What kind of walls do I have and how do I hang stuff?
January 18, 2014 2:06 PM   Subscribe

I’m having a hard time figuring out how to find studs in my walls. Stud finder and magnet-on-a-string aren't helping me find solid wood to drill into.

I’m having a hard time figuring out how to install shelving in my condo. I’ve had no problem using EZ Anchors to hold what I’ve needed up to this point, but now I want to hold a lot more weight and would like to find studs.

The problem: I’ve not been able to find studs with much success. The cheapo stud finder provided a few ideas but I never managed to drill into any wood. Dangling a magnet on string helped me find a few metal things in the walls (aligned vertically, and I believe at 16 inch intervals, so I want to assume that’d be a stud location) but I’m still confused.

Whenever I drill in, I go through about ½ inch (give or take ¼ inch) of drywall-like material (possibly actually drywall but I’m not very knowledgeable about these things). Then it’s hollow for a bit. Then it sounds like I’m drilling into rough bricks (which is what the exterior of my building is) after about 2 inches from the interior living space. In other words, I can’t go more than 1.5 inches past the end of the drywall.

I’m pretty sure I’m not drilling into the exterior brick based on the distance.

I took off an outlet cover and peeked around behind the electrical box, and it looks like there have been tiny rockslides back there, which might explain what the drill is hitting. There was a wood piece on one side of the electrical box. But lower down on the wall there’s another outlet pretty much right where that piece of wood would continue through.

So, what can I do to find studs or hang heavy stuff? I can’t find anywhere where the drywall (or plaster, if that’s what it is) is attached to a stud. This is an apartment building built around 1960 if that’s any help.

Thanks for any ideas.
posted by powpow to Home & Garden (17 answers total)
Put a very narrow bit on an electric drill. Then drill a series of holes with it in a horizontal line, spaced about an inch apart. You'll know when you hit a stud. Afterwards, you cover the holes with caulking and paint.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:10 PM on January 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Might want to let folks know where you are and the general age and construction of the house (or, is this an apartment? You said "building" instead of "house"). I'm wondering if you have drywall attached to thin strips of wood which is attached to the brick... are you in a warm climate where there might not be any insulation. And, are these interior or exterior walls.
posted by HuronBob at 2:11 PM on January 18, 2014

The magnet suggests that you might have metal framing studs in your walls. They are good for holding drywall, but you can't really hang heavy things off of them because they are thin (like a metal gutter), and drilling holes in them affects their structural stability.
posted by stopgap at 2:35 PM on January 18, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks. Also, the electrical box has wood on one side, but it looks like something similar to cinder block on the other side that comes almost to the drywall.

Another hint maybe... when I installed blinds a few years ago I had to use a masonry drill bit and the blue concrete screws to mount the blinds. It was the same thing: hollow behind the window trim and then rough stuff (but I was drilling straight up, and I'm not sure how strong that would be if I'm drilling sideways).

I did not see any insulation behind the electrical box, but it seems like there would be some because it gets plenty cold here. The building was built sometime around 1960 as far as I know and is an apartment building.

If there's metal framing, would there also be wood framing somewhere to provide more structural support?

Thanks again.
posted by powpow at 2:42 PM on January 18, 2014

Find an outlet, they are usually attached to studs. Find that stud. Measure off that stud to find others, a building built in 1960 should have studs 16" apart.
posted by sanka at 2:58 PM on January 18, 2014

You have plaster-lathe walls, not drywall.

It will be much more difficult to hang things properly.

When I lived in apartments with plaster walls, I did one of two things:

- hung small, lightweight things with tacks or command strips. It looks from that link like the Command line has come a long way and there are now all sorts of ways to hang things, not just the strips or ugly hooks that were around a few years ago.

- called a handyman to hang large heavy items like cabinetry, blinds, heavy mirrors, shelves, and the like. It's not that expensive, and that way you know it's done right.
posted by Sara C. at 3:24 PM on January 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Do you have baseboard, trim, or picture rail with visible nail heads in the wood? Often--but not always--it'll be nailed to the studs.
posted by hydrophonic at 3:52 PM on January 18, 2014

Nthing plaster walls. Do you have a picture rail from which you can hang things with hooks and wire? Most buildings with plaster walls do - you aren't meant to drill into plaster.
posted by amaire at 3:56 PM on January 18, 2014

If you can scrape the wall with your nail and it leaves a mark, it's drywall. If you break your nail before you leave a gouge, it's plaster.
posted by cooker girl at 4:05 PM on January 18, 2014

Response by poster: So, it's sounding like pretty good odds I've got plaster. No picture rail unfortunately.

The maddening thing is that there are nails or screws in the wall, aligned vertically, and now I can even see some of them. I thought tells you where a stud would be (where they attached the lathing to the studs) but no such luck.

Thanks for the input all, this has been helpful.
posted by powpow at 4:26 PM on January 18, 2014

Yes, it sounds like you have some sort of plaster and lathe or brick behind the drywall.

I recently helped demolish part of a plaster and lathe wall, and it did have nails at regular intervals to attach the lathe to the studs. But you say you have no studs behind the lathe?
posted by slidell at 6:29 PM on January 18, 2014

Response by poster: slidell, yes that's how it seems: no stud behind the lathe. I drill in, feel some resistance for 1/2 to 3/4 inch, maybe 1 inch if I did a good job aiming where I think there's a stud, then it feels hollow behind that.

It doesn't feel like drilling into a 2x4 behind the drywall/plaster portion...
posted by powpow at 6:41 PM on January 18, 2014

2nding Chocolate Pickle (line the holes up along where the shelf will go and no need to patch)

However, you may not have 2x4 studs behind the lathe. I've seen several old walls with only 1x2 vertical battens, anchored to the brick. It might be easiest to forget about trying to hit studs and just anchor into the brick with extra long screws. A nifty, cheap anchor system is to stick a short piece of 14 gauge wire into the hole in the brick (with the plastic still on it). It works way better than those plastic sleeves.
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:44 PM on January 18, 2014

no stud behind the lathe

Seems unlikely to me, i.e., the lathe must be attached to something. More info, as Huron Bob suggests above, might be helpful.
posted by she's not there at 11:44 PM on January 18, 2014

Sorry, I missed bonobothegreat's comment re lathe attached to 1x2s.
posted by she's not there at 11:48 PM on January 18, 2014

Response by poster: FYI for anybody who was dying to know...

I had a handyman come to fix the holes and take a look. He said it was drywall on top of plaster. We were able to find one stud. But even he was baffled and unable to find another one where it should have been (and where I needed it to be). So I'm going to take a totally different approach and give up on trying to hang heavy stuff from the stud. Maybe pipe shelves.

Thanks again.
posted by powpow at 12:37 PM on January 26, 2014

Strange! If you get really curious, I wonder if anyone ever submitted construction plans to the city. I deciphered a few framing mysteries at my house by going to the city permit counter and pulling all the old plans and permits for the property.
posted by slidell at 11:12 PM on January 27, 2014

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