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How To: Hang Things on Plaster Walls

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 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.

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!

 

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65 thoughts on “How To: Hang Things on Plaster Walls

  1. What type of anchor would you recommend for plaster and lath wall? Is it okay to screw it into the wooden lath? I’m in a 1905 house that was gut renovated in 2019, I’m almost certain it’s a plaster wall because of the texture and because I can see wood behind the wall that’s in between where the studs are!

  2. We took down a huge mirror and replacing it with a small one. There is a lag bolt in the wall. The new mirror needs to come down about 6 inches lower. Is there anything made like a heavy extension to hang over the lag bolt to hang something lower that will attach to the mirror wire? So a hole to go over the lag bolt and extends 6″ with a hanger to go under the wire.

  3. I heard stainless steel nails are the way to go to hang paintings on a plaster wall. And putting a piece of tape on the wall before hammering the nail. True or myth?

  4. Yeah, I have had them work for a couple months on my plaster walls then just fall off….and yes I carefully followed instructions!!, lol

  5. Thanks for these helpful suggestions. In the downstairs of my 1924 home, I have the added complication of textured plaster. I have found that steel nails with hooks work very well for most objects.

    1. Climber here – I wouldn’t recommend it. The wall part of a climbing wall tends to take a lot of abuse (unintended kicks, etc.) and would likely damage the walls. Also, the constant flexing of weighting & unweighting the blocks/climbing holds would likely crack the plaster & lath as well.

  6. I live in an apartment with plaster walls and agonized over picture hanging until I got turned on to Command Strips. I was nervous about them holding the weight of heavier frames mirrors etc but these things are a wonder. No drilling….no damage to the walls…easily moveable and removable if eventually moving on. Something you may want to explore instead of the hardship of drilling. Found at any hardware/home improvement store.

  7. Hi! I have a 1928 “Tudor” light home with lots of lath and plaster left from various remodels. I’m looking to hang a rod from the ceiling to hang my plants from (not unlike a pot rack or a ceiling-mounted closet rod). Right now I’m looking at copper plumbing as the material, with its respective connections. I assume I should find the joists and hang both ends from respective joists? I understand finding joists/studs behind path and plaster is difficult, so tricks of the trade would be appreciated. 🙂 Thanks!

  8. Great article, my lath is metal mesh which makes it difficult to find a stud, after reading your response to readers questions and article, it appears I should use plastic sleeves when hanging anything of lighter weight and the plaster on an exterior wall (brick) to use a masonry anchor

  9. That’s for the great post! I found your article while researching fastening a Murphy bed to lath and plaster. We have a 1906 Victorian and watch to add additional sleeping space. Do you think this is reasonable? Or will the weight be too much?

    1. Hi Chandler,

      So glad you found our content and found it helpful. Honestly, it’s really hard for us to advise accurately without seeing the space in person. Our best recommendation is to use our directory ( https://thecraftsmanblog.com/directory/ ) to find a licensed preservationist in your area and have them give you a recommendation after seeing it in person. I hope that helps and we look forward to hearing more about your beautiful 1906 Victorian!

      -Alyssa at The Craftsman Blog

  10. I just bought a 1921 Craftsman house and your website is absolutely invaluable for helping me restore it! I almost made the mistake of getting all new windows. Now, I’ll be restoring them myself next spring. I’m so glad I found your site before I made such a horrendous mistake!

    At previous apartments I’ve rented, I wasn’t allowed to use anchors. I’m an avid collector and have several framed paintings that weigh around 30-35 lbs each. I’ve always used Wall Dog screws to hold them into the walls when a stud wasn’t available. They’re screws with built in anchors. Do you think these would work on my nearly 100 year old plaster or should I bite the bullet and use toggle anchors? I’ve already got several places that will require plaster repair and don’t want to make more work for myself than I already have.

  11. Do you have a number of pounds where “light” becomes “heavy”? What limit can 1-1/4″ drywall screws safely hold?

  12. Hi Scott,
    Just moved into an older apartment building in Brooklyn that was built on the site of Ebbets Field immediately after it was torn down. The walls are less than an inch of plaster in front of what is likely solid brick. I’m concerned that the anchors you mention above are too long and will bump into the brick. Do you have any suggestions for hanging artwork? Thanks!

    1. I have walls like that (Philadelphia). The party (side) walls of my house are plaster skimmed over brick. Very common.

      To hang things in this type of wall I’ve found that using either a plastic sleeve anchor or lead masonry anchor works fine. Use a hammer drill to make quick work of the brick/plaster. For small art I just hang off the screw. For bigger pieces I will screw a small flat hook in the wall.

      This method works for hanging other things your wall as well.

  13. Great post! I was tearing my hair out trying to hang some closet shelves in my extremely old Brooklyn apartment and your post (and links to other parts of your blog) were exactly what I need to re-motivate. Speaking of hair, when I accidentally busted open a large hole in the wall, I discovered what seems like horsehair in the paster. Is this typical of houses from a particular decade? If so, how old could these walls be?

    Also, do you have any advice on installing cleats on plaster walls that are not flat in the slightest? Do you have a trick for shimming, or any other approaches you like to take?

    Thanks in advance!

    1. Horsehair was often used in plaster to strengthen it from the 1700s up until the 1940s. Just make sure the clear is level. If it is on a rough surface just make sure the screws have enough purchase to hold things where they belong and you don’t use too short of a screw.

  14. Once you know where you plan on hanging the picture, use a tape measure to determine where the screw will go. Measure where the picture loop is on the back of the frame, then measure out the same dimensions on the wall.

  15. I am looking to hang plastic film on my windows for the winter. Each year that I have done this I have had to resort to the awful nail gun to actually get them to hang which obviously damages the player around the windows and honestly I don’t know if the plastic is actually efficient at that point because there isn’t a seal. I’ve tried the double sided tape, but it won’t stick. All of my walls have an exterior brick on the outside. Thanks on advance for your help!

  16. Hi Scott, great article. I’ve just got new pvc windows put in with a deep (6 – 8 inches) window sill/frame. Previous venetian blinds were held by brackets that were drilled into timber window frames. Cannot drill into PVC so am left with the plaster wall and ceiling around the window. I’ve tried putting standard screws into the ceiling part and sides and in most cases see the plaster crumble and the screw falling out, or it goes in but continues spinning. Maybe one instance where a screw has sat flush. Obviously concerned that these will fall with the weight of the blinds. Any thoughts on how i remedy? Should I be using a toggle bolt?

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