Most 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.
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 nails 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, it will eventually begin to sag and soon fall off the wall if the sagging continues unchecked.
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.
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!
Founder & Editor-in-Chief
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.