorial (I understood) on how to create them from scratch. Also there is no single GUI from where to start. Without knowing the right program and when to use it you’re completely lost. It may be a collection of powerful tools, but what it lacks is a single GUI. I hate it, although I like the layout editor better than the one that comes with KICAD.

This is more like it. There’s a single GUI which makes it pretty clear what to do. Given the help of a tutorial I found, I managed to create a new symbol/footprint pretty quickly. NO console hacking involved. The autorouter is rather bad, but at least there’s an interface to There’s a schematic editor, netlist creator which allows footprint assignment and the layout editor. Supports exporting gerber files just like gEDA. Selecting active layers in the layout editor is a bit strange, this is done better in the gEDA suite.

A good KICAD tutorial.

The learning curve of gEDA is way too steep for my liking. Although the individual tools (schematic/layout editor) may be more powerful as in KICAD, once one has mastered them after 20 years, but the lack of a single GUI is a killer – just like the process of creating new symbols/footprints. YUCK!

Update 2: 07.01.2009:

The gerber file viewer gerbv is also part of the gEDA suite and it is rather good. It is better than the one coming with KICAD, which is still OK. Files in gerber format contain all the layer information needed for a PCB manufacturor (copper, silkscreen …). On openSUSE it can be installed from a separate package.

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10 Responses to Creating schematics and PCB layouts with open source tools

  1. andy says:

    try “diptrace” seems upto the job for designing pcbs

  2. robert says:

    Looks good, very complete library. But I’d need windoze to run it and it’s not open source. Seems comparable to Eagle.

  3. Jeff says:

    I am really curious to see what you think of gEDA. I made the decision recently to go with Eagle. The more I use Eagle, the less frustrated I am by it’s somewhat nonintuitive user interface and the more I start to love it. I just completed my first design cycle using entirely Eagle (schematics, board layout, gerber files to the PCB shop) and I am very impressed. The gerber export was actually easier than some pro tools I have used in the past!

    • robert says:

      I’m done with the PCB part of gEDA until they manage to get a single GUI up and running. Terrible stuff. I wonder how long it took the guys @ to make the layout for Meggy Jr RGB. I won’t even think about how long it must have taken them to get used to it.

  4. Pingback: mightyOhm » Blog Archive » gerbv - A free, open source gerber viewer for Linux / OS X

  5. robert,
    I don’t know where you get the idea that gEDA PCB is difficult or takes forever to learn. I actually find it to be one of the fastest and most intuitive interfaces for pcb layout that I have used. (And I speak as someone that designs circuit boards– using expensive pcb design software for a living.) It’s stable, efficient and powerful, and only as complicated as it needs to be. There’s a tutorial that you need to walk through in order to understand the workflow. I was admittedly baffled before the tutorial, but it took me about two hours to do it, and I pretty much knew what I was doing after that.

    For the first few days of using PCB I was finding minor annoyances– mostly learning where to find different features– but after that I’ve been really quite happy with it. All of the circuit boards for Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories projects (Peggy, Meggy, target boards, interactive LED panels, etc) are now done in PCB. The Meggy Jr PCB is actually one of the smaller ones that we’ve done, and it wasn’t particularly challenging or time consuming. We’ve fabbed *thousands* of boards now in a dozen or so designs that we made in PCB, and I’ve always been impressed by how well they turn out.

    You don’t have to use it or love it, but I don’t think that dissing it is called for either. :)


  6. robert says:

    Well, I speak my mind freely.

    Maybe I should have put more emphasis on stating that the gEDA suite is usable, but lacks certain things I (personally) just don’t want to do without. To me these features gravitate in the ‘ease of use department’. The thing that made me snap and gave me hysteric fits was creating new symbols and footprints, that is having to do console hacking or ‘just modify an existing part’ and the likes.

  7. >The thing that made me snap and gave me hysteric fits was creating new symbols and footprints

    Ah. Making footprints in PCB is actually straightforward and useable– it’s basically like copying and pasting a small section of your layout. But I’ll agree with you 100% that making new symbols in gschem stinks. It’s the single weakest point in the whole workflow. (I’m half tempted to write my own utility for that part.)

  8. Z.K. says:

    I used gEDA awhile back and though I really liked the schematic part better than some others in face, the PCB part does really suck. I still am hoping to figure out to use it though. Getting help for the PCB part though such as making footprints is almost nonexistent. Unless it has changed you have to manually created it in a text file which I always had problems with as did not really understand the format that was being used. I may try this again though as I need something more reliable than what I am using at the moment.

  9. robert says:

    At the time I got started again in PCB making I needed a bit more “hand-holding” than what gEDA was willing to give. So I abandoned it. As I’m currently quite happy with KiCad I haven’t looked at it again. Trying something else would only make sense if there was a very good reason to do so. For me it doesn’t exist right now.

    I’d really love to have arbitrary pad-shapes in KiCad… but that’s not enough to make me abandon it. That would be quite mad.

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