5 Ways to Find a Wall Stud Without Using a Stud Finder
Need to figure out where your wall studs are, but don't have a stud finder? Learn how to use magnets, baseboards, and even smartphones to guide your way.
We’ve all been in this situation: “Oh, I just need to find a wall stud so I can securely hang this picture/TV/floating shelf on the wall.” And 15 holes later, you’re convinced the wall is held up by pixie dust and a wish, because apparently there’s no wood behind it.
A stud finder is one way to locate the framing hidden behind the drywall, but that does you little good if you don’t happen to have one in your arsenal of tools. Stud finders can also be frustrating to use, often failing to detect anything or delivering false positives.
Whether you don’t have a stud finder on hand or simply don’t trust the things, there are several effective alternatives to locating a stud without one of these tools.
What are wall studs?
The purpose of wall studs is to hold up drywall on interior walls and wood sheathing on exterior walls. This means you will always find a stud, header, or footer on the top, bottom, or corners of walls.
- Standard stud spacing is 16 inches on center and is rarely greater than 24 inches, even on center in older houses. The distance between studs varies slightly depending on the age of the home.
- Most electrical boxes for light switches or outlets are attached to a stud on one side.
- There are wall studs on either side of a window.
- Most trim (crown molding, baseboard, and shoe molding) is nailed into a stud.
- The actual lumber dimensions of 2×4 studs are 1½ inches by 3½ inches.
- Studs are made of either metal or wood. Wood studs are found in the framing of most residential homes. Most commercial and industrial buildings are made with metal studs. However, metal studs are becoming more prevalent in homes.
With these points in mind, read on to learn various ways to narrow down the locations of your wall studs.
1. Examine the trim to see where it has been nailed to a stud.
Since the baseboard is attached to the studs, get down on your hands and knees and look for nails in the baseboard. These holes, called dimples, are usually filled with caulk or wood filler and then painted, but you may be able to spot one to identify the whereabouts of a stud. If you find a dimple, measure 16-inch increments on either side to locate neighboring studs.
2. Locate electrical switches and outlets, which are attached to studs.
If baseboards don’t offer any clues to the stud’s whereabouts, look for a light switch or electrical outlet. At least one side of an electrical box must be mounted to a stud. To determine which side of the box the stud is on, use the “knock test” by rapping on either side of the switch or outlet. The side that returns a solid, versus hollow, sound is the stud side. Next, measure about ¾ inch away from the outlet on the stud side and use that as a starting point to determine the 16-inch intervals of stud spacing.
3. Measure 16 inches from the corner.
With studs generally 16 inches on center, you can also do calculations by measuring from a corner of the room. Now, all rooms aren’t built in numbers divisible by 16, so you are likely to have a stud that is less than 16 inches from one corner.
Try the “knock test” near the corner to see if you can determine where the shorter stud spacing might have been added. A hollow sound when you knock indicates that there’s nothing behind the drywall, while a more solid sound would suggest that there’s framework there to screw into.
This only really works if you’re measuring a corner of the exterior of the house. But it’s worth a shot before you go crazy with the test holes, wondering how far apart the studs are in your walls.
4. Use a magnet to locate metal fasteners.
One of the easiest ways to detect a stud is to use a magnet. While the magnet won’t help detecting the wood stud itself, it will help you locate the metal screws used to attach the drywall to the studs.
You can’t just use any ordinary magnet off the fridge, though. Since the screw heads will likely be covered by spackle, you’ll need a strong neodymium magnet, which is the strongest commercially available magnet you can buy.
Move the magnet slowly around the wall’s surface until you feel it pull to one of the screws. If you use the right magnet, it should be strong enough to stick to the surface of the wall at the location of the screw head, making it easy to mark the stud’s location with a pencil.
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5. Refer to photos taken during previous renovations.
If you had your home built or you’ve ever gut renovated it, you may have taken photos of the house at different stages of its construction. If you have snaps of the room when the walls were down to the studs, with no drywall, you can use these photos to give you at least a general idea of where studs are located.
Using the pictures, note where the studs are in relation to features that are currently visible in the room–corners, doorways, electrical outlets, and light switches. Going forward, it’s always a good idea to take plenty of pictures any time your home is undergoing a renovation that involves exposing the framing.
If all else fails, use a stud finder.
There’s no shame in keeping a small stud detector in your toolbox, really, and you’re bound to find more uses for it than just to hang one heavy frame. Floating shelves, bathroom mirrors, flat-screen TVs can all benefit from the secure hold of a stud. Our researched guide to the best stud finders on the market and this primer on how to use a stud finder are terrific resources for selecting and using this tool.
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Understanding the anatomy of a wall can help you use one of the above techniques to locate a stud, and potentially eliminate the need to buy yet another tool. These techniques are also helpful backups for DIYers who do own a stud finder, but want to check the accuracy of the stud finder’s readings before making a hole in the wall.
Whichever strategy you use, proceed with caution when drilling holes in your walls. Interior walls contain wiring, plumbing lines, and gas lines that can cause personal injury or damage to your home if you happen to hit them with a drill. You should be reasonably confident of a stud’s location before drilling a hole in your wall.
Though the five techniques described above will help you identify the location of a wall stud, they aren’t the only ways to do so. Ahead, learn how your smartphone and stud spacing can make it easier to locate wall studs.
Q: Can I use my phone as a stud finder?
Yes. There are many free and paid smartphone apps that function as stud finders. These apps use the phone’s internal magnetometer to detect the strength of the magnetic field. While these apps won’t detect the stud itself, they can detect the screws holding the drywall to the stud.
Q: How far apart are studs in a wall?
Most wall studs are spaced 16 inches apart on center; however, they can also be spaced at 24 inches. That said, spacing isn’t always exact. Studs can bow and twist up to 1 inch in either direction as a home settles.
Q: How deep are studs behind drywall?
Drywall is attached flush to the studs, so the stud’s depth depends on the thickness of the drywall. The most common drywall for interior walls is 1/2-inch thick. You may also encounter thicker 5/8-inch drywall, which is sometimes used for ceilings or with rooms that require soundproofing.