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ESP32 custom NodeMCU firmware build and flash

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Here is my success story on how to compile and flash your own firmware for NodeMCU running on the ESP32 microcontroller. Although there is official documentation on how to achieve this, there were some minor issues that I stumbled across.

Using the Docker image is the recommended and most easy way to proceed. I didn’t have a Docker server so I started a cheap VPS from Digital Ocean. They have a one-click installer for Docker. Once the VPS machine is running, execute the following which covers the step “Clone the NodeMCU firmware repository” from the docs:

### log in via SSH to the Docker host machine

cd /opt

git clone --recurse-submodules https://github.com/nodemcu/nodemcu-firmware.git

cd nodemcu-firmware

git checkout dev-esp32
git submodule update --recursive
# https://github.com/marcelstoer/docker-nodemcu-build/issues/58
git submodule update --init

Then follow the instructions for the step “Build for ESP32” from the docs:

docker run --rm -ti -v `pwd`:/opt/nodemcu-firmware marcelstoer/nodemcu-build configure-esp32
docker run --rm -ti -v `pwd`:/opt/nodemcu-firmware marcelstoer/nodemcu-build build

Note: If you use the Heltec ESP32 WiFi Kit 32 with OLED, when configuring the firmware options you have to change the Main XTAL frequency from the default 40 Mhz to either “Autodetect” or 26 MHz, as explained here. I selected “Autodetect” (26 MHz) under “Component config” -> “ESP32-Specific” -> “Main XTAL frequency”.

For the impatient — most probably the only configuration you need to do is in the section “Component config” -> “NodeMCU modules”.

I encountered a compilation error which was caused by a defined-but-not-used function:

make[2]: Entering directory '/opt/nodemcu-firmware/build/modules'
CC build/modules/mqtt.o
CC build/modules/ucg.o
/opt/nodemcu-firmware/components/modules/ucg.c:598:12: error: 'ldisplay_hw_spi' defined but not used [-Werror=unused-function]
 static int ldisplay_hw_spi( lua_State *L, ucg_dev_fnptr device, ucg_dev_fnptr extension )
            ^
cc1: some warnings being treated as errors
/opt/nodemcu-firmware/sdk/esp32-esp-idf/make/component_wrapper.mk:285: recipe for target 'ucg.o' failed
make[2]: *** [ucg.o] Error 1
make[2]: Leaving directory '/opt/nodemcu-firmware/build/modules'
/opt/nodemcu-firmware/sdk/esp32-esp-idf/make/project.mk:505: recipe for target 'component-modules-build' failed
make[1]: *** [component-modules-build] Error 2

You can simply comment out the function in the firmware sources or configure to ignore the warning. Start a shell into the Docker image and edit the sources:

docker run --rm -ti -v `pwd`:/opt/nodemcu-firmware marcelstoer/nodemcu-build bash
# you are in the Docker image now; fix the source code

vi /opt/nodemcu-firmware/components/modules/ucg.c # add the following (including the starting shebang sign):
#pragma GCC diagnostic ignored "-Wunused-function"

exit

# you are in the Docker host; redo the build as usual
docker run --rm -ti -v `pwd`:/opt/nodemcu-firmware marcelstoer/nodemcu-build build

Because it took me a few attempts to configure everything properly and to finally build the image, I used the following alternative commands to make the process more easy:

docker run --rm -ti -v `pwd`:/opt/nodemcu-firmware marcelstoer/nodemcu-build bash
# you are in the Docker image now
cd /opt/nodemcu-firmware
make menuconfig
make

Once the build completes it produces three files on the Docker host:

/opt/nodemcu-firmware/build/bootloader/bootloader.bin
/opt/nodemcu-firmware/build/NodeMCU.bin
/opt/nodemcu-firmware/build/partitions_singleapp.bin

Copy those three files on your local development machine where you are about to flash the NodeMCU controller. My first attempt was rather naive and the chip wouldn’t boot. It issued the following error on the USB console:

Early flash read error: "flash read err, 1000"

It turned out that I accidentally overwrote the bootloader and the partitions. Fortunately, the ESP32 official docs explain this in details here and here.

Here is what worked for me to flash my custom NodeMCU firmware into ESP32 from my Windows workstation:

esptool.py.exe --chip esp32 -p COM5 erase_flash

esptool.py.exe --chip esp32 -p COM5 write_flash 0x1000 .\bootloader.bin 0x8000 .\partitions_singleapp.bin 0x10000 .\NodeMCU.bin

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Author: Ivan Zahariev

An experienced Linux & IT enthusiast, Engineer by heart, Systems architect & developer.

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