This weekend I built a super-cheap, no-frills, 108″ projector screen for my family room home theater. A modest setup consisting of a Pioneer 7.1 AVR, some DIY speakers and sub I built years ago and a 50″ Panasonic plasma HDTV. We’ve got the usual array of sources as well – a Panasonic Blu-ray player, Xbox 360 and the ubiquitous Home Theater PC (long live Windows Media Center!). I’ve been toying around with the idea of a garage theater for the last year, so I do have a projector, but have yet to bite the bullet on formalizing some kind of air conditioning out there, so in the summer months, movies in the garage come at a fairly high cost of nearly sweating to death.
I always thought it would be fun to just bring the projector in the house and project on a wall so we could watch movies in the (air conditioned) house, but there was just no good place to put it where there was easy access to the existing home theater equipment and a good wall to hang a screen. That’s when I started concocting a plan, a plan which involved making a super cheap screen which I could actually hang from my existing entertainment center in front of the TV/stereo/center thus making the transition from TV time to full-blown-movie-going extravaganza as easy as hanging a picture on a wall. And since I wasn’t sure how this would work out overall, I started out thinking this would just be a proof of concept only, so I did it as cheaply as possible. This whole thing only cost $28. So far it’s worked out so well, I see no reason to upgrade or change it out for something “better”. So without further adieu, I offer up this tutorial and a few pictures for you so you too can transform your family room home theater into a bigger, better movie experience for less than it costs to take the kids to Chick-fil-A.
List of materials:
Qty (3) yards Roc-Lon Blackout Fabric (white/white or white/beige) from Joann’s (54″ wide) – $12 (with a 50% off coupon) normally $7.99/yard – don’t forget the coupon!
Qty (4) 3x1x96 inch furring strip pine lumber – $6 – The Home Depot
Qty (6) 2×4 inch Simpson Strong-Tie Mending Plate – $4 – The Home Depot
Qty (2) D-Ring Frame Hangers – $2 – Walmart
Qty (2) Small Caribiner – $2 – Walmart
Pack of 3/8″ Heavy Duty Staples – $2 – Walmart
List of Tools/Supplies:
Titebond II Wood Glue
Orbital Sander and 60 grit sandpaper
Cordless Drill and Drill Bits
First and foremost, let’s talk about the Roc-Lon Black Out fabric. They sell 4 different colors as well as mixed front/back colors but you want to note the color of the backside of the fabric because that is the side you will project onto. The frontside, the side that is rolled outwards, has a bit of a texture to it, but the backside is smoother, has almost no texture and is more rubbery – that is the side you care about. My Joann’s had a white/white, a beige/white a beige/beige and an ivory/white (front/back) to choose from. I ended up getting the beige/white because the roll had more fabric on it and looked like it was in better shape. I was worried about whether or not wrinkles would iron out or not stretch out properly. You just want to make sure that the backside is white, but the frontside doesn’t matter as much.
Turns out that you can iron this fabric and small wrinkles will stretch out so you don’t have to be too fussy about the condition. Quick tip though, bring your own 2″ cardboard role and after they cut it have them re-roll it onto your own role, otherwise they will fold it 3-4 times over which creates creases. They did this with my fabric and I didn’t think any of it at the time, but it creased badly, which meant I had to spend 30 minutes trying to iron out all the wrinkles, which like I said you can do, it does work, but it’s extra time that would otherwise be unnecessary if I had just been a little more prepared going to the store. They may have extra rolls there too you could ask them nicely if they’d roll it for you. Also, don’t try and iron the rubbery side, aka the projector side or backside, it doesn’t work well and will ruin the texture on that side, you have to iron the frontside/fabric/texture side. It’s still not easy to iron a huge 54″ x 108″ piece of fabric though, without creating creases as you iron out creases just trying to manage this beast of a piece of fabric on a tiny ironing board.
So I had purchased the Carl’s Place Sampler Pack a couple of months ago and was planning on buying one of their premium screen materials, so I was able to compare some of their samples to Joanns’ Roc-Lon blackout cloth and here’s what I can say about the similarities. The “frontside” of the Roc-Lon blackout is very close to “backside” of the very popular Carl’s place standard white Blackout Cloth. It’s got the same type of fabric-like texture to it, it’s almost the exact same color white and has similar stretching properties although the Carl’s Place Blackout cloth is slightly more flexible/stretchier. But the backside of the Ron-Lon fabric looks and feels almost exactly the same as the frontside of the Carl’s Place Blackout cloth, which is why if you buy this fabric, you will want to project on what is effectively the backside with respect to how it’s rolled, since it matches the definition defined by Carl’s Place as “the smooth texture side with a rubber coating faces the audience”. Both materials are the same thickness as well measuring 0.014 inches [0.35mm] thick. Visually, using projected content, the Roc-Lon and Carl’s Place blackout cloths are nearly indistinguishable in terms of white/black levels and color balance. I observed no obvious hot spots or changes in texture or sheen that would be observable or distracting in any way.
I’ve got some pictures of the fronts and backs of both fabrics in both natural light and projected light so you can see the differences. I’d probably have to give the edge to the Carl’s Place Blackout if I were being super picky about the texture, because the fabric texture bleadthru from the other side is ever so slightly less obvious on the CP Blackout cloth than with the Roc-Lon Blackouut but we’re talking nanoinches. And it depends on which location in the fabric you’re looking at. Click on the two pictures above and you can see what I’m referring to. This is with natural light, it is far less obvious with projected light. Of course the most obvious disadvantage to the Joann’s stuff is you’re limited to a 54″ height. Which works out to about 53 usable inches vertically (once you wrap and staple it to a wooden frame) and 94.25″ horizontally which makes for a 108″ total diagonal screen with a 16:9 aspect ratio. Carl’s Place doubles that to 110″ allowing for some extremely large screens.
My initial thought was a 108″ screen would too small (I wanted 120″), turns out I was dead wrong. This thing is HUGE in my living room. Seating arrangements are about 8-10 feet from the screen which is seriously just about as close as you’d want to be for this size screen. But if you wanted to go bigger, you could do a cinematic 2.35:1 aspect ratio screen which would result in a 53″ x 124.5″ or 135″ diagonal screen. I couldn’t even imagine that big, but making the trade between vertical dead space on the sides for 16:9 stuff or “letterbox” dead space for everything else, I opted for the standard 16:9 since it’s arguably the most common ratio, top and bottom bars bug me less than vertical ones, kids watch a lot of Disney movies which tend to be 16:9, plus we watch a lot of TV which is also more 16:9 and with the Xbox for playing games, the 16:9 format is easily the standard there. Not to mention buying the materials for building the frame is easier because you only need to buy four of the 1×3 common pine in 8 foot pieces and don’t need to go to the 12 foot suckers. Trying to fit those in your car without them poking out a back/front window is a nightmare.
So let’s build the frame. I bought more 1×3 pieces than I needed but fortunately had the extra pieces because after bringing one of the 8 foot pieces home, the next day it looked like it had warped a good two inches. Since this frame essentially hangs on a couple of hooks, there’s really nothing to keep the frame square, or true in the z-axis, so to speak. If a board warps inward or outward, even after the frame is assembled, it will likely still have this shape to it which may negatively affect your movie experience. You only need four boards so be super picky about the quality of each one. Home Depot/Lowe’s have different grades of common pine and you pay for the nicer stuff, which you’re more than welcome to do. I bought 2 pieces of the common pine which is about $3 each and then went back and bought a few more from the cheap-o bin (actually called furring strips) and just hand-picked my pieces and then got one extra (because I didn’t realize that one board cut it half makes the side pieces perfectly). More on that later.
You want to make sure the boards are straight along the face and the edge. Pick up the board and give it a good stare-down, holding one edge up by your eye and looking down the length of the board, then rotate 90 degrees and do the same. If the board warps more than ~1″ in any direction, start a discard pile and pick another. Watch out for big knots because they will tend to be the points where bending and warping occur most. Also look for edge quality, you need at least one good edge where the fabric will wrap and staple. If the edge is over-cut or chamfered too much, discard it and pick another. Split boards should be left in the bin as well as any board that twists even a little bit.
Now this is where I’m going get the most flack from anybody whose worked with wood, or considers them self a carpenter, but this was meant to be a prototype, so bear with me on this one. I used six Simpson Strong-Tie 2×4 mending plates to join the 1×3 lumber at each joint. This honestly worked out about as well as a 71 cent piece of metal could have worked. So, basically like crap. In theory this would have been the easiest, cheapest and quickest way to attach the vertical and horizontal boards. If you’ve got a Kreg Pocket Hole Jig, use it. Or a bunch of crazy-long pipe clamps, use them. Even a L-shape/T-shaped steal plate and some screws would have worked out better, but at 10x the cost so I made due with these crappy strong-tie plates and a bunch of glue.
The problem with the all-in-one tie plates is that they split two of my boards and they don’t hold the boards flat against each other on the edge. Once I had all six plates tacked down, the bottom/top boards sat at about a 20 degree angle to the other boards. I’m not talking in the X-Y direction, I used my square to make sure the angle was correct but because the metal is pounded in with a hammer, it tends to want to pull the board away from the edge of the mating board. To combat this I put glue on the edge of each board and then added weights to the entire frame to hold it flat so the boards weren’t bending upwards. I used various objects from around the garage to keep the frame flat overnight while the glue dried. There’s a few 1-star reviews on this product and people say you have to use a press to install these, not a hammer. I can second that. So if you want to spend more money or have a better carpentry solution to joining 5 boards to each other, then by all means do it the best way you know how. Before attaching the fabric run a sander across all of the edges to “round over” where the fabric will be wrapped to prevent the sharp edges/corners from cutting through the fabric causing it to tear.
So the material width from the roll I got ended up being 54.5″ wide and this stuff is not very stretchy but it will stretch about 0.25″ over its width and 0.5″ over its length if I just had to guess based on how much I had left over. Still I opted for a 53″ screen which allowed a non-stretched fabric fit across its front and over each frame edge the thickness of the board, or 0.75″. I think it worked out just fine to only have the fabric wrap to one side and be stapled but if you want the fabric to wrap all the way to the backside, then you’ll need to make the frame smaller to support that size. But I wouldn’t bet on “stretching the fabric to fit”, make the frame the size you want based on the fabric unstretched because it does not have a significant amount of give to allow you to “oversize” the frame with the hope of stretching the fabric to fit. I pushed it to 53″ only because my fabric was 54.5″ wide, but if you get a roll that is 54″ on the nose, or less, make sure you account for that and take off at least 1.5″ for wrapping and stapling.
So other thing to consider is that the boards are slightly longer than 96″ which allows you to make two of the uprights boards from one ~96.1″ 1×3 board. Each board is 2.5″ x 0.75″ inches so if we want a 53″ frame and we are using butt joints to connect each piece, then the three upright pieces need to be 48″. I ended up cutting each one at 47-15/16″ because each board was about 96-1/4″ long which allowed me to get two pieces given the 1/8″ scrap from the miter saw. So trying to make the height of the frame any larger would just result in more scrap and extra cost. So all you need is 4 boards, two for the horizontal pieces and two for the vertical pieces which includes one in the center. Then you end up with one scrap 48″ piece but you can use some of it to create a block to attach a picture frame ring hook that makes it easier to hang the screen to a hook on the inside of the entertainment center. Still, not much wasted wood. And the top pieces are cut to 94.25″ which corresponds to a 16:9 aspect ratio. Note that I did not add a black felt boarder. If you intend on adding a self adhesive type boarder, then you will need to change the dimensions of the frame to ensure that inside of the boarder is still 16:9 after applying the felt tape. My plan is to add an exterior 1×2 that is wrapped in black felt, making the frame actually larger instead of reducing the overall viewing size.
So this is how I stapled the fabric to the frame. This takes two people so get a friend, spouse or family member to help. With the frame on the ground, I laid the fabric with equal distance overhanging each side. I put two staples into just one corner (no more than 2″ down on each side) on both the vertical and horizontal boards without stretching anything. Then I lifted the frame upright with the wife’s help so the fabric was just hanging down while holding onto the non-stapled end. I pulled just the top portion as tight as I could without trying to rip out the fabric from the few staples in the other side. Then with just this top piece fairly taught, I ran a row of staples across the edge of the fabric making sure to match the overhang of the fabric to the board edge along its length, which in this case was zero overhang. Then we pulled the fabric taught along the short side of the frame in similar fashion to doing the top and stapled it in place. Now flip the frame over.
So at this point we only have the top (now bottom) and one side pulled tight and stapled. Then we moved to the opposite corner of the two stapled sides and just pulled in both directions until all the fabric was tight in each direction. This is basically your chance to get out any waves or soft spots. Once it’s pulled taught and looks good, pop a couple of staples in both the sides bust just at the corner, again no more than 2″ towards the center. Next we pulled the fabric taught along the top basically trying to match the tension we had applied the first time we did this and dropped a staple every 2″. There was just a little bit of fabric left over which you can cut off or staple to the backside of the board as desired. We did the short side last and once again pulled it just tight enough to match the tension in the fabric from the other sides. You can’t really work out any large wavy spots at this point however so you’re really just pulling the fabric tight enough not overtight, or tighter than you’ve been pulling the other sides, just trying to match the tension already applied. Staple it down every 2″ with the 3/8″ staples and then stand back and admire your work! This is arguably the hardest part and also extremely hard to explain how we did it in words. The only saving grace is that the fabric is so cheap, that if you do happen to screw this up, it’s not going to brake the bank if you have to go back to Joann’s and pick up more fabric. Also, don’t forget to make sure the white, non-textured, more rubbery side is facing out. That is the side you want to project to.
The last thing I did was install a pair of ring-style hooks to the top of the frame to make it easy to hang to the entertainment center. I added a small screw to the inside facing of the entertainment center and then hung a small caribiner from each one which allowed me to then hang the hooks from the screen directly to the caribiner. This was actually harder to do with the fabric taught over the frame compared to when I fit checked it earlier that day. So I added a small framing clip to the caribiner which made a hook for the ring loop to easily attach to. I can setup and teardown the screen in only a few seconds. Plus when the screen is down, the entertainment center and TV leave no remains of there even being an option to add a screen in this manner.
And that’s about it, take a look at the pictures and click on any of the links herein to take you to some of the product pages used to make this screen. I haven’t sat through an entire movie yet but it looks completely awesome just viewing still images and short clips of movies/shows. Also my projector is a modest Panasonic PT-AX200U 720p 3LCD unit but it’s got a brand new bulb as of a few weeks ago so it’s looking better than ever and with the new white screen, the image is super bright and the small 108″ size makes even 720p content look crisp and sharp. Screen gain is best I can guess 1.0 since comparing it to the Carl’s Place Blackout screen provides nearly identical white balance and gain which they state is a 1.0 gain screen. Anyway, I’d love to hear your comments or questions about this project. Worth the $28 and a few hours to make? Would you build this for your home theater?