Introduction: Decorative Sound Absorbing Panels

What better way is there to spend an afternoon, than having your kids help upgrade the performance of your home theater?  If you're a geek dad, the list is pretty small.

There are many way to improve your home theater, and adding sound-absorbing panels is an inexpensive way of doing it.  In my case, it's almost a necessity:  the hard concrete walls in my basement home theater have a nasty tendency to bounce sound around in unpleasant ways.  The effect was made even worse when the carpet was replaced with hard laminate floors.

The walls themselves were mostly bare, painted concrete.  The walls needed decoration - artwork, pictures, whatever.  Just something to make the place look less sterile.

My home theater also happens to share a space with the kids' playroom.

So what happens when you put all these requirements into blender and pour the frothy goop into a big, chilled mug?  Simple, yet effective child-decorated sound absorbing panels.

Step 1: How They Work

In a room with hard, flat surfaces, sound tends to do nasty things.  Mostly, it bounces around and hits your tender eardrums multiple times from different angles.  It mixes in weird ways, drowning out some parts of a soundtrack while emphasizing others.  In short, the hundreds or thousands of dollars you spent on a nice amplifier and speakers is wasted because the acoustic properties of the room are lousy.

The purpose of a sound absorbing panel is obvious:  it absorbs sound in a room.  When placed in strategic locations along the wall, the effect is dramatic.  High frequency "ringing" is killed off, and bass is no longer muddy or boomy.  All those sound waves that would have bounced off the walls are instead mostly absorbed by the panels, so that the primary wave from the speakers is what you hear most.

The basic construction of these panels is simple, and certainly nothing new.  They are simple artistic canvases with thick wood frames, stuffed with sound-absorbing "eggcrate" foam.  The panels are decorated to suit the decor of the room. In my case, decorated with the help of my wife and kids, to add colour and fun to our home theater/rec room/play room.

Step 2: Materials and Tools

To make one sound absorbing panel, you will need:

- One 1.5" deep art canvas, with dimensions of at least 2x2 feet.  I bought mine at a local art store chain called Curry's for about $10 each.

- One 2x2 sheet of 1.5" thick sound absorbing "eggcrate" foam.  I bought a whole roll of it online for about $40.

- Acrylic paint to decorate the canvas, from any art store

- Paper backing, to hold the foam in place.  You could use old newspaper if you wanted to, as long as it's big and strong enough.

- Picture hangers, two per panel, from a hardware or art store.

And the tools you'll need include:

- Scissors
- Paintbrushes
- Staple gun (to staple the backing onto the frame)
- Hammer (to attach picture hangers)
- screwdriver and/or drill for mounting the panel to a wall

Of course, you'll also need some willing volunteers to help decorate the canvases.  If your volunteers are under 5 years old, I suggest doing the painting outside, as the likelihood of spillage and messes is very high.  You've been warned!

Step 3: Paint the Canvases

The colours and content of the "artwork" splashed across the canvases is completely up to you.  You can let your kids have at it (as we did, with a little guidance), you could have a professional paint portraits of all the members of the Addams Family, or you could paint them the same colour as your walls so they blend in.  Really, the paint has little effect on the performance of these panels so do what you like.

Another great option is to have cherished photos "printed" on the canvases.  There are a few places online that will do this for you - send them your photos, and they'll print them on any size canvas you like.  They can even do cool things like spreading the photo across two or three canvases.

Step 4: Install Foam

I bought a large roll of "eggcrate" acoustic foam online.  It was pretty cheap, even with shipping.  You could also buy 1/2" thick sound absorbing fiberglass panels for this purpose.  The fiberglass is denser, so it absorbs more bass than the foam can.  Choose the material based on what your needs are.

So this step is pretty simple.  Once the paint is dry on the canvas, flip it over.  Simply cut a square (or rectangle) of foam to fit inside the space.  It should fill the space completely, but not bulge out.  Place the foam inside the canvas with the bumpy side facing the painted face of the canvas.

Now, cut some pieces of paper large enough to cover the back of the panel, but not hang over the edges.  Staple the paper down with a staple gun.

Step 5: Install Picture Hangers

Picture hangers usually come in packs of two to six.  You'll need two for each panel.  I chose to use a pack of inexpensive brass "self-centering" low-profile hangers, though you could use whatever you like.  Really, any method you use to attach the panels to a wall should be fine.

Install the picture hangers in the two top corners.  The hangers I used are attached using small finishing nails.

Once the hangers are attached, the sound absorbing panel is ready to mount!

Step 6: Mount the Panels

Decide where you want the panels to be located.  Measure carefully, being mindful of both the height and the rotation of the panels.  Since there are two hangers on each panel, the screws for mounting the panels must be level or the panel will be on an angle.  Mark the locations for the screws or nails and install them.

I have concrete walls in my basement, so my only choice was to drive Tapcon screws into the concrete.  It's messy, but (of course) super strong.

Now, hang your panels on the screws and take a breather - hopefully, the acoustics in the room will be much improved, along with the decor!  And, if your kids helped decorate the panels, they'll have something to show off when guests come over to play or watch movies.

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