For the handyman, there is nothing more satisfying than building something tangible, which makes us proud to show off. Many do-it-yourselfers believe that a home theater is too complicated a project to take on by themselves. It really isn’t. I am not saying that it’s a breeze, but by using common sense and reading instructions, it can be done.

Of course, the ideal situation is to have a professional installer design and build the theater, but many homeowners do not have the financial resources to go this route or they just like to DIY. If you have an extra room, say an unused bedroom or a basement, you can follow this guide and have a cozy home theater that is removed from the living room or the den.

Many people buy a LCD television, such as a 55″ or 65″ flat screen, add a $200.00 “theater in a box” from Wal-Mart, and call it a home theater. Of course, the couch or lazy Boy is the seating. This is as basic as it gets.

Let’s step this up a notch and see how to have a large projection screen (70″ or better) and a projector, as the basis for a true home theater. We will look at what’s available to make a comfortable home theater that you will be proud to show off.

So, where do you start? Of course, the room itself is important. All though you can set up a home theater in a room as small as 10 x 10,’ a larger room would be more comfortable. Most homes have a 12 x 12′ or 12 x 16′ room or basement space. It would be preferable to have as few windows as possible, as light has a tendency to reflect off of the projection screen, bringing down the contrast of the images. Since most home rooms do have at least one window, you will have to cover it with drapes, which we will discuss later.

The first thing to consider is the carpet. Almost any carpet will do, as most homes already have wall to wall carpet installed. If the floor is wood or vinyl, carpet should be installed, or the sound from the speakers will be reflected off the floor and become distorted. Any type of carpet will suffice, but a dark carpet is ideal for two reasons. A dark carpet will not show stains from spilled drinks, which are inevitable, plus a dark carpet will help darken the room by reducing light reflection. A carpet with a muted pattern will work, but any carpet that has a design will usually be more expensive.

If the walls are white or a very light color, you might want to repaint them with a darker muted color, but not black. Black is depressing when the lights are on. The paint should complement the colors in the carpet. Use a flat paint rather than gloss or semi-gloss to cut down on reflections.

The projection screen is an important element in any theater. The format, size, gain, style, material, and operation all have to be considered. Most DVD movies are in a HDTV format, which is 16:9, and this format is the most watched. Some movies are in Cinemascope, which is a 2.35:1format. Look on the back of your movie DVD’s in your collection, and you will see the format listed. The new HDTV movies are all in the 16:9 format, but there are many great movies that are filmed in Cinemascope, such as Lord of the Rings and King Arthur. When viewing these movies on a16:9 screen, there will be black bars on the top and bottom. The older DVD movies and TV series are in a 4:3 format, which will show black bars on the sides of a 16:9 screen.

4:3 ratio (TV) 16:9 ratio (HD)

If you tend to want a 2.35:1 screen for the Cinemascope movies, all 16:9 and 4:3 movies will have black bars on the side. Don’t even think about a 4:3 screen unless you are going to watch only the old movies made before 1953.

The screen height is determined by the location of the last row of seats. The height of the screen should be approximately ¼ the distance from the screen to the last row of seats. If the last row of seats is 14 feet from the screen, the height of the screen should be about 40.” Using a 16:9 format, the closest standard size screen to this is an 82″ diagonal, or 40.5 x 72″ (see below). If you select one of the following standard 16:9 screens, the cost will be lower than ordering a custom screen, and many audio visual dealers will have these in stock. Here are some of the smaller standard 16:9 HDTV format screen sizes.

Actual screen viewing area

31.75 x 56.5″

36 x 64″

40.5 x 72″

45 x 80″

50.5 x 89.75″

54 x 96″

60 x 107″

65 x 116″

72 x 178″

78 x 138.5″

Always buy a screen that has a black border, as the border will help with the contrast. When considering the overall space needed for the screen, add 2 – 3″ to each side for the border.

I suggest using a fixed screen style rather than a manual or electric roll-up. Cost is one factor, but the fixed screen material is taut and smooth.

This is the Cinema Contour fixed screen from Da-Lite, showing a close-up of their 3″ frame with Pro-Trim fabric covering that enhances the appearance of the installation and absorbs light that surrounds the viewing area of the screen.

All reflective surfaces, including projection screens have a “gain.” Gain is a measurement of the reflectivity of a surface. A gain of 1.0 indicates that the same light that is projected toward the screen will be reflected back to the audience. If a screen has a higher gain, such as 1.5, more light is reflected back than the light being projected, and if the gain is less, such as 0.8, only 80% of the light will be reflected back.

Stay with a screen that has a rating of 1.0. A high-gain screen will cost more and the viewing angle is less. You might also see color shifts with a high-gain screen. Only consider a high-gain screen if there is considerable ambient light falling on the screen’s surface. Select a low-gain screen if the audience is mostly off center, as a low-gain screen has a wider viewing area, but reflects less light, necessitating a higher lumen projector.

Vu-Easy from Vutec

Some people paint their wall a bright white to be used as a screen rather than buy a screen. This is not a good idea, and you will not be satisfied with the projected images, unless you buy the paint from Goo Systems, Inc., which manufactures a special blend just for projection. Goo paint involves a base coat and a top coat. If you go this route make sure the wall is absolutely flat or you will see the imperfections in the projected image.

Fixed screens are much easier to mount on a wall. First, look at your ceiling to be sure that nothing hangs down in front of where you want the screen mounted. If there is a ceiling light fixture, lower the screen so that the projected image is not blocked by the fixture. If the fixture is large, remove it.

If possible, center the screen on the wall by measuring the distance from the side walls to the edge of the screen frame until the distance is the same on both sides. The top of the screen should be near the ceiling but not touching. The bottom should be at least 30″ from the floor. If we use the screen size of 45 x 80,” the screen will be 49 to 51″ high, depending on the frame width. If you mount the screen 30″ from the floor, you will have a space of 15 – 17″ from the top of the screen to the ceiling, if the ceiling is the normal eight feet. When locating the screen, place it at a comfortable viewing height to avoid a stiff neck looking up, but at the same time take into consideration the viewers in the back rows.

Quality screens come with mounting hardware, which consists of a wall bracket, to which the screen attaches. Drop the macho persona and always read the instructions first. Make sure that you use a level, as a lopsided screen makes for poor viewing. Always use a helper when hanging a screen, as the screen material damages easily, and the warranty will not cover carelessness.

Before you actually install the screen, make sure that there is a spot on the back wall where you can mount a projector, unless you plan to mount the projector from the ceiling. We’ll talk about this later. Before mounting the screen, read the section on mounting the projector, as the screen might have to be mounted higher or lower than desired.

Some of the better known and established screen companies are Da-Lite, Draper, Stewart and Vutec. There are many others on the market so take time and shop for the right screen. You’ll be looking for a 16:9 format with a gain of 1.0 and a fixed frame with a black border.

For those who truly want the cinematic 2.35:1 screen, check out Stewart Filmscreen’s CineCurve, which is designed for use with an anamorphic lens to watch the super-wide formats. This screen maintains a constant vertical height, but has two masking panels that come in from the side when viewing films in various aspect formats. As with all specialty screens, the cost will be high; and you will need a projector with an anamorphic lens.

You can find projection screens in the yellow pages under “audio visual equipment.”

Stay Tuned for Part 2 – The Projector