Building Home Theater Columns (Part 1)

Home Theater Build: Building the Columns

Yes, a Theater

I’m building a home theater and have been doing so for the past year or two. At the time of this post, it’s in an “MVP” stage meaning “Minimally Viable Product”. That is, we can watch movies in there and they look and sound great… but the room is far from done. This is the first granworks post on the theater and it’s all about moving past MVP.

This is all about creating the four columns for the theater. They will eventually hold the surround speakers (when I create them) but for now they are there for some storage and mostly for aesthetics. Notably, these are the first theater pieces that will strongly influence the final style of the theater. Until now, everything has been either black or grey and plain.

Without further ado, here’s the build.

Video

Yep, all theater build steps going forward should have an associated video. Here’s the very first granworks video about the theater:

It’s 16min which is a bit on the long side, but it is condensed massively from the nearly two hours of video footage I shot!

Cutting to Size

The columns are built almost entirely out of 3/4″ MDF. I don’t have a truck so I end up renting a U-Haul trailer and buying a bunch of sheets at a time.

Hauling the MDF

I need MDF to build my speakers and subs in the future, so those will definitely come in handy. I only needed one 3/4″ sheet for the columns (and part of a 1/2″ sheet, to be discussed later). Each sheet weighs upwards of 85lbs so I try to break them down into more manageable sizes using my circular saw while the panel is on a sheet of foam insulation on the garage floor:

Breaking down full sheets

I did one cross cut to rough height and then one rip cut to make sure that no piece was more than about 2-1/2′ wide. That’s far more manageable!

After that, it was easy enough to cut out the 2″ wide face frame pieces:

03-frame-pieces

And then the 8-1/2″ wide column side pieces:

04-side-pieces

As much as possible I tried to cut all of the same pieces at the same time so that they would be precisely identical. When that wasn’t possible I’d at least cut paired pieces together to make sure that they were at least the exact same size. For instance, I couldn’t use a stop block to cut the pieces to length since they were too long, so I made sure that I ganged up both pieces for each individual column together to ensure that the columns wouldn’t have one side shorter than the other:

05-cut-to-width

Working the Angles

The columns have an angled top piece which is either 30, 60, 120, or 150 degrees depending on your point of view. Quite a few pieces needed to be at the right angle. Those pieces included all of the face frame side pieces; the face frame top piece; and the top cap. Since they were going to be meeting up, I decided to cut all of them at the same time using the exact same saw setup.

So the table saw is set to 30 degrees:

06-angled-cut

Then all six face frame side pieces (three columns since I already built the prototype) are ganged together so that they are all cut at once:

07-batch-cut-angle

I’m not sure why I didn’t use a table saw insert here since having a wide gap like that is pretty dangerous. Oops.

Then I cut the 1-1/2″ face frame top pieces as well as the top caps at the same time. I used the same piece of MDF to ensure that the angles were complementary:

08-rip-cut-angle

The angle on the side pieces was quite a bit harder to do. My original plan to cut them on the miter saw was out since that angle was 60 degrees from the saw’s point of view and it only goes to 50 degrees. I attempted to use the miter saw no matter what by just rotating the piece to be perpendicular to the saw fence:

16-mitered-length

That didn’t work very well at all since being even a tiny amount off resulted in a cut that was also off by quite a bit. So I cut the rest of them using the miter gauge on the table saw. I was able to get at least one of them to be precise and the rest were done purposefully a tiny bit wide. That allowed me to use my flush trim bit to make all of the rest of the pieces be exact.

17-full-trim-angles

Face Frames

It’s pretty traditional to build face frames using pocket screws to speed up the process and since I’ve had decent luck with that method in the past, I figured I’d use them here.

09-pocket-holes

I usually build face frames with poplar, though, and have never made them with MDF before. I had an outstanding question on whether or not the pocket screws would cause the frame to split. Well, that question was answered definitively and in the affirmative:

10-split-mdf-frames

Erg. That required quite a bit of sanding and putty to make it presentable. After that, I made sure to create the rest of the face frames using only glue and clamps. It takes longer, but at least it works!

11-glue-only-frames

Not Finished

As an aside, it was at this point that I measured my face frame and noted that it was only 14-7/8″ wide instead of the intended 15″ wide.

12-not-quite-15

What!? I did some checking and it turned out that my table saw guide was off by a tiny bit and that tiny bit added up over multiple pieces. I’m guessing it was off because it was originally set for a full-kerf saw blade and I since switched to a thin-kerf blade. Maybe? I fixed it but was really glad that I did all of my cutting in batches beforehand. Even if they weren’t precise, they were at least all the same.

It was around this time that I did some dry fits of my angled top cap and discovered another mistake. Specifically, a mistake with the face frame that I put together with pocket screws.

See, here’s my face frame with the “good” side forward and the angle on the top:

13-finished-side

14-not-angled

Oh, that ain’t right!

What if I flip the piece around and have the “back” side in front?

15-angled-not-finished

Yep, it turns out that I messed up the front and back for my face frame. I was faced with the choice of either re-doing the frame entirely or fixing it in place by filling in the pocket screw holes. I figured that the putty route is likely the fastest and so did that. Thankfully, it did work (no pictures). Whew.

So Much Paint

And now we start to paint. Oh, so much painting. So so much painting! I took somewhere close to two hours of video for the build and maybe 45 minutes of it was painting… and I stopped filming the painting parts at some point. Yeah, this was one of the biggest reasons that the build took almost three weeks!

See, I decided that I wanted to paint each piece individually before assembly AND to make sure they were all primed, first. This meant repainting each piece multiple times and because there are multiple types of paint, I had to do a lot of waiting in between for them to dry.

There were four types of paints that I had to deal with. The first was the shellac based primer Zinsser BIN, which is alcohol based. That required either denatured alcohol or ammonia for cleanup and since it dries incredibly fast, you had to cleanup in a hurry. It’s pretty amazing stuff, though, so I’m going to have future posts and videos on using it with MDF.

18-primed-pieces

Next up was the white and black paint for the frame and interior, respectively. Both were latex based so cleanup was simple but as they were two diametrically different colors, I did need to ensure that I used different brushes which slowed things down.

19-black-pieces

Finally, there is the red color which is a oil based gel stain (Old Masters Crimson Fire). I absolutely love the final results of this stain since you likely cannot get anywhere near that depth of color with a water based paint and yeah, it spreads very well. But since it’s oil based, cleanup is an unholy pain, involving multiple pails of very stinky mineral spirits or paint thinner. Cleaning oil paint or stain brushes is one of my least favorite things to do.

20-red-pieces

But like I said, you can’t get that color any other way and it does look fantastic. I wouldn’t have used red at all if I couldn’t get that kind of red.

Dados

I routed out dados for the column shelves — which are mostly there to define the bottom storage box and to also provide structure to the column. I already covered this in a previous post (with video) and so rather than completely re-iterate it, here’s a link:

Create Perfect Sized Dados with a Custom Template

Assembly

I established the initial width of the columns using physical pieces. This was mostly the top caps, since they were handy. I just clamped them on ensuring that the edges were perfectly flush and from that I was able to make accurate measurements of the necessary shelf sizes.

21-clamped-width

But before attaching the shelves, I first attached the top cap to each column. Since it’s on an angle, there was no easy way to clamp it. Therefore, I just applied some glue and then used brad nails to secure it in place:

22-top-cap

Next , I cut the shelves to width and install them into the dados. Those were done using only glue and some clamps. I made sure that they were square at this stage since fixing them later would have been quite a pain

23-square-shelves

Finally, I attached the face frames. I was originally just going to use glue and clamps but I only have enough clamps for one at a time and didn’t want to wait — so I used brad nails on the frames, as well.

22.5-parallel-nailing

That picture shows a glaring procedural error on my part. See, brad nails always have a wedge on them rather than a true point and that wedge wants to follow grain. The practical result is that brad nails will nearly always deflect perpendicular to the nail gun, if they are going to move at all. That’s very bad if you’re nailing along a narrow edge because a blown out nail will very likely do so on your “good” side. That’s why it’s always important to orient the nail gun perpendicular to any long edge rather than parallel to it.

What do you see in the picture? Yep, I’m nailing parallel to the long edge. And yeah, I had two blowouts doing this and both blowouts were on the “good” side (no pictures). Erg. I had to spend much more time than I wanted fixing and then minimizing the results of the blowouts. Lesson learned — always nail perpendicular to an edge!

End of Part 1

I split this post into two parts since it’s getting excessively long. Part two covers creating the doors and the fabric frame, plus installation.

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