Home & Garden Columns

About the House: Getting the Hang of Hanging Things on Walls

by Matt Cantor
Friday April 14, 2006

I know you’re out there. You who are easy prey for handywomen and contractors. You who don’t fix things. Yes, I know you’re there. Well come out of the closet and go boldly where your uncle Filbert never went. Where you mother never dared to tread. Today we are going to hang something on the wall. Yes, You CAN do it. 

Hanging shelves or paintings on a wall has reduced the hardiest of men and women to tearing out their hair but I will share some secrets with you that will have you hangin’ with the best of ‘em. 

Hanging things means first mounting an anchoring system in most kinds of walls. Most of us have either drywall (sheetrock to the masses) or plaster (mostly installed over wooden lath although some lath is actually made of drywall).  

Let’s start with plaster over wooden lath, since it’s the trickiest and we’ll save the fun stuff for last. If you have plaster, you’re probably in a house that is at least 50 years old and more likely 60 or 70. Nearly all houses from the ‘40s or earlier were finished in plaster (except for those with wood paneling and that makes things really easy). 

If you have plaster, you can probably see the rough wooden strips from the backside somewhere in the house, usually the basement or possibly through a broken wall section somewhere. Plaster is quite hard and brittle and anyone who ever tried to drive a nail through this material probably found themselves making large running cracks or possibly even breaking off a chunk or two. 

The first thing you want to try to do is to attach whatever you have to somewhere that a wooden upright or “stud” is located. Finding a stud (alright, take a minute and get all the jokes out of your system ... are you done?) isn’t as hard as one might think because the wooden lath strips that the plaster is smooshed into (yes, when it was wet) are nailed to the studs or 2x4 uprights behind the plaster. 

These nails can be found using one of my favorite tools, a magnetic stud-finder. Some people call this a “compass” stud-finder because it’s very much like a compass. It has a magnetic rod mounted at it’s midpoint so that it can spin freely inside of a plastic bubble about 2” in diameter. If you run it along the wall, the rod will dart around and point, like a good bloodhound, right at the nail hidden in the wall. This shows you where the stud is and where you can drill or nail (although nailing has its own tricks). 

I think it’s a very good idea to use the device to locate all of the nails in the region of wall you’re going to be working on using a sharp pencil. You only need a small mark. When you have a lot of marks made, you can run a straight-edge along the vertical lines of nail spots to see if you can approximate the actual middle of the stud. Nails might not be centered on the stud but if you look at a long line of these pencil marks, you can probably guess pretty well where the stud center is and eliminate the odd one that was on an edge. 

Keep in mind that you may have pairs of nails on some studs where the lathing strips meet. The point between the two nails is the stud center, more or less. If this is confusing, just start “mapping” the whole wall this way and you’ll soon figure out what I’m talking about. Some points will have one nail and some will have two about 1” or more apart. 

Once you’ve done this, you can drill a small hole for a screw or a nail using a common drill bit. I keep cheap or old bits for this purpose because plaster and other similar materials will dull the bit. These cheapo bits are perfect for any such dirty job. 

If you’re attaching directly to a stud, the weight bearing is much better and you can use up to very large nails or screws, depending on what’s being attached. This is definitely the way to go for shelving. 

If you want to attach something mid-span between the studs on lath and plaster, be very careful and patient. This stuff loves to crack when hit, or drilled with the wrong bit. Plaster is stiff and the wood lath is springy. When you hit or drill the wooden lath and it springs about, the brittle plaster wants to separate, so you need a slow method and a sharp implement. 

You can start to drill a hole with a dull bit if you like but you should drill through the lath (about 1/4” inward) with the sharpest bit you have so that it will not be grabbed and pulled about the way a dull bit might. You can then attach a toggle bolt or another similar anchor. 

There are several new kinds available but this needs to be something that will compress from the inside to the outside without applying much pressure outward radially from the hole. This, again is to prevent cracking. You’ll really need to use The Force on this one because plaster is very touchy stuff. 

With drywall, life is somewhat easier. Drilling is much more forgiving, although a very dull bit can punch through the paper skin too roughly (yes, I did say paper) or crush the chalky substrate, rather than carving a nice neat hole. Try to use a fairly sharp bit and take your time. 

Again, studs can be found the same way, with a magnetic finder, although I’ll also mention the modern stud-finders (take one of these to a nightclub for laughs sometime and let me know how it works out) that use something akin to radar called radiolocation. They’re very cool but quirky and take some getting use to. 

If you’re attaching something like a sheetrock screw (very narrow) or a nail, no drilling is needed. A large screw should be predrilled. Now the fun stuff. If you’re attaching to drywall between the studs, I very much like the new mega-screws made of plastic or aluminum that just screw themselves into the sheetrock (predrilling a small hole is best). These tighten up as they reach the end of their ability to turn and make a great and reusable point to install a screw of the right size. 

You can buy them in sets with the screws that fit into them if you’re not sure how to match them up. Ask as the store and they’ll fix you up. Although these are my favorites. I’ll also add the old fashioned plastic anchor or “mollie” to the list. These can work in either plaster or drywall if you’re careful to make the right-sized hole and you won’t be hanging anything especially heavy. They also work on concrete and stucco, although you’ll need a masonry bit to drill those holes. 

Funny how a simple thing like hanging a screw in a wall can be such a bear and how a few new ideas can take a lot of anxiety away. O.K., get to work! 



Got a question about home repairs and inspections? Send them to Matt Cantor, in care of East Bay Real Estate, at realestate@berkeleydailyplanet.com.?