A simple exercise: Introduction to KiCad, and Naming of Parts

Getting started with KiCad

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If you are new to KiCad, this essay is for you! (It is also going to be the foundation of a site with more KiCad information.)

It takes you through a first KiCad PCB design project. While the PCB it creates will be trivial, by the end of the essay you should be familiar with the core concepts and terminology of the KiCad approach.

You will have to look elsewhere for help on installing KiCad, but both KiCad and this tutorial are free, so you're only risking your time. I had no "issues" while installing KiCad. I use a Windows XP computer.

While you can just read this, it will be of much more benefit if you actually do the exercise as you read it.

To keep this from being longer than it already is, I have "dodged" certain issues. This is, after all, meant to be "Chapter One" of your KiCad adventure. Creating a custom schematic symbol (for the schematic) or footprint (for the PCB art) is not covered here. (An essay on those skills, as "Chapter Two" is on my "to do" list!) But before you're ready for that, you need to know precisely what KiCad means by "schematic symbol", "footprint", "library"…. and helping you with that is a major objective of this essay. Many of my struggles while learning KiCad stemmed from the fact that I was using at least one of those terms in an "everyday" sense, while KiCad uses it in a much more restricted sense. (And, because there are many good guides on the internet which pre-date "recent" (relative to them!) developments in KiCad, you also may need to learn that "component" was once used where "schematic symbol" is now used, and "module" was used for "footprint".)

If you skim the essay, you may wonder if it undertakes to design a PCB to run the intercontinental telephone service. No, it really does only make a PCB with an LED, a resistor, a switch and a power connection. I could probably do everything that is in the essay in under 5 minutes. But please bear with me? "Suffer" through the essay? I've tried to create something that can help you build core skills and understanding so that you can, eventually, do the board in under 5 minutes, too… and do it right!

Here we go…

In "All Programs" from the "Start" menu, you should have a "KiCad" folder. In that, you should find the link to launch KiCad….

Clicking the KiCad entry to launch KiCad's "central project manager" window, my name for it from now on. (What you see in the panes depends upon what you were doing previously. They may be empty the first time you load it.)

Before I took that screenshot, I had set up a new project which I had named "KiCadHowToBasic". (You aren't expected to have done that yet!)

This may be the place to mention that I work on a Windows machine. KiCad will also run on Linux and Mac, so some readers will have to make minor, I hope, compensations for their OS.

Each project should go in its own folder, and I recommend keeping all of those folders in a "Projects" folder, itself in a "KiCad" folder, itself in "My Documents". You might want to put your initials after the KiCad, to remind yourself that this is YOUR KiCad folder, not something the system created.

(By the way… when there's a link in the text, as arises in a moment, you may want to use wheel-click, or right-click, or whatever your browser uses for "open in new tab". That way, once you've digested the material you jumped to, you can return to where you were just by closing the tab you opened.)

I even, at the moment (1/17) create a new folder for each VERSION of a board. Perhaps overkill, perhaps there's a better way… but it works, up to a point, for me. (I don't know a better way of "tying off" something in an "almost okay" form, so that I can fall back to that, if my attempts to improve it come unstuck… Or for "capturing a snapshot" of a board as it was, for instance, I sent it off to OSH Park to have boards made.)

In the menu of the KiCad central project manager window click "File | New", create a folder for your project, go into it, and then do a save. It is best if the folder name and the project name are at least related or even the same. Maybe call the folder "FirstProject_v0-0" and the project "FirstProject_v0-0" This will create a .pro file called FirstProject v0-0. I don't like putting version IDs in file names, but that may be the best way to operate in KiCad. Eschew spaces in the names. (I'll explain later.)

Now please bear with me, while we do some naming of parts. In the upper left of the central project control window, we have…

KiCad program manager, upper left

I will use "the menu" for what I hope you agree is the usual Windows name for things like "File/ Browse/ Preferences/ Help". (By ver 4.0.4 there's an extra item, "Tools".)


Below that we have a number of "icons" or "buttons" on the "top toolbar". Some windows have a "left toolbar" (toolbar on left hand side of screen), etc.

Buttons can work at least two ways. Sometiems I will tell you to "click" a button. And the result will be that something happens… a bit like if you were to press the "fire" button for a torpedo on a submarine. Other times, when you click a button, it "goes on" (or "goes off", if previously it was "on"), and stays that way. I.e. it is a "toggle". Usually, in this latter case, the appearance of the button changes, if only subtly. So… while different buttons may look similar, they may behave differently.

Toggle buttons set to the wrong state are a source of much hassle for KiCad beginners.

Sometimes buttons behave as "radio buttons"… click on one in a group, and any others in that group which were down previously pop up. (The name "radio buttons" comes from a type of station selector that your grandparents may be able to tell you they had on their car radio. Many cars today still have buttons that work like this… you can't after all listen to two stations on one radio… but in "the old days", the buttons went in and popped out more literally.)

Other times you can have one, some, or none of the buttons in a given group pressed in at once.

We'll talk about what you can access from the menu, and what the buttons on the top toolbar do as the need arises. For now, we're just pinning down terms. However, I will add two things:

  • Sometimes the button you need may be "missing" because of how you have sized your window. If you can't find a button, try making the window wider, or taller, and you may find that the button you need appears. (The toolbars do not "wrap".)
  • There are some things that perhaps you can only do with a button. I haven't found a alternate way to do it from the menu. And vice versa.

Underneath the top toolbar is the "project browser pane". It is similar to a file browser because KiCad makes extensive use of ordinary files to organize all of the elements of a PCB design project. It shows the "project tree" for what we are working on. As we've done almost nothing at this stage, there's not much in the tree! You can click on things to bring them up… but don't try it just yet.

Central Project Manager Window

The other part of the central project manager once looked like…

Across the top are large icons which are buttons for launching the various parts of the overall KiCad system. We will be working our way through them.

As of ver 4.0.4, the buttons gave you access to the following. (Hover your mouse over a button (in the app) to be reminded what it does.)

A "2011" in front of an item indicates that it was part of KiCad even back in 2011.

2011 Eeschema- You use this a lot, to create schematic diagrams. You must start with a schematic, for any sensible result. (Use a Paint program, if you just want to draw your PCB directly!)

Schematic Editor- You could edit schematics in 2011, there just wasn't a button. Put wondering about this process to one side for the moment.

2011 Pcbnew- You will use this a lot, to create the artwork for PCBs

PCB footprint editor- You could edit footprints in 2011, there just wasn't a button. Put wondering about this process to one side for the moment.

2011 GerbView- KiCad does "defacto standard"! Gerber files may be of interest to some readers, and KiCad can "do" them, and this lets you look at what's in Gerber files. Not a central issue. Put to one side for now.

2011 BitMap2Component- Not central… put to one side.

… and then there are a few more, which are either self evident or not fully understood by me at this time. I wouldn't say I were an expert, or anything (to quote a wonderful musical), but perhaps being almost a novice, I will mention things here that, for an expert, "everyone knows". Something that was stopping you get what you wanted created.

To be honest, I haven't made much use of the information in the big pane at the lower right yet. I'm sure you should keep an eye on the text there, though!

Whew! That's more than enough of that for the time being, thank heavens.

Go to next page in Simple Exercise: eeSchema: Place the devices

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