Hanging pictures on old plaster walls
April 4, 2005 7:11 AM   Subscribe

I live in a 1910 Victorian house and many of the rooms have old plaster walls. They look OK, but I know the plaster isn't in the best condition just due to age. I want to hang some pictures.

I hesitate starting the project because I hate poking huge holes in the walls to put the anchors in. Has anyone found another way to hang pictures on plaster walls? Should I just suck it up and start poking holes?
posted by SheIsMighty to Home & Garden (11 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Picture rails.... a kind of crown molding that allows you to hang pictures. A classic Victorian house might already have them in place in certain rooms.

Other then that, put some masking tape on the wall where you are going to drive the nail, this adds a little support to the plaster to keep it from flaking off. Also, make sure you use those black gallery hanging nails, they are some sort of carbide steel and seem sharper and less prone to bending making it less likely you'll ding the wall.
posted by dirtylittlemonkey at 7:32 AM on April 4, 2005

In my Victorian house the plasterwork is shocking in places but there are usually enough solid bits to get a picture hook into for light things. Large pictures I go for two hooks to spread the weight a bit. For heavier things (like a big mirror) you might want to think about holes going through to brick or a picture rail (which is, of course, just another way to spread the weight).

And a quick piece of pedantry - Victoria died in 1901.
posted by handee at 7:34 AM on April 4, 2005

for plaster, i recommend picture hanging hooks by a company called "Ook". they have a huge variety, but their "Ook Shield" and "pro picture hangers" are specifically made for using with plaster walls. the Shield is better, but both are good. they leave minimal damage t the plaster and will root pretty well in the lathe behind. if not, get a picture rail, but in my own experience, thesw work great, and apparently are the only picture hangers that many older galleries (with plaster walls, etc) will even think about using to hang artwork.

posted by quadrinary at 7:40 AM on April 4, 2005 [2 favorites]

As d.l.m. mentioned, it was standard practice with Victorian houses to hang pictures on long wires attached to the crown molding at the top of the wall. If you want to stay in the period, you should do this.

Alternately, if you don't care about that, I strongly suggest you get a decent stud locator (the cheap ones suck, spend at least $30), and carefully drive an anchor screw into a stud. You'll have to plan your hangings around the stud locations, but it is better for the walls that way.

[Even in my house, which has all sheetrock, I specified to the tenant that under no circumstances should anything ever be wall mounted on drywall only; I gave her a stud finder, showed her how to use it, and told her she is to only mount wall things on studs]
posted by yesster at 7:52 AM on April 4, 2005

dirtylittlemonkey is spot on. Put masking tape on the wall where you're going to drive the nails. Make sure you use the good hangers with the skinny black nails and the brass hooks, and make sure you get the right size for the job—IIRC, they are rated at 10 lb. 20 lb., etc. Driven at the proper angle into plaster or sheetrock, they will do the job. You do not need to find studs and drive screws unless you're hanging, like, a live pig from the wall. Use two per picture, at least a handspan apart, unless it's a tiny picture—partly for insurance but, just as importantly, it will also help keep the picture hanging straight.
posted by bricoleur at 8:07 AM on April 4, 2005

One caveat to the crown molding/picture rails idea (I'm in this house too) : This particular room we're looking to hang things in has a canvas ceiling which the current molding butts right up against. In fact, I'll have to check when I get home, but I think that previous occupants might have painted the molding and the canvas ceiling together so there's not really even a break between the two. So the picture rail thing is a great idea, but sadly not for us. The other ideas are sounding quite good, however.

And incidentally, bricoleur, what has been known around our house as "the pig incident" is what drove us to seek out advice in the first place. Are you one of our neighbors? If so, sorry for the squealing.
posted by Moondoggie at 8:16 AM on April 4, 2005

If you do have a picture rail, here are some great picture hooks. Rejuvenation is awesome and a bit pricey. You might be able to get less expensive and more plain hooks at a framing store. I use very strong fishing line instead of wire.

Ditto on the anchor screws in the studs. Sometimes lathe can fake out a stud finder. Another way to try and find the studs is to examine the baseboard molding and determine where the molding is nailed in. The builders try to nail the molding to the studs. It was common to place studs 14" apart (measured from the center of the stud...thus, "14 on center") but in old houses, this may not be exact.

Try to avoid nails if you can. The vibration caused by hammering can weaken or break the plaster keys. The plaster keys keep the plaster attached to the lathe, and that keeps your wall in good shape. (You can tell when you've broken a key because you will hear it fall through the wall.) Once you break those keys and the plaster begins to fail, it is a pain to fix.
posted by jeanmari at 8:47 AM on April 4, 2005

ok, the following is based on this being a brick-built victorian house in the uk. i have no idea what victorian means in the usa, or why you'd even use such a term.

picture rails are a separate line of "moulding" (actually a wooden strip), running round the room at a lower height (like, 2/3 of the way up) than the ceiling (victorian ceilings being very high).

you can get various fancy knick-knacks for screwing into plaster and/or brickwork at your local hardware store. i'd drill through the plaster, into the brick, insert a plug in the hole, and screw into that. you may need a masonry drill bit and hammer action drill. if the plaster is so deep you don't hit brick (odd for a wall, but happens with ceilings and partitions) then screw one of those cone shaped cast aluminium things with a very coarse thread into the hole, and put a screw in that. i'm assuming that the picture will cover this (ie that it hangs from wire/cord that is behind the frame).

it's easy to plaster over holes, and then sand and paint them. so i'd worry less about holes and more about making sure the picture is fastened securely. those hooks with black pins are not that great, in my experience.

but, again, this is for a brick building.
posted by andrew cooke at 9:45 AM on April 4, 2005

I lived in a lot of apartments with plaster walls, most in ill-repair. I always use anchors, which have always worked great and, of course, let me hang things wherever I wanted to. You don't have to use the gigantic ones, though, that are often supplied in kits. Look for little ones and use little screws.
posted by desuetude at 10:11 AM on April 4, 2005

I live in an apartment with plaster walls. I simply put two pieces of scotch tape in an "x" (marking the spot) when I want to hammer in the nail for my picture. I've lived there for three years with various artwork hanging on my walls. Haven't had a problem yet.
posted by bozichsl at 11:30 AM on April 4, 2005

Regarding the picture rails, we thought our molding was not a picture rail because it was right up against the ceiling -- then when painting, we looked more closely and saw there was a tiny gap at the top of the molding, and the characteristic rounded top, and realized that yes, our house did have picture rails after all. Though rails are often set at a lower height as andrew cooke mentioned above, apparently that's not always the case.

Having spent a lot of time stripping wallpaper and patching holes in our 1911 vintage plaster, we will never ever hang pictures by "poking holes" in the plaster again. It's the picture rail or nothing for us now. Once your plaster starts to break down it's a major PITA to repair, so it's a good idea to baby it.

If your picture rail is unusable just because it's been painted over, that might be a fixable problem. There really is only a tiny gap that is necessary to slip the picture hook over. So if you can get the rail to work, that is my recommendation, as it will leave the plaster pristine.
posted by litlnemo at 1:06 PM on April 4, 2005

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