What do contractors know about my walls that I don't?
November 4, 2018 1:47 PM   Subscribe

My house was built in 1950. It's a disaster every time I try to mount anything on a wall. Contractors come in and do it just fine. What am I missing?

Problem one is that I don't know how to positively identify how my walls are constructed. Is it plaster? Dry wall? Something else? All I know is that every time I try to put a hole in one larger than a picture hanger, I wind up with a gaping maw of crumbling dust that I then just have to spackle over and give up on the entire project. It's a small house and the advice to use wall space efficiently sounds totally unpossible because I can't even hang a curtain rod without destroying several square inches of wall. I've tried to identify studs using various methods (stud-finders, magnets) and every now and then I find one, but not in a regular enough pattern to be useful. I've tried using drywall anchors and those just seen to magnify the problem.

Meanwhile, we're currently having our kitchen completely renovated. The contractors were able to securely mount suspension rails for the cabinets anywhere they darn well wanted. It's so frustrating to me that I can't accomplish this basic household task that is apparently perfectly doable if you know the proper incantation or whatever.

Any advice here? Has anyone successfully conquered difficult walls? Tell me your secrets!
posted by soren_lorensen to Home & Garden (26 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'd say try harder to find studs. Stud finders that I've used don't seem to give terribly consistent results, but it's still possible to narrow down the real location of the studs by 1. extrapolating over multiple passes and 2. keeping in mind the fact that the studs should be spaced 16" apart (I think this is true for construction of that era; somebody correct me if not). I've used drywall anchors and find drilling into studs both simpler and more inspiring of confidence that they'll hold.
posted by Expecto Cilantro at 1:56 PM on November 4, 2018 [2 favorites]

Nthing that you have to find the studs, and this is clearly what the contractors are doing. A 1950-era house is surely drywall, and you can't hang anything with more than quite a light weight (e.g., lighter than much framed art) on drywall without going through to one of the studs. Curtain rods or something like that? Forget it. You have to screw those to the studs.
posted by slkinsey at 2:03 PM on November 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

Old plaster (you probably call it drywall) often ends up more brittle and crumbly than new, which may be part of the problem.

But yes, you have to find the studs. I've long given up on stud finders and just tap the plaster, then making a couple of very small test holes to be sure.
posted by deadwax at 2:10 PM on November 4, 2018

Something else to consider with stud finding are framing techniques - for example, around a window or doorway there's going to be additional framing which will break the 16" rule for stud seperation. Try searching for images like "reno rough in" - an example is here or here (our house - some images there are around a non-structural door-way). Additional bonus points if you know where the pipes/vents/laundry shoots are. Since I've opened up walls I've gotten way better at stud-finding.

Also, if you are dealing with plaster it's generally thicker - lots of drywall is 3/8", while plaster might be 5/8" or thicker. Generally that translates to stud finders not working as well.
posted by nobeagle at 2:44 PM on November 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

You mentioned that your house is small. That may be a complicating factor. For instance, when walls are being erected normally studs are put every 16" on center, but if the wall "run" is interrupted by other intersecting walls, HVAC ducts, doors, etc. it can throw that off.

Recently in my home I had a terrible time because the closet wall was the other side of the cement block garage rear wall, and then there was a staircase on one side and the return wall on the other. I could find no rhyme or reason to the places they put the studs, but I could understand it was an odd location. So I just used an awl and mallet to put experimental holes in (luckily it was a metal track to hold wire shelving, so the track would cover my wrong guesses).

If your house is a standard model in your town it's also possible the pro's worked on houses similar to your home and just remember (or called a friend who knew).

On preview, my story just confirms what nobeagle said.
posted by forthright at 2:46 PM on November 4, 2018

There are tricks to find studs. There are stud finders, which are hand held metal detectors to find the nails or screws. Then there is tapping the wall. There is looking for outlets- they are often mounted to a stud on one side. Then there is the fact that things may be off a bit. Actually, it generally is off a bit.

I’m mounting TVs today using these methods. I guessed wrong a few times and now there are extra holes in the wall. But I put them underneath where the mounts go so no one is gonna see them. A lot of construction is building things in a way that when it comes together it looks nice. That’s what separates the amateur’s bookshelf from the professional’s, for example.
posted by Monday at 3:00 PM on November 4, 2018

All of the advice above is correct, but also you can try to use a better drywall anchor. These, for example, have been godsends for me; easy to install, high-capacity, and well made. Vastly superior to the usual little plastic expander thingies.
posted by aramaic at 3:44 PM on November 4, 2018 [2 favorites]

Our house was built in 1950 as well, and we have lath and plaster in many parts of the house. Stud finders do not work on those areas. The fact that you said "crumbling dust" makes me guess that you also have lath and plaster instead of drywall. One of the rooms in our house that does have drywall is the kitchen - rooms that have been gut-renovated since the house was built tend to have drywall (kitchen, bathrooms, finished basement), but rooms that have not been renovated still have lath and plaster (living room, bedrooms, hallways, stairwells). So that could be one reason the contractors are having more luck - stud finders are working in the room where they are working, but the rooms you've been working haven't been updated.

Tapping and lots of tiny holes is the answer for us. We are about to embark on a built-in bookshelves project in the living room, so I feel your pain on this.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 3:49 PM on November 4, 2018 [2 favorites]

You may have lathe & plaster walls which, can confirm, crumble into mess when you try to hang anything with a nail.

You may find that you need a small horizontal piece of wood anchored to studs, which you then anchor your piece to. For smaller pieces you might be able to use specialty (but not terribly expensive) hangers.

Talk to your local hardware store or art store to find the appropriate hangers.
posted by vignettist at 4:05 PM on November 4, 2018

I'd bet you have plaster of some sort. Gyproc is easily identified by the paper layers sandwiching the gypsum and it doesn't sound like you have that. For anything significantly massy toggle anchors of some sort are the way to go. For light things I like spring wire hangers cause they only need a tiny hole and are very secure. If you'll be hanging a lot of pictures in an area a picture rail is a common solution.

slkinsey: " A 1950-era house is surely drywall, and you can't hang anything with more than quite a light weight ("

This really varies by region and even neighbourhood. About 50% of the 50's house here are plaster (I guess just depending on how busy/expensive the plasterers were compared to the rockers at the time and builder/customer preference).

All your studs may not be regularly spaced. Builds without any sheet material (plywood or gyproc) involved (not unheard of even in 1950) aren't as constrained to 4' or 8' modules and it isn't unusual to find, say a five foot wall with 3 or 4 evenly spaced studs.
posted by Mitheral at 4:13 PM on November 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

The trick for me was using larger, harder/stronger brass nails to go through the plaster and lath. I think they were actually called plaster picture hangers
posted by postel's law at 4:59 PM on November 4, 2018

A trick I used in the ancient era before stud finders -
Take a wire coathanger bend it in a "C" shape but with sharp corners. Make sure the two end legs are the same length.
Make experimental hole, slip one leg of the hanger in and rotate till it hits something solid. One edge of the stud is now right under the end of the leg on your side of the wall. Stud faces will most likely by 1 1/2" wide by the time your house is built.
posted by rudd135 at 5:22 PM on November 4, 2018 [3 favorites]

If you have wooden lath and plaster (Which… it just looks different from drywall, but also if you get up into your attic or behind your kneewalls or whatever you'll see the backside of whatever you have. Also also, do you see lath when you rip crumbly chunks out of your walls? If so then you have lath and plaster, if not then you don't.) a rare earth magnet on a string will show you where the nails that were used to attach the lath to your studs are.

Stud-finders aren't worth crap, if you ask me. Never met one that I got along with.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:40 PM on November 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

I’m in a early 60s apartment that has walls made from a 2” thick gyprock material that I've never seen anywhere else. I've seen plaster over metal lathe panels from that time period too.

If it is plasterboard over studs, I've found that the surest way of locating the studs is to drill a series of holes with your thinnest drill bit. You'll know when you've hit a stud, so drilling either side of that will outline it's exact position. I try to line the holes up so that they'll be hidden by whatever I'm installing. If thst's not possible, the holes are so tiny that a thin pass of spackle will make them practically invisible.
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:24 PM on November 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

Another option (which I have in my place) is picture rail. Here's a link from Bob Vila: picture rail. Very common in older homes, esp. on plaster walls. I found the picture rail at Home Depot but not the hooks; those I had to order online. Why would they carry the rail but not the hooks? I have no idea. Anyhow, you put up the rail and then you can hang stuff from it anywhere you want without making more holes in your wall, and you can move it around easily.
posted by MovableBookLady at 6:55 PM on November 4, 2018

My 1953 house has drywall, but two panels thick, everywhere. No typical stud finder gets me any useful info; I had to measure and estimate to find studs by drilling thin holes every half inch until I hit a stud. Then I got a much more expensive professional grade stud finder and it's relatively easy.
posted by davejay at 8:03 PM on November 4, 2018

Oh and props to Rudd135, I've used that trick to good effect but had forgotten. Wire hangers for the win.
posted by davejay at 8:04 PM on November 4, 2018

Datapoint: I have lath-and-plaster walls over a century old, and I have no problem putting in screws, nails, etc, without making fist-size holes.

Although concrete could vary widely in composition, quality & durability according to local formulas, oh boy can it, by 1950 plaster should have been pretty standard.

I would concur with the above commenters who suggested using toggle bolts to mount damn near anything that picture rail couldn't. You have to drill a pilot hole large enough to fit the bolt-head through, which also has the advantage that you might find a stud by accident.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 8:42 PM on November 4, 2018

Buy a good modern stud finder. The one I use makes me feel I have X-ray vision. Buy long good quality wood screws. You will have no more trouble. Mounting stuff on drywall without putting a proper screw into a stud is amateur hour bullshit.

The exception is lightweight pictures which are OK with picture hooks. Any TV, shelf or earthquake bracket though, should have a decent length screw into a stud.
posted by w0mbat at 9:05 PM on November 4, 2018

Or just get a drill with a long but narrow bit and make test holes till you find a stud then work 16 inches off of that. Use tapping to get a rough idea then drill to fine tune
posted by Ferreous at 9:09 PM on November 4, 2018

Please don’t drill random holes in your wall to find studs. Doesn’t work so well when you drill into a water pipe or an electrical cable. Get a stud finder.
posted by w0mbat at 9:14 PM on November 4, 2018

a rare earth magnet on a string will show you where the nails that were used to attach the lath to your studs are.

We are in a 1914 lath and plaster house and this is how we find studs. Cheap and easy.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:40 PM on November 4, 2018

we're currently having our kitchen completely renovated.

Ask them. Seriously: ask them. It isn't proprietary knowledge!
posted by DarlingBri at 5:06 AM on November 5, 2018

2nd just ask. And if you have plaster, congratulations! It requires more work for hanging pictures but you can patch it much more easily than replacing drywall.

There are a couple ways to hang lightweight stuff without even putting holes in the walls. Do you, by chance, have a picture rail? That is the most elegant solution often found in older houses for hanging light items like pictures. Another thing I've used well is those 3M Command Hooks. I hang all sorts of things on those from keys to framed photos to pots and pans.

If you still want to put holes in the wall, you need to find out what is behind your plaster (wooden lath? masonry?), find out where that is (good tips above) and use a toggle or another type of anchor that works for plaster.
posted by epanalepsis at 6:37 AM on November 5, 2018

The stud finding trick that worked for me recently was to give up on the wall and look at the baseboards. If you can find a nail in those visually or with a magnet, that is a high probability of a stud. Especially if the baseboard nails are at suspiciously regular intervals.
posted by Wulfhere at 7:54 AM on November 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

nth - just ask the people working on your kitchen
posted by agog at 11:18 AM on November 5, 2018

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