11 Ways to Hang Anything on a Wall

Safely drilling into a wall.

Step 1: Determine your surface. Most houses will have drywall, but many built before 1950 used lath and plaster, which is harder than drywall, brittle, and much thicker. You can feel the difference, but if you’re still not sure, a pushpin will go into drywall. It won’t go into plaster.

Step 2: Find the studs. Whether you’re hanging a kitchen cabinet or a coat hook, your best option is to attach things to a stud. If you’re working with plaster, this can be tough, since the fasteners used to attach the lath will throw off a stud finder. One way to cheat is to look for a light switch. Most are mounted inside the first stud by the door frame. (The box holding its wiring needs to be attached to something sturdy.)

Take off the switch plate and you can see which side of the stud the box is mounted on by spotting the screws. Most wall framings set studs every 16 inches, so you should be okay to measure from there, but double-check with a pilot hole. You need to drill through the plaster and into the wood framing. Expect your bit to take a beating from the harder material. While most drywall is 3/8 or 1/2 inch thick—and thus works with 1 1/4-inch screws for light loads—plaster can range from 3/4 inch to 1 1/4 inches thick, so you may need screws up to 2 1/2 inches long.

If you’re working with drywall, you have a few more options:

Scan the wall with a stud finder. These devices detect either the edge of the stud or its center.

Use the back of your knuckle and rap horizontally along the wall at 1-inch intervals. The noise should go from hollow to solid when you get to the stud.

Run a powerful rare-earth magnet along the wall. It will stick where a screw or nail is driven. This is also a good way to find metal studs, used in many apartment and commercial buildings and not easily located by a stud finder. If you’re hanging anything of significant weight (over 10 pounds), reinforce it with a section of 2 x 4 to spread out the weight along the stud and keep the metal from twisting.

Step 3: Check for Air Ducts, Pipes, and Wires. The easiest option is to use a professional-duty stud sensor, which often has settings to detect energized wires and buried pipes. If you’re finding a lot of wires, cut power at the service panel before drilling holes or doing any disruptive work. When boring between studs, drill a hole through the drywall, stop the moment it breaks through, and poke a pencil or other probe into the hole before proceeding. You can also get an approximate idea where pipes and wires are by looking in the attic and basement to see where they run up or down through the framing.

If you have a lot of wall fastening to do in an old house or in walls crowded with pipes and wires, consider buying a cordless inspection camera such as the DeWalt DCT410S1. It lets you see inside wall cavities, and its wireless screen can be removed, allowing better visibility in a tight spot or odd location, such as the back of a closet.

Step 4: Fasten the Stud. Use screws, not nails, since screws can always be backed out with minimal damage if you hit an obstruction. Nails can go right through, and then you might further damage the wall surface when you pull them out. Instead of drywall screws, use self-drilling screws with a large, flat washer head and coarse threads that are meant to bite into softwood lumber. They’re easier to drive, and the flat head acts like a clamp, evenly distributing force as the screw is driven. It works better than the bugle-shaped head of a drywall screw.

Never use a screw longer than is absolutely necessary, in order to avoid hitting buried pipes and wires. For most drywall jobs, that means 1 1/4 inches. This size is much stronger than you think. Some can withstand thousands of pounds of force.

Step 5: If You Hit Something. Stop. Never push through, assuming that you’re breaking through flashing or a knot in the wood. There’s a good chance that you’re about to pierce some ductwork or ruin your drill bit against a metal protector plate over a pipe or cable. Back it up and try another spot.

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