DIY Projector Screen for Outdoor Theaters 2019
There is something special about watching movies outdoors. Going to the drive-in movies used to be a popular date-night or family activity. Unfortunately, not too many outdoor theaters exist anymore, and many still want the experience of being able to watch videos outside.
There are several solutions, however. Some companies do offer projector sets that can be set up outdoors, but these can be pretty expensive. I know that some of you are probably die-hard do-it-yourself kind of people.
A better option can be making and setting up your own system. Luckily, backyard theaters are easy to setup by yourself if you have the right equipment and good instructions.
Why you should build your own DIY Screen
An obvious reason to invest in an outdoor projector screen is to be able to watch movies outside at night. However, the possibilities go beyond just watching movies: outdoor projectors can display video games, slideshows, and other media.
They can be used for outdoor movie nights for your family or neighborhood, for school events, weddings, outdoor video game tournaments under the stars.
Whatever the occasion that it’s being used for, outdoor projector screens make evening events a little more magical.
You don’t have to build a projector screen yourself to be able to use your projector outside at night. There are plenty of projector screen systems for sale that only requires a quick assembly once they arrive.
However, these can be quite expensive. The cost of a good quality projector alone can run $500 or more, without the screen system.
When purchased with a structure and mounting equipment, these systems can easily cost you between $200-$300. If you're looking to save money, there are a plethora of cheap projectors to choose from.
A DIY setup can be made in some cases for under $100 and is customizable to fit your size needs and work within the space you have.
Also, just like any DIY project, making the screen yourself gives you a sense of satisfaction and pride in your handiwork, and can be fun.
What kind of screen can you build?
Types of screen set-up
For the most basic outdoor DIY systems, all you need is an outdoor screen and somewhere to stretch it out or hang it. A screen can be draped over a fence and fastened at the top, or it can even be stretched along the side of your car.
Done this way, however, you probably won’t have the optimal viewing experience because the screen can become wrinkled, and will sway even with a little wind.
If you are comfortable being a little more hands-on, you can go a step further and build a structure to mount or hang your screen on.
You can make a structure that the screen can hang from, which will only require two supports and some rope and is a little easier, or you can make a standing structure with four supports and mount the screen on it using a variety of methods.
Using a method that mounts the screen to 4 supports will provide the highest quality viewing experience since the screen will be stretched evenly and won’t sway.
Traditional outdoor theaters have screens that are over 100 feet wide! While you probably won’t be building one that big, no matter what type of DIY projector screen set-up you chose to make, the beauty of doing it yourself is that you can customize the size to fit your exact needs.
10 ft x 12 ft is a common dimension size for outdoor projector screens, but you can make it, however big or small that you want.
To determine how big you want to make the screen, first, decide where you think you want to put it. Measure that area, accounting for extra space to walk around it if necessary, and go from there.
Screens that are rectangular, being slightly wider than they are tall, usually are ideal and mimic a movie-theater experience.
There are quite a few options when it comes to what you should make the supporting frame out of. For the easiest set-up, PVC pipe can be used. Sturdy pipe of at least 2-inches in diameter should be used to ensure the structure is not too flimsy.
The screen is generally sewn around or attached by grommets, with just the white screen displayed. The support can also be made out of wood, with the screen stapled on from the back.
To make an attractive frame around the screen, the wood can be wrapped in velvet or another fabric. Alternatively, felt tape can be taped around the border.
DIY Projector Screen Fabric
The screen material you choose for your set-up may be the most important component of your design. The material determines the quality of the final movie display.
For a basic set-up on a low budget, you can use a basic white sheet.
Many people have sewn two Queen size sheets together into a band and then fitted them over a PVC pipe frame for a basic homemade projector screen.
White sheets can be fine in a pinch, but don’t offer as crisp of an image.
If you are willing to spend a bit more money, blackout cloth is the top DIY fabric. Blackout cloth is a special material meant to block out light. It is thick and sturdy. Many hotel room curtains are made out of this material.
People who work third shift and need to sleep when it’s light out may buy curtains made out of blackout cloth.
It also has some commercial applications, such as in planetariums, where it is necessary to maintain complete darkness. In the case of your DIY projector screen, blackout cloth is the perfect material.
Since it is sturdy when hung or stretched taut on a frame, it won’t sway in the wind. It has two sides, a smooth side and a foam backed side. The foam backed side is what blocks out the light.
This is important for your outdoor projector screen because it blocks out any background light from street lights, your house, or cars.
When assembling your screen, be sure that the smooth surface, not the foam surface, is what you are projecting on to.
Below are two brands of blackout cloth I’ve worked with in the past.
See related - Best Material Outdoor Screens
This is one blackout cloth that you could use for your projector. It comes by itself, not with a frame to use, perfect for your DIY project.
If used inside, this material can just be mounted to the wall. It is heavy, so moving it around or mounting it may require the help of one or two other people.
This is another alternative blackout cloth. This one comes rolled, not folded, so you don’t have to worry about waiting for any creases to come out of the material.
This product is convenient because it comes with a carrying case, so you can bring it around anywhere and turn anything into a screen for your projector even if you don’t have a frame.
A black border framing the material is already attached, so if you do want a bit more of an aesthetically pleasing final product, you don’t have to purchase extra felt tape to use.
I have had success with both of these blackout cloths. The first is best if you have a permanent location in mind for your projector screen, and the second is better if you plan on carrying your screen from site to site.
Another option for DIY projector screen fabric is a seamless white photographer backdrop. This usually comes with finished edges and has a non-reflective surface.
It is very similar to blackout cloth, as it doesn’t allow light to shine through from one side to the other.
Photo Studio Portrait Seamless Collapsible Backdrop Fabric
Although this paper is advertised as a photo backdrop, it will also work equally well for a projector screen. The benefit of this paper is that it comes tightly rolled, and when not in use is very compact and easy to carry around with you. It is sturdy and comes mounted on a cardboard core.
Where can you put your outdoor projector screen?
If you’re planning on making a screen without a support structure and with just the screen material or a sheet, a couple of great places to set it up are:
- Between two trees
- On the side of the garage
- On the side of your car (this may sound funny, but it makes setup really easy)
- On the side of a fence
- Hanging from the ceiling of an open patio space
- Hanging from a pergola
If you are going to be proceeding with one of the ideas below, and constructing your own support and frame for your DIY projector screen, just make sure to find an open space that is free from brush, which could potentially go flying and damage your screen if it becomes windy outside.
Also, try to set up your screen somewhere where it will not get in the way of other people or activities. This is especially true if the structure will be semi-permanent and not easily transported.
Of course, although these instructions are more specifically for homemade outdoor projection screens, almost all of these ideas can be adapted for use indoors.
The screen materials can all be mounted to a blank wall indoors with hooks, heavy-duty tape, staples, or rope.
Also, depending on the construction of your outdoor set-up, the DIY projector screen fabric will most likely be able to be taken down from there and repurposed as an indoor projector screen.
This is great if you are living in an area where inclement weather can be a problem, and you want to be able to have the flexibility of using your screen material both indoors and outdoors.
Which is right for you?
Deciding which do it yourself screen you should build depends on a couple of factors:
- Skill level
If you consider yourself handy with tools and building things, you can build a pretty high quality, professional looking screen and frame for under $100.
If on the other hand, you are not quite as hands-on, you may want to go the easier route and just hang a white sheet or blackout cloth over a fence or between two trees. Budget is a factor in deciding which to build.
If you are working with a limited budget and already happen to have some white sheets, that will work, and you will save money.
If you decide to go with blackout cloth, which is recommended, that will be the bulk of the cost of your project, whether you decide to build a frame or not.
The frame materials, which will most likely be PVC pipe or wood, are relatively inexpensive, with PVC pipe being the cheaper of the two. If you plan on having a stationary projector screen, wood can be a good option.
If you plan on moving its location or lending it out, PVC might be a more convenient option because the pieces will be easily disconnected, while wood will permanently be nailed together.
Also, if you plan on moving your screen often, you may want to consider a lighter weight blackout cloth or one that has a carrying case for added convenience.
How to set up your homemade DIY outdoor projector screen: 2 easy ways
Out of the many possibilities that are out there when it comes to DIY-ing your homemade screen, those using PVC pipe or wood seem to be the most common and the fastest to assemble.
Below are basic instructions for two different ways to make your own homemade outdoor projector screen.
Portable PVC Projector Screen
Materials and hardware needed:
- One full-sized white sheet, or blackout cloth of equal dimensions (54” by 75”)
- 2 – 7’ PVC pipes, 2” diameter
- 2 – 3’ PVC pipes, 2” diameter
- 2 – 6’ PC pipes, 2” diameter
- 2 – 4’ PVC pipes, 2” diameter
- 2 2’ PVC pipes, 2” diameter
- 2 PVC elbow connectors
- 4 PVC T connectors
- needle and thread
See related - best portable projectors
How to Setup Your Homeback Backyard Screen
- Layout your PVC pipe to prepare for assembly. Lay the 2 – 7’ pieces horizontally and the 2 – 6’ pieces vertically to form a rectangle. Place the elbow connectors at the top 2 corners, and the T connectors at the bottom 2 corners. Connect together.
- Connect the 2 – 2’ PVC pipes to the bottom of the T connectors, then add another T connector on the other side of those. Connect the 3’ PVC pipes facing inward from the bottom T connector on each side, and the 4’ pieces facing outward. Now you have your frame.
- Lay down your sheet or cloth. Cut out a 3” x 3” corner piece on all four sides. Fold over each edge 3 inches. If using blackout cloth, make sure you are folding away from the smooth front side. Sew around to form a casing that the PVC pipe will go in.
- Starting with the top PVC pipe, disconnect one of the elbow connectors, and slide the pipe through the casing you just sewed on the longer side of the screen material. Slip the shorter side over the vertical PVC pipe. Connect the elbow again. Then repeat on the other side. Disconnect the T connectors and slide the lower horizontal piece, and connect again. Now the screen material should be encasing PVC pipe on all four sides, being pulled tight.
- That’s it! Start watching movies or playing video games outdoors.
See related - best outdoor projector screens
For this project, the chances are that you are going to find 10’ long pieces of PVC pipe at your local hardware store, and are going to need to have it cut to fit the dimensions for this project.
Sometimes you can find someone at the store to cut pipes for you, but it is handy to have your own PVC pipe cutter. This one is small and compact and does not require much strength at all to operate.
It is spring loaded for a faster cut, and has ergonomic grips so that your hands don’t get sore, even after using it consecutively.
Wood-Framed Projector Screen
Materials and hardware needed:
Blackout cloth or photography backdrop cloth, 9’ wide by 6’ tall
- Staple gun
- 4 wood boards, 2” x 1”, each 10’ long
- 2 5-gallon drywall buckets
- sand or cement
- (optional) felt tape
How to Setup a Wood Frame Projector Screen
- On 2 of the wooden boards, measure and mark off with a pencil the bottom 4 feet of each.
- Lay those two boards down flat vertically, 8 ½ feet apart. Lay the other two boards horizontally over them, one at the top, and one below at the 4-foot mark that was marked off in the previous step. There will be a ½ foot piece that overlaps the vertical boards at both intersections.
- Using a drill and screws, screw the boards together at the 4 places they intersect. Now you have your frame
- On the side of the frame where the two vertical boards are on top, lay down the cloth. The edges of the cloth should lay just about in the center of each board. Using the staple gun, go around the perimeter of the cloth and staple every 2 inches until the cloth is fastened to the wooden frame on all four sides.
- Fill your buckets with sand or wet cement. Stand the frame up and place each leg of the frame in one of the buckets, making sure the bottom of the board lays flat on the bottom of the bucket, and the frame is level.
- You are done! Optionally, make a border around the perimeter of the screen with velvet tape to create a more polished look. These are some basic steps to setting up a DIY projector screen.
This product is recommended for this project if you are going to add the optional felt tape border. Carl’s brand specializes in homemade movie theater equipment and came up with this tape for this use specifically.
It comes in 2, 3, or 4” widths, so you can customize how big you want your border. While a felt tape border doesn’t do anything to the quality of the image projected onto the screen, it does make for an overall more professional looking, better-finished product.
Its dark color provides contrast to the white screen. You may be tempted to try to use this tape to tape your screen material directly to a wall, but avoid this mistake—this tape is meant to add a nice-looking border only, and does not hold much weight.
It is easily removed from the screen in case you decide later on that you don’t want it, or are going to use the screen material for another project.
For this project, you will need a high quality, heavy duty staple gun. Many cheaper staple guns are fine for bulletin board or other flimsier materials, but won’t go all the way into the wood.
This product, however, is about the same price as a weaker staple gun, but it will get this job done and attaches to wood with no problem.
If you are a frequent DIY-er, This staple gun can also come in handy for future projects such as upholstery, insulation, and others.
These two DIY tutorials are by no means your only options when it comes to building your own outdoor projector screen, but can serve as a good start.
You can be creative with your project—many have had success using zip ties, tarp clips, and other materials to construct a mini outdoor movie theater.
You can use whatever resources are available to you. If you have two trees that are close together, you can insert grommets into the blackout material and attach them around the trees with bungee cords.
If you have a high wooden fence, you can use grommets on all four corners and attach it to the fence with rope or zip ties. The possibilities are endless, but hopefully, these ideas can serve as a starting point.
A Note About Projectors
To use any of these DIY projector screens, you need to have a projector!
For more info about projectors check out our page about best outdoor projectors.
There are all types of projectors available. Some are very affordable, while others that are more specialized can be quite expensive. Most are able to connect to your computer or other devices like your cell phone to project from. Many are able to be operated by remote control.
Most use USB cords as the means of connecting to the device they are displaying media from. Any projector will work for the purpose of these projects, but the quality of the image can vary depending on which type of projector you use.
If you're looking for outdoor gaming, check out our best gaming projectors. Another option for DIY outdoor setups are short throw projectors.
It is able to connect to your laptop, computer, video game console, or cell phone to project. It works via USB cable.
It is best for watching movies, while business presentations or highly detailed video games might be better with a higher scale projector model. It also works best if it is used in the dark.
It can project onto screens 12’ wide or more, with the ability to air movies or other media to audiences of over 100 people. This projector also works via USB cable. Being a little pricier, it offers an excellent quality viewing experience with a very crisp image. Read more about it in our comprehensive Optoma HD142X guide.
This one is even higher scale performance. It provides an even more crisp image and works better than the other two if you want a projector that you can use when it is light out. Projectors use fans inside of them in order to operate, which can sometimes be quite noisy. This product, however, comes with a fan that is barely audible and that does not distract from the viewing experience.
Homemade projector screens DIY can add the perfect touch to an outdoor party, or can be great for repeated use for family nights in the backyard. You can bring the nostalgia of going to the drive-in movies right to your own home.
Building a projector screen does not have to be difficult or expensive. Your homemade screen can be customized to fit your needs, and in most cases, you can use it both indoors and outdoors.
A homemade projector screen is the perfect DIY project that is fun to do, and you get to enjoy the fruits of your labor from it time and time again.
If for any reason this information has served to deter you rather than to encourage you to try to build a screen on your own, but you still want to have an outdoor movie screen, don’t worry: there are plenty of kits available that come already made.