se1main- Simple Introductory Exercise

Getting started with KiCad

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If you are new to KiCad, this essay is for you! (It is also one path into 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 use the official KiCad page to fetch the KiCad software and 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 usually use a Windows XP computer, but have also done a little KiCad on a Windows 7 computer.

Yes, this page is "dated"… the illustrations were done with a version of KiCad that is no longer (12/19) current. But the essence now is as it was then. Yes, some of KiCad's rough edges have been smoothed. New tools are available. But in 12/19, I loaded KiCad 5-1-5 onto a previously KiCad-less Windows 10 machine, and went through the "Start Here"/ "Simple Introductory Exercise" tutorial, and it was still pretty much on target.

Limited "install" notes….

As I said: See also official KiCad site…
(If you click on the Windows logo at the "Download" page, you are taken to a directory listing. At 07 July 14, there was an entry "KiCad_stable-2013.07.07-BZR4022_Win_full_version.exe". Look for something similar. Click on it. A file will download. Then run that file.

In my early Windows 7 work, I had problems over permissions if I installed things in root folders of the C: drive. The "install.txt" file, in the same directory I mentioned a moment ago, says…

"KiCad can be installed in 'C:\kicad', 'D:\kicad', 'C:\Program files\kicad',
'D:\Program files\kicad'."

July 14, Wi.ndows 7, KiCad BZR4022, I "went for" the default (for my system?), 'C:\Program Files (x86)\KiCad'.)

ARGH!!! All went well… until I dragged the new "KiCad" entry in my Start Menu (All Programs) to its place alphabetically. As soon as I did that, all the shortcuts under it disappeared. (Now I have to do a right-click/ Open to see them. Thank you, Microsoft, for this "improvement")

…. end, 'Limited Install Notes'

Having Caught Your Rabbit (Installed KiCad….)

While you can just read the tutorial, 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 your own components and footprints/ modules 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 "component", "footprint", "module"…. 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.

If you skim the essay, you may wonder if it undertakes to design a computer to run the intercontinental phone 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. However, the essay helps you build core skills and understanding so that you can, eventually, do the board in under 5 minutes, too… and do it right!

Just before we start: Consider undertaking at some point the following tiny "design challenge": It is perfectly acceptable to use KiCad to design a circuit and PCB which has just one resistor, one diode, and just one track on. The track connects one pin of the resistor to one pin of the diode.

A project like that might seem utterly pointless… but if you are a KiCad beginner, give it a try! (It is also more than enough for a non-beginner to run various experiments with.) It will "exercise" many of the basic skills you will need for projects that have more than didactic value. And, although this next activity is beyond the scope of the simple introductory exercise, KiCad will also allow you to go back, revise the schematic (add another resistor, say), and then work forward to create a revised version of the board with two resistors and a diode. Again: this is more than enough to exercise the relevant skills.

Here we go…

From the "Start" menu… in "All Programs", before Win10, 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. The one on the left will probably be empty the first time you load KiCad.)

Pre 4-0-4…

(That is the OLD central project manager window (CPMW). In KiCad vers 4-0-4 it is mostly the same, APART FROM the fact that you now access the CvPCB tool (second button on old CPMW toolbar) via a button on the eeSchema window. No "big deal" for users. Just tedious for tutorial authors!))

Before I took that screenshot, I had set up a new project which I named "KiCadHowToBasic". Each project should go in its own folder. The first time you run KiCad, I would recommend that you set up a "KiCad" folder in your MyDocuments (or "Documents"), And in that a "Projects" folder. You might want to put your initials after the "KiCad", to remind yourself that this is YOUR KiCad folder, not something the system created.

Under 5-1-5

Once you have your "MyDocs/KiCad/Projects" folder, you want to make a folder in that for each project. (You create the "Projects" folder once and for all, the first time you do a KiCad project. You can either do it "outside" KiCad, with Windows Explorer, or "inside" KiCad as a part of the following….)

Click "File | New", and 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 realted. Maybe call the folder "FirstProject" 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.

Now… please bear with me… we need to do some naming of parts.

In the upper left of the central project control window, before v4, we had…

KiCad program manager, upper left

Under v5, it isn't so very different.

I will use "the menu" for what I hope you agree is the usual Windows name for the text links: "File/ Browse/ Preferences/ Help".

By the way, from the information in the title bar, you can see which version of KiCad I was using when I wrote the bulk of this essay in Late 2011. I was working on a Windows XP machine.


Below that we have five "icons" or "buttons" on the "top toolbar". Some windows have a "left toolbar" (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"). Usually, in this latter case, a "toggle" button, the appearance of the button changes, if only subtly. So… the different sorts of buttons may look similar, but they behave differently.

Buttons set other than as they should be are a source of much hassle for KiCad beginners.

Sometimes toggle 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 actually, physically, went in and popped out appreciable distances.)

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.

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 double-click on things to bring them up… but don't try it just yet. And don't try to RE-open things that are already open.

Central Project Manager Window

The other part of the central project manager …..

(Since this screenshot was done, a further button has been added, the one at the right for "PCB Calculator"… congratulations and Thank You to the team which created that!… and, from at least version 4-0-4, the button for CvPCB has been moved to eeSchema's toolbar. (A better place for it.))

The large icons across the top of the central project manager are for launching the various parts of the overall KiCad system. We will be working our way through them. It is not always necessary to repeatedly return to the central project manager window… you will usually have a small version of any of these buttons for going to the usual next module from whatever module you happen to be in.

Under 5-1-5 the buttons are…

The letters in blue were added by me. The stand for…

Sc Schematic Layout Editor (EeSchema)- you'll meet this in today's tutorial.
Sy Symbol Editor (You won't need this immediately)
Pcb PCB Layout Editor (PcbNew)- you'll meet this in today's tutorial.
Fo Footprint Editor (You won't need this immediately)
Ge Gerber Viewer (You may never need this!)
B2C Bitmap to Component Converter
Ca PCB Calculator
Pa Page Layout Editor


To be honest, I haven't made much use of the information in the bottom pane 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.

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