How To: Hang Things on Plaster Walls

By Scott Sidler March 7, 2016

how to hang things on plaster wallsMost of the handy devices for hanging things on our walls were designed for drywall not plaster. Everything from how to find a stud in plaster walls to what type of fasteners your should use is different.

Everyone wants to decorate their walls so learning how to hang things on plaster walls is important for every homeowner to learn. It’s important not just to make the decorating process simpler but to also avoid costly damage.

 

What’s the Real Difference Between Plaster and Drywall?

There are a few things that make the two different, especially related to attaching things to your walls.

  • Drywall is usually 1/2” thick compared to historic plaster which can range from 3/4” to just over 1” thick.
  • Plaster is much harder than drywall
  • Plaster is more brittle than drywall
  • Plaster has lath (wood, metal mesh, or rock lath) behind it that supports it whereas drywall has nothing behind it

All these differences mean that the two require different fasteners and fastening methods for decorating.

 

Picture rail
Picture rail

What About Picture Rail?

If you’re one of the fortunate ones you may have picture rail in some of the rooms of your home. Don’t confuse this little piece of molding at the top of your wall for some kind of miniature crown molding. It has a wonderful purpose and that is to protect your walls and make your life easier.

Picture rail was installed to give you a place to hang things like mirrors, art, pictures and anything else you want to decorate your walls with without putting holes in your plaster. Here’s how it works:

The picture rail is nailed to the studs giving it better holding strength and was installed toward the top of the wall. The height is often variable depending on local traditions and builder preference, but seeing picture rail anywhere from about 1/2” to 1’ below the ceiling is not uncommon.

Pictures were hung on longer wires or cord to whatever height preferred by the homeowner and hung on small hooks that latched onto the picture rail. This made the pictures easily movable left or right anywhere in the room, and to raise or lower them you simply change the length of the picture wire.

Picture rail works great for most decorations but don’t try hanging extremely heavy items from it. After all, it is just a piece of wood molding. If you think something is too heavy then it’s best to mount it in a more secure way to the wall.

Hanging Without Picture Rail

If you don’t have picture rail or don’t want to install some that’s just fine. I can still give you some great ideas for hanging on plaster walls.

First thing: Put away the hammer. Hammering nils into plaster is a quick way to knock plaster loose from the lath that is supporting it. You may not notice the damage but as plaster comes loose from the lath is will eventually begin to sag and soon fall off the wall if the sagging continues unchecked.

Light Items

Screws (and screws with masonry anchors for heavy items) are your best choice for hanging things on plaster walls without picture rail. For lighter items simply screwing into the plaster with a 1 1/4” drywall screw is usually enough to get the job done.

I prefer if the screw hits the wood lath behind the plaster for a little extra holding power to make sure things stay hung. You can usually tell when you hit the lath because the screw will grab better. If you miss, back the screw out and move the screw up (or down) about 1/2” and you’re sure to find the lath.

Heavy Items

Heavier items need more support and so I recommend screwing into a stud with a 2” screw. Stud finders rarely work on plaster but you can find the studs using the magnet trick.

Unfortunately, it seems that every time I need to hang something heavy there is never a stud where I need one. When that happens I am stuck using anchors. There are a number of anchors available, all rated by how much weight they can hold. Find one appropriate to your project and go to town.

Anchors aren’t my favorite because they require you to drill larger holes into plaster, but it is a reality of life in an old home. A word of caution, avoid the drywall anchors that are made to be installed without drilling. These self tapping anchors don’t work on hard plaster walls. To put any anchor into plaster you’ll need to drill first.

Once you’ve got everything hung just where you want it and your husband or wife decides it needs to be rearranged you can always fill small holes with spackle or even add some sand to the spackle to help it blend into sanded texture plaster.

If you did some big damage you can use my post How To: Patch Plaster to get your walls back on track.

Good luck and happy decorating!

 

20 thoughts on “How To: Hang Things on Plaster Walls”

  1. Hi Scott, thank you for this great blog. I’m in a pickle. I am renting a beautiful 1,300-sq ft top floor apartment of a house built in 1755. At one point in the late 1700s, it was a tavern and word has it that George Washington stopped in for a drink on his way through Connecticut. I moved in a few months ago, but the move process has been slow for various reasons. I want to make it as “home like” as possible for my kids, but most of the walls are plaster, and my lease INSISTS on nails. My living room was the ballroom of the tavern, and really needs some things on the wall. I’d be breaking the lease if I used any screws/anchors OR adhesives. There is no picture rail (cool idea). When I tried nailing in some cool black wrought-iron candle holders (kind of heavy), I heard all of the lathe behind the wall fall down behind the wall. I also was bumping into something that would not let the nail go in — tried several places. I’ve been too “gun-shy” to hang anything else except the lightest items or things on a few newer drywall walls. Thank you in advance for any advice! (I think my landlords have had bad experience with previous tenants “putting big holes in the wall” w/ anchors.) Look forward to your insight!!!

    1. In your unique situation I would explain your predicament to the landlord and see if they have any suggestions. Clearly they don’t want the Plaster damaged but if nails are causing more damage then that won’t do either.

      1. Thank you, Scott. I suppose that is the best way to approach it. When I did so initially, however, they said that as long as I used “picture hangers” (with the gold-colored, large-headed nail — or nails — going into the wall at an angle over hook underneath), I would be fine. Those hangers don’t work for everything, though, such as my black candle holders. Luckily I have not done any real (visible) damage — just heard the lathe “fall down” to the story below. Creepy sound. Anyway, I truly appreciate your time and advice!

  2. What is the safest and most secure way to attached seven antique double glass door tall bookcases to plaster walls. There is a strong fabric strap atop each bookcase for the same ole purpose of securing them to the plaster wall before adding the books into the bookcases. They are much taller than me and outweigh me by a lot. Please advise. Thanks in advance., Jam.

  3. Thanks for the blog, Scott! Question: would you say that the methods you’re describing here would be just as good if the plaster is directly on a brick party wall (rather than lath)?

  4. Thanks for the blog. I’m currently trying to hang a picture on a space where I get through the plaster, the lath, and then after about a 1/4 inch, I hit a piece of metal. It’s about half a foot away from the outlet horizontally- is there a connection there? Trying to figure out how big this thing is without punching a bunch of holes in the plaster…

  5. Thank you. This is very helpful! We are in an apartment in a pre-war building and these tips have worked in most places throughout our home. However, I have tried to hang a paper towel holder several times now in one location in the kitchen have butchered the wall. Luckily it is in a low visibility spot. It seems to be plaster, but with no wood lathe that I can feel/see regardless of moving up/down/left right. It appears to be plaster for about 3/4″ then hollow and then something with resistance, so nothing to catch on to. I am wondering what you might suggest. I am wondering about using a decorative piece of wood to attach in four corners and then mount the holder to the wood, but I am not sure if this will be strong enough given the amount of use. Open to ideas…

  6. Could you advise on hanging a roman shade from plaster ceiling portion of a recessed window. I want to mount the shade with an inside mount and only seem to find lath – no solid wood. Will wing style toggle bolts be ok and if so, what size? I am concerned about weakening the lath due to size of hole required. My boards 24X 2.5″ and 44 by 2.5″

  7. I usually use OOK professional hangers. The blue steel nails are very thin and surprisingly strong and only seem to bend when hitting other metal. I can usually twist them out and not damage the plaster and have only a slightly larger than pin hole remaining. I am sure it wouldnt work well for a bad plaster job. perhaps I am just lucky 🙂

  8. Can you recommend a specific anchor for items around 50lbs? I feel like the options are overwhelming when I look at the wall of anchors at Home Depot. Also, any tips for mounting a TV to textured plaster walls?

    Btw – I love your blog. I live in a 1924 craftsman & I’ve learned a lot about working on my house.

  9. I have lived with plaster walls most of my life and what has worked for me is to use fine finishing nails for lightweight stuff and pre-drill a small hole with a masonry bit and use plastic anchors and screws for heavier items. Plaster walls are rather thick, so I try to avoid anchors if I can. An exploratory small hole can help you figure out how thick the plaster is (with the lath it is around 2″ but can be thicker, and I have found some plaster walls covered with drywall and multiple layers of wallcovering in my house). If the plaster crumbles on you, move the hole at least an inch or two away and patch. I like plaster of paris in layers to patch bigger holes, sometimes with a piece of cardboard or mesh poked in to help it hold.

    In a pinch, I have actually chiseled out a chunk of painted surface at least the size of a quarter (preferably in a spot behind a cover plate or a picture or low behind a piece of furniture) and used that to match the old paint color. Then I scrub the old wall and patch, prime and spot paint. My house has 50-year old Benjamin Moore paint, and I have been able to match most of the colors, saving a lot of work when we first moved in.

    While cleaning walls isn’t fun, I used a TSP substitute and a natural bristle brush and loads of old towels, working from bottom to top), it is a good idea to do so before painting anyway. I liked the existing colors and they looked so good after washing that we only painted a few rooms and some ceilings rather than the whole house. The only room I couldn’t match exactly was the sunroom which had a very pale and very chalky light green paint. All brands of flat paint I tried had too much of a sheen to match, and the color was so pale as to be very difficult to get just right. A light hand to feather in the color can be helpful on the second coat, and sometimes a bit of light sanding does the trick.

      1. Chad, it is actually a specific molding called picture rail. It has a lip on the top backside so that when nailed to the wall there is still a gap for the hooks to hang on.

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