My hobby is playing with electronics. And that is quite expensive hobby to have. Few years ago any soldering iron would do, but as world moved toward more and more SMD and RoHS components, one needs a little bit better piece of equipment. And that is just start…
As your projects get complicated, sooner or later, you will need professionally made PCB. Things are made little bit more difficult by the fact that you have no need for thousands of boards. All that you need is one or two of them. And you need that at affordable prices.
One place where amateurs can get PCBs made cheaply is Laen’s PCB Order at Dorkbot PDX site. Whole PCB manufacturing is work of one guy. You send him design, he will add it to his PCB panels combining it with orders from other customers. As he collects enough orders he just forwards this to professional PCB manufacturer. Since there is whole panel or more, cost (per board) is way lower than what you would be able to get at from same company.
PCB that you get from Laen is very recognizable since it is colored purple! Although he promises just plain lead-free HASL almost every time I got nice ENIG (aka gold) finish. On amateur level there is hardly need for such good finish but I must confess that it looks brutally good on purple board. Specification of PCB includes 6/6 traces on 2-layer board with soldermask and silkscreen on both. Not bleeding edge but probably more than any amateur will need.
Small curiosity is also that you can order PCB only in threes. That is, you can have 3, 6, 9 or any other multiplier at humble $5 per square inch (per three). If you have board design that measures 4 square inch, you will pay $20 for three PCBs. While shipping is free withing US, international customers need to pay $5 more (which is better deal than anywhere else).
I would not say that Laen is cheapest option for any board size. Nor I would say that boards are absolutely best quality. Neither I would call purple best color there is. What you get here is high-quality board at more than acceptable price and helpful human on other side. As long as it stays like this, I have found my PCB house.