A basic PCB consists of a flat sheet of insulating material and a layer of copper foil, laminated to the substrate. Chemical etching divides the copper into separate conducting lines called tracks or circuit traces, pads for connections, vias to pass connections between layers of copper, and features such as solid conductive areas for EM shielding or other purposes. The tracks function as wires fixed in place, and are insulated from each other by air and the board substrate material. The surface of a PCB may have a coating that protects the copper from corrosion and reduces the chances of solder shorts between traces or undesired electrical contact with stray bare wires. For its function in helping to prevent solder shorts, the coating is called solder resist.
A printed circuit board can have multiple copper layers. A two-layer board has copper on both sides; multi layer boards sandwich additional copper layers between layers of insulating material. Conductors on different layers are connected with vias, which are copper-plated holes that function as electrical tunnels through the insulating substrate. Through-hole component leads sometimes also effectively function as vias. After two-layer PCBs, the next step up is usually four-layer. Often two layers are dedicated as power supply and ground planes, and the other two are used for signal wiring between components.
"Through hole" components are mounted by their wire leads passing through the board and soldered to traces on the other side. "Surface mount" components are attached by their leads to copper traces on the same side of the board. A board may use both methods for mounting components. PCBs with only through-hole mounted components are now uncommon. Surface mounting is used for transistors, diodes, IC chips, resistors and capacitors. Through-hole mounting may be used for some large components such as electrolytic capacitors and connectors.
The pattern to be etched into each copper layer of a PCB is called the "artwork". The etching is usually done using photoresist which is coated onto the PCB, then exposed to light projected in the pattern of the artwork. The resist material protects the copper from dissolution into the etching solution. The etched board is then cleaned. A PCB design can be mass-reproduced in a way similar to the way photographs can be mass-duplicated from film negatives using a photographic printer.
In multi-layer boards, the layers of material are laminated together in an alternating sandwich: copper, substrate, copper, substrate, copper, etc.; each plane of copper is etched, and any internal vias (that will not extend to both outer surfaces of the finished multilayer board) are plated-through, before the layers are laminated together. Only the outer layers need be coated; the inner copper layers are protected by the adjacent substrate layers.
FR-4 glass epoxy is the most common insulating substrate. Another substrate material is cotton paper impregnated with phenolic resin, often tan or brown.
When a PCB has no components installed, it is less ambiguously called a printed wiring board (PWB) or etched wiring board. However, the term "printed wiring board" has fallen into disuse. A PCB populated with electronic components is called a printed circuit assembly(PCA), printed circuit board assembly or PCB assembly (PCBA). In informal usage, the term "printed circuit board" most commonly means "printed circuit assembly" (with components). The IPC preferred term for assembled boards is circuit card assembly (CCA), and for assembled backplanes it is backplane assemblies. "Card" is another widely used informal term for a "printed circuit assembly". For example, expansion card.
A PCB may be "silkscreen" printed with a legend identifying the components, test points, or identifying text. Originally, an actual silkscreen printing process was used for this purpose, but today other, finer quality printing methods are usually used instead. Normally the screen printing is not significant to the function of the PCBA.
A minimal PCB for a single component, used for prototyping, is called a breakout board. The purpose of a breakout board is to "break out" the leads of a component on separate terminals so that manual connections to them can be made easily. Breakout boards are especially used for surface-mount components or any components with fine lead pitch.
Advanced PCBs may contain components embedded in the substrate.