Painting the Perfect Screen for $100

Painting the Perfect Screen for $100

Evan Powell, January 26, 2011

Since 1080p home theater projectors have dropped below $1,000, the demand for inexpensive screens is bigger than ever. When you spend less than $1,000 on a projector, you don't want to spend big bucks on a screen to go with it. So for hobbyists with a creative, DIY bent, let's focus on how to paint the perfect screen for under $100. We will look for a good paint solution because it is easy, cheap, and it doesn't warp and ripple over time like fabric screens can do.

First, if we are going to build a great screen, we need a standard of perfection to compare it to. That, to us, is the Stewart Studiotek 100, a perfectly neutral 1.0 gain white screen that reflects back exactly what the projector puts out. It has absolutely no color bias, no gain, with a pure smooth finish that reflects the maximum amount of image detail. Since white paint will have a gain of about 1.0, the Studiotek 100 is a good benchmark against which to compare our results.

What about gray paints?

Many people are interested in gray screens and paints due to their increased black level. So we started our evaluation with the popular Behr Silver Screen formula. We painted a test board and mounted it in front of the Studiotek 100. Illuminating these two surfaces with a variety of test patterns and video clips revealed significant differences in contrast and color balance.

The one advantage the Behr Silver Screen had over the Studiotek 100 was black level, which is expected from gray paint--the darker the screen, the darker the black level. In scenes with a black background and white highlights such as rolling credits, the paint showed a higher contrast image and a much more solid black. The Behr Silver Screen is the perfect solution for people who watch rolling credits. Unfortunately, that's not what 99% of one's viewing subject matter consists of.

The Behr image was 27% dimmer than the Studiotek 100. That, in itself, is not a problem if you have a small enough screen or a bright enough projector. But the Behr Silver Screen kills color saturation, and it appears to reduce vibrancy in the warmer end of the spectrum. This should not be surprising. Imagine, what do you get when you mix gray with yellow? You get a grayish yellow. If you mix gray and blue you get a grayish blue. But the compromise of the yellow is more noticeable.

On the Behr gray paint, flesh tones looked horrible, appearing dirty or ash-colored in comparison to the Studiotek 100. Red and yellow color saturation is the most muted, and white highlights appear as subdued grays. Overall, the Behr Silver Screen paint does not deliver a balanced image. It certainly is not showing you what the projector is putting out. On its own, due to its increased black level, it may look fine if you don't have anything to compare it to, and the deep black creates an impressive sense of contrast under the right circumstances. But it is not a paint we would recommend for optimum home theater performance.

Gray screens were invented to compensate for the low contrast projectors of years past. But with today's high contrast models, we favor the use of white screens unless you have chronic uncontrolled ambient light. Since white paint should have a gain of about 1.0, the same as the Studiotek 100, we set out to see how close we could come to replicating the performance of the Studiotek 100 with white paint. Would it be possible to find a perfect replica?

Of course, there are paints out there that are specially designed for home theater. Goo Systems makes a great (and very popular) paint product. Previous testing with Goo showed that it is perfectly color balanced, and an impressive product. But for this project we wanted to keep total screen cost under $100, and Goo costs more than that. Other companies make paints they claim are formulated for home theater screens. But since they cost upwards of $200 a gallon, they already blew our target budget for a $100 screen. We limited our evaluation to white paints most people can find locally for under $20 per quart.

A Million Shades of White

If you go to your local paint store, you'll find an array of paint chips that represent different formulas of white. They have names like Polar Bear, Snow Fall, Swan Wing, Moon Rise, and so on. They all look white. But none of them are the perfectly neutral white that you want on a home theater screen. They each have a subtle color bias that will affect how your projected image looks. If the white has a bright, cold, crisp tone, it is because it is reflecting more blue light than is ideal. If you use this shade of white on your screen, flesh tones will look a bit cooler than the projector is putting out, while blue skies will be slightly oversaturated.

Conversely, warmer tone white paints look warmer because they are reflecting a bit more red and yellow relative to blue. They will give flesh tones a bit more warmth than normal, while reducing the brilliance of a blue sky or the fresh look of green grass.

The objective is to avoid these errors. So how do you get neutral white? In theory, the most neutral white in any paint vendor's product line should be the base white that exists before any pigment is added. So that's where we started.

The Search for the Perfect Paint

We started our search with the flat latex base white from both Behr and Valspar. To test them we painted sample boards and mounted them each in front of the Studiotek 100, and illuminated them with a projector. Between the two, the Behr imparted a more obvious color imbalance, biased toward blue. The Valspar was closer to replicating the color values of the Studiotek. It wasn't quite perfect, being a very tiny shade warmer than the screen. But it wasn't bad at all, and noticeably more neutral than the Behr. We decided to drop Behr from the running, and continue experimenting with various Valspar finishes.

Flat, glossy, or what?

As far as finishes go, conventional wisdom holds that flat latex is the best option for a home theater screen. This was not our experience. It is certainly true that any high gloss finish creates a bad glare that makes the picture unwatchable. But a flat or matte finish is almost as bad. It produces a dull image that does not have the contrast or color saturation of a professional projection screen. While the Valspar's Base 1 with no added pigment was reasonably solid in color balance, the Matte finish that we started with rendered an image that was unacceptably dull compared to the Studiotek 100.

Valspar comes in a variety of finishes that increase in sheen, including Matte, Eggshell, Satin, Semi-Gloss, and Glossy. Since the Matte was too dull, we moved on to Eggshell--better, but still a bit dull. Next we tried the Satin. This one looked quite acceptable--not perfect, but a very nice picture. Stepping up to the Semi-Gloss, we suddenly overshot the runway; the Semi-Gloss was way too shiny, creating a host of annoying hotspots and artifacts that made it useless.

So we thought...what would happen if we blended Satin with Semi-gloss? We blended Satin two-to-one with Semi-Gloss, and painted another test board. Nope, still too glossy. Satin was the best choice in the Valspar line.

Was the Valspar Base 1 Satin as good as it gets with paint? Its color balance was almost identical to the Studiotek, but ever so slightly warmer. Highlights were actually brighter on the paint than on the screen. Unfortunately, black levels were also a bit elevated. The picture was extremely similar, but it didn't quite have the snap that the Studiotek produced. Close, but no cigar.

The Search Continues...

Time to road test another brand. We went to the local Sherwin-Williams store. Based on our experience with the Valspar, we started with their version of Satin, which they call the Duration Satin Extra White. As with the Valspar, we used the base stock paint with no pigment added. After two coats on another sample board, we set it up against the Valspar, and put them both in front of the Studiotek 100.

Wow! Now we were cooking with gas. The Sherwin-Williams Duration Satin Extra White was an absolute dead ringer for the Studiotek 100 in terms of color balance, and oh so close in contrast and saturation. There was some subtle variance in its ability to hold black levels compared to the screen, but for the money, who would quibble? It was hard to believe that an inexpensive paint could produce such stunning results. There seemed to be no more room for improvement, so we thought we had our winner.

But we weren't done yet.

The Problem of Screen Resolution

One key advantage to the professional high resolution screens is that they have a perfectly smooth surface which enables them to reflect images with the optimum amount of detail. With 1080p projection, this is an important consideration. The problem with most painted surfaces is that you end up with brush strokes or mottling from the roller. The surface is not as smooth as a professional screen, and this will take a bit of edge off the sharpness of the image.

The only way to replicate the smoothness of a high quality screen is with a paint sprayer in the hands of someone who knows how to use it effectively. Most people don't have paint sprayers or the skill to use them. You can rent them for $60 a day, but you need to spend some time (and paint) practicing to get the results just right. Since our objective was to find the simplest and cheapest solution, we wanted to get the best results without going the paint sprayer route.

Back to Sherwin-Williams we went. Their staff had two suggestions. First, use a roller with the smallest, tightest nap you can find, since it will produce less mottling of the surface. Second, instead of the Duration, try the ProClassic Smooth Enamel Satin Finish. This product has a different surface tension that will cause it to settle into a smoother surface than the Duration. It is made for trimwork and doors, not walls.

We bought some of that, brought it back, and put two coats on another test board. Yep, it worked as advertised. The finish was indeed a bit smoother, with fewer obvious surface flaws than any of the previous paints.

Setting up the test board with the ProClassic Smooth Enamel Satin against the Studiotek 100, we discovered that we had not only arrived at our objective, but surpassed it. Color balance was dead on, just as with the Duration. But this paint actually delivered a slightly brighter image with deeper blacks. With a checkerboard test pattern, the black and white squares that fell on the test board were visibly higher in contrast than those that fell on the screen. A spot meter confirmed what we could already see--white highlights were brighter by about 10%, and blacks were blacker by about 10%.

This paint had a gain of about 1.1, with higher contrast than the Studiotek 100. But even more intriguing, the slightly smoother finish of the Enamel was doing its job. There was very little difference in 1080p image resolution. Practically speaking, most people looking at the two would say there was no difference at all.

Not the only perfect paint

Once we were satisfied with the particular Sherwin-Williams paint, we stopped evaluating other products. When we hold the test board with this paint up against the Studiotek, it virtually vanishes. So our objective of creating an outstanding reflective surface was met.

Having said this, we don't want to make any pronouncements about this one paint from Sherwin-Williams being the magic bullet above all others. It just happens to be the one we found that gave us outstanding image quality with perfect color balance. This one was relatively easy to find, so we assume there are plenty of paint options from other vendors that will produce similar results.

How does it compare to the Studiotek 130?

In addition to our Studiotek 100, we have a Studiotek 130 on hand. This is the screen material Stewart recommends for high performance home theater. Its modest gain gives the picture a noticeably improved luster and brightness that the Studiotek 100 does not have. Just for grins, we put our test board up against the Studiotek 130 to compare images.

The Studiotek 130 certainly produced the better image. Anyone putting in a high performance projection system would want the 130 over our paint solution. But for the money, the paint was holding its own remarkably well. Its highlights were not as brilliant, and the paint could not quite match the beautiful luster of the 130. But color balance was perfect. Overall, most viewers would be thoroughly impressed with what the paint could do. In terms of overall image quality in the average home theater environment, the paint fell a bit short of the Studiotek 130, but surpassed the 100.

Creating your Screen Masterpiece

Now that we have found an ideal paint, let's get down to the nuts and bolts of creating the screen. When you buy a professional screen, you not only get an ideal screen surface, but you get a solid black frame around the image as well. This adds greatly to the aesthetics of viewing movies and video. If all you want to do is paint a wall and project onto that wall, you can certainly do just that. But we are going for the gold here...for $100, we want to create a full replica of a professional projection screen, so it looks like that is what is mounted on your wall. Taking some time to create your screen masterpiece will pay off in much greater enjoyment for years. The basics are simple:

First, paint the wall outside the screen area

You might want to jump right in and paint the screen first. But that isn't a good idea. The objective is to end up with the illusion that you have a professional screen hanging on your wall. A key to achieving this is to paint the rest of the wall outside the screen area a darker color. Not only will this make the screen itself look like it is popping off the wall, but it will help reduce light reflections in the viewing room and give you a better home theater experience.

The reason you want to paint the rest of the wall first, before painting the screen area, is that you will be painting above and around the intended screen surface. You do not want to accidentally drip paint onto a finished screen surface.

For the rest of the wall, choose a color that is compatible with the décor. If this is a dedicated home theater room, you may want to use a medium to dark gray. If this is a multi-purpose room or living room, any low saturation color that complements the décor will work. Anything darker than white will create a pleasing contrast between the screen and the wall. The trade-off is that as you go darker, it improves the viewing space as a theater by cutting down light reflections that get bounced back onto the screen. But excessively dark wall treatments will make the room feel smaller and perhaps less comfortable for other uses. You need to sort out the right balance for your tastes.

When painting the rest of the wall, choose a flat, or matte, latex paint. This will reduce reflectivity, which is why it is not good for the screen itself. (By the way, if this is a dedicated home theater room, another option is to cover the wall with felt or some other similar fabric. That can reduce both light and sound reflections.)

To paint the wall, proceed as follows:

1. Mount your projector and set the image size to what you want it to be. Project a focused image that is either full 16:9 or full 2.4, depending on which screen aspect ratio you are going to create. Any image will do as long as it is bright at all four edges so the limits of your screen surface are obvious and clearly delineated.

2. Use a level to make sure the top edge of the picture is absolutely horizontal. Once you paint the screen, it is difficult to fix this type of error.

3. With the projected image now in the desired position on the wall, use masking tape to mark off each side of the image along the inside edge. When you are done, you will have a rectangle of tape on the wall, the outside edge of which defines the edge of your screen area.

4. Paint the wall outside the screen area. If necessary, apply a second coat after the first coat dries. When you are done painting the wall, remove the masking tape before the paint dries in order to get a clean edge.

Now that you have painted the wall surrounding your screen, you are ready to paint the screen itself. Follow these steps:

1. After the paint on the surrounding wall outside the screen area has dried, re-apply masking tape. This time, lay the tape on the outside edge of the image, on the newly painted surface. When you are done, you will have a rectangle of tape on the wall, the inside edge of which defines the limit of your screen area.

2. Within the screen area, sand the wall smooth. Spackle up any holes, dents, and imperfections. You want the surface to be as smooth as possible. Any imperfection you leave on the wall may show up as an artifact in your image. Vacuum up all the dust you create by sanding and prepping the screen area; vacuum the wall itself as well as the surrounding area below. (You might want to move this step to the top, and perform the sanding and prep work on the screen area prior to any painting. Your choice.)

3. Apply a coat of primer, which costs about $10 a quart. One quart should be sufficient unless your screen exceeds about 75 square feet (a 120" diagonal 16:9 screen is 43 square feet). Allow the primer to dry.

4. Apply your first coat of Sherwin-Williams ProClassic Smooth Enamel Satin Extra White, # B20 W 51. Use a tight nap paint roller (with nap no more than 1/4"). Make sure to use enough, but not too much paint. If you don't use enough, you will not have enough coverage. If you use too much paint, you will end up with drips that will eventually show up as unevenness in the surface. Be cautious, and err on the side of not using enough paint, as you can always add a bit more.

8. Allow the first coat to dry, then apply a second coat, with the same attention to creating the smoothest surface you can. One quart of paint should be enough for two coats on a 120" 16:9 screen. If your screen is any larger than that, a second quart may be needed. Before the paint is dry, remove the masking tape. Removing the tape after the paint is dry can result in chips and cracks along the edge.

Finishing Touches

Let the paint dry and cure for a few days before evaluating the final result. Despite the use of a roller with a tight nap and paint that is designed to produce a smooth surface, there may still be some uneven flaws in the surface. Illuminating it with the 100 IRE solid white pattern will reveal any flaws that may exist. The surface might be perfectly fine, and not need any attention. But if you see shiny highlights that appear as artifacts in the white light, you may want to touch them up. These are pretty much invisible when viewing typical video or film content, but easy to see when projecting a pure white image. Nevertheless, we want to remove them to the extent we can.

When we saw a few of these, our first thought was to sand the surface with a fine grain sandpaper. So we did, and discovered that was a very bad idea. The sandpaper gets rid of unwanted highlights, but it also alters the reflectivity of the surface. Sanding the surface will introduce sandpaper strokes as texture in the image, and these are as bad as the highlights they remove.

The solution is to use a very light touch. Standing back and viewing the surface in projected white light, note exactly where the excessively shiny highlights are. With a fine grain sanding block (available in the paint department at your hardware store) use the corner of the block to gently rub the highlight itself, in order to lightly buff only the immediate point of reflection. This eliminates the glare from each spot, without creating any visible artifacts in the image.

By following these steps, we were able to create a remarkably smooth, perfectly color balanced reflection surface that rivals the finest professional home theater screens. The paint we ended up preferring was the Sherwin-Williams ProClassic, Extra White, Satin, Smooth Enamel Finish, # B20 W 51. It retails for $19.49 per quart. One quart is enough to do a double coat of paint on a 120" diagonal 16:9 screen surface.

Creating the Frame

At this point in the project, you have created a perfectly white rectangle surrounded by a darker wall. All you need now is a black frame to finish it off. There is a cheap and easy way to do this. There is also a more stylish and elegant way to do it that costs a bit more but looks a lot better. Either one will work, so you can pick the one you feel is right for you.

The cheap and easy solution is to get some black velvet tape that is made for screen borders. There are several suppliers of this type of product. You can find them by googling "black home theater screen tape." We have not tested any of them, and cannot recommend one over another.

Basically, you can acquire a roll of screen border tape, apply it around the outside edge of your screen surface, and you are done. That's about as simple as it gets.

At this point, you've invested $20 for a quart of paint, $10 for primer, $30 for a roll of black velvet tape, and some pocket change for miscellaneous paint supplies like a paint roller, drop cloth, masking tape, sanding block, sand paper, and so on. What you end up with is a beautiful projection surface that will produce a magnificent picture.

A Better Looking Frame Solution

The aesthetic problem with the tape is that is doesn't have much three dimensional effect. It you stuck tape on your wall. That's not an issue when you are watching in the dark. But when the home theater is not in operation, having tape stuck to the wall might not have the class and finesse that you'd prefer.

The alternative is to make a wood frame, wrap it in black velveteen, and hang it like a picture frame over your painted screen area. Velveteen is a cotton fabric that superficially resembles velvet, which is made of silk. But velveteen absorbs light better than velvet, and it doesn't have the sheen. It is widely available in fabric stores.

The frame can be constructed of pine or poplar, woods that commonly come in 1"x4" configurations, in convenient lengths of 6, 8, 10, and 12 feet. The type of wood is not so important as the fact that the pieces you select are straight and sturdy. You don't want your frame bowing outward from the wall due to curves in the wood.

The 1"x4" format has the advantage of being exactly 3.25" in actual width. That is precisely the width of the frames on Stewart's home theater screens. So you will end up with a DIY solution that is a remarkably close replica of an outstanding professional screen. Another advantage to the 1x4 wood frame is that it will give you a three-dimensional look without being too heavy or cumbersome to mount. A finished frame made of poplar for a 120" diagonal 16:9 screen will weigh under 25 lbs.

How to Build the Frame

Acquire four pieces of 1x4, in lengths that exceed the horizontal and vertical dimensions of your screen. Cut the ends to 45 degree angles (note...these cuts must be exactly 45 degrees!). We suggest cutting the short side of each board to a length of 1" less than the screen surface on the wall. That will give you a bit of leeway in hanging the frame to cover the entire painted surface without having to be exact down to the millimeter. So for example, if the width of your screen is 105", get two 10 foot 1x4's and cut them to 104" along the edge that will be adjacent to the screen.

Once you have cut the ends of each section of the frame to 45 degrees, join them together with flat metal 8" L-brackets, as illustrated here...

Attaching the Hanging Hardware

The easiest way to hang the frame is to use two flat metal D-rings which are available at most large frame shops, along with two picture hanging hooks you will nail to the wall.

Now some careful measurements are required. For maximum support, you want to place the picture hangers where the studs are in the wall. Along the top edge of your screen, knock on the wall until you hear the shallow, high pitched knock that indicates the presence of a stud. Place a small mark at the center of the stud. Find the studs that are closest to the sides of your screen. Measure the distance from the side edges of the screen to the center of the stud. Then on the back of the frame, along the top horizontal section, measure that same distance from the inside edges of the frame. This is where you will attach the D-rings.

The D-rings should be screwed into place along the bottom edge of the frame, as shown here:

The reason you want the D-rings along the bottom edge is that you want the picture hangers to be hidden behind the frame once the frame is mounted. As you can see, the D-ring plus the picture hanger will take the full width of the frame:

Attaching the Fabric

Once the L-brackets and D-rings are screwed down, your wood frame is assembled with the hanging hardware in place. All you need to do now is wrap each side of the frame in velveteen.

Acquire one piece of this fabric that is about one foot longer than the width of your screen. The reason is this...if your screen surface itself is 105" wide, the frame on the outside edge will be an additional 6.5" in length (since the wood frame itself is 3.25" on each side. That ends up being a total of 111.5". You want the fabric to cover that entire length without having to cut multiple pieces. And you want a little extra on each end so you can trim it to precisely where you want it.

From the single piece of velveteen, cut two strips long enough to cover the horizontal segments, and two strips long enough to cover the vertical segments. All four strips of fabric should be 7.5" in width, and long enough that the fabric will extend several inches beyond the length of each segment of the frame you are going to wrap.

Now you need a clean surface...either a clean carpeted floor, or lay down a drop cloth or bedsheet. Lay the fabric face down on the floor, then place the frame segment on top of it so it is centered. Fold the fabric over to the back side of the frame and tack it into place with a staple gun. Carefully trim the ends so that the fabric overlaps and the corners are covered. Along the top segment, trim away the fabric from the D-rings to leave them exposed.

Once you have tacked and trimmed the velveteen on all four sides, your frame is ready to hang. Assuming you are using the picture hangers depicted above, you may want to crimp the lip down a bit, just to the point where you can slide the D-ring into it. If it extrudes too much it will hold the frame away from the wall slightly.

Nail the picture hangers to the stud locations you marked on the wall. Assuming you are using the hangers depicted above, the top edge of the hanger should be 3" above the edge of your painted screen, positioning them so they will support the frame in the position you need to cover the screen area.

Piece of cake. You are done.

What you have just created is a beautiful replica of one of the finest screens in the world. But instead of spending $2,000 or more for it, you spent about $100 (if you used the border tape), and under $200 if you went all out with the elegant wood frame. Either way, this painted screen will make your 1080p home theater projector look awesome.

A Word of Caution

All of this sounds good, but there are a few things you might want to think about before taking this project on. See the next page for problems and issues to consider before you start. We do not recommend painted DIY screens for everyone.

FOUR Reasons NOT to Paint your own Screen

Since this article is about creating the perfect screen for $100, it may seem odd to finish with reasons you might not want to do this. But it is important to think through all of your options. For many people, buying a screen will be the better alternative. Here are four reasons not to paint a screen...

1. Ultimate quality. Some people want the best, and are willing to pay for the best no matter what. Especially if you are budgeting $3,000 to $5,000 and up for a high quality projection system, you will want the best possible screen available to go with it. Though the paint we recommend here does a great job, it is most appropriate for first time home theater buyers who want to limit their investments. It does not match the brilliance of, for example, our Stewart Studiotek 130. It has higher gain and more brilliance than the Studiotek 100. Putting our painted test board up against the Studiotek 130, the 130 wins hands down. If you want to get the best picture possible from a top quality projector, you want either the Stewart Studiotek 130, or a similar product from Da-Lite, Draper, Vu-tec, and other companies that manufacture high performance professional screens.

2. Convenience. There is also the matter of convenience to consider. All screen manufacturers make fixed frame products that snap together in under an hour. This is MUCH easier and quicker than the messy sanding and painting required for the DIY screen discussed here. If you do the painting right, between the prep work and allowing primer and paint to dry between applications, it will take several days of mess to get it all put together. You can get nice looking screens with frames that snap together from companies like Carada and Elite. They cost more than the DIY solution discussed here, but they are much less than what you'd pay for screens from top quality producers.

3. Do you want a fixed frame? The fact is, you may not want a permanent fixed frame screen on your wall at all. If your viewing space is a living room or multi-purpose room, having a big screen staring at you when not in use can be annoying. Many people prefer electric screens that descend from the ceiling when you want to use them, and retract and disappear when you don't. For a room that you use for social entertainment, and things other than just watching movies, the electric "disappearing" screen is much easier to live with.

4. Is there a move in your future? If you are going to move, obviously you can't take your painted masterpiece with you. If you buy a snap-together fixed frame screen, you simply take it down, pack it up, and reinstall it in your next house or apartment.

So our $100 painted screen is not for everyone. It is great for the person who loves DIY projects and gets a kick out of creating excellent home grown solutions. It is great for those who have a dedicated wall, who don't mind a fixed screen on the wall, and won't be moving soon. And it is great for those who want a beautiful screen for not much cash at all. In the end, it is just one more option in your search for the best home theater experience you can afford.

(12/12/17 - 12:09 PM PST)
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