Reverse Engineering

of Electronics Circuit Board.

You Hacking Resources.

      Resource to assist reverse engineering of circuit board and IC .

Edited by Lim Siong Boon, last dated 10-Aug-2014.

email:    contact->email_siongboon  


Topic Discussion Overview

  1. Introduction to reverse engineering of electronic circuit board
  2. Recognizing Components
  3. Mapping out the Traces
  4. Looking at IC chip marking

1. Introduction to Reverse Engineering of electronic circuit board

Reverse engineering circuit board is definitely not a simply one day training lesson. It is not as simple as knowing it all simply from a search engine on the internet. It is a process which harness the years of experience accumulated in electronic design and studying of how other engineers design their circuits. While as tough as I may have describe, it does not means that there is no way to learn this skill.

There are many reason why we need to reverse engineer a circuit board. One reason that I enjoy doing, is to learn something from the board. In the early days of my engineering career, as a fresh graduate who have background about electronics but practically don't even dare to design a circuit for commercial use. There was just not enough confident in myself to design something for the industries to use. It was also a time when I started to become curious of how a circuit works. As a fresh new hardware engineer in a R&D department, basically I start create circuit solution by copying. Copying design that I find from books, from electronic kits purchase from stores, from internet where many people uploaded for their projects. I was also fortunate to have a colleague who had had retired and was working for this small company that I was working in, who makes me felt like he is nagging, trying his very best to share his knowledge about electronics with me. Standing there listening to him teaching from the very basic, starting from the name of a component. Topic like, how to classify the type of switch SPST DPST DPDT,can seems boring. It can be quite an annoying thing, when he speaks about simple things (which I thought they were). The truth is those simple thing that I thought they were, are actually fundamentally important, I had realized. Over time I started to earn some insight which I didn't really catch then during my polytechnic and university school days. The topic "Switch" that I wrote in another webpage is one of the simplest and most important topic that I think all electronic hardware engineer needs to know by hard.

Reverse engineering can be like looking at a piece of blank at first. The more newbie you are, the more you do not know where to start understanding the circuit. In this section, I will briefly go through the process of how a circuit board can be reverse engineered in a sequential process.

Circuits can looks like an art where almost every circuit seems so different. The truth is that many circuits are very similar in nature. There is a pattern that you can find in every circuit. Recognizing these pattern is important. The more pattern you know, the faster you are about to decode the circuit. Electronic is physics and physic is the same across the world we are now living in. People use the same knowledge, copy the same knowledge, ends up with circuits that are quite standardize across the design that we can find. First important concept that we can start with, is to know that there is a standard circuits in many of the design. Just like a rubber stamp, people tends not to reinvent the wheel. We design a circuit that works, and keep on using that same circuit pattern. Whenever we trace out the component connection, we will try to match these patterns that we are able to recognizing. As you might have realized by now, the prerequisite to master the skill of reverse engineering, is the skill of designing electronic circuits. Like wise the opposite is also true. Both reverse engineering and circuit design are skills that need to progress hand in hand.

Why Reverse Engineering?
- to learn how things work.
- to do something new or unique.
- test hardware's specification, security and weaknesses.
- better control of the system.
- identify design failure, weak components due to current, voltage or heat.
- identify how product can be improved.

Method of hacking and doing reverse engineering
- information gathering
- trace hardware components and connection
- firmware reverse engineering
- external interface analysis
- silicon die analysis (reverse engineering at microscopic level)
- communication monitoring, protocol decoding, Serial, USB, Ethernet, I2C, SPI, CAN using oscilloscope, logic analyzer, sniffers, software tools, etc.

or BlackHat_DC_2011_Grand-Workshop.pdf

Removing Epoxy Encapsulation.
- hot air soften epoxy
- Chemical, MG Chemicals' 8310 Conformal Coating Stripper (

2. Recognizing Components

Recognizing all the components on the circuit board.

The most basic thing you need to recognize is the electronic components that you see on the circuit board. As a new engineer, you may find yourself floated with odd components that you have not seen before. Many newbie may recognize those component symbol that we read from the schematic, but may not be able to recognize them in the actual physical form in a real physical circuit.
The resistor component alone can comes with many sizes, shapes, and color. It is important to recognize them, and understand their differences in characteristic. In school, we usually take resistor as only a ohm value, and don't bother about the precision of the resistor,  tolerance, and even wattage is often ignored. In a practical circuit design, there are reason why some resistor are bigger or why some are more precision. First thing first, ensure you can recognize each and every component on the circuit. Knowing their names and how they are classified can helps you speed up the time needed to identify them. It is also a reason why through out my other webpages, I try to use photo, and put down the possible names that can be use to identify the components. Identify as much components as you can. Resistor, Capacitor, Inductor, IC chips, fuse, diode, transistors, connectors, PCB board, etc...

Nowadays, modern circuit board uses more IC chips than passive components. All IC chip looks the same black encapsulation with various shape and size. The important thing is to examine the number that is printed on the chip itself. Without it, you will need more brain power and experience to decode the board. It is also a main reason why some manufacturers will find ways to erase the lettering on the IC chips. It is a means to increase the barrier for reverse engineering, which can reduce the probability of their circuit design being copied.

With the lettering on the IC chip, you can search for their datasheet on the internet. If you cannot find them in the search engine, you may like to try again, leaving out some lettering in the front or back in order to increase the probability to get a search hit. The latter section "looking out for the IC chip marking" delicate a section to improve your chance to discover the IC marking and the search for its datasheet.

Most modern circuits are design using surface mount components. They can be small and traditional color band scheme for a component like resistor cannot be use. For these SMD resistors, they are number coded. For bigger SMD resistor, they are number coded, similar to the color band scheme where the first few digit represent the actual digit, while the last digit represent the number of zeros. Smaller SMD resistor which has a smaller printed area print their value using a standard coded system. This standard coding system is known as EIA marking code. There is no way to determine the resistor value easily from the code. Fortunately, we do not have to remember it by hard. With a search through the internet, we just need to extract its value base on the code. There is also this free android apps call "ElectroDroid" which can allow you to key in the EIA code, and return you with the resistance value. The apps also contains many other features which can assist you in your reverse engineering process. For more information about resistors and capacitors classification, click on the respective links.

Recognizing the components is only the first step. Identifying component itself already requires a lot of experience and effort. Even after nearly two decades of working with electronics, I still do find components which I find it difficult to identify. Inductor and transformer is a component which I am still not able to overcome easily. Newer modern components being used in circuits, often curious me. It is a never ending learning process.


Take a photo of the circuit board (top and bottom), and start to assign a reference designator (label numbering) for each of the components.
pcb-front.jpg  pcb-back.jpg

Use OpenOffice Impress to help you do the component part labelling on the photo of the circuit board (PCB).

For example, all resistor can have prefix R1, R2, R3, R... R46, capacitors C1, C2, C3, C... C56.

Document these parts on a OpenOffice Calc spread sheet with the following columns,

(S/N or component prefix label, Component type, Package, Marking, Part no., Manufacturers)

Try to fill up the columns with information as much as you can.

You can download a template example here.
- Component reference designator labelling (*.odp)
- BOM list (*.ods)

Check out


Copy another PCB bottom and extract only the trace or copper area.
Flip the PCB bottom, and size it to be the same size as the top.
The PCB bottom trace adjust the Red & Blue by 50%, so that the trace color can be differentiated from the top pcb trace.
Overlay the PCB top over the PCB bottom. Adjust the transparency of the PCB top to 60%.
This overlay can help you trace the connection without flipping the circuit board physically.


Build a schematic, laying out the component parts base on those on the BOM list.


Trace out the connection on the circuit board onto the schematic that you are building.


This step requires your experience from the circuits that you have seen. It is sort like a jigsaw puzzle, using your brain pattern recognition skills, matching component's connection forming the typical circuits layout that was used.
Arrange the connected components in their typical function configuration layout.
For example the connection may represent a typical
- transistor switch configuration
- input switch and pull-up resistor
- voltage regulator
- amplifier
- output
- etc...

reverse engineering electronic circuit board solution

3. Mapping out the Traces

Mapping all the traces, the connection on the circuit board.

This is the most tedious part of the reverse engineer process. It is to map out how the components that you have identified earlier are connected. Component by component, we map out all the connection (known as traces).

Before starting the tracing process, it is important to recognize the PCB board type. I classify them as single layer, double layer and multilayer board.

The simplest board is the single sided PCB where one side of the board is consist of only the PCB trace routing, while the other side is the electronic components. Typically consist of mostly through holes components. Fairly simple to trace out the connection.

The second type is a double layered PCB board where traces can be found at both side of the board. Most of the time, through hole components are found on one side of the board while the surface mount component is found on the other side. Very often, traces are routed below through hole components and IC chip. This makes it impossible to trace out the connection using only our vision. Multi-meter's function "continuity" is required to aid us to identify a connection (sometimes also known as the continuity tester). Basically is will buzz when the probes touch two points which is connected by a trace. You can also use a ohm meter function which reads a 0ohm when a connection is probed. I prefer the buzz, because while I focus my attention tracing the circuit, I do not have to look up in the multimeter screen to check for a connection. The buzz sound is much more convenient. Although it is a productive feature to use to trace connection, it is important to note how the "continuity" feature works. Depending on the multimeter, the buzz is set to sound at a certain ohm threshold. This means that a 10ohm resistor between two point, can cause a buzz from the multimeter, which may mislead you into thinking that the two point is shorted. Do keep this in mind during the probing process. Using visual and the continuity features together should help minimize mistake. Components that you typically need to take note is, sense resistor (usually bigger in size than the rest of the resistor), inductors, transformer, coil and any external connection or wiring to the board. Another common mistake is to probe the circuit without switching off the power supply. Ensure that all connection to the board are disconnected before tracing for connection.

The most difficult board to trace will be the multilayer boards. Typically for a 4 layer boards, most designer likes to allocate the middle layer for power traces like VCC and GND. It is not a definite, but just a high possibility base on the experience of looking at other circuit boards and also some common circuit theory. Doing reverse engineering requires you to think a lot as if you are the designer designing the board that you are hacking. For a multilayer board, it is normally near to impossible to trace the board using visual. Matching of component pins connection is normally done for the whole of the circuit board. Matching one pin to the rest of the pin, one at a time. Sometimes with the understanding of the component, and some experience as a designer, you might be able to shorten the process. There will be zones that you will instinctively that there is no need to try.

Draw out the components position, and how they are connected. Taking a picture of the circuit helps you to trace easier. Sometimes I will superimpose the routed trace with the components in order to see the connection better. Label all the components, and name the trace once you are able to identify its function.

Power supply traces are the simplest to start with. This is because we usually knows where the power line is connected to the circuit. From there we can trace out where the power line goes to. From the power line, we will be able to trace out the next stage which is typically the voltage regulators. For a AC power line, usually a rectifier can be located a before it reaches the voltage regulator. These suggestion assumes typical design, it will be up to you to recognize it yourself because there are just too many variation of circuits designed.

Studying the datasheet of the IC chip on board can also help you to recognize connection. Arrange the component symbol into the standard stamp circuit configuration that you can recognize. Common standard circuit like input circuit, pull up, driver circuit using transistor, relay circuits, voltage regulator, etc... can easily be recognize. Draw them out in a format that helps you to recognize the circuit module functionality.

The process is complex, and it is a never ending topics on reverse engineering. The more you reverse engineer the more you will learn and improve your techniques, finding new ways to decode and learn how other circuits are designed., Singapore Network Ethernet WiFi RS232 RS485 USB I/O Controller

Looking at IC chip marking

Looking out for the IC chip marking

IC chip is getting smaller and smaller. Many small chip can only be coded with only 3-4 letterings only. This is the IC marking which represent a part number from the manufacturer.

References for searching base on the letter/number marking on the IC,
- Database search,
- smd codes catalog 2012, SMD-codes Active SMD semiconductor components marking codes
- smd marking,

Marking code search from manufacturer's website
Texas Instruments,
Cross competitor search:


Analog Device,


Cross Reference next to the search box, type the part number and search:
Product selector:

Product selector or Cross competitor search:

Looking out for the logo on the IC chip.

Analog Devices
BI Technologies
Burr Brown
Cirrus Logic
Cypress Semiconductors
Dallas Semiconductor
Fairchild Semiconductor
Holtek Microelectronics
International Rectifier
National Semiconductor
Texas Instruments

References for IC manufacturer logos,
- or pdf




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reverse engineering electronic circuit board solution


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