As the price of entry level home theater projectors drops below $1,000, the price of professional quality projection screens has become increasingly objectionable for new home theater enthusiasts. People who spend $1,000 for their video projectors do not want to spend another $500 to $1,500 for a screen. You can always use a white wall, but there is no frame, and walls usually have texture that shows up in the image. Not only that but the color of the white paint on the wall is rarely conducive to giving you good color balance.
Thus, the creative ingenuity of thousands of home theater folks has been unleashed to invent new ways to create screens at a fraction of the price of products available from the major screen manufacturers. Most of these do-it-yourself screens don't perform as well as professional screens, and the few that do can be labor intensive projects that require second and third attempts to get it right. But in the end, the huge benefit is that the DIY screens save lots of money.
So we decided to start from scratch and create a DIY solution of our own. We started with the following objectives:
It must be cheap. Total budget for all materials to make a 100" diagonal 16:9 screen, including frame, must be less than $100.
It must be simple and quick to assemble. We did not want to make a lifetime hobby out of making a screen. We wanted the materials to be easy to find, and we wanted to put it together in less than two hours of invested labor.
It must be easy to install. We wanted a no muss, no fuss solution with a fixed frame that we could hang on a wall in a matter of minutes.
It must perform!!! We had no delusions that we could invest a hundred bucks and a couple hours labor and come up with a screen that would match the quality of the Stewart screens we use in the projection labs. But how close could we come? That was the challenge. And as you will see below, the results were surprisingly good.........
At the end of this article is a list of materials and step-by-step instructions for building an impressive DIY screen for under $100. Basically, we constructed a frame made of wood wrapped in black Velveteen fabric, then attached photographer's seamless roll paper to the back. It is as simple and easy as it can get, and it far outperforms a plain white wall.
Before we get into the details of how to build it, let's look at what you'll end up with. We put our new DIY screen up against the Stewart Grayhawk for a side by side test. Both of these screens are 100" diagonal and 16:9 format. We stood them on end and placed them side by side, then powered up the new Optoma HD7100 as the official projector for this test.
Color accuracy is one of the hardest aspects of screen performance to get right. Even professionally made screens can introduce subtle color shifts in the reflected image. So we were not surprised to find that our DIY screen was lacking in color neutrality. In normal daylight it looks pure white, of course. But we discovered that the particular brand of seamless paper that we used is comparatively inefficient at reflecting blue light, so the result is an image that manifests a subtle yellowish bias. On the other hand, the Grayhawk is essentially neutral, and reflects more accurately what is coming from the projector.
Since the purpose of this exercise is to see how good we can make our quick n' easy DIY screen look, we boosted the blue gain and bias on the projector to compensate for the screen's inaccuracy. The result was that color balance was normalized on our DIY screen. Meanwhile, the Grayhawk accurately reflected the excess blue that the projector was actually delivering. You can see this color shift in the following test shot, with our DIY screen on the left and the Grayhawk on the right. Notice the stone building has a slightly colder tone on the right:
The next image below shows the same effect of the DIY screen's color bias on flesh tones and water. The Stewart Grayhawk is still on the right, and it is showing us what the projector is delivering--an excessively blue image. However, since our cheapo DIY screen can't reflect blue as efficiently as it can yellow, it compensates for the excess blue coming from the projector, and the image comes out looking properly balanced:
Note of Caution: There are numerous brands of 53" seamless roll paper on the market, and they come in many different colors. Some brands offer two or more varieties of "white". You can expect each of these products to have some sort of color error, but it may or may not be the same bias toward yellow that we see in this particular brand. Some might exaggerate blue or green, or even possibly red. We used the RPS Super-White Background Paper (#SB-1251) for this test. However, we don't know for sure how consistent even the RPS Super-White is from one batch to the next. But the good news is that on most home theater projectors, you can adjust the relative strength of the color components in the signal to compensate for whatever bias your screen may have.
Color is not the only difference between our makeshift screen and the Grayhawk. The Grayhawk also delivers better contrast and deeper blacks, especially when there is some ambient light in the room. The presence of ambient light is a HUGE factor in the performance of any front projection system. No matter what screen type you use, if you are able to darken your room you will get much better results.
The following test shots were made with some indirect ambient light in the room. There was enough ambient light to make it possible to see everything in the room, but it was not bright enough to read a newspaper. So we are not talking about a "lights on" condition here. It does not take much ambient light to have an impact on image quality. Notice that the richness and depth of the blacks is compromised more on our DIY screen, while the Grayhawk does a better job of holding them solid:
Test shots with no ambient light. You always get better results from a front projection system when it is used in a dark viewing space. Compare the test image immediately below with the one above to see the impact of ambient light. But it is particularly important to get the room as dark as possible when using a white screen, as you can tell from the performance of our DIY screen in these same two images.
The following test shots were made in a completely dark theater space with no ambient light, which is the best case scenario for both the DIY and the Grayhawk. This minimizes the difference in contrast between the two screens and produces maximum black levels. Here, the performance of our DIY screen is quite impressive-not quite as good as the Grayhawk, but surprisingly close:
Our conclusion is this: If you are buying a premium performance projector and want to get the best possible results from it, we still strongly recommend getting a high quality professional projection screen to go with it. However, if you want to minimize the cost of your system and you can manage to keep your viewing space dark, one option is to build a DIY white screen from scratch. The creative energies of the DIY folks out there have produced many DIY solutions. Ours is just one of them, and we don't claim that it is the best anyone has ever invented. But it is cheap--less than $100--it is quick and easy to assemble, and it produces quite satisfying results in a dark viewing environment.
How to build it.....
To collect the materials needed for this screen, you'll need to make one visit to a camera supply store, one trip to your home improvement store (Home Depot, Lowe's, or any other lumber and hardware store) and one stop at your local fabric store. Here is what you'll need:
One roll of 53" white seamless paper. This is the heavy roll paper that photographers use as backdrops for product photography, and it is available in camera supply stores. It comes in two widths-53" and 107". As luck would have it, the 53" size is perfect to accommodate a 100" diagonal 16:9 screen. (You can also order seamless paper online through several Internet suppliers.)Q: Can I use a light gray seamless paper instead of white in order to get better blacks with ambient light?
A: Absolutely not. Light gray seamless paper will give you a ridiculously DULL image. Use white only.
At your home improvement store, go to the lumber section and find the rack of 1x4 Poplar board. Poplar is preferred because it is hard, straight, smooth in texture and relatively light in weight. Note that the 1x4 size is actually 3.5" in width. This will give you a 3.5" border around your picture, which for a 100" diagonal screen is just about ideal. Select four perfectly straight pieces. Have the folks there cut two boards to 55.25", and the other two to 93.5". You can cut them at home yourself of course, but they sell Poplar board by the foot, so buying only what you need saves a few bucks. However, once you get home, you will need to cut the ends to 45 degrees, so make sure you have a woodsaw and a 45 degree triangle on hand (a mitre box helps if its 45 degree angle is exactly 45 degrees. We discovered the hard way that some of them aren't quite exact.)
After you select the wood for your frame, stop by the hardware section and pick up four flat "L" brackets that are six inches on each side. Also get twenty-four Philips flathead woodscrews, ¾ inch length.
Your final stop is the fabric store. Call ahead to make sure they have Velveteen in black. Velveteen is the same stuff used to surface casino-gaming tables, and it is a good choice for fabric-wrapping your frame. You will need three yards of it. (Alternatively, you can order Velveteen from Internet suppliers online if you wish.)Q: Why can't I just paint the frame black?
A:You can, but it won't look as elegant, and you will be amazed at how much light is reflected from a wood surface painted black. Look at the six test shots in the Contrast section above. The first two were made with a fabric wrapped frame separating the two screens. The final four were made with a frame that was painted with two coats of flat black paint instead of the fabric. As you can see, wood painted black is a highly reflective surface.
Total Cost of Materials:Super-white seamless paper--$26.00
Wood for frame--$34.00
L brackets and screws--$8.50
Velveteen fabric (3 yrds)--$27.00
You'll also need a woodsaw, a staple gun, fabric scissors, and a drill (or a Philips head screwdriver).
Step 1: Cut two of the poplar boards to 55.25" and the other two to 93.5", if you did not have it done at the store.
Step 2: Cut the ends of each board to a 45 degree angle.
Step 3: Cut the Velveteen fabric into four 6.5" wide strips, with two strips for the side of the frame being about 58" in length, and two strips for the bottom and top edges of the frame being about 96" in length.
Step 4: Lay each fabric strip on a clean, firm surface like a tile or linoleum floor, and center the corresponding section of the frame on top of it. Wrap and stretch the fabric around the board and staple it into place, so that the fabric is positioned with about a two-inch gap of bare wood showing down the center of each section of the frame (the fabric will lay over the back side of the frame sections with about ¾ inch on each edge.)
Step 5: Carefully trim the fabric at the ends to match the 45 degree angle of the boards. If necessary, use the glue to tack the fabric to the board at each end so that it is held flush with the 45-degree cut.
Step 6: Lay out the fabric-wrapped frame sections face down in a rectangle so you can join them together. Holding the frame sections firmly together, use one L-bracket at each corner and affix them to the exposed wood with six screws using the holes that are (hopefully) preexisting in the L-brackets.
Step 7: Roll out the seamless paper, and lay it over the frame. Starting at one of the 55" sides, staple the end of the paper into place along the exposed wood area. Maintaining even tension on the paper, continue to staple it up the long edges of the frame. One staple every 9" is adequate to hold it in place. Once you reach the opposite end of the frame, trim the paper from the roll, and staple the final edge into place.
There it is. You now have a lightweight 100" diagonal 16:9 projector screen that you can hang on a wall with picture hanging hardware attached along the top edge of the frame. Power on your projector, turns the lights off, and enjoy!