What went wrong with my self-drilling drywall anchor?
November 25, 2019 1:12 PM   Subscribe

I am used to the non-threaded plastic drywall anchors where you drill a pilot hole and then hammer it in. My hardware store insisted on selling me the threaded plastic anchors that you are supposed to screw in, saying they were better. I tried screwing one in and instead of going in smoothly, it pulled the crumbly drywall up making a small drywall mountain/volcano. Please help me install curtains! I live on the first floor and everyone can see into my house!

For some reason nobody else seems to have had this problem on the internet, or at least I cannot find the correct search terms to describe my problem.

Details: old (1880s) building, Brooklyn, trying to use EZ anchor brand nylon/plastic threaded anchors

- I don't think the walls are plaster. I know "crumbly" is a red flag, but I mean more like, "crumbly with a paper layer on top."

- I didn't overtighten the fastener. It started "pulling up" the surrounding wall about 1/3 of the way in and I removed it before it was flush with the wall.

- I suppose I could have pushed/tapped it in further/more firmly before beginning to screw it in.

- I did use a battery-powered screwdriver instead of a manual one. This seems like the most likely culprit?

Bonus question: would drilling a pilot hole before installing this type of fastener make it work better?
posted by sparkling to Home & Garden (16 answers total)
Have you checked whether there's something hard behind the drywall (like a stud or electrical box) that could be blocking the anchor?
posted by mekily at 1:15 PM on November 25, 2019 [5 favorites]

Seconding mekily. If it started to screw in, then the tip hit an obstruction, the thread probably started augering the drywall/plaster into your little "mountain".
posted by notsnot at 1:17 PM on November 25, 2019

If a wood stud behind the drywall caused this problem, then you can probably screw in the same spot and go directly into that without using the plastic anchor. If you are putting the anchor in just outside the width of the window (as I imagine you would for curtains), that is a pretty standard place for a wall stud. But you probably want to drill a pilot hole for that. If the drill bites into wood, you should be good.
posted by exogenous at 1:26 PM on November 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

I mean more like, "crumbly with a paper layer on top."

That's a pretty exact description of standard drywall sheet.

Thirding the idea that something behind your drywall is obstructing the progress of your EZ anchor. You need to find out what that is. If it's a timber stud, your best bet is probably just to drill a hole in it and use a standard wood screw to fix your curtain bracket, ignoring the plasterboard over the top entirely; depending on how wide a thing you're fixing in place with that screw, you might even get away with not bothering to spackle up your little volcano.

If it's metal then chances are that it's something electricity-related, perhaps a conduit, and you'd need to re-think your mounting locations.
posted by flabdablet at 1:28 PM on November 25, 2019 [3 favorites]

Nthing-- sounds like you hit something. I use these anchors all the time and when this happens (assuming it hit a stud) I ditch the anchor (usually the tip is bent when it comes out) and I just put the mating screw in without an anchor. I can usually tell if it "bites" in to something solid or not.

You can head this off by drilling a small (<1/8") pilot hole that will work for either a plain wood screw or any type of anchor-- it'll be obvious if the drill bit hits something solid.
posted by supercres at 1:28 PM on November 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

Just some validation for you: I've always had that problem with threaded drywall anchors.

(The replies so far help me understand why, but I'm so turned off by them that I much prefer the drill-a-hole-then-mallet-them-in anchors.)
posted by homodachi at 1:50 PM on November 25, 2019 [3 favorites]

I hate those stupid plastic drywall anchors. Unless I drill a massive hole to start they go halfway in and then break off. The metal ones are much better, I suggest getting some of those.
posted by Cuke at 1:53 PM on November 25, 2019

You’ll hit this problem if your wall is drywall over plaster and lath, which is relatively common in older places.
posted by mhoye at 3:10 PM on November 25, 2019 [5 favorites]

The good/bad news is that if everyone is right about there being a stud or other hard instruction, you would've run into a problem using your kind of drywall anchors too. In fact, you might've realized it later (those are designed to expand when the screw is screwed in, so you might not have realized you had a problem until it couldn't expand (because it was in a hole in a stud instead of in the open air behind a drywall sheet) and the screw couldn't go in) and had more of a headache removing it.
posted by slidell at 3:47 PM on November 25, 2019

First, watch this.

Then, consider what you're hanging. You don't need the strongest possible anchors, necessarily, for curtains.

Can you anchor directly to a stud or masonry? Then no or different anchors, respectively.

Echoing comments upthread about hitting a solid obstruction. My own experience has been that the most accurate means of determining what's behind the drywall is: knowledge of the building, tapping with my knuckles, drilling 1/8" holes and electronic stud finders -- in that order.

Did you drill too small a hole (or no pilot hole)? That could cause the problem you're seeing.

Drywall comes in different thicknesses. Depending on the anchors you're using, you may need to make sure they match your drywall. (I don't think the auger-type ones you're describing suffer from this.)

I usually use these, which I find offer a good combination of strength, foolproofness, mostly benign failure modes and removability a few years later when I decide to move the art around again.
posted by sourcequench at 5:40 PM on November 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

Good suggestions above. You can also try the ceiling. Maybe screw two large ceiling hooks into the ceiling and lay a narrow rod into them, after making a small pilot hole and tapping in the anchors they come with. I’ve also heard of using those circular hooks that you can suspend bikes with.

Anyway, please update when you figure it out, I’d be interested in knowing what worked for you.
posted by cartoonella at 9:48 PM on November 25, 2019

Thanks, everyone! The answer was that there was indeed a stud behind the "volcano-ed" area, and that there were in fact studs directly on both sides of the windows where I wanted to attach my curtain brackets (confirmed by knocking on wall & subsequently drilling a pilot hole and getting wood dust).

This makes intuitive sense to me when I think about how buildings are constructed, but panicking on a ladder clearly short-circuited my rational brain. The curtains are now up, and sturdily, without having to use the anchors! Will take all your excellent advice into consideration when inserting drywall anchors in the future.
posted by sparkling at 8:12 AM on November 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

panicking on a ladder clearly short-circuited my rational brain

You're not alone by any means. I don't even need to be up a ladder; just working with my hands above my head is enough to do that to me.

There is really no sound reason why drilling holes and fixing screws high up like that makes me seethingly furious at every little frustration while simultaneously shutting down my ability to solve all the tiny problems that lead to those, but it did, every single time, until I just accepted it as a personal limitation that I'd need to work around instead of trying to beat into submission.

Glad you got a good result.
posted by flabdablet at 10:26 AM on November 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

My hardware store insisted on selling me the threaded plastic anchors that you are supposed to screw in, saying they were better

Yeah, they're really not. They're OK if you use them within their limitations, but you need to know what those are.

The video that sourcequench linked above would be well worth your time, as would this one.
posted by flabdablet at 10:35 AM on November 26, 2019

Yeah, they're really not.

You don't think so? It seems like they tend to have slightly higher weight limits. Plus you don't have to get out a drill. I'm a fan, personally.
posted by slidell at 1:18 PM on November 26, 2019

It seems like they tend to have slightly higher weight limits

They certainly tend to have higher claimed weight limits than the drill-and-shove-in types, but their actual weight bearing capacity is really sensitive to how they're installed.

If everything goes perfectly with a self-threaded insert, and it does manage to bite nicely into the plasterboard without causing radiating cracks and/or a crumble zone, then it will indeed work quite well. And they are, as you point out, convenient to install.

But there are many ways that installation can fail to go perfectly, from the issue of having no gap behind the plasterboard that prompted this question, to a teeny tiny bit of overtightening on installation causing cracks and crumbling that might not even be noticed but still reduce plasterboard's already low strength to very near zero. And it's hard to spot that kind of damage, because by design these inserts crush and displace a fair volume of plaster as they screw on in. Using an electric screwdriver to install them rather than a hand one, which many people do in defiance of the manufacturer's written instructions for the sake of speed and convenience, also makes this failure mode much much more likely.

And when they do fail, they rip big ugly holes in the plasterboard on their way out. The straight-ridged poke-them-in-a-hole types, by comparison, tend to fail by slipping out of the board, leaving a fairly tidy hole that's often perfectly re-usable with another anchor of somewhat stronger design, like a toggle or a molly bolt.

That said: it's my considered opinion that mounting anything to plasterboard that requires you to think much about the rated load bearing capacity of the inserts you're using is edging pretty rapidly into Doing It Wrong. Plasterboard is primarily a decorative material and its structural qualities just suck. It has bugger-all tensile strength and it's brittle as hell so when it fails under load it will usually do so quickly and without warning. The old-school horsehair-reinforced lath and plaster that it superseded would easily deal with much worse abuse than plasterboard.

For mirrors and pictures and whatnot pretty much any plasterboard insert is fine, but I would personally be glancing apprehensively upward every time I walked under a wall-mounted TV or video projector, for example, if I knew that it was only held up by plasterboard - even using the properly chunky anchors reviewed in the second video I linked above. For anything serious (including curtains that are going to be subject to frequent haulings-about, dangling cats and so forth), in my DIY world it's studs or GTFO.
posted by flabdablet at 1:10 AM on November 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

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