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5 Types of PCB Surface Finishes: Is One of Them Right for Your Project?

by | Blog, PCB Fabrication, PCBs

Choosing the surface finish is an essential step in the design of your printed circuit boards.

The PCB surface finish helps protect copper circuitry from corrosion. It also provides a solderable surface for your components. There are a number of factors to consider, including:

  1. The components you use
  2. Your expected production volume
  3. Your requirements for durability
  4. Environmental impact, and
  5. Cost

Below are 5 types of PCB surface finishes, along with their benefits and drawbacks.

Finish Type #1 – Hot Air Solder Leveling (HASL)

“Hot Air Solder Leveling” is the least expensive type of PCB surface finish.

It is widely available and very economical. The board is dipped in molten solder and then leveled off with a hot air knife. If you’re using through-hole or larger SMT components, HASL can work well. However, if your board will have SMT components smaller than 0805 or SOIC, it is not ideal.

The surface is not completely level, so this can cause issues with small components. The solder used is typically Tin-Lead. That means that it isn’t RoHS compliant. And if reducing the amount of lead you use is important, you may want to choose Lead-Free HASL instead.

Surface Finish Closeup: HASLAdvantages:

  • Excellent solderability
  • Inexpensive / Low cost
  • Allows large processing window
  • Long industry experience / well-known finish

Disadvantages:

  • Difference in thickness/topography between large and small pads
  • Not suited for < 20mil pitch SMD & BGA
  • Bridging on fine pitch
  • Not ideal for HDI products

Finish Type #2 – Lead-Free HASL

Lead-Free HASL is similar to standard HASL, but with an obvious difference… It doesn’t use Tin-Lead solder.

Instead, Tin-Copper, Tin-Nickel or Tin-Copper-Nickel Germanium may be used. This makes Lead-Free HASL an economical and RoHS compliant choice. But like standard HASL it is not ideal for smaller components.

For boards with smaller components, immersion coatings can be a better choice. They are slightly more expensive but more suitable for this purpose.

Surface Finish Closeup: Lead-Free HASLAdvantages:

  • Excellent solderability
  • Relatively inexpensive
  • Allows large processing window
  • Multiple thermal excursions

Disadvantages:

  • Difference in thickness/topography between large and small pads
  • High processing temperature – 260-270 degrees C
  • Not suited for < 20mil pitch SMD & BGA
  • Bridging on fine pitch

Finish Type #3 – Immersion Tin (ISn)

With all immersion coatings, a chemical process is used.

A flat layer of metal is deposited on the copper traces. The flatness of the coating makes it ideal for small components. Tin is the least expensive type of immersion coating. Although it is an economical choice, it comes with some drawbacks.

The main drawback is that after the tin is deposited onto the copper it begins to tarnish. That means that if you want to avoid lower quality solder joints, you need to do your soldering within 30 days.

If you are expecting a high volume of production this may not be an issue. And if you are using large batches of boards quickly, you can avoid tarnishing. However, if your production volume isn’t high, it may be better to choose a coating like immersion silver. Surface Finish Closeup: Immersion Tin

Advantages:

  • Immersion finish = excellent flatness
  • Good for fine pitch / BGA / smaller components
  • Mid-range cost for lead-free finish
  • Press fit suitable finish
  • Good solderability after multiple thermal excursions

Disadvantages:

  • Very sensitive to handling – gloves must be used
  • Tin whisker concerns
  • Aggressive to solder mask – solder mask dam shall be ≥ 5 mil
  • Baking prior to use can have a negative effect
  • Not recommended to use peelable masks

Finish Type #4 – Immersion Silver (IAg)

Immersion silver does not react with copper the way that tin does. However, it does tarnish when exposed to air.

That means it needs to be stored in anti-tarnish packaging.

When stored in proper packaging it will still be solderable for 6-12 months. But once the PCB is removed from its packaging, it will need to go through solder reflow within a day. A higher shelf life can be achieved with gold plating. Surface Finish Closeup: Immersion Silver

Advantages:

  • Immersion finish = excellent flatness
  • Good for fine pitch / BGA / smaller components
  • Mid-range cost for lead-free finish
  • Can be reworked

Disadvantages:

  • Very sensitive to handling/tarnishing/cosmetic concerns
  • Special packaging required
  • Short operating window between assembly stages
  • Not recommended to use peelable masks

Finish Type #5 – Electroless Nickel Immersion Gold (ENIG)

Electro gold flash plating consists of a thin layer of gold over electroless or electrolytic nickel.

This type of plating is hard and durable. It also has a long shelf life, lasting for years. However, its durability and shelf life make it more expensive than any of the finishes mentioned above.

Surface Finish Closeup: ENIGAdvantages:

  • Immersion finish = excellent flatness
  • Good for fine pitch / BGA / smaller components
  • Tried and tested process
  • Wire bondable

Disadvantages:

  • Expensive finish
  • Black pad concerns on BGA
  • Can be aggressive to solder mask – larger solder mask dam preferred
  • Avoid solder mask defined BGA’s

Choose the Right Finish for Your PCBs

Remember that when choosing the finish for your PCBs, you need to consider component types and production volume. You’ll also need to consider requirements for durability, environmental impact, and cost. By taking all these factors into consideration, you can be sure to make the right choice.

Always Ask PCB Manufacturers These 7 Important Questions Before You Work With Them

Evaluating PCB manufacturers requires a lot of groundwork. Over the last 20 years, we’ve seen countless fabrication houses in China and have learned the industry inside-out. In this free white paper, we’ve drawn on our experience to create a checklist that will help you make your search easier.