How to find a stud in the wall

If you’re hanging something heavy like a cabinet or a shelf and want it to stay on the wall, you need to attach it to a wall stud. Otherwise it’s liable to pull out, damaging your drywall in the process, and possibly causing other damage too. So here’s how to find a stud in the wall.

The most common method is to use a tool, which costs around $20. But even without a tool, with a little practice you can use visual or audio clues to find a stud in the wall.

Advantages to using a tool

I prefer to use a stud finder tool, but knowing the tricks to find a stud without a tool is also helpful, as it can make the work with the tool go faster. When you know what to look for, you can find at least one stud without the tool, then just use the tool to pinpoint the edges and map out the other studs in the wall based on spacing or other clues.

There’s one more advantage to drilling into wall studs rather than just anywhere on the wall. If you’re drilling into a stud, then you know you’re not drilling into a pipe or wire.

Now the caveat to that is that pipes and wires often run right alongside the stud. So knowing where the edges of the stud are definitely gives you an advantage. If I drill the edge of a stud, I could nick a pipe or wire. If I hit center, then I know I’m clear.

How far apart are studs spaced?

It’s not like the stud police come in and arrest carpenters who deviate from the standard. But studs are usually spaced 16 or 24 inches apart. Openings for doorways or windows sometimes force a deviation. The dimensions of a room might also force some deviation. But generally speaking, knowing studs are usually going to be 16 or 24 inches apart, or close to it, makes it easier to find them. It certainly makes it much easier to find a second one after you find the first.

Using visual clues to find a stud in the wall

How to find a stud in the wall
I circled the screw marks in this wall in red. The ones on the right are very noticeable. The ones on the left are subtle, but when you know what they are, you can find them.

When your builder hung the drywall, guess what they screwed the drywall into? Your studs, of course. And unless they did a world-class job of mudding afterward, you’ll see small impressions in the wall where the screws went in. Even if they did a world-class job of mudding, it’s possible the ravages of time popped one or more of those screws just a little, leaving a visible impression or depression in the wall.

If you see a little round impression in the wall, chances are that’s a screw going into a stud. And if you look closely after you find one, chances are you’ll see signs, however faint, of others directly in line with the one. And chances are there’s another line of screws 16 or 24 inches away, following the same pattern.

There are a couple of other things you can do to cheat. An electrical outlet or light switch will almost always be attached to a stud on one side or the other. So inspect the areas right around a light switch or electrical outlet first, then go 16-24 feet on either side. When you know right where to look, you might pick up subtle hints you’d miss when faced with an entire wall.

When you find the stud, mark it with a pencil.

Use a magnet to find a stud in the wall

If you can’t see the screws in the wall, you can still use them to find studs if you have a strong magnet. A stick magnet for picking up screws and nails is best, but you can use a rare earth magnet if it’s all you have. A ceramic disc magnet off your refrigerator usually won’t be strong enough.

Simply run the magnet along the wall, starting 16 inches from the edge, until you find something the magnet sticks to. If you come up empty at 16 inches, try 24 inches from the edge. Then work your way across the wall, 16 or 24 inches at a time, mapping out your studs.

Mark each stud with a pencil as you find it.

Using audible clues to find a stud in the wall

If you can’t find any screw pops, there’s a second option for you. When you knock on a wall, the sound is more hollow inside a cavity than it is in front of a stud. Just knock on the wall like you’re knocking on a door and listen. My hearing isn’t great so the difference is super subtle, but I can usually tell a difference.

Use the trick above, starting near an electrical outlet or light switch, to train your ear. Then go to the area where you want to find a stud and knock.

Instead of knocking, you can also use an electric razor. Turn on the razor, then place it right up against the wall. It will vibrate differently when it’s over a stud than it will when it’s over a cavity. Again, use the same trick. Start out near the electrical, compare the sound right next to it to the sound on either side, then move to the area where you want to find a stud.

Once you find it, mark the stud with a pencil.

Using a stud finder

How to find a stud in the wall
It’s much easier to find a stud in the wall with a stud finder tool, though knowing the visual tricks makes them even easier to use.

I finally broke down and bought a stud finder and I’m glad I did. The advantage to using a stud finder is it tells you where the edges are, so you can be certain whether you’re drilling into the center of the stud or the edge. Stay off the edge if you can.

I paid $20, which may not be a trivial sum to you, but it’s not ruinous. And if you use it a lot, the time it saves you can be significant. I do recommend you buy one from a regular hardware store or home center. There are times I like and use Harbor Freight, but their stud finder has an inordinate number of one-star reviews. The Zircon model I have rates much better, with 75% of its reviewers giving it 4 or 5 stars. To me, that makes it worth paying $5 more.

To use a stud finder, you typically hold it up against the wall and press a button, then move it around. It will light up and/or beep at you if it’s in front of a stud. I hold it up to the wall, press the button, then move around. I mark both edges of the stud with a pencil as I go. Within a few seconds, I can map out all the studs in the wall. Then I can use a level to decide where I want my anchors, mark my spots for my anchors, and start drilling.

You can use a stud finder blind, but when I know where some screw marks are in the wall, I start about 3 inches to the side of the screws, then move toward the screws to find the edges. It makes the process go a bit faster.

What to do if you need two hangers and the studs aren’t spaced right

What do you do if you need to hang a cabinet or shelf that’s less than two feet wide? Or if the studs just aren’t in the right place?

Usually you can get by with driving one hanger into a stud, then using a wall anchor for the second hanger. Usually one stud is enough to provide strength, and the wall anchor will provide adequate additional stability. One screw can hold about 80 pounds.

When you need more width than the stud spacing provides, there’s another trick you can do with items like cabinets that cover the wall. Attach a piece of lumber, even if it’s a 1×2, horizontally to the wall. Screw the board into two studs wherever those studs happen to be. Then drive screws through the back of the cabinet into the lumber attached to the wall. Then you can screw in as many screws as you need to hold the weight.

Drilling after you find your studs

I prefer to drill with a fine bit, around a 1/16 inch, initially. That way if I was wrong and I hit a cavity, I have a very small hole to spackle and paint over. If the item I’m hanging will cover the hole, I may get away without spackling it. Also, don’t drill right where the screws are. You want to drive into wood, not into another screw.

When I know I drilled into lumber, then I can follow up with a larger bit if appropriate, or just drill with a screw. I really like thread-cutting screws now that I discovered them. With a small exploratory pilot hole, I can drive a thread cutting screw into a stud even with a small electric screwdriver.

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