Basement DIY Theater

In 2008, I started to design and build the home theater my wife, Allison, and I always wanted. I spent months pouring over home theater magazines and DIY theater websites learning what to do, and more importantly, what not to do. Having toyed around with home and car stereo in the past, I decided that there was no need to hire someone to install and calibrate my system. Taking a “hands on” approach helped me understand every aspect of the project and in the long run it should be easier to integrate new components in the future.

Located in my basement, the theater is roughly 12.4′ x 21′ (8ft ceiling) with no windows. I wanted a space where I could control the light so my picture would have the best possible contrast and color accuracy. The back row riser is 7.5′ x 6′ and leaves a 32″ isle by the entryway and 26″ isles on the back and far side of the room. The first row of seats is set back 11.5′ from the screen and the second row is around 17′.

A few highlights of the room’s design include the pine columns and soffit (with rope lighting) that surround the ceiling, four Murray Feiss lighting sconces and twelve eyeball lights.

We budgeted $7000 for all the electronic components and were amazed at what we could get for this relatively low cost. What really helped was some do-it-your-self tricks I learned in all my research such as using a white laminate countertop material for the video screen. I paid $59 for a single 5′ x 12′ sheet of Wilsonart laminate (Designer White D354-60) to make a 2.35:1 aspect ratio screen. I coupled it with Sanyo’s economical PLV-Z2000 1080p Projector and a Home Theater Brothers Anamorphic Lens.

It took about an extra year, but there was a second phase where I hid the speakers, added wall panels by the entrance, installed a flatscreen TV to display movie posters, and incorporated a touch panel device to control everything.

Hiding the front speakers was important because I felt it would be less distracting and give the room a finished appearance. A hinged lid and acoustically transparent, removable panels was created so that the speakers and subwoofer could be accessed from the top and front of the stage.

Wall panels not only add a nice accent to the room but also help to eliminate audio reflection points. I followed good sound reproduction guidelines by using hard (or reflective) material on half the surfaces and textured (or non reflective) on the rest.

One of the most unique things in the theater is a dynamic piece of wall art, which is a vertically mounted 42” plasma TV (720p) that displays movie posters, There are 500 posters in rotation, which I got from . To make it work, I used the TV as my monitor on an Apple Mac Mini computer and rotated the “desktop” image to 270 degrees. The free software running the slideshow is called Boxee and is available for Mac or PC. With this program I can control how the images are displayed. Now that I’ve used it for a while, I’m finding other content to display such as free-to-use images from around the web and various screensavers.

To control everything in the theater, I use an Apple iPad with the HSTouch app for controlling HomeSeer-compatible components. This was a natural choice because HomeSeer has been running the home automation in our house for years. The app allows me to program the interface to my liking and the iPad is a great solution because of its low cost and flexibility.

There is still more that I want to do with the theater and have a third (and final phase) planned for this year. I want to add wine velvet stage curtains, which will be controlled by the iPad app, Tuscan tapered round columns above the stage, and something (maybe a tapestry) to liven up the back wall of the theater.

Equipment List
130″ CIH Screen (optimized for 2.35:1
Sanyo PLV-Z2000 1080p Projector with a Home Theater Brothers Anamorphic Lens
DVDO Edge Video Processor
7.1 Surround Sound via the Emotiva UMC-1 Preamplifier/Processor
Emotiva UPA-7 Amplifier
Elemental Designs Custom 6T6 Towers in the front & center
Emotiva ERD-1 rear surrounds
RC55i Polk Audio 5.25″s side surrounds
Playstation 3 for games and Blu-ray
HTPC Including XBMC Media Center Software with the Aeon Skin, 3.1Ghz Dual Core AMD 6100 w/ 4 Gigs Ram, MSI Geforce 8600 GTS 256 HDMI Video Card, HT Omega Striker 7.1 Sound Card

The Place to Be

My wife and I have always loved movies, so I decided to make a small Home Theater in our unfinished basement. We had lots of space so made half the area a theater and the other half a bar area. The design and floor plan were totally inspired by Home Theater magazine, of course.

I’m a union pipe fitter and I’m pretty handy, but I still had a carpenter buddy of mine do the walls in the basement. I did all of the wiring myself, including speaker wires, HDMI cables, GFI’S, dimmer switches, etc.

One of the biggest obstacles we encountered was a low air duct that was visible as soon as you entered the theater. To solve this, I moved the screen slightly to the right and painted the ceiling black. It’s still there but now, no one ever notices it.

My wife and i use the theater at least three times a week, even more for me because i like to play my Playstation 3 games here, too! My two year old daughter is even starting to realize that bigger is better when it comes to watching movies like Toy Story 3.

It has definitely become “the place to be” whenever we entertain friends and family. We love our little theater and hope to inspire other people to do the same.


Sony VPL-VW100 Projector 1080p
Carada 106″ fixed screen
Dennon 3808ci Receiver
Klipsch RB-61 Home Theater 7.1 System
Sony S550 Blu-ray player
Sony PS3 60GB
Harmony 1000 Touch Screen Remote

DIY Reader Home Theater: Kern

I’ve always loved going to the movies. Most of my childhood Saturday mornings were spent at the Palace Theater in Winchester, Virginia, where I could watch two films, cartoons, a newsreel, a short, and coming attractions—all for a quarter. About three years ago, I was surfing eBay and ran across a listing for a movie poster from the 1956 horror film The Mole People. I became obsessed with that poster and soon found myself in a fierce bidding war. Later, I realized what was really going on. The Mole People poster had rekindled those childhood memories, and I somehow wanted to go back in time and relive those special Saturdays. That’s when I decided to design and build an ornate 1950s style home theater.

The space I chose for my theater was a 14- by 38-foot upstairs bonus room that I’d designed into our house when my wife, Patricia, and I built it in 1993. The room had an alcove at one end, and we realized later that it would be perfect for a home theater stage and screen.

I began doing research immediately, searching the Internet for information on all aspects of home theater design and equipment. I read back issues of Home Theater and any similar pubs I could find. I visited A/V dealers and pestered them with technical questions about types of projection systems, acoustics issues, construction, and so on. The more I learned, the more I didn’t know. In some cases, I got conflicting information, which just confused me more.

Getting that ’50s Look

I’d been unable to locate examples of 1950s style home theaters. I saw either very modern or simple earth-toned, sedate rooms. But I wanted the gaudy, over-the-top, outrageous look of the old movie palaces. By this time, I had acquired many reference books on the history, construction, renovation, and preservation of the grand movie houses, and I began to develop my own vision for a theater. I also found a couple of theater owners’ equipment catalogs from the 1930s and ’40s, so I knew exactly what the various vintage theater items looked like. But where was I to find them?

Looking in antique shops for theater items wasn’t getting me anywhere, and I was getting discouraged. I wanted my theater lobby to have original movie posters from my favorite 1950s science-fiction and horror films, and these posters were hard to find, as well. I tried eBay again. I set up searches for posters and vintage theater items that I ran every day for almost three years! I really had to persevere, because these types of vintage theater items are getting harder to find as time goes by. Sometimes, I would search for weeks and find only one item. The hardest items to find were the wall sconces. I had no trouble finding two or three, but I needed six! Finally, after almost three years of searching, I saw a listing for two 1930s sconces from a theater in Ontario, Canada. I e-mailed the seller to see if there were any more. To my amazement, she replied that she had eight altogether, six with their original parchment shades!

Up to this point, I’d spent two years researching home theaters. One day, I was telling my son, Tom Jr., that I was still analyzing my theater design, and he said, “Dad, you’ve got analysis paralysis! You need to start building something!” He was right. Although I have good working knowledge of A/V components and systems, I had never tried to build anything like this, and I had become consumed by the fear that I would do something wrong that could not be corrected.

Using my drawings, I made an initial list of building materials and supplies I would need and headed to the nearest Home Depot. During the course of the project, I visited Home Depot so often that I came to be known as “that theater dude.” I don’t have a formal workshop, so I cleared out my garage, set up a few tables, and went to work. I worked carefully, frequently referring to my drawings. I religiously followed the carpenter’s adage: “Measure twice, cut once.”

First, I painted the ceiling a very dark blue to simulate the night sky. I used a tinted primer and was surprised to find that it took four additional coats to completely cover the previously white ceiling. I also painted the theater and lobby walls using a warm gold color. Meanwhile, I ordered my projector and screen, having settled on the Sanyo PLV-Z2 LCD projector and the Da-Lite Cinema Vision Da-Snap 45- by 80-inch screen.

I used two-by-four studs to build the screen wall, painted them flat black and mounted the screen. I also painted the wall behind the screen flat black to eliminate any reflections and stapled black Acoustone speaker-grille cloth around the perimeter of the screen to allow maximum sound transmissibility from the speakers, which would be located near the screen. Then, working with the projected image and the manufacturer’s recommendations, I determined the optimal location for the projector, seats, and seating platform. I also used two-by-fours for the stage foundation and added a subfloor made of two sheets of plywood interleaved with 30-pound roofing felt and a top layer of Pergo laminated wood flooring. The roofing felt helps eliminate rattles caused by low-frequency sounds. I recommend using wood glue and deck screws for all joints. Predrill holes for the screws, apply the glue, and fasten with deck screws, and you will have tight, solid joints and no rattles. I used the same technique for the seating platform. Always lay the beams on the floor at the hardware store before you buy them to make sure they aren’t warped. I didn’t pay attention with my first batch and made the mistake of trying to screw together warped beams.

I get the most compliments on the columns flanking the stage. They are pine with resin capitals, available by special order from Home Depot. I had been experimenting with a variety of gold paints and didn’t like anything I tried. A decorator told me that the only paint that looked like real gold was Ralph Lauren Duchesse Satin Ballroom Gold, which had been discontinued because it streaked badly when people used it to paint entire walls. After calling all over the country to find some, I checked eBay, where I bought two quarts for $100. The paint is very thin, almost like a glaze, so, when I painted a test piece of molding, I was very disappointed with the result. Then, I noticed that the flat paint I had put on the walls was about the same gold hue as the Ballroom Gold, so I primed a piece of molding with it and then painted the Ballroom Gold over it. It looked dull at first, but, when it dried, it shone with the most gorgeous, vibrant gold color I’ve ever seen!

I have 2,000 laserdiscs, so I located a preowned Pioneer Elite CLD-99 laserdisc player. I also purchased a Samsung DVD-HD931 DVD player and a Monster Power HTS2600 power conditioner. The final component I bought was a DVDO iScan HD processor, which provides high-resolution video scaling of standard-definition video content. The receiver (the Yamaha RX-V2090 with an external Yamaha DDP-1 AC-3 decoder), B&W; speakers (DM602s and CC6 center channel), and a Velodyne 10-inch sub were from my previous system. For the time being, I decided to ignore all of the information on acoustic treatments, and I think the sound in the theater is excellent. At some point, I will engage a sound engineer to properly calibrate my system.

My original goal was to faithfully recreate the nostalgia and charm of the fabulous movie palaces of the 1950s, and I think I have accomplished that. When it’s show time in the Kern Theatre, the chandeliers and wall sconces gradually dim, and the main curtains slowly open, revealing a gold curtain behind them. Sound fills the room as the gold curtain slowly rises from the stage floor. At that moment Patricia and I are eight years old again, and it’s Saturday morning at the movies!

My Budget
Building Materials & Supplies $1,500
Electrical Work $1,100
Carpet $4,500
Curtains & Motorized Curtain Rods $4,100
Palms, Ferns & Stage Columns $1,350
Slipcovers for Chair $600
Vintage Movie Theater Seats (8) $550
Vintage Lamps, Chandeliers & Wall Sconces $1,150
Vintage Movie Theater Items $6,000
Antique Concession Area Display Cases $1,000
Star Antique Design Popcorn Machine $350
Archival Movie Poster Frames $2,800
Sanyo PLV-Z2 LCD Projector & Ceiling Mount $2,250
Da-Lite Cinema Vision Da-Snap 45- by 80-inch Screen $1,000
DVDO iScan HD Video Scaling Processor $1,700
Pioneer Elite CLD-99 Laserdisc Player (used) $550
Samsung DVD-HD931 DVD Player $300
Power Conditioner, Equipment Rack & Cables $1,050
Total $31,850

How It Works For You

  • Persevere If You Want Vintage. If you like the idea of doing a vintage theater, the stuff is out there, but be prepared to spend a lot of time and money finding it. It took Thomas Kern three years and $6,000 to acquire all the vintage items for his theater.
  • Don’t Reinvent the Wheel. Learn the tricks from the ones who have done it. Avoid warped lumber—always check boards by laying them on the floor before you buy. Avoid rattles by using wood glue and deck screws for all joints and roofing felt between plywood sheets. Measure twice, cut once.