A Complete Guide to Wall Fixings for Putting up Shelves and Cupboards
What Tools Are Needed for Fixing to Walls?
- Pencil or marker
- Power drill for drilling holes
- Screwdriver or cordless combi drill/driver for driving screws
- Spirit level or a good eye!
- Drill bits
What Fixings Are Used on Drywall, Timber and Masonry?
- Philips screws
- Wall plugs
- Spring toggle anchors
- Self-drive anchors
- Hollow expansion anchors
- Expansion bolts
- Nail express anchors
- Frame fixings
Fixing Cabinets to Stud Walls
The method used to mount cabinets, brackets for shelves, coat hooks etc. on a wall depends on the nature of the wall construction.
Light items, such as picture frames, wall clocks etc., can be screwed directly to timber panelling. Heavier items such as cabinets need to be fixed to the wall studs with 10 or 11 gage (about 5mm) screws.
Studs are typically spaced 16" (400mm) apart and can be found with an electronic stud detector or identifying where drywall sheets butt together at the centre of a stud. Allow for the thickness of drywall but try to have about 1 1/2" (40 mm) of screw length in a stud.
Metal brackets usually have pre-drilled holes. Cabinets sometimes have flat pieces of metal at the back from which the cabinet can be screwed to the wall and "suspended". If the back of a cabinet is fairly thick and not just thin hardboard, you can drive screws straight through from front to back and into the wall. If the back of a cabinet isn't pre-drilled, drill holes the same diameter as the screws you are using and then screw the screws into the wall. Choose the length of the screw to cater for the combined thickness of the back of the cabinet and drywall.
Fixing to Drywall (Plasterboard) - Cavity Fixings
For stud and drywall (also known as plasterboard) there are several options. You can use plastic wall plugs (See mounting on masonry walls below) directly pushed into the plaster. However these are only suitable for very light loads (e.g. small mirrors, light picture frames and smoke alarms) The appropriate fixings for drywall are metal or plastic self-drive fixings (anchors), spring toggle anchors or expansion anchors. For heavier loads, screw directly into the wall studs.
These are small metal or plastic fixings with a coarse outer thread and inner thread which takes a screw. These will either have a cutting edge and make their own hole in the plasterboard/drywall or you may have to drill a small pilot hole first. The pilot hole diameter may be marked on the fixing, but if not, drill a hole the diameter of the unthreaded core of the fixing in the plasterboard. Next drive the fixing into the plasterboard. Then attach whatever you are hanging on the the wall to the fixing using the screw provided. These are fine for mounting socket outlets, switches, light fittings on ceilings, and other light loads.
Spring Toggle Anchors
Alternatively you can use spring toggle fixings. You drill a hole for these, insert the fitting into the hole and two spring loaded arms open out at the back of the drywall giving anchorage. These provide better anchorage than self-drive anchors which could pull out of the drywall if the load is heavy. The disadvantage of these is that if the screw is removed, the toggle will fall down inside the wall. Also they require a relatively large hole drilled in the drywall.
Hollow Expansion Anchors
The hollow shell of these anchors expand as the screw is tightened, pushing against the back surface of the drywall. This gives good grip and the fixings are suitable for heavier loads. They are available in plastic or metal versions.
Fixing Directly to Stud Walls
Either of the methods described above is fine if a cupboard or shelves are not carrying heavy loads. A more secure method is to drive screws into the center of the wall studs.
Plasterboard (drywall) is nailed onto a hollow timber framework known as a stud wall or framing. This is composed of vertical and horizontal sections called studs and noggings (blocking) respectively.
You can find a stud by tapping the wall and when you locate a point where the sound is less "hollow", a stud is underneath. Alternatively you can find the studs with an electronic stud detector, or by measuring. If you are buying one of these, get one which detects metal (useful for finding plumbing and other services in the wall and/or power cables). Once you have found a stud, mark its center and screw your fixture onto the wall with wood screws. Plasterboard is generally 13 mm (1/2 inch) to 16 mm (5/8 inch) thick, so make sure you size the length of screws appropriately. i.e. allow for the thickness of the plasterboard and the fixture, with 40 mm (1 1/2 inch) of screw thread actually screwing into the stud.
Fixing to Masonry Walls
Masonry includes concrete blocks, bricks, solid concrete wall, stone and aerated concrete blocks.
Before drilling a wall make sure you know where cables and pipes are routed. You can buy a voltage detector for detecting the presence of power cables. If the wall is solid construction you must use plastic screw anchors also known as wall plugs. The tools required are a cordless or corded, hammer action, power drill and a masonry drill bit. A 1/4 inch (6mm) bit for drilling the holes and 6 mm wall plugs are ideal for mounting light shelf brackets. The hole is drilled to adequate depth, the wall plug inserted and the fixture screwed onto the wall with 8 or 10 gage (4mm or 5mm) diameter screws. 40 to 50 mm (1 1/2 to 2 inch) long screws are fine for most applications. You can also use 8mm wall plugs which take a larger diameter screw and are more suitable for mounting heavier items on walls. The wall plug normally has the drill diameter marked on it and possibly also the max diameter screw that can be used.
To attach a bracket to the wall, first position it against the wall and mark the first hole with a pencil or nail. Don't mark all the holes because if the drilled hole goes off course, or is a little to one side, the other holes will be out of alignment. Drill the hole with a suitable diameter masonry drill bit. Insert the anchor into the hole which you just drilled. Place the bracket against the wall again and line up the center of the anchor in the wall with the hole in the bracket. Mark the next hole and drill it. Repeat for all the holes and finally attach the bracket with wood screws.
If you are mounting shelf brackets, hold the second bracket against the wall and either rest the shelf on the two brackets and level with a spirit level or if the span is short you can just rest the level on the two brackets without the shelf. Mark the top hole in the second bracket, drill the hole, for the screw fitting and then mark and drill the remaining holes as described above. Finally screw the bracket to the wall.
Wall Plugs for Fixing to Masonry
To use these, drill the recommended size hole with a hammer action power drill and masonry drill bit and use the proper screw size. The fixing expands as the screw is driven home and grips the side of the hole.
What Screws to Use for Brick or Stud Walls?
I generally use Spax wood screws or similar. These type of screws have a tip which drills through timber as the screw is driven, making for easier driving. A Philips head allows you to drive the screw with a cordless drill.
Mounting Heavy Loads on Brick Walls - Using Expansion Bolts (Wedge Anchors)
If you need to mount heavy loads on masonry walls, there are a couple of options. You can use expansion bolts (wedge anchors) and these are available in a variety of configurations. The most basic type shown in the photos below has a bolt which screws into an outer sleeve. A suitably sized hole is drilled in a wall (the diameter is usually printed on the anchor) and the expansion part of the fixing is inserted in the hole. The bolt is passed through the fixture being attached to the wall and the bolt tightened with a wrench. The fixing expands and securely grips the side of the hole. You can get these fixings with a hook or eye at the end for attaching cables and ropes etc (e.g. a clothes line). Another type has a nut rather than a bolt head at the end.
How to Fix Timber Frames to Concrete or Brick Walls
Lengths of timber, stud walls or any other type of thick material can be fixed to masonry with frame fixings. These are like a long wall plug. An 8mm to 10mm hole is drilled through timber and masonry before pushing the fixing home and tightening the screw. You can also use these fixings for attaching things to masonry walls, after the walls have been insulated with composite drywall/insulation boards, e.g. radiators. Choose an appropriate length so that the part of the fixing that expands is within the masonry.
Another option for attaching timber beams, fence posts, door frames etc to walls is to use nail express anchors. These fixings are hollow with a slot in the side and slightly larger than the hole which is drilled for them. When hammered into a hole, they squeeze tight and wedge firmly into position. They can also be used for joining timber as they provide the advantage of a screw, resisting being pulled out, and the convenience of a nail. The disadvantage of course is that unlike a frame fixing, they are permanent and can't be easily removed.
Neither frame fixings nor express anchors are recommended for fixing into cavity blocks. In any case they should be at least 4 inches (100mm) in from the edges of blocks and spaced no closer than 4 inches.
An 11-Minute Video Showing How to Drill Steel, Wood, and Using Wall Plugs in Concrete
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2011 Eugene Brennan