Getting Ugly, Dead Bugs, and Manhattan Style

If you are anything like me, you love to build small circuits. I like to try and get my head around how things work by making it in front of me. This is usually in the form of breadboarding, but sometimes that doesn’t cut it, and soldering is needed. Veroboard tends to be my go to for building a simple circuit as something a bit more permanent, but it doesn’t always lend itself to certain designs. Take a design with lots of grounding points in the design, like an RF circuit, it can be difficult to have lots of ground strips everywhere, and the extra capacitance can mess with those high frequency signals. Also, designs with lots of different separate signal traces going round the board can make for a real pain. lots of slicing the traces, which tend to lead to mistakes. With my constant desire for order and straight lines, and pretty layouts this can get annoying quickly. Recently I have found a few new and simpler ways to throw together simple circuitry. For any budding electronic engineer, they are good skills to add to an arsenal.

A veroboard design of a hybrid microphone amplifier and level shifter I made for a recent project, prototyped on veroboard, many mistakes were made.

Ugly Circuits

As the name suggests, ugly circuits are not always the prettiest of designs. There are a few different definitions of what makes an ugly circuit, but my favourite is any circuit where the components are not completely mechanically connected to the substrate. The substrate usually being a copper clad board, but not always. This method can be a tricky one to master, as it is literally a balancing act. The prefered method that I see this being used is having a single copper clad board as a giant unobstructed ground plane. Two wire passives are usually the easiest to start with (standard resistors/capacitors), soldering one side to ground, then soldering the other side to another component in the air. This means any point that is not grounded is usually floating physically in the air (but depending on how good you are it could have floating voltage too). This can be a big benefit to RF circuitry or circuits that need good solid grounding. The unobstructed copper clad board means anything connected to it has a great connection to ground. It is fairly easy to build simple passive filters, but gets very fiddly and fragile if you aren’t careful.

A very “haywire” circuit constructed in the ugly style by Rick Anderson – KE3IJ in 2006. An experimental stage of his AGC-80 Regan receiver.
Not sure on the origin of this one, but it is more chaotic rather than ugly. It is definitely in the ugly style.

Technically ugly circuits don’t have to have a substrate at all, although it makes life easier. There are plenty of examples out there of ugly circuitry that just connects pins to pins via small wires. As said before, it can be very fiddly to make a circuit like this, but it is much cheaper to make singles as there is no need for expensive copper clad board. Plus after plenty of practice one can get very good at doing it. The wires connecting the parts together can be part of the structure of the unit, and if designed correctly could be very strong. The construction method can be useful in certain circumstances, and as long as you have the components, it can be build easily with just a soldering iron and solder. Although there are some amazing looking circuits made from this method, the majority do earn the name of an ugly circuit. If you can make a pretty one I would love to see.

Nathanxl at the Electro music forums creates some amazing almost artistic music project using the ugly style, but they look incredibly hard to make.
An Arduino Uno made without any substrate, just wires and components. Made by Kimo Kosaka, it is not an ugly, but it uses an ugly style of construction.

Dead Bugs

No, this method does not actually use dead insects as a manufacturing material, but it may look like it. The idea is to take an IC, traditionally in a DIP package, and place it upside down on the substrate. Usually glueing, but not always, with the pins facing upwards, so it has the look of a dead bug. The pins can be bent to attach to the substrate if required, but they tend to be facing up. Taking many methods from ugly, the pins are usually directly connected to passives or wires to other chips. This means the mechanical connections are usually in the air. The benefit to this method is that you don’t have to waste time drilling holes in in the substrate, and can integrate IC’s into an ugly design fairly easily. If trying to use this method, just be weary that all the pins on the chip will be the wrong way round as it gets flipped when placed upside down. I recommend making your own diagram to go from to make life easier.

As you can see in this use of dead bug mixed with ugly construction made by JCHaywire is the chip flipped over and the pins moved about with all the connections floating in the air

Although not really dead bugs, the concept can be seen in many modifications of PCB’s. It is easy to order the wrong package or get sections of pins wrong when designing and ordering PCB’s, especially if you have manually made the part. So it is not uncommon to find upside down IC’s on prototype PCBs or even sometimes on short runs. That being said, anything smaller than a DIP or SOIC package can get very fiddly, and is difficult to hand solder, and will need some extra magnification. Don’t be deterred though, there are many examples of even QFN and even BGA devices being hand soldered in the dead bug form, with very thin gauge jumper wires. With plenty of practice and spares, it can be a useful method of saving money without having a new run of PCB’s.

A bodge on a PCB before the real chip arrives, a 6650 is being used in dead bug style to get the circuit working by Dave Curran.

Manhattan Style

This one is my favourite styles of circuit design on the cheap and quick, and if done right can be very pretty and efficient. The big issue with the ugly method is that it is difficult to create, and often difficult to follow, and horrible to document. Manhattan is an upgrade, using cut out sections of copper board as small islands, much like manhattan. This method means there are no connections floating in the air, as all points on a component are mechanically connected to copper clad in some way, even if it is only a small bit. This leads to generally a much nicer laid out board, that can easily be followed and replicated. It also allows for use of SMD components, which is possible with ugly, but very difficult. The small pads don’t have to be separate, they can simply be cut outlines on the same backplane, making the process cheaper, but get it wrong and it can get messy. I much prefer manhattan as a quick construction method, due to its neat look and ease of use. Another reason for the name Manhattan is the fact the capacitors and resistors tend to line up and are perpendicular to the substrate, looking a bit like tower blocks and skyscrapers like Manhattan itself.

A great example of Manhattan style soldering by Dave Richards. Solid copper substrate with QRPme pads to attach components together. 
Another impressive circuit in the Manhattan style by Dave Richards, this one is a high performance regen receiver, with a full write up on his blog.
An example by VE7SL – Steve of making his own pads for his amateur radio transmitters and receivers, using an Ebay punch to make the pads.

One step on from Manhattan style, and the final step before fully fledged PCB’s is a little known style called Pittsburg, much like the steak. I have also seen it be called muppet style, and I am sure there are many other names for it. It is very similar to an actual PCB, usually etched, a layout is carved into the board, with traces and pads. The difference from a PCB is the fact there are no holes anywhere to be seen. Meaning you get the benefit of being able to etch a nice looking layout at home, and the benefit of not needing expensive routers/drills that quickly break. To allow for the pads to be soldered to as the main mechanical connection they are much bigger to allow for more solder on a bigger surface area. These pads would be overkill for a thru hole project, but also allows for easy use of SMD components. You can sometimes see specialist pads like Pittsburg to use SMD chips on a Manhattan style board. It is a matter of taste and confidence. These methods are obviously not suitable for all prototypes, but could come in useful for your next project. 

A Pittsburgh style PCB at one point sold by Joe Porter, unsure if they are still sold.

A good source of the small pads used in Manhattan can be found here. Reasonable price, and if you are doing lots of prototyping you can even buy the tools to make it yourself!

Thank you for reading, take a look at my other posts if you are interested in space, electronics, or military history. If you are interested, follow me on Twitter to get updates on projects I am currently working on.