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How to Choose Wall Anchors and Other Fixings for Wall Mounting Shelves and Cabinets

Eugene is a trained engineer and self-taught home improvement enthusiast with almost 40 years of professional and DIY experience.

In this guide, you'll learn about tools and various fixings used to attach cupboards and shelves to different types of wall material, including timber, drywall, brick and masonry.

Note: The name for the device used to attach items to walls differs between countries. In the US, the term "anchor" is more common, whereas in the UK, the term "fixing" is more common


Fixing stuff to walls is relatively easy, in fact I’ve been doing it since I was 13! My home-made wall plugs made from branches weren't such a good idea though and my first shelves fell of the wall when the plugs dried out! In this guide I cover some the various fixings available to attach items to timber studs, plasterboard (drywall) and masonry walls.

Precautions When Drilling and Fixing to Walls

  • Determine whether there are any services (electric or signal cables or water, gas or waste pipes) in the walls before drilling. Ideally turn off power if possible. A detector will help to locate some services.
  • Use a sufficiently short drill so that you don't drill through to the other side.
  • Use a mask when drilling to protect yourself from sawdust or cement dust.

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?

Various fixings are used depending on the structure of the surface you'll be mounting on. If you're fixing to timber or wooden studs under drywall, you just use screws, but for drywall itself or masonry, the fixing either holds onto the back of the drywall, or expands in the hole respectively.

These are the fixings you'll typically use:

  • 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 small picture frames, wall clocks etc., can be screwed directly to timber panelling/boards if you don't have drywall. Heavier items such as cabinets and TV brackets need to be fixed to the wall studs with 10 or 11 gage (about 5mm diameter) screws. Modern LED TVs are quite light compared to CRT or plasma types, so you may get away with mounting the brackets directly onto boards or drywall.

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.

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.

Self-Drive Anchors

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. Now drive the fixing into the plasterboard either using a special dedicated drive bit for a cordless drill or a normal screwdriver. 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.

Self-drive drywall anchors and drive bit for cordless drill. Metal versions are also available. The pilot hole size which needs to be drilled in the plasterboard (6mm), is marked on the fixing

Self-drive drywall anchors and drive bit for cordless drill. Metal versions are also available. The pilot hole size which needs to be drilled in the plasterboard (6mm), is marked on the fixing

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. They also require a relatively large hole drilled in the drywall.

Hollow Expansion Anchors

The hollow shell of these anchors expands 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 such as TV brackets. They are available in plastic or metal versions.

Hollow expansion anchor.

Hollow expansion anchor.

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 built from 2 x 4s. (2 inch x 4 inch cross section timbers) or larger cross sectional area (CSA) timber. 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. As I mentioned earlier, 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.

Tools required

  1. Cordless or corded, hammer action, power drill
  2. 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, socket and switch outlets, etc. Use an 5/16 (8mm) bit and wall plugs for heavier loads (cupboards, bookshelves etc).

Drilling holes and mounting

  • 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 a wall is solid construction you must use plastic screw anchors also known as wall plugs. These expand and grip the side of the hole when a screw is driven into them.
  • 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. Use thicker wall plugs and screws for heavier loads.
  • Wall plugs normally have the drill diameter marked on them and possibly also the max diameter screw that can be used.
  • To attach a bracket to a 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, rake or vacuum out the dust and insert the anchor into the hole. 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're 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 (Rawlplugs)

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. People sometimes generically refer to wall plugs as "Rawlplugs" because the wall plug was invented by John Joseph Rawlings, the founder of the Rawlplug company.

Typical wall  plug/anchors for masonry walls. The required drill bit size in mm is indicated on the shank

Typical wall plug/anchors for masonry walls. The required drill bit size in mm is indicated on the shank

Screw sizes and the bit size for the hole are sometimes marked on the wall plugs

Screw sizes and the bit size for the hole are sometimes marked on the wall plugs

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.

Spax wood screws

Spax wood screws

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.


Expansion fittings shouldn't be excessively tightened to avoid cracking concrete. They should also be kept in a minimum distance from the edge of concrete or solid blocks. A crack in this case could cause a section to break off and the bolt to lose its grip on the masonry.

Expansion bolt (Wedge anchor)

Expansion bolt (Wedge anchor)

When the bolt is tightened, the sleeve expands and grips the side of the hole

When the bolt is tightened, the sleeve expands and grips the side of the hole

How to Fix Timber Frames to Concrete or Brick Walls

  • Frame fixings. 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 first drilled through timber and masonry behind it and the fixing tapped home until the edge is flush with the timber. Then the screw is either screwed or hammered into the plastic sleeve. 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.
  • Express anchors. 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 to prevent cracking of the masonry.

Nail express anchor

Nail express anchor

Express anchors can be used for attaching timbers to walls

Express anchors can be used for attaching timbers to walls

Frame fixing

Frame fixing

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


lucille12 on April 05, 2015:

The right hangers can certainly help in organizing your home and eliminating the piles that lay around the home.