How do we repair this unsightly hole in our wall?
August 19, 2016 6:41 PM   Subscribe

We tried to drill holes to put in a bookshelf, now have two unsightly holes and the wall anchor still doesn't want to go in. Help! We're really new at this stuff.

So we've been trying to do some drilling in order to mount some bookshelves. Unfortunately we are total amateurs at this and while one bookshelf was mounted with no problems, we now have two holes and are not sure how to repair/ actually get the wall anchor to go in. There seems to be something weird at the back of the hole, even though the stud finder says there is no stud there. Pictures here, including the one bookshelf we managed to get up and the two holes that we need to do something with. This is an old house (built 1905) in case that makes any difference. We have extra paint of the same color as the wall.
posted by peacheater to Home & Garden (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Those holes are small enough to spackle over. Any of these these will work. It's nice to use a spackle knife, but a credit card or something similar will be fine. The spackle will sometimes shrink a bit after it dries, so you may need a second coat, and it you're feeling ambitious you could lightly sand the area to smooth out any ridges before you paint. I've often found that smaller holes (yours might be just on the large size of smaller) don't even need to be painted if you've done a neat spackling job.

Stud finders have trouble with plaster and lathe walls because the plaster has varying thicknesses and the stud finder can register a thicker section of plaster as a stud (my own poorly tested theory). My technique has been to try to confirm possible studs by using the finder above and below the positive reading. The studs run up and down, so if the finder reads positive in one section, it should also be positive 12" above and below that same section.

Also, in a pinch and for a small hole, toothpaste is a great spackle substitute.
posted by defreckled at 6:52 PM on August 19, 2016 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: defreckled, thank you!

We need to actually hang in the same place to be symmetric with the other bookshelf - is that possible or should we try to make a hole somewhere else? Any idea why the anchor might not be going in?
posted by peacheater at 6:55 PM on August 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

What's the type of anchor you're using, and in what way will it "not go in?", ie it gets caught on something or something blocks it?
posted by Karaage at 7:07 PM on August 19, 2016

Full disclosure: my only expertise in this matter is that I live in an old house and have drilled/nailed/screwed many misguided holes into my walls.

Does the vertical stud finder technique indicate that there is a stud where you are trying to hang? If not, you may be trying to drill into a pipe. If so, it's conceivable that you've hit a nail on the inside (but I wouldn't think that is likely). Is there something that would require plumbing on the other side of the wall?

One thought if you really want the bookcases to be symmetric is that you could use a piece of wood like a 1 x 4 and paint it the color of your walls. You can attach the wood to the walls where the actual studs are located at the height of the top and bottom of the shelf and then screw the shelf brackets into the wood. But then that would leave a gap and may ruin the whole look you're trying to achieve. And I would want to make sure that I screwed the wood pieces into 2 separate studs for strength. And also consider that this may be a terrible idea.
posted by defreckled at 7:10 PM on August 19, 2016

Response by poster: Karaage, I've added a picture of the anchor to the original link. It seems to be hitting something (like a wooden beam). But the stud finder doesn't seem to be finding anything?
posted by peacheater at 7:19 PM on August 19, 2016

I need you to shine a flashlight into the hole and take a look. Don't drill further without looking. Pics if you can!
posted by jbenben at 7:24 PM on August 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: That's lathing. Those thin wooden strips run horizontally between the studs and then the layer of plaster was applied on top of that.

Lath is strong enough to drill lighter picture frames into, but any heavy duty hanging should go into a stud. If you're lucky enough to find one, they're almost always spaced 16" apart in standard US construction.
posted by hwyengr at 7:29 PM on August 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

Also, that's a drywall anchor and it's not meant to go into a stud. The plastic threads won't be able to dig into the wood.
posted by hwyengr at 7:36 PM on August 19, 2016 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: jbenben, I'm trying to look inside the hole with a flashlight but it seems too small to really see much.

hwyengr - I didn't know about lathing, thanks. Yes, we couldn't find any studs so we were using a drywall anchor. That's why we were so confused.
posted by peacheater at 7:38 PM on August 19, 2016

As mentioned above, plaster and lath walls are tough to use stud sensors with because of plaster density and because you might hit the gap between the lath, and you usually have to go a few grades up in price to get one that works on them.

Is there an outlet on that wall? Junction boxes are mounted to the sides of studs, so if you figured out on which side of the stud it was, you could measure 16" intervals to get the rest of your studs. The studs are either 1.5 or 2" wide, depending on whether it was a super high quality construction.
posted by hwyengr at 7:45 PM on August 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

You may want to take a look at the recommended anchors for plaster walls from This Old House, since regular drywall anchors are not going to work.

Also, my experience trying to spackle over holes in plaster-and-lathe walls of a similar vintage is that the plaster can get really crumbly, and often times more will flake off while I'm trying to repair the hole. So proceed with caution.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 7:54 PM on August 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

Spackling material-wise, we've had great experiences with 3M Patch Plus Primer. It can easily patch areas that size, and doesn't shrink when drying.
posted by zamboni at 8:13 PM on August 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The anchor you have (drywall) won't work on your wall (plaster).

You need a combination of a butterfly/toggle style bolt and regular wood screws. What you do is figure where you want to your hole to be. Then you use a small drill bit (like 1/8") and drill it into the wall a couple inches. If you hit a stud great, use a regular wood screw. If you hit an empty volume then you use a butterfly/toggle bolt. Enlarge the hole with an appropriate size bit for your bolt and then install according to package instructions.

There are a few different style of toggle bolt. The plastic ones tend to need a smaller hole. There are also some that create a permanent threaded hole rather than being single use. One brand of the latter is molly bolt.
posted by Mitheral at 8:28 PM on August 19, 2016 [7 favorites]

I really hope that the bottom of that bookshelf is resting on the floor, and that the part you are attaching to the wall is just to keep it vertical. If that is not the case, and these things are hanging from the walls, you need to be connected to studs to be able to hold the hundreds of pounds of textbooks you have on those shelves.
posted by rockindata at 9:10 PM on August 19, 2016 [5 favorites]

If you happen to have a decent-sized neodymium / rare earth magnet sitting around, they can be a good, cheap alternative to an electronic stud finder. The lath is nailed to the studs, so you can just move the magnet around the wall surface looking for vertical lines along which it will stick. If you do this, it's a good idea to put a piece of tape on the face of the magnet to reduce the tendency to mar the paint.

If the mounting location makes screwing directly into studs impossible then toggle bolts would be the next-best thing, but I'd be nervous that the weight of all those books might damage surrounding plaster over time.

When you go to patch the botched hole, make sure you first flake away the loose, fractured plaster around it, or else you'll end up with a high spot that'll be very difficult to make look right.
posted by jon1270 at 3:28 AM on August 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

Was about to suggest the rare earth magnets.

If you have an old hard drive you don't care about destroying you can disassemble it to pull one out.

I wrap my magnet in tissue paper and tie it on a string. Then I just glide it along the wall until it sticks to a nail. I go up and down from the nail to find a couple nails and then I'm pretty sure I have the stud line.
posted by noloveforned at 6:28 AM on August 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: rockindata, not to worry, the bookshelf does rest on the floor, and doesn't topple over even without the screws. However it's definitely more stable once screwed in.
posted by peacheater at 6:31 AM on August 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

Not menioned yet: now that you have that hole, straighten out a wire coat hanger and fish around. You should be able to find the studs on either side of the hole that way, and that will tell you whether they are indeed spaced at 16 inches, or something else like 24, which could be the case in an older house.

But, based on your answer to rockindata, maybe you really don't need to find the studs and could just use a metal screw to attach to the lath. Screwing into studs would be preferable, though. Falling bookshelves can hurt.
posted by beagle at 9:49 AM on August 20, 2016

Old houses can have either widevor narrow stud spacing and may have old gas piping in the walls. And I'd keep looking for studs because if you pull out lath or torque the plaster off it it's a big mess.
posted by clew at 9:42 PM on August 20, 2016

Response by poster: Follow up with how this all ended: We ended up getting a handyman over to repair the hole. It looked incredibly easy as others mentioned. However, now that we know about this lath and plaster stuff we are hesitant to make more holes ourselves for curtains etc. and are having someone over to do that as well. One person refused to make the holes for us above the window trim, and wanted to bore into the trim itself. However, another person has agreed to do it, so we shall see if live to regret that decisions.

Thanks all for your advice!
posted by peacheater at 12:54 PM on September 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

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