If you have ever dreamed of hunkering down in your own home theater, this dream can be a reality. A dedicated home theater allows you to binge-watch your favorite streaming shows, settle into movies, or engage in a little gaming—all on a big screen from the comfort of your own home.
Basics of a DIY Home Theater
- Theater Style: Decide if this will be a dedicated theater with screen-facing seats or more along the lines of a living room with occasional screen viewing. Determine the direction the viewers will face. Decide if you want extras that will need to be installed, like a wet bar.
- Wired or Wireless: It is possible to build an entire home movie theater with wireless devices. Still, Bluetooth and other short-range wireless technologies aren't always reliable. Also, routing an Internet signal to your home theater with an Ethernet cable can be more stable than using a Wi-Fi connection.
- Light Control: Screens of nearly any brightness level can be viewed in completely dark home theaters. For daylight viewing of video projectors, a 2,500 lumens projector or brighter is considered the minimum brightness level. HDTVs are viewable in daylight. In either case, most home theaters benefit from having curtains and doors that allow you to shut out the light when needed.
- Sound Control: Sound-absorbent insulated walls provide better sound quality within the theater and prevent noise from migrating to other rooms.
To increase soundproofing, you may even want to add a second layer of drywall. Drywall is dense and an excellent low-cost wall soundproofing product. But you'll need to plan well in advance, as wall boxes, trim, and door casings are all dependent on wall thickness.
When to Build a DIY Home Theater
If time and funds permit, it's usually best to build the home theater as early as possible during a whole-house remodel for full access to the inside of walls for insulation and wiring.
Codes and Permits
The scale of the home theater project determines whether you will need permits. Anything with plumbing, electricity, or adding or removing a wall usually requires permits.
If your project involves removing load-bearing walls, first consult a structural engineer or contractor. If you are unskilled in electrical work, hire an electrician for running new circuits from the service panel or for any type of electrical work.
Equipment / Tools
- Electric saw
- Cordless drill
- Electric nailer
- Stud finder
- Paint roller
- Paint tray
- Video projector or HDTV
- Movie screen for video projectors
- Home theater audio system
- Media device rack
- Battery backup
- Sound-absorbing floor covering
- Electrical cable
- One-by-three and one-by-four trim (for chases)
- Flat, dark wall paint
- Drywall and related materials
Based on your needs, lay out the home theater with planning software or on paper. Be sure to specify the locations of the screen, the media device closet, all seating arrangements, and the location of electric outlets and lighting.
For a home theater that you are building from scratch, frame the interior walls. Even if you are using an existing room, you may still need to define the home theater space by building a wall or two.
Basement walls must be framed differently, with foam insulation contacting the exterior masonry walls and the wall framing applied to the front of the foam.
If your home theater includes a wet bar or kitchenette, run water supply and drainage lines to the area. If the home theater is adjacent to a bathroom or kitchen, water supply and drainage may be located within the shared wall.
Run Electrical Wiring
Run the electrical cables to specific points within the home theater. If the theater space currently has no electrical wiring, you will need to run new circuits from the electrical service panel and pull those circuits into the home theater. If the space has electrical power, you may be able to extend cables to necessary locations by splicing cables together.
Some circuits may need to be dedicated. Electrical lighting should be run on its own dedicated branch circuit. Sensitive electronic equipment may require dedicated circuits, too.
The wiring may include:
- general room outlets, spaced so that no device (such as a lamp or vacuum) is no more than 6 feet away from an outlet.
- an outlet at one end of the room for the video screen or movie screen.
- an outlet to service the media device closet.
- GFCI outlets at and near the wet bar.
- general room lighting, such as recessed lights.
- theater-style sconce lights along the theater's side walls.
For any permitted electrical or plumbing work, you will need to arrange for a first inspection after the lines have been laid and prior to closing up the walls.
Insulate all walls, both for energy savings and for sound absorption. Exterior basement walls should be insulated with spray foam or rigid foam. For other exterior and interior walls, use fiberglass, rockwool, denim, or spray or rigid foam insulation.
For the best sound quality, all walls should be insulated, even interior walls that face other rooms.
Hang drywall on the wall framing. Make cutouts for all light switches and outlets. Apply joint compound to all seams, then sand and finish smooth.
For basements, you may wish to use interlocking subfloor panels that elevate the floor covering over the concrete base. Or to cut costs, you can build your own subflooring from two-by-four sleepers, vapor retarder, and plywood.
Build Media Device Closet
Create a separate, enclosed, and ventilated space for the media devices. You may wish to purchase a media rack made of sturdy, multi-level, ventilated metal. If the closet does not have natural ventilation, you will need to add a fan to the closet to prevent the devices from overheating.
Build an optional wet bar along the side of the room, adding base cabinets, a bar sink, a bar refrigerator, and countertops. Do not install any standalone bars at this time, as they will be in the way of flooring installation.
Finish Wiring and Plumbing
Make the final hookups for all lights, outlets, and plumbing work. Order a final inspection from your local permitting office.
Install Wire Chases
To run wiring from the media closet in the rear of the room to the screen in the front of the room, build chases, or trays, that run the length of the room at about 1-inch below the level of the ceiling.
Use one-by-three and one-by-four primed white trim. Each chase is an open-top, three-sided tray that has a one-by-four board as the back wall of the chase, with a one-by-three board on the bottom, and another one-by-three on the front.
Having the back wall of the chase slightly higher than the front gives you room to drive screws into the chase. Install by driving screws through the back wall of the chases every 32 inches into wall studs.
Darker colors are best for home theaters because they reduce ambient light. Matte, flat, or eggshell paint glosses, too, are better than semi-gloss or glossy paint for toning down the ambient light. Paint the wall chases the same color as the wall to help the chases blend in.
Install Floor Covering
As with the wall color, the floor covering in home theaters is better when it's darker to cut down on light bounce.
Install Video Projector
If your theater will use a video projector and movie screen arrangement, install the video projector at the opposite end of the room from the screen. Most projectors can be installed on the ceiling from special brackets to save room.
Mount speakers around the room. A 5:1 speaker arrangement requires one subwoofer on the floor, plus one center speaker above or below the screen and two side speakers on each side. A 7:1 speaker arrangement is the same, but it has two more speakers in the back of the room.
Home theater speakers sound best when mounted at a user's ear height when the user is seated. Or, they can be mounted higher but pointed downward.
- HDTV: Install HDTV video screens on the back wall to studs, using a video screen mount kit rated for the size of your screen.
- Manual Movie Screens: Install manual pull-down video screens either to the ceiling or to the wall.
- Electrical Movie Screens: Electrically operated movie screens are heavy and may require special mounting equipment. They should hang freely and should not contact the wall.
Run wires from the media closet and through the wall chases toward the front of the room. Speaker wires can divert out of the chases at any point to service a speaker. The wire for the front-center speaker will need to continue to the front of the room. Any other speaker wire, coaxial cable, or screen control or trigger wire should continue to the screen area.
Note that it is not allowable by electrical code to run electric power lines through open wall chases. All electrical cables must be located in the walls.
Install Media Devices
Install the media devices in the media closet. Make sure that devices you intend to use most often are located at eye level or below. These may include video streaming boxes, DVD or Blu-ray players, or audio equipment.
Install Battery Backup
It is highly recommended that you install a battery backup in the media closet. With multiple plug-in locations on the back or side, a battery backup can accept all of the media devices in the closet. Acting as a hub, the battery backup can both be a surge protector and a short-term battery to keep the devices running in the event of sudden power failure.
Add Theater Seating
Dedicated home theaters that strive to emulate commercial movie theaters often use theater seats. Theater seats are comfortable and provide a leg rest as well as places to put remotes, drinks, and food.
Decorate the room to look like the home theater of your dreams. Add framed movie posters or other types of artwork. Wall textiles help decorate the room and absorb sound. Avoid placing decorations near the screen, to limit distractions.
Finish Wet Bar
A wet bar can satisfy the needs of a broad range of users. For those who drink, install a wine cooler, wine rack, and racks for hanging wine and martini glasses upside-down.
For all users, stock the fridge with soda and juices. Add a microwave below the bar for popcorn. Or if space permits, add a popcorn machine on the bar. Add dishes for candy or for healthy snacks like nuts and dried fruit.
Before your first movie night, test the theater to make sure that everything works as planned.
- If this is to be a completely darkened theater, make sure that all curtains close properly and that doors do not permit light to shine underneath.
- Most theater audio systems have a balancing feature that allows you to balance speaker levels based on the location of the theater users.
- Adjust the video projector throw so that the image fills the screen as much as possible without seeping onto the black border.
- Adjust the projector's focus with the projector's test grid feature.
When to Call Professionals
Home theater designers are skilled at providing the perfect balance of video, audio, and aesthetic design. Call a professional design company for a fully integrated home theater.
Even if you intend to build the home theater by yourself, you may still decide to hire an electrician, plumber, or floor installation company.