So, you bought an old home. And I bet that not once in the buying/renting process did you think about the walls. But now you’re standing there with a hammer and a nail, and wondering if you can even hang things from plaster walls.
Luckily, items can be hung from plaster walls, and in some cases, it’s easier to hang things from plaster walls than it is drywall. The wood lath behind the plaster is strong and can support up to 25 lbs of weight, given the screw is driven directly into the wood.
Lets chat a little bit more about the structure of plaster walls, so you understand why this works, then we’ll go into a bit more detail!
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What Are Plaster Walls?
Plaster walls are an old type of wall that was used in the 1800s and early 1900s. There are three layers to any plaster wall: The stud layer, the plaster layer, and the lath layer. The plaster layer sticks to the lath layer, which is nailed to the stud layer to secure the wall.
A few years ago, I cut open my plaster wall to add a doorway, and grabbed this shot:
The plaster wall on the opposite side of the wall is still clearly intact, and you can see the different layers. The wooden lath layer is attached to the studs, and the hardened goop seeping through the lath is the plaster which makes up the wall on the other side of the lath.
This is what’s behind your plaster wall.
Hanging Pictures On Plaster Walls
So now, knowing what’s back there, realize that there’s an awful lot of lath. That’s a great thing for hanging stuff on your wall, because the lath is strong! Not quite as strong as a stud, but strong enough that you can hang pictures, curtain rods (see my experience here,) and other light/medium heavy objects from the lath itself, without having to bother with an anchor.
Step 1: Identify Where You’ll Hang the Picture
It’s much better if you have a little bit of flexibility, particularly the ability to move up or down an inch.
And, you’ve probably figured this out, but since plaster walls can be finicky, if you’ve got a crack in the wall, it’s also a great distractor to hang your picture on top of the crack. If you can cover the whole thing up, even better.
Once you’ve figured out where you want to hang the picture, mark the spot with a pencil.
Step 2: Find the Lath
Drill a small hole in the wall, and note if you hit wood or not.
If you hit wood, the drill will continue requiring pressure. If you hit air, the drill will suddenly lurch forward into the wall. When hanging light objects on plaster walls, you’re hoping to hit wood.
If you hit wood, awesome, move to the next step!
If not, you probably found a space in between the pieces of lath. Move your drill up or down about 1/2,” and try again. You should hit wood this time!
Pro Tip: Plaster walls dull drill bits very quickly. I keep a “plaster wall bit” on hand that only gets used on the plaster. That way, I’m not constantly ruining drill bits every time I want to hang something on the wall.
Step 3: Drive the Screw Into the Wall
If you’re using a picture hanger, secure it to the wall using a screw (not a nail. You want that screw to grip the wood, and a nail will just sit in the hole you drilled.)
Otherwise, drive the screw into the wall, and hang your picture directly from the screw.
Hanging Other Light Items From Plaster Walls
Step 1: Find the Lath
Decide the ideal location for your hanger, and mark it with a pencil. Drill a small hole in the wall, and note to yourself if you hit wood or not, as described in the last section.
If you hit wood, great! Otherwise, move up or down a 1/2″ and try again.
Step 2: Drive Your Screw Into the Wall
Drive the screw into the wall where you drove the pilot hole. Just to be extra safe, pay attention and make sure the screw drives into the lath like you expected.
Add the hanger/bracket/whatever you’re trying to secure, and you’re good to go!
Hanging Heavy Objects From Plaster Walls
Heavy objects are tricky because they need to be hung from the studs. With drywall, the studs are easy to find because the nails securing the drywall to the stud are typically just under a little paint and joint compound. It’s easy to find those nails with a magnet, which helps you find the studs.
However, with plaster walls, the nails securing the lath to the studs are hidden under a layer of plastic. Magnetic stud finders have trouble detecting these nails, and electric stud finders are generally just unreliable on plaster walls.
I do have some other tricks for finding studs through plaster walls, though, so keep reading!
Step 1: Find the Studs
Even though stud finders won’t detect studs through plaster walls, there are a few clues that can tell you the location of studs. Studs are typically located either 16″ or 24″ apart . Windows, doors, and electrical outlets all have studs next to them, and there is guaranteed to be a stud in the corner of the room.
Start at one of those places, preferably the one closest to where you’ll be hanging things, and find a stud by drilling a small hole. Your drill bit should go 1) through the plaster 2) through the lath, and 3) into a stud.
Once you’ve found the stud, measure 16″ and you should find another stud. You probably don’t need to test this spot unless something goes wrong; instead, just keep measuring 16″ inches until you’re as close to where you want to hang your item as you can be.
Then test for a stud by drilling a hole. If you don’t find it right away, move an inch left or right and try again. Try not to worry too much about drilling holes – given you’re drilling small holes, they’re easy to touch up with a little paint.
If you’re not finding the stud, try the process again, this time measuring 24″ instead of 16″ between studs.
One More Thought: There’s also the magnet trick, which involves hanging a strong magnet from a string, and slowly moving it around until it sticks to a spot on the wall. Similar to the magnetic stud finders, this has never worked for me on my plaster walls, but maybe you’ll find more success.
Step 2: Secure Your Screw Into The Stud
Drive your screw into the pilot hole that found the stud, securing the bracket or hanger that you’re trying to use.
Hanging Objects From Plaster Walls With Drywall Anchors
Drywall anchors can be used on plaster walls the same way they’d be used on drywall. However, in many cases, they’re not necessary, because it’s easier to get a screw into the lath.
I only use drywall anchors on plaster walls when I’ve gotten other screws into the lath or a stud, and I’m hanging a large piece. In that case, if the 2nd/3rd/4th/etc. screw location doesn’t line up to where there’s lath, then I’ll use a drywall anchor.
I never use drywall anchors alone when hanging from plaster walls, simply because it’s so easy to hit lath, and that’s a more secure way to hang things. Heavy objects should always be secured to at least one stud, with drywall anchors serving as secondary support.
Hanging From Picture Rails
If you’re lucky enough to have a picture rail (a small piece of molding a few inches down from the ceiling,) then that’s the easiest way to hang pictures. However, that’s a rare feature, and it really only works for light objects, which is why it’s the last thing I mention.
You’ll grab some picture hooks, and then hang the picture using wire to your desired length. I actually think finding the lath in the wall using a drill is easier then messing with the wire, but the picture hooks mean you don’t need to drill holes in the wall, which is definitely a plus for some people.
Fixing Small Holes In Plaster Walls
If you just spent a bunch of time drilling small holes in the wall trying to find a stud, then you’re also probably curious about how to repair those holes. Luckily, small holes are easy to fix.
Small holes in plaster walls don’t need to be repaired as much as they need to be covered over. Grab some paint that matches the rest of your wall, and fill in the holes with the paint.
If the holes are just a little too big for the paint to cover up, dab a little joint compound into the holes first. Once the joint compound has dried, paint the holes.
Other Plaster Wall FAQs
Do plaster walls contain asbestos?
Plaster walls can contain asbestos, although not all plaster walls do. Asbestos was mostly used in walls between 1940 and 1980.
If you’re worried about drilling holes in a wall that could contain asbestos, here’s my take: The amount of asbestos in the wall is very small. The amount you’re drilling is even smaller. Wear a mask while you work, clean up the dust afterward, and you’ll probably only be exposed to a negligible amount.
Obviously if you’re tearing out a whole wall or something, you’ll want to be more cautious (and probably hire a pro.)
Can you paint directly on plaster walls?
Given the walls have been painted before, you can paint directly on plaster walls. If this plaster is newly poured, the plaster need to be primed first.
Plaster walls are difficult to hang things on. Should I replace my plaster walls with drywall?
Drywall, in general, is the easier wall to work with. It’s easier to find studs, doesn’t crack over time, and easier to find tutorials about than plaster.
It’s also significantly cheaper home-insurance wise than plaster. (Don’t get me started on how much I was quoted for my 1910-era home, largely because of the plaster walls.)
But replacing your plaster with drywall is a ridiculous choice for most people. It involves ripping out all of the walls of your home, and replacing them with drywall. This is incredibly expensive, and doesn’t really add that much value.
Walls are walls. Yes, drywall is easier for the average homeowner. But it’s not worth tens of thousands of dollars to get drywall.
The only time I would recommend replacing your plaster walls with drywall is if you’re doing a total gut job – replacing the wiring, replacing the plumbing, adding insultation, etc. If the walls are coming down anyway, you might as well put drywall back in their place.
Do plaster walls have studs?
Plaster walls have studs, however sometimes they can be difficult to find. Magnetic and electric stud finders both struggle to sense studs through the plaster.
See above for my other methods of finding the studs in plaster walls!