Introduction: Outdoor Projector Screen on a Budget

Outdoor movies and video games can seem like a niche activity, but it's a unique experience that is a great crowd pleaser if you have a large outdoor space. Once you start using it, going back to your old TV seems different altogether. It's quite fun to set up an X-box and play Guitar Hero or Call of Duty outside in a larger-than-life screen, with surround sound and room to move around. Plus movies are always better on a bigger screen and when you save money on snacks out of your home kitchen (and drinks), this investment pays for itself in a few uses. 

My friend Dan and i bought a projector for around $550 (Epson 5210X I think) in place of buying playoff hockey tickets last year which were priced about $250 each. We watched the game at home on his wall and had a blast, but we decided we needed a better long term outdoor solution. 

This is a really simple design, and the materials cost around a total of $150 for the screen. It was an investment, but a worthy one, because the robust nature of PVC piping holds up to a lot of winter weather conditions, and is fairly easy to assemble and disassemble for storage.

Step 1: Step 1: Materials

For this build, we used rugged and sturdy 2" diameter Schedule 40 PVC piping. About any size over that would be a bit overkill, as the pipe has to stand up to it's own weight as well as support itself against wind gusts (the screen will become like a giant sail). 

The general size of the screen started with the actual size of the screen itself. We used a plain white top sheet from Target ($20) which made us a screen about 6' tall by 10' long. This sheet is wider than this, but this length is needed to wrap around the top and bottom posts of the screen for removing it to store indoors (bed sheets and water = mildew and ruined screen. In the future of this build, perhaps a tougher weather-resistant material like Tyvek or Canvas could be used, but the bed sheet was cheap, readily available  the proper size, and not that heavy so that the frame could easily support it).

For the PVC pipe sizes, those 2' cut sections are rather convenient for making the legs, and the 10' sections are needed for the top and bottom of the screen frame itself. I would recommend getting 4 of these and cutting two of them down to 6' for the side posts of the screen frame rather than doing as we did which was using three 2' sections with couplers for the 6' sides, but this option works well too. 

Our BOM looked something like this:

2 x 10' schedule 2" dia 40 PVC pipe
12 x 2' section 2" dia PVC pipe
(needed 6 x 2" dia PVC straight couplers)
4 x 2" dia PVC pipe cap
4 x 2" dia PVC 90 deg tee (with plain fittings not threaded fittings! threads would be hard to line up, though it's worth a shot if you are looking for very quick assembly/dissasembly)
2 x 2" dia PVC 90 deg elbows
1 x PVC cement (you can use primer first if desired for stronger fit)
1 x White King Size flat sheet (the top sheet with no elastic)
36 x metal fabric snaps, with anvil 
12-24 x metal grommets, 1/2" dia or larger (for sides to weave bungee cord through or OneWrap Velcro for attachment to sides
OneWrap Velcro (about 12 long pieces or 20' roll) OR bungee cord or other strong cord

Tools and equipment:
A few willing friends to help (very key to final assembly)
Sharpie marker
Sandpaper, for roughing up the joints before gluing
hammer aka "persuader" for fitting the snaps into the fabric
Rubber Mallet aka "gentle persuader" (for making good solid joints)
8' to 10' A frame ladder (for when you're putting this together. the more ladders you have, the easier it is with a few folks to get it together, but we were able to assemble it with one 8' ladder)
Drill with ~ 1/4" drill bit (for drilling drainage holes in the bottom of the base. It tends to fill up with water)
Tape measure or soft fabric ruler would be ideal (tailor's ruler) for marking out locations for snaps and grommets
Tee-Square or Framing Square is useful for marking snap and grommet positions

Step 2: Assembling the Legs

The legs are the base of the screen, and they are also the easiest to start assembling. 

Note: the picture shows a flat layout of the general position of the components. Obviously, the legs go in and out of the plane of the ground, like the pic of the mock-up from the previous step, and the other pics.

Test fit all PVC connections together before committing to gluing them! this is important, as you may need to sand some so that the pipe goes in all the way and makes a firm connection, especially since some of these joints need to be left un-glued if you desire to disassemble the screen afterwards for winter storage

Assemble the pipe caps on four of the  2' sections and glue these first. Then put the other end of each of these capped pipes into two of the 90 degree tee fittings, leaving the curved part of the tee pointed up (this is just an aesthetic thing really. But also will help with water drainage). Glue these joints. Then add a 2' section to the upward pointed section of the tee joint that remains and glue these connections. 

The next connection it matters that the tee fittings point 90 degrees outward from the leg joint, to make your legs straight. It might be easiest when putting this tee together to take a spare 2' section to line up the tee joint at 90 degrees (easier to see and turn with the extra leverage by putting your hand on the end of that pipe). Glue these joints, and let everything dry firmly before proceeding. 

Once dry, take the drill and make a bunch of holes (about 2-4" apart) along the bottom of the legs for drainage. This is significantly easier than having the pipe caps come off and waving the thing around in the air trying to coax water out. 

Step 3: Assembling the Frame

Now, if you got multiple 2' sections and couplings, you will need to take three of the 2' sections and add them together and glue each joint. These can be rather flimsy if left un-glued. 

If you got 8' or 10' sections, saw them down to 6' with your weapon of choice, and sand the ends clean of burrs. 

Fit the two 90 deg elbows to the top of these 6' sections and glue them in place. Make sure at the end that they are exactly the same height because this is the left and right side of the screen.

Once all the joints are dry in the legs and the sides, we can move on to putting the mase together first. set up each leg apart by about 10' and put one of the long PVC pipes in place. (Use of a rubber mallet here saves a world of frustration from these joints falling apart later when up on the ladder). DON'T glue these joints' this is the part that comes apart for storage! Unless you plan to have this be a permanent fixture in your yard. When completed, this looks a bit like a Balance Beam (but far too flimsy to balance on!).

Next, take the other long 10' section and with put one end in each of the 90 deg elbows on the top side of the side frame pipes. Also, DON'T glue these joints, but slam them snugly together with a rubber mallet. This will ensure they don't come apart during final assembly (hopefully anyhow).

With the help of a (tall) friend, carefully lift the section of side pipes and top pipe up so that the 10' section is vertical and the 6' poles are on the ground. Then you can hoist it up slowly together and place the ends in the tee joints of the legs. You will need to climb a ladder to hammer down the joints into the bottom. 

Note: the joints that you glue and don't glue can be changed up depending on what type of assembly work you want to do. I recommend gluing the legs all through because they are having to support the whole weight of the frame, and it would collapse if a leg popped off. Of course, if you had one back leg strut removable, you could do the above assembly on the ground (but where's the fun in that? haha. It was a great epic moment hoisting this thing into place). 

Now the frame is completed, and ready for a screen!

Step 4: Preparing the Screen & Final Assembly

Now comes a tedious portion. Unfold the sheet in your work area fully. Find the long side; this is the side that will run left to right on the screen and wrap over the top and bottom frame poles. 

With your ruler handy, mark about 1' increments along the edge of the sheet with a sharpie. Then with a ruler or large T square. For each mark on the edge, measure about 2" in and make a second mark in line with each edge mark. Also mark one about 10" from that mark on that same line. These will be your locations for both halves of the snaps when they wrap around the pole. 

When this is completed, you can begin adding snaps. Be sure to place the smooth button top end of the snap to the front side of the screen in each one. This will be at the very top edges of the screen and won't interfere with your projection area and it just looks better this way. Rivet the bottom snaps in first, and then the top snaps, following the simple instructions on the packaging. It's fairly simple to do, and a fairly solid and satisfying tap with a hammer does the job. Note that it's often easier to separate the top and bottom snap components BEFORE starting so that none get accidentally reversed. If desired, you can practice on an old rag or old work T shirt. 

Once the snaps are done, test to make sure they actually snap together properly. Some that are tight may need an extra love tap from the hammer and anvil. 

Bring the screen with help from your tall friend and the ladder(s) and drape it over the top bar of the frame. snap the end snaps together and work your way down until all are assembled. Now you have half the snap work done! 

The reason we mount it to the frame now is so that we get the exact measurements for the next rows of snaps straight from the screen itself, so that it remains nice and taut across the PVC. Using your friend's to stretch the screen tightly, take the sharpie and mark locations about 1' apart as before where the snaps will be placed, on the screen side, and where the excess cloth will meet the screen in this stretched position. This can take a bit of finesse but don't be afraid to make new marks if it looks like the screen moved during this process. (if you're really confident, you can make one mark on each side and measure out all the in between ones over in your work area).

Next, install all the snaps for the bottom side as before. Don't worry about the overhanging extra material; you can shear this off with a good pair of fabric scissors at the end. or you could use this end as the top so that the excess hangs behind the screen out of sight and not out of the bottom. 

Test fit the screen to the frame once more, and button all the snaps. Voila! now it looks more complete.

The only remaining step is to stretch the sides. This is the job for Grommets and OneWrap. 

Take the screen down again, and divide the area between the inside rows of snaps into about 6 equal parts (roughly every 1'). Mark holes about 1" in from the edge at these intervals and assemble grommets there. Cit an X in the location with a hobby knife and then anvil in the grommet. You will need to then remove the fabric in center of the grommets. Repeat for all holes.

When this is done, mount the screen to the frame again (last time, promise). You will be wrapping strips of OneWrap once around the side poles so that the velcro latches to itself, then through the grommet, and back around itself, so it might warrant measuring ONE of these with the screen roughly centered and then cutting all the others to match that length. 

Once all the strips are made, wrap them on one side first while a friend makes sure the screen doesn't move, and then move to the other side and begin to pull GENTLY to tighten the screen side to side with the one wraps. 

Step 5: Test It Out!

Now get your trusty projector out or dust off the shadow puppets and test this giant out! Night viewings are best obviously, but if you have a strong projector, you can get an idea about how the screen will perform. The ideal area to set up a screen of this size is a back yard or even a driveway. 

Step 6: Other Practical Considerations

From out experience with the screen, it's fairly robust. One other thing that you should do however is use sand bags or wood stumps or some sort of weight on the legs on windy days to prevent an unfortunate mishap. Even something as light as 10-20 lbs on each leg would go a long way to make it more stable. The legs could always have had longer PVC sections, but it can make the screen unwieldy and odd looking. another option is making a second branch in the legs off of where the capped ends would be, but this is entirely up to you as the builder. 

The beauty of this design with PVC is that customizing it is easy, cheap, and fun. The basic concept is a modular design  and I look forward to seeing other variations of this show up. (If you build one, please post a picture!).

It's best to set the screen up for the season and just take the sheet part inside after use, if your space allows for it. This makes it less of a job to set up and you can spend more time making popcorn and grilling before watching outdoor movies or playing games,

You will also want a sort of AV cart or table for your projector. This can be made with basic skills, or we simply used an old blown out speaker cabinet from a junked stereo. 

Sound is the other thing. For a big screen, you need big sound! Craigslist is great for searching for cheap old stereos (they will be used mostly outdoors so investing in a good one is a gamble if it all of a sudden starts to rain). My uncle donated his old college stereo system to the cause, and we have about 100 W of pure power at our disposal. 

If you have a big truck or van, you can easily transport this screen in a disassembled state to a park or church or other location and bring the party somewhere that can draw a crowd. This is great for summer programs and I hope to get to use it with the kids this summer at the church youth programs. 

Use your imagination! a screen this large can have many purposes, even including but not limited to laser light shows, and puppet shows, and sports, movies, backdrop for small live music show, etc. I'd love to see what fun people have with this idea.