Eventually, everyone needs to find a stud in a finished, painted wall. Even with a stud finder, this can be a frustrating task. Use these five methods (and one helpful tip) to find studs in your walls. You can also be sure that you’re fastening into them with confidence!
(Note: this article is essentially a series of excerpts from an e-book I published on Amazon. The full book contains a lot more advice on how your house works, and how to take care of it. Check it out on Amazon!)
1. The Knocking Method
“Knocking” is the preferred method among professional carpenters to find studs. It only requires ears and hands—tools that you carry with you everywhere you go.
First, ball your hand into a fist and rap on the wall with the knuckle of your middle finger. Note the sound that it makes. Now, begin moving sideways slowly, knocking on the wall at intervals of about an inch.
The pitch and depth of the sound changes as you travel over a stud. This happens because the drywall is more rigid where it is fastened to wood.
Generally, we finish walls by attaching sheets of drywall over the studs. This creates a hollow 14-1/2” wide x 3-1/2” deep space between studs. We call these spaces “stud bays”.
Like a Drum
As you thump on the drywall over a stud bay, the wallboard vibrates. This causes sound to reverberate in the cavity behind. (Overall, it is very similar to the way a drum works. When you strike the center of a drum head, you produce a deep, echoing sound. Strike at the edge and you produce a fast, high-pitched sound.)
Back To the Search for Studs
When you come to a stud, the sound becomes sharper and more high-pitched. You can also feel a greater density in the wall through your knuckles.
As an example, knock on the wall about ten inches from a suspected stud location. Methodically work toward where you think the stud is. Soon you’ll hear the a change in the pitch of the sound.
Of course, this method takes some practice. You need to train your ear to pick up the differences in pitch. Also, you’ll probably wind up with some sore knuckles because you’re not used to thumping on walls!
Save Your Knuckles
Alternatively, use a soft rubber mallet instead of your own poor knuckles. Importantly, use a soft mallet! And don’t pound too hard. You can easily bruise or mar your drywall with too much force. (You can use a 16 oz. hammer wrapped in a towel if you don’t have a mallet.)
2. The Electric Razor Trick
This method works on the same principle as the knocking method. The difference is that it uses fast vibrations to create the sound. What’s the best tool for creating these vibrations? A common electric razor.
Turn the razor on and press it against the wall. A loud, chattering sound instantly fills the room. (It’s pretty annoying, really.) The stud bay is acting as an amplifier for the sound of the razor.
Move the razor sideways along the wall, just as you would in the knocking method. The pitch differences when you go over studs will be drastic. Mark the places where the pitch is highest. Those are your stud locations.
3. Use Magnets to Locate the Stud
Using a magnet to locate studs is probably the second-most popular method. Personally, it’s the one that I prefer. I keep a variety of magnets on the inner walls of my work vehicle just for this purpose.
Hold a strong magnet lightly between your fingers. Now, pass it over the surface of your wall in slow sweeps where you looking for a stud. Use your fingertips to keep it separated from the wall by no more than 1/8”.
Almost all drywall nails and screws are made of steel. When you pass a magnet over a screw head, the magnet will snap to the wall.
Pass it back and forth over this area a few times. It will become very obvious exactly where the fastener is located. Mark the spot with a light pencil tick. You have your stud location!
Rare earth magnets are great for this method. They’re small and tend to come in packs. They have a stronger charge than ceramic magnets. You can really feel them snap into place at a screw location.
So, snap three or four magnets onto different vertical screw locations. That way, you visibly lay out the position of the stud.
Luckily, this method is even useful on plaster walls.The magnets will find the small nails that are used to hold the wooden lath in place. (These nail locations will be numerous, and spaced very closely to one another.)
4. The Coat Hanger Trick
You can often locate a stud by making just one small hole in the wall, which can easily be spackled over and painted. First, use a nail set, or even a screwdriver, to punch a hole that’s big enough to fit your finger through.
Next, take a typical wire coat hanger from your closet. Use needle-nose pliers to unbend it and straighten it a bit. Put a 75° crook in the wire a foot from the end.
Feed the long leg of the coat hanger into the hole. Flex it some to make it drop into the 3-1/2” cavity inside. Feed it in to the bend. Now you can rotate the coat hanger freely, using the hole as the pivot.
Swing the bent end of the wire around inside the wall cavity. (It helps to crimp the rest of the wire into a handle shape for better leverage.)
Rotate the wire in both direction. You will hit a nearby stud; maybe one in each direction. Listen for a tapping sound within the wall. Also feel for resistance. When you think you’ve found the stud, not the angle of your “handle”. Pull the wire out. Hold it as it was hanging inside the wall. The free end should indicate approximately where edge of the stud is located.
You can use the next method to confirm your findings…
5. Drive a Test Nail to See If It Hits the Stud
Use a pencil to mark the place on the wall where you think the stud is located.
Now, drive a long, skinny nail through your mark. I prefer a 2 1/2” finish nail. They’re thin enough that they leave only a very small hole. But they’re rigid enough that they don’t bend when you strike them with some force. (Also, they’re long enough that you’re not bashing your fingers with the hammer as you grip the nail!)
If the nail is at a stud, it only penetrates about 1/2”. That’s the thickness of most drywall. Then it suddenly resists going deeper. More light taps should only sink it a little.
Chances are, you’ve located a stud. Don’t bother driving the test nail any deeper. That only makes it more difficult to get it back out.
Use a 48″ level to mark this line upward or downward (in pencil!) You’re ready to hang something heavy!
Important Tip – Bracket the Stud!
Are you’re going to hang something very heavy, like a flat-screen TV? If so, make sure you’re in the center of the stud. Otherwise, your fastener may only catch the edge of the stud. (As it did in the picture below). A heavy weight may rip it out, and you’ll have a disaster on your hands.
All modern studs are 1-1/2” thick. Older studs, found in houses built before the 1950, are closer to 2” thick. Either way, the stud center will be ¾” to 1” away from either edge of the stud.
So, to find the center of a concealed stud, move over about 1” from the place you originally struck wood. Drive your trim nail again. It should punch through the drywall and sink easily into empty space behind. This is good. It means you’re beyond the edge of the stud on that side.
From there, jump two inches in the other direction and repeat the process. If the nail misses the stud, you know that your original hole is pretty close to the stud center.
However, if your nail hits wood in that direction, your original hole was off-center. Pull the nail out and move another 1/2”, or until you find empty space.
By using this tip, you can find the outer edges of the stud you want to attach to. Move 3/4″ in the right direction. That’s very close to the center of the stud
As a bonus, here’s my video tutorial on framing components:
Want Even More?
For 22 other methods for finding studs, jump over to Amazon and grab a copy of the ebook. It’s only a few bucks, and it has a lot of additional information about how your house is constructed!
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