Buyer’s Guide: Stud Finders
Secure anything to your walls with full confidence that it will stay put—yes, it's possible! Accomplish this and more when you start with the best tools for finding studs.
If you’ve ever had to install shelving or hang a mirror on the wall, you’ve more than likely looked for wall studs before. Reason being, attaching anything heavy to drywall itself could eventually lead to everything crashing down in a heap on the floor. Drywall is not strong enough to hold considerable weight, so it’s best to drive nails and screws into the studs that run up and down behind the drywall.
There are a few tricks for locating wall studs, but these methods are not foolproof. Generally, it’s quicker and more reliable to do it with a tool specially designed for the purpose—a stud finder.
There are a wide variety of stud finders out there. Which is best? That depends on your needs—that is, the type of projects you’re most likely to undertake—and there are several general selection considerations to keep in mind as well.
Choosing the Right Type of Stud Finder
Stud finders fall into two basic categories based on the method they use to detect studs, either magnetic or electronic. One’s not inherently better than the other; rather, each one offers different benefits for different situations.
Magnetic stud finders
Magnetic stud finders use powerful rare earth magnets to detect the location of metal screws or nails that hold the drywall panels in place. As you slide this type of stud finder over a wall, it is magnetically attracted to any spot directly above a nail or screw—you will actually feel it pulling in that direction, and you may even see the stud finder stick! (Most magnetic stud finders are lightweight and have magnets powerful enough that they will hold through the drywall.) Magnetic stud finders work to a depth of about 3/4-inch, which is sufficient most of the time for finding studs behind standard 1/2-inch or 5/8-inch drywall. When you locate a nail or screw, you’ve located a stud. Because drywall fasteners are located typically 12 to 16 inches apart, it’s recommended that you move a magnetic stud finder over the wall in a sweeping “S” motion to more quickly detect one.
• Magnetic stud finders are very affordable.
• They will pinpoint both wood studs (by their metal fasteners) and steel studs.
• They do not need batteries to work.
• Because they detect metal instead of the stud, itself, they can pick up any type of metal in the wall—e.g., metal lathe used to secure plaster or a nail in a horizontal cross board instead of a vertical stud—making false positives possible.
Electronic stud finders
On the other hand, electronic stud finders rely on internal sensors rather than magnets to pinpoint the location of wood studs. They sense a change in density in the space behind the wall. Though the technology may sound complicated, electronic stud finders are easy to use: Simply place the tool flat against the wall and move it slowly in a horizontal fashion. When it detects a stud, it will emit an audible alarm and produce a visual indicator, depending on the specific model.
• Electronic stud finders are more precise than magnetic ones. They feature either an LED screen or indicator lights that can pinpoint the edges of a stud and the exact center.
• High-quality electronic stud detectors can detect studs located deeper in the wall than what a magnet can detect (up to 1-1/2 inches).
• Electronic stud finders typically cost more than magnetic stud finders.
• They require batteries; if the battery runs out and you don’t have extras, you could end up with a non-functioning tool when you need it.
Other Helpful Features
Today’s stud finders can also pack an extra punch: Many are outfitted with features that extend the usefulness of the stud finder and make it handier. From this list, identify the features you think could be the most helpful before making making you final decision about which stud finder to buy.
- A built-in bubble level, available on either magnetic or electronic stud finder, can assist you in leveling shelves or whatever else you’re attaching to the wall.
- A built-in laser (electronic models only) is a step up from a bubble level. At the press of a button, you can shine a laser in a perfectly straight line from the stud you’ve located, either vertically or horizontally to help you align additional fasteners.
- Depth adjustment (electronic models only) allows you to switch from detecting studs 3/4-inch deep behind drywall to locating any number of objects up to 1-1/2 inches beneath the surface. The ability to inspect further behind the surface is handy for detecting floor joists beneath additional surface coverings like wood, tile, or carpet, but you won’t want to run your electronic stud finder at this level all of the time. Increasing the depth adjustment takes more energy and runs the batteries down more quickly. Switching back and forth and primarily keeping it on stud-finding mode helps conserve battery life.
- Electronic stud finders labeled “multipurpose” are designed to detect additional materials within the walls, such as live electrical wires and plastic pipes so that you don’t nail or cut into anything that might be problematic.
- A “center punch” feature (electronic models only) makes a small hole in the wall right over the center of a stud, which is the optimal spot for inserting a nail or screw—no need to carry a pencil to mark it.
- Varying visual displays (electronic models only) give you some choice in how you want to “see” the stud. Some electronic stud finders let you preview a digital map of the stud beneath the wall on an LED screen, others feature LED lights across the top that blink when the finder is passed over a stud—both provide a reliable way to pinpoint a stud.
- A battery indicator (electronic models only) will alert you when it’s time to replace the batteries.
- An ergonomic hand grip makes holding and moving the stud finder easier and is available on both magnetic and electronic models.
Best Stud Finders
After comparing comprehensive research of customer reviews and ratings to some of the key considerations we’ve outlined above, we’ve narrowed the market to three top picks. Start your shopping here to find the best stud finders for any skill level and project.
BEST FOR MOST PEOPLE: C.H. Hanson Magnetic Stud Finder
Average homeowners and DIY weekend warriors agree: It’s tough to beat the simplicity, utility, and affordability of the C.H. Hanson. While some magnetic stud finders feature only one magnet, this one includes two (one at each end)—a very small design tweak that speeds up the process of locating studs in a surprisingly big way. The C.H. Hanson also includes a built-in bubble level, which makes the next step—actually mounting something on your wall—a snap. When you’re done with it, slip this compact, ergonomic, three-inch-long tool in your pocket—or stash it in your kitchen junk drawer—until until you need it again. Buy now.
BEST FOR DIYers: Vivreal Wall Scanner
For its ability to locate wood and metal wall studs, copper and steel pipes, and electric wiring, the Vivreal Wall Scanner stands out for its uncommon versatility. Useful well beyond wall hanging projects, this is a top choice for any do-it-yourselfer with a lengthy to-do list. The device requires nothing more to run than 9-volt battery and comes with a 1-year limited warranty. Buy now.
BEST FOR PROS: ProSensor Precision Stud Finder
The key to the precision and usability of the ProSensor is in the line of tiny red LED lights that runs along the top of the tool. When the 7-inch tool passed over a stud, only the lights directly over the stud light up, alerting the carpenter to its exact location. With the ProSensor, it’s even possible to detect and distinguish between studs located within a few inches of one another, as is often the case near a door or in the corner of a room. Though it would make a good stud finder for just about anyone, the accuracy and wide detection field of the ProSensor make it truly great for those in the trades. Amazon.