Wall art, shelves, and other hanging decor add a lot to a room, and your drywall shouldn’t stop you from enjoying them. Decorating drywall does take some planning, though.
Exactly how much weight drywall can hold depends on where and how the weight is mounted. A thin nail in hollow drywall will leave even a light picture frame on the floor, but use the right hardware and technique, and your vertical drywall might be able to hold as much as 100 pounds.
Wall Studs and Ceiling Joists
As versatile and durable as it is, drywall is relatively brittle and can’t hold weight on nails the way a wood, plaster, or brick wall can. A nail in drywall alone can hold only a few pounds at most, and even then, it won’t hold reliably. A small picture frame should stay up for a while, but eventually, either the nail will slip out, or the drywall will crumble and drop the nail.
Instead of hanging your decor on a hollow section of drywall, aim to hang it on a wall stud. Walls studs are the vertical framing members placed 16 to 24 inches apart behind your drywall. If you don’t have a stud finder, you can find studs by tapping on the wall while moving in a horizontal line until you hear a solid sound rather than the usual hollow sound.
How much weight you can hang on the stud depends on what you hang it with. A 1 1/2-inch (4d) nail driven in at a 45-degree upward angle can hold as much as 20 pounds. That’s enough for a small to medium picture frame or a small wall light or planter. If you’re looking to hang an 8×10-inch framed photo, a nightlight, or a trendy little tillandsia plant holder, a nail in a stud will work just fine.
Screws give you even greater holding power, and several #4 or larger screws can hold as much as 100 pounds if driven into a wall stud. For example, you might have a 3-foot shelf weighing 20 pounds and a foot of average-sized books, which weigh around 20 pounds per foot.
That’s a total of 40 pounds, but the right screws driven into studs will have no trouble holding this weight on a drywall wall. Choose screws that will penetrate 1 inch into the stud. Any less and they won’t grip the wood, but any more puts the screws at risk for damage.
Ceilings are another matter, though, thanks to the direct downward pull of gravity. The average 2×4 ceiling joists can’t safely hold more than around 15 to 20 pounds regardless of the hanging hardware you use. A 5-inch flower pot with the combined weight of soil, water, and a plant can easily reach that weight. That’s also the average weight of a small ceiling fan, although these require special reinforcement due to the extra pressure their movement creates.
With 2×6 or 2×8 joists, you can hang a little more weight, but for anything more than around 30 pounds, you’ll need to brace the joists and possibly double them. Installing 2×4 blocking between the ceiling joists is another way to boost their load-bearing capacity.
Can’t find a stud where you need one? You can still hang a heavier item on your drywall, but you’ll need specialized hanging hardware to do so safely.
Anchors and Toggle Bolts
Drywall anchors and toggle bolts are hanging hardware that lend extra holding power to screws. By increasing the surface area the screw can use to grip the drywall, they create pressure that braces the anchor and screw against the drywall. To use this hardware, you’ll first install the anchor or toggle bolt in the drywall, then drive the screw in.
Several types of anchors are available, and the right one for the job depends largely on how much weight you want to hang. An anchor’s holding power is typically listed on the packaging. Its holding power should meet or exceed the weight of the item you’re planning to hang. Location also matters. For ceilings, use only molly bolts or toggle bolts.
Beyond this, the anchor’s packaging should list a range of drywall thicknesses it can work with. Most home drywall is 1/2 inch thick, but where the studs are 24 inches apart, thicker 5/8-inch drywall is often used.
Choosing the Right Hardware
Expansion anchors – Also called drywall plugs, these can hold between 5 to 25 pounds on walls, depending on their size, but they aren’t suitable for ceilings. Products designed for the wall, such as towel racks, often come with cheaply made plastic wall plugs, but if you want reliable holding power, you’ll be better off using a sturdier type of anchor.
Threaded anchors – Being thicker than expansion anchors, these can hold between 25 to 75 pounds, but they shouldn’t be used on ceilings. They’re easier to install than expansion anchors because they don’t require a pilot hole.
Sleeve type anchors (molly bolts) – These can hold between 25 to 50 pounds on walls. On ceilings, they can hold small items such as smoke alarms or lights weighing not more than 10 ounces. Getting the right size for your drywall thickness is particularly important here because an oversized molly bolt won’t hold effectively.
Toggle bolts (butterfly anchors) – For serious holding power, these are your best bet. While the holding power of plastic toggles stops at around 20 pounds, metal toggles can hold up to 100 pounds on walls. They’re the best choice for use on ceilings, but in this case, toggle bolts have only 1/3 the holding power they do on walls, and they can’t reliably hold more than 15 pounds.
They’re a bit trickier to install than other anchors because they must be inserted into the pilot hole correctly in order to open up behind the wall. If you want to hang anything heavier than 15 pounds on your ceiling, you’ll need to attach it to a ceiling joist that’s been properly reinforced.
Drywall might seem fragile, but it’s capable of holding nearly anything you might want to hang on your wall as long as you hang it properly. Take advantage of your wall studs when possible, but when that’s not an option, drywall anchors will give you the extra holding power you need to put up your pictures, shelves, and planters.