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How to Crack the 74HC138 IC Chip

How to Crack the 74HC138 IC Chip

The 74HC138 is a popular 3-to-8 line decoder IC chip used in many digital logic circuits. Cracking or reverse engineering this chip can be a fun project for electronics hobbyists or students looking to understand the internal workings of the 74HC138. This guide will walk through the full process of removing the chip packaging, identifying the die inside, tracing the circuit, and ultimately creating a transistor-level schematic.

Overview of the 74HC138

Before jumping into the cracking process, let’s first understand what the 74HC138 chip does.

The 74HC138 takes a 3-bit binary input and decodes it into 1 of 8 active low outputs. This allows it to convert information from microprocessors or other logic ICs into control signals for enabling external devices.

Some key specifications of the 74HC138 include:

  • Supply voltage range of 2V to 6V
  • High noise immunity CMOS technology
  • Fan out of 10 TTL inputs
  • 16-pin DIP packaging

By cracking the chip, we can reverse engineer the internal gate-level implementation and circuit schematic. This will reveal the logic design techniques used to create this useful decoder IC.

Step 1: Remove the Chip Packaging

The first step is to carefully remove the plastic or ceramic packaging from the 74HC138 chip. This will expose the silicon die at the heart of the IC.

To remove the packaging:

  • Use a razor blade or exacto knife to carefully pry up the edges of the lid on the top of the IC package. Apply gentle pressure with the blade to slice through the epoxy around the seam.
  • Once the top is removed, you’ll see the silicon die attached to the bottom half of the package. Use a soldering iron to heat the die attachment points and gently lift the silicon die off.
  • Clean off any residual epoxy or attachment material from the die using acetone. Handle the bare silicon die carefully by the edges.

Step 2: Inspect and Photograph the Die

With the packaging removed, we can now see the silicon die and the tiny etched traces that make up the circuitry of the 74HC138.

Carefully inspect the die under magnification. Look for key components like:

  • Input/output bonding pads – these are the points where microscopic bond wires connected the die to the IC pins.
  • Power and ground rails – look for common rails that supply power and ground to the circuits.
  • Logic gates – clusters of transistors will form the AND, OR, INVERTER gates needed to make the decoder.

Take high resolution photographs of the die from multiple angles. Try to illuminate the die with indirect lighting at an angle to highlight the pathways etched into the silicon. These photos will serve as the basis for tracing out the circuit in the next steps.

Step 3: Trace the Circuitry

With good die shots, we can now trace the circuitry using visual pattern matching. This step takes patience, but follows a systematic approach:

  • Identify VCC and GND power rails. These will appear as larger common metal traces.
  • Locate key input and output bonding pads. Consult the IC pinout diagram to correlate die pads with the chip pin numbers.
  • Follow input pads and trace their routes through various gates, while identifying gate types.
  • Output pads will be connected into a decoder block that activates one of the 8 output pins based on the 3-bit input condition.
  • Draw the traced circuit pathways onto enlarged copies of your die photos. Use colored pens or highlighters to differentiate power, input, output, and internal routes.

Taking your time with this tracing step will result in the best possible recreation of the die-level circuitry.

Step 4: Create the Gate-Level Schematic

With the circuitry traced out, we can now translate the die-level layout into a gate-level schematic using basic logic symbols. This schematic will show thefunctional logic that generates the 1-of-8 decoding.

Some tips for creating the schematic:

  • Use AND gate symbols for collections of transistors that match the pattern for AND gates.
  • Use OR, NAND, and INVERTER symbols wherever recognized.
  • Add VCC and GND power rail symbols and attach to the appropriate points.
  • Lay out the gates to match the general die layout order from inputs to outputs.
  • Label the inputs (A, B, C) and outputs (Y0 -Y7) with pin numbers that correlate with the datasheet.
  • Include any pull up/down resistors, reference voltages, etc. specified in the datasheet.

The end result should be a schematic delivering the same 1-of-8 decoding function described in the datasheet based on the actual silicon implementation.

Step 5: Analyze and Verify the Circuit

With our gate-level schematic complete, we can now analyze the circuit to see how it achieves the stated functionality. Additionally, we should verify it matches the device behavior.

Some ways to analyze and verify:

  • Simulate the schematic using circuit simulation software. Apply all input combinations and check that only the correct single output is activated.
  • Reduce the schematic further into specific logic equations. This helps reveal the Boolean logic realized by the gates.
  • Compare current draw measurements of the actual IC vs. our schematic simulation. The results should match closely.
  • Fabricate a test circuit on a breadboard or PCB implementing our schematic. Test with different input patterns to validate 1-of-8 decoding behavior.

By completing these analyses, we can have high confidence that the cracked schematic accurately reflects the internal logic of the real 74HC138 IC.


Reverse engineering the 74HC138 provides an insightful look into the clever analog and digital design required to create this useful logic IC. The same cracking process can be applied to many different chips to uncover their inner workings. Some key lessons learned include:

  • Chip decapsulation requires care and the right tools, but can give access to the silicon die.
  • Methodical die analysis and trace mapping is crucial to derive the circuit.
  • Gate-level abstraction allows the logic behavior to be captured in a schematic.
  • Simulation, equations, and testing help verify the accuracy of the cracked circuitry.

With practice, the techniques outlined in this guide can be applied to reverse engineer other ICs and unlock their mysteries. The understanding gained allows hackers and engineers to better leverage these chips in their own designs.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q1. What tools are needed to decap an IC like the 74HC138?

Some essential tools for decapping include:

  • Razor blade/exacto knife – for carefully slicing the epoxy lid off the IC package.
  • Soldering iron – heat to ~300°C to melt the die adhesive and remove from package.
  • Tweezers – for handling the tiny silicon die.
  • Acetone – used to clean residual adhesive from the die surface.
  • Optical microscope – to inspect the microscopic die features. Needs ~50-100X magnification.
  • Camera – essential for taking high resolution photographs of the die.
  • Highlighters, pens – used to trace out circuit routes on the die images.

Q2. What precautions should be taken when handling IC die?

Some important precautions for handling bare silicon die:

  • Use ESD (electrostatic discharge) protection. The die is very susceptible to damage from static electricity.
  • Only handle the die by the edges using tweezers. Avoid touching the top surface.
  • Work in a clean environment to prevent contamination on the die surface.
  • Store die in ESD safe packaging like conductive foam or anti-static bags.
  • Properly dispose of decap chemicals like acetone and avoid skin contact.

Q3. What is the typical supply voltage range for the 74HC138?

Most 74HC138 ICs operate with a supply voltage range of 2V to 6V, as this matches the common 5V TTL logic voltage used in many circuits. The HC family has CMOS transistors, giving it higher input impedance than the original 7400 series. Many datasheets also specify a maximum supply of 7V.

Q4. How are the inputs and outputs labeled on a 74HC138?

The 74HC138 uses the following pin labels:


  • A, B, C – Three input pins that take the 3-bit binary address input.


  • Y0 to Y7 – Pins corresponding to the active-low output lines. Only one output is active based on the input.


  • GND – Ground pin.
  • VCC – Positive supply voltage.

This labeling allows the pins to correlate directly with the input and output functions.

Q5. What is a typical application of using a 74HC138 3-to-8 decoder?

Some example applications that use a 74HC138 decoder include:

  • Demultiplexing address or data buses – A microprocessor may output a multi-bit address/data bus that needs to be separated into individual signals.
  • Controlling 8 separate devices or circuits – The 8 outputs can directly enable different devices like LEDs, motors, etc.
  • Port expansion for a microcontroller – Adds more quasi bi-directional ports using a buffer like the 74HC244.
  • Driving digit segments in a numeric display – Combine multiple decoders to control 7-segment or other multi-digit displays.
  • Memory addressing – Used to decode address lines to select 1 of 8 memory chips or groups.

The 74HC138 is versatile and can serve many decoding and demultiplexing uses.

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