The way I prototype and still do is to use the toner transfer method using transfer sheets like these from Ebay. It still has some cost associated with it, mainly time. Unless the design is complex or large I don’t bother and go straight to a full design to send out.
With no solder mask, plating etc I can mess around with the design as much as I like. Cut tracks, tomb stone components lift chips up and insert mod wires etc etc.
Once I am happy I’ll re-spin the CAD to either 2 or multi-layer, send it out to a PCB house.
Developing is too expensive and the copper tarnishes unless you plate it, so your project looks terrible in 2 - 3 years time. Much nicer to have a professional mask with top and bottom silk.
Wish I was still at the University of Manchester where I had 2-3 day turn around at no cost at all… they were the days.
Altium Designer 10 is the choice of software I use, not cheap to buy unless your a freelance and recover the costs that is dependent on your profession I guess.
Don’t be fooled into thinking you cannot do SMD. People who moan how impossible it is have no desire to learn the skills needed to do it in the first place, its just patience.
Controller board in Trx_AVR PICASTAR prototyped using home etching techniques on 0.5mm pin pitch. Ian is in his 60’s, age is no barrier either…