I have a decent amount of knowledge about locating studs. With 10 years in residential construction and eight years writing about and reviewing tools (with articles appearing in Fine Homebuilding, The Journal of Light Construction, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, This Old House, and Tools of the Trade, where I’m a contributing editor), I’ve spent a lot of time with a stud finder in my hand. I’m familiar with electronic stud finders, magnetic stud finders, and all of the classic tips and tricks for stud finding (which I learned from grizzled carpenters with white beards).
When you build a wood-framed wall on spec, they need to have two horizontal plates – the top plate is your sill plate and the bottom plate is your wall plate. Between the Sill plate and the wall plate are vertical wood pieces. Those vertical lumber usually measure 2″×4″ or 2″×6″ and are spaced 12’’ -24’’ inches apart – those are your studs. The studs are the primary attachment point for your wall. Steel studs have increasingly become more popular, especially for firewall use. From windows to siding, they are all attach to the wall studs. If you plan to attach anything heavy to your wall, the most secure option would always be to mount directly into a wall stud.
Modern regulations require the use of either 1.5”x 2”x 4” or 1.5” x 2” x 6” wooden studs (usually made out of dimensional lumber). In most modern construction, studs are placed around 16 inches from center (this could also vary, some do 12 inches between studs some do 24 inches). Older houses can have something called balloon framing where the studs extends two stories – this has been made illegal in modern buildings as fire tends to spread quicker in wall cavities.
Modern buildings also use metal studs. Dimension wise, they’re basically the same. The main difference of course is that you use screws instead of nails. That said, you need to take the weight of the item you are hanging into account. For lighter items, a sheet metal screw will do (a self-tapping screw works too) for heavier objects, you need to install a toggle bolt that spreads out the weight through a wider area.
Something you need to keep in mind when working with wall studs is that no one house is will be the same. Always measure twice and cut once otherwise, you end up damaging your wall.
MAGNETIC FINDERS VS ELECTRONIC FINDERS
There are two different types of stud finders available: electronic and magnetic. Personally I prefer a good electronic finder. However they can be pretty expensive (upwards of $50 for a good one) for something that you use maybe once a year. So you need to factor that in. Magnetic finders on the other hand, are cheap, reliable and simply more practical for an amateur DIY’er. What’s great about it is that they’re dirt cheap at around $10.
Magnetic finders are very simple. They sense the fasteners that attach the wallboard to the studs. If you find these fasteners, chances are you find the stud. Even if the wallboard is glued to the frame, you can still use the magnetic stud finder to find the perimeter screws and start from there.
A magnetic stud finder has limitations you need to consider. You can’t use it when your wall exceeds .5” in thickness. It’s not usually a problem since screws are usually .2” inches deep on most walls. It is only with old metal lath and plaster walls that you encounter problems. Lath and plaster involves having a metal lath on the studs which are filled in with a thick layer of plaster. This is the kind of surface where a magnetic stud finder just won’t work. The workaround for this is to use the baseboard as a starting point. Since the studs are screwed in to the baseboard, all you need to do is to follow along the baseboard until you find the nail/screw heads. That point is probably where the stud is at.
Our testing methodology involves using the stud finders to locate studs in various rooms of a regular house. Parts of the wall in the test house are made out of wallboard and joint compound while other parts are made out of blue board with a thin coat of plaster. These walls are pretty much what you would find in post 1960’s homes. These are the baseline conditions that you would find in your home which normally will not pose any challenge at all for any decent stud finder.
For more challenging usage scenarios, we simulated a plaster on lath wall by creating two layers of wallboard. The first wallboard we set up as the base was .5 inch. We placed metal screws in regular intervals. We then placed another .5 inch wallboard on top of it. To simulate different plaster thickness, we placed cardboard spacers between the two wallboards. From what we’ve gathered, most old structures average around .5 inch horsehair plaster walls.
STUDPOP MAGNETIC STUD FINDER
The Studpop is a magnetic stud finder. It is round shaped with what looks like a lollypop in the center. When the studpop moves over a screw head or a nail, the middle piece pops straight up (it also produces and audible cue). It feels durable enough to stand up to regular use. However, it only has one magnet so it make take some time to find a stud compared to other dual magnet stud finders. Another disadvantage is that it doesn’t have a level and you can’t use it to find the center of the stud.
CH HANSON 03040 STUD FINDER
Our testing has found that the HANSON has the best combination of durability, functionality and cost. The Hanson has two magnets, giving it a wider scanning area enabling you to find the studs faster. It also features a multi position level that lets you easily mark studs and position the frames you wish to hang. Its durability was particularly impressive. We’ve dropped it a couple of times on concrete and found only superficial damage. At $10 it’s incredible value for the money.
Because of the two magnets, you can scan faster than other single magnet based finders. A single swipe can cover at least a 2.5 inch wide area as opposed to 1.25 inches for single magnet stud finders. This results in less swiping to find a single screw head.
STANLEY FATMAX STUD SENSOR 300
The FatMax is one of the better electronic stud finders in our tests. It edges out the competition by being able to consistently find copper piping. Not only that but it was pretty consistent in detecting wood, steel pipe and cable. It also has a nice little notch on top which you can use to accurately mark an area. It’s quite unfortunate however that the manual is an undecipherable mess.
FRANKLIN SENSORS PROSENSOR 710
The Franklin Sensors Prosensor 710 is a pretty impressive electronic stud finder. It scans the wall at 13 separate points simultaneously. There is also a row of LED lights that can display the width of the stud.