If you’ve ever had to install shelving or hang a mirror, you’ve more than likely had to find out where the studs were located behind the drywall. That’s because attaching anything heavy to drywall itself could eventually lead to the item crashing to the floor. Drywall is not strong enough to hold considerable weight, so to hang hefty items, it’s best to drive nails or 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 use a tool specially designed for the purpose—a stud finder.
A wide variety of stud finders are on the market, and we decided to test a slew of them to help readers find one that suits their needs. We tested magnetic and electronic models in our quest to find the best stud finders. Which one is right for you will depend on the type of projects you tackle. Read on to learn what to look for in a stud finder and find out which popular models scored highest in our tests.
- BEST OVERALL: Zircon Stud Finder A200 Pro/DIY 3 in 1 MultiScanner
- BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: Craftsman Stud Finder, 3/4-Inch Depth
- BEST FOR HOME HANDYMEN: VIVREAL Stud Finder
- BEST FOR PROS: ProSensor 710 Franklin Sensors Precision Stud Finder
- BEST MULTIPURPOSE: BOSCH Digital Multi-Scanner GMS 120
- BEST WITH LASER LEVEL: BLACK+DECKER Line Laser, Stud Finder
- BEST MAGNETIC: CH Hanson 03040 Magnetic Stud Finder
What to Know Before Buying a 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; instead, each one offers different benefits for different situations. We tested both types of tools in our hands-on tests, with some pretty eye-opening results, so don’t miss those tests and reviews below our guide.
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 act as wood stud finders (by locating their metal fasteners).
- They do not need batteries to work.
- They are often small, which makes them easy to carry in a shirt pocket.
- Because they detect metal instead of the stud itself, they can pick up any 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. The best stud finders are pre-calibrated and are ready to go right out of the package—after inserting batteries—but a few need to be calibrated to ensure precise results.
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 at locating studs 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.
Number of Sensors
Like all technology, electronic stud finders have seen many improvements from the time they appeared on the construction market in the 1990s. To pinpoint the location of a stud, an electronic stud finder uses sensors that detect a mass behind the wall. They may come with a single sensor, in which case they will detect only the edge of a stud, or they may come with multiple sensors, giving them the ability to detect both edges as well as the center of the stud. Both single sensor and multiple sensor stud finders perform well on average.
Sensors range in size. Stud finders with larger sensors have a few advantages, such as being able to cover a more expansive area and (sometimes) being able to penetrate thicker or more solid walls, such as plaster or concrete. Smaller sensors, on the other hand, can be highly accurate. For most home DIYers, sensor size is not an issue since a typical stud finder with smaller or larger sensors will be able to pinpoint studs behind drywall.
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 settling on a stud finder that works.
- 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. Small bubble levels tend to be less accurate than longer, carpenter-type levels, because they only record level over a very short distance.
- 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 straight line from the stud you’ve located, either vertically or horizontally to help you align additional fasteners. A laser level makes it a snap to hang multiple photos or paintings on a wall—all at the same height.
- 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 something 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. While some electronic models take AA or AAA alkaline batteries, a growing number require the use of a small 9-volt battery to adequately power multiple options.
- An ergonomic hand grip makes holding and moving the stud finder easier and is available on both magnetic and electronic models. Some stud finders require depressing a button before scanning the wall for studs. When choosing one of these models, look for a button that’s located in a comfortable spot in order to both press the button and control movement of the tool.
Our Top Picks
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the majority of stud finders I tested were accurate and dependable. The ones that weren’t didn’t make this list. The following stud finders detect anything from steel fasteners to live wires and pipes. Some even detect double-stud construction. To test the degree of accuracy, I constructed a test wall that mimicked the configuration of an actual wall and allowed me to see how precise the stud finders were. Find out what my tests revealed and why the following stud finders made it on the list of Top Picks.
Never miss a stud again. For those who need to find the center of a stud, either for securely hanging artwork or cutting the drywall along the stud’s centerline, the Zircon Stud Finder shines. I inserted a 9-volt battery, and the stud finder was ready to go. As I slid the tool across the surface of the test wall, diagonal lines appeared on either side of the digital display to indicate the sensors were moving over a stud. As soon as I reached the stud’s center, the lines met in a “V”, and a lighted red arrow appeared on the wall above.
The red arrow was right on the center of the stud, and had I inserted a nail or screw at that point, it would have been dead on. I moved on to testing for repeat accuracy on a regular wall. I started at one end of the wall and made an entire scan from side to side. Every time the Zircon tagged the center of a stud, I marked the wall with a pencil. To my amazement, the marks were almost exactly 16 inches apart (within a 1/16 inch). This was without needing to calibrate the tool, but the Zircon does come with an auto-calibration feature if it ever needs to be recalibrated for accuracy.
The Zircon stud finder also did an excellent job of detecting live wires, and while I didn’t have any metal studs to scan for, the stud finder detected steel rebar in a concrete planter.
This basic Craftsman Stud Finder doesn’t come with a lot of bells and whistles, but it gets the job done—and at a very attractive price point. I was a bit surprised on the first inspection of the Craftsman stud finder, it weighs less than 4 ounces, and it’s just 5 1/2-inches long. I didn’t hold out much hope that it would do the job. I was wrong.
I put a 9-volt battery in the stud finder and pressed the power button on the side. A beep and a green light on the top lit up to indicate the stud finder was ready to go to work. With this stud finder, I discovered the user has to hold the power button down while scanning—let off the button and the tool goes back to sleep.
I ran the Craftsman stud finder over the test wall and then over a standard wall. When the sensor detected the edge of a stud, the tool emitted a beep, and the “Edge” light on the front lit up. This tool comes with an edge sensor only, but that’s all you need to find a stud. A standard two-by-four stud is 1-1/2 inches thick, so by measuring .75 inches from where the Craftsman indicates the edge of a stud, you’ll find the center. For the cost, you can’t beat the accuracy.
On first use, I was a little surprised the VIVREAL Stud Finder didn’t detect the stud behind the test wall. On further inspection, it was a blatant case of user error. The instructions very clearly say the tool must be calibrated before every scan. That was a simple matter of selecting the mode I was scanning for (wood stud) and then holding the device against the wall while depressing the scan button on the side. In a few seconds, the tool beeped, indicating calibration was complete, and I rescanned the test wall. The VIVREAL showed a series of horizontal bars as the scanner neared the stud and a beep when it found the stud’s center.
On the whole-wall test, the VIVREAL was also highly accurate, finding the center of each stud. It also found the wires running to the light switch. The back of the stud finder features three thin felt pads, which make it slide effortlessly across the wall.
The Vivreal Wall Scanner stands out for its versatility. It features four scanning modes (stud, metal, wire, and deep) and comes with a graphical LCD display. Users can select the mode, adjust the signal strength, or perform automatic calibration. This stud finder is a worthy option for a do-it-yourselfer with a lengthy to-do list.
Nothing could be simpler, or more accurate, than the ProSensor stud finder. I already had this stud finder in my toolbox, but I wanted to know if its exceptional accuracy extended to the updated models. I wasn’t disappointed. I loaded it up with two AA batteries and started testing.
To use the ProSensor stud finder, the user needs to depress the scan button on the side (or on the top, as I typically hold it) and pass the tool over the wall. The nicest thing about the ProSensor is that its scan bed is 7.5 inches long, and the finder contains multiple sensors. A series of 13 lights are located along the top, and as the tool passes over a stud, the corresponding light is illuminated. This allowed me to detect both single stud and double-stud framing members within the test wall. In addition, a 7.5-inch ruler is etched into the top of the stud finder so users can check measurements.
The key to the precision of the ProSensor is the line of LED lights that runs along the tool. With the ProSensor, it’s 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, making this stud finder well-suited for remodeling contractors who need to find the locations of multiple framing configurations.
I found the BOSCH Digital Multi-Scanner highly accurate for detecting a range of materials, even materials found in thicker walls. Like many electronic stud finders, the BOSCH takes a 9-volt battery to run all its functions. It comes with user-friendly images on the front for selecting wood, metal, and live wires modes, making it easy to use the device even without reading the instructions.
One of the features I liked the most about the BOSCH stud finder is its actual power button. There’s nothing for the user to hold down while scanning. Use the power button to turn the tool on, and it stays on until you turn it off. While this may lead to batteries running down more quickly if the device is inadvertently left on, I liked this feature immensely. With an always-on power button, I could hold the tool the way I wanted to, rather than needing to grasp it awkwardly to keep a button depressed.
The BOSCH stud finder is self-calibrating. Turn it on, select the mode, and then hold it in place on the wall for a few seconds to calibrate it. During scanning, when the tool neared a stud, an orange light ring on the face lit up. As I slid the device over the stud, the light ring turned red, and the stud finder emitted a beep. When the tool was directly over the stud, the word “Center” appeared in the LCD display.
The BOSCH also hit on live wiring in the wall and on metal fasteners in wood studs. In addition, this multiuse stud finder comes with the ability to turn on a backlight in the display and mute the beeping noise, making it well-suited for low-light situations or where someone might find the beeping distracting.
Say goodbye to crooked picture frames. The BLACK+DECKER features an edge-type sensor, and the tool comes with a self-leveling, horizontal laser line. Together, the two functions make an impressive team for hanging a series of pictures or other artwork.
It features self-calibration that requires holding the tool against the wall and then depressing the power button and holding it down for a few seconds. The word “Initializing” flashes across the red-backlit LCD screen, quickly followed by the word “Ready.” The tool is then ready to begin scanning.
I tested the BLACK+DECKER on the test wall to determine its accuracy. As I moved the stud finder toward the stud, a series of lines appeared at the outer edges of the screen to indicate the edge of a stud was detected, and the words “Stud found” appeared on the screen. To find the center of the stud, I marked the wall when the finder detected one edge, and then I scanned from the other side and did the same thing. The center was right between the two marks.
Then, I tried the laser, and I was sold. Here’s how easy it is to use—in the upper center of the stud finder is a clear plastic depression with a hole in the very middle. I made a mark with a pencil on the wall and then lined up the hole in the stud finder with the pencil mark. I then switched on the laser function from a button on the side—a bright red laser beam shone out horizontally. I had my helper make a pencil mark about 4 feet away on the laser line. I then inserted two nails in each of the marks and tied a taut string between them. I checked the level of the string with my carpenter’s level, and it was accurate. For those who need to be able to define a horizontal level and detect wood and metal studs, the BLACK+DECKER stud finder does the trick.
No batteries? No problem. This magnetic stud finder is super-portable and designed to detect either metal studs or the metal fasteners in the studs, making it among the best options for those who need to locate studs without worrying about batteries running down.
On the test wall, the CH Hanson Magnetic Stud Finder stuck by itself to the drywall when it was placed over the location of a metal fastener. I moved the tiny stud finder around in large swooping circles on a standard wall and eventually felt a magnetic pull. It took maybe 15-20 seconds.
The small CH Hanson magnetic stud finder is an excellent backup for an electronic stud finder, and if carrying space in a toolbox or tool belt is at a premium, it won’t take up a lot of room. While some magnetic stud finders feature only one magnet, this one includes two, one at each end. The C.H. Hanson also includes a built-in bubble level, which makes the next step—mounting something on the wall—that much easier. When you’re done with it, slip the compact, 3-inch-long tool in your pocket or stash it in your kitchen junk drawer until you need it again.
Not everyone can reliably rap on the wall and find a stud—most can’t—so using a stud finder makes projects go more quickly. Those who are new to the world of electronic and magnetic stud finders are in for a treat. Consider a few questions before picking one out.
Q: Do stud finders work through ceramic tiles?
Electronic stud finders can often detect a stud through ceramic tiles, especially if the tool comes with Deep mode.
Q: How far apart are wall studs?
Standard wall framing is 16 inches apart, on-center (OC), meaning the center of one stud will be exactly 16 inches from the center of the next. Alternate spacing is 19.2 inches and 24 inches apart, OC.
Q: What does it mean when a stud finder beeps?
That depends on the individual tool. Some beep when they detect a stud nearby while others beep when they detect the center of a stud. Some stud finders beep to let the user know they’ve just recalibrated.
Q: Are outlets always on studs?
Most, but not all. Some outlets come with boxes that are designed to fit in a hole cut through the drywall. A stud finder that detects both studs and live wires can tell the user if this type of outlet box is in use.
Testing the stud finders was both fun and educational for me. While I’m an undying fan of the ProSensor for its ability to detect various stud configurations, I was incredibly impressed by the accuracy of the other stud finders in this lineup. Having a laser level included in a stud finder, as with the BLACK+DECKER tool, sold me on the benefit of such a tool for hanging artwork. The testing reinforced my opinion that stud finders speed up the task at hand and offer an accurate way to pinpoint studs quickly and easily.