We have all experienced the frustration of trying to hang a picture on the wall and not locating a stud to securely attach the frame. You think to yourself, “there must be no studs in this wall!” And yet, without wall studs, the wall would have no structural support.
Can a wall not have studs? The answer is no—a wall must have studs to ensure structural support. However, there are some variations in how a wall can be framed and where you will locate studs.
Whether you are building a new structure, making an addition or remodel to your home, or simply trying to learn how to safely hang something up, this information will help you.
What are Wall Studs?
Studs are support boards that run vertically from floor to ceiling in a wall. The lumber typically is untreated soft woods, such as pine, spruce, or fir. These boards are sawn and planed into standard sizes for building construction.
Some homes use steel framing studs. Although steel studs offer stronger support and more resistance to damage from environmental factors and pests, and perform well against seismic activities and high winds, steel studs have one big disadvantage.
Steel studs form thermal bridges, or places where heat is easily transferred, in the wall system. This leads to lower energy efficiency. To mitigate, the builder must use substantially more insulation, which makes the cost higher than often is warranted (source).
Regardless of whether the studs are wood or steel, most homes today are built with a method called stick framing. The builder creates a “skeleton” for the home using lumber spaced evenly throughout the structure.
Then, the walls are covered with materials, such as plywood and drywall, to cover the frame. This also hides electrical wires, plumbing, and insulation that run throughout the gaps in the framing.
Some walls are considered load-bearing, which means they carry the weight of the roof or upper stories. These walls cannot be removed or altered without installing beams, columns, or bracing that will support and transfer the load.
Exterior walls are almost always load-bearing walls, but interior walls can be a mixture of load-bearing and partition walls, or non-load-bearing walls. Partition walls are still attached to the floor and ceiling, but they do not carry any weight and can be altered without extra support added.
If you are remodeling, it is important to determine whether a wall is load-bearing or partition before removing any section of it. Likewise, if you are adding walls to an existing space, the walls will be partition walls. Either way, there are standard building codes to follow of spacing wall studs.
Wall Stud Dimensions and Variations
Most interior walls are built with 2×4 lumber, while exterior walls are built with either 2×4 or 2×6 lumber. Traditionally in a wall, the 2x4s or 2x6s are spaced evenly every 16 inches on center.
This means that the measurement runs from the center of one board to the center of the next. Since the boards are faced with the thicker part perpendicular to the wall to create a cavity for electrical, plumbing, and insulation, this means the “2 inch width” is split center.
The trick lies in the fact that true measurements of a 2×4 are not actually 2 inches by 4 inches, but 1.5 inches by 3.5 inches. (Boards also have lengths, typically 8 feet, 10 feet, or 12 feet depending on the height of the space.)
When boards are rough hewn in the lumber yard, their dimensions are actually true to their name, but once they are planed for smoothness they lose some thickness.
Therefore, 16 inches on center would include 3/4 inch of one stud, 14 inches of free space, and 3/4 inch on the next stud. If you are searching for a stud in an existing wall, this is normally the distance you would measure for.
However, there are variations to this amount. Doors and windows require extra framing and often add studs as support for the door or window. In addition, corners often have extra framing material.
The biggest variation is the distance between studs. In advanced framing techniques, which I will discuss in detail shortly, wall studs can be spaced up to 24 inches on center.
Thankfully, there are a few tricks to discovering where the studs in an existing wall are located.
Finding Studs in an Existing Wall
If you are attempting to locate a wall stud in an existing wall in order to hang something securely through the framing, here are several ways to go about looking for the elusive stud.
- Look for imperfections in the wall: On drywall walls, often the studs and nails or screws used to fasten the drywall to them create little bumps and ridges in the wall. Look closely or run your hand along the wall for any indication of nails or studs, using a light if necessary.
Any fasteners would indicate roughly the middle of a stud. From there, you can measure 16 inches (or 24 inches) to look for another stud.
2. Look by Electrical Outlets and Light Switches: These boxes are usually attached to a stud on one side. From there, you can measure distances to look for more studs.
3. Look at Trim: Trim, like baseboard and crown molding, is usually attached to the walls at studs. Look for the finish nails that attach it, and you can assume there is a stud behind it.
4. Tap the Wall: This method can sometimes work. Tap on the wall with a knuckle or lightly with a hammer. Areas without studs have a hollow sound, while studs have a higher, more solid sound.
5. Use a Stud Finder: If all else fails, purchase a stud finder (link to Amazon). These devices are calibrated against the wall, and then moved slowly along the wall until they indicate a solid structure behind it. Use the owner’s manual for detailed instructions.
6. Steel Studs: If the studs are steel, you can find them with a strong magnet. Although nails and other metal objects will attract the magnet, a steel stud will have a stronger attraction the whole vertical length.
Things to Consider:
- Regardless of the method you use to find wall studs, always look for several points vertically along the stud to make sure what you have found is indeed a stud.
- If the stud you found is not near your intended location, you can measure 16 or 24 inches from it along the wall until you reach the correct area.
- Mark potential studs with pieces of painter’s tape, which can easily be removed without damaging the wall.
- To test for a stud, tap a small finishing nail into the drywall. If there is a stud, it should offer good resistance.
- Warning: There can be multiple wires and pipes running through the walls. Be careful to avoid these when securing fasteners.
- If your studs are steel, you need to use special fasteners, like toggle bolts, to secure through them.
- If you absolutely cannot use the closest wall stud to support the item you want to hang (it doesn’t line up properly for aesthetics for instance), then use drywall anchors that are rated for the weight of your item.
Advanced Framing Techniques for New Walls
As I mentioned before, many newer homes are built with advanced framing techniques. If your home is newer, or you are building an addition or remodel, you might have this kind of framing or consider this method.
In advanced framing, walls are designed with 24-inch on-center framing instead of the traditional 16-inch on-center. Architects also attempt to design wall lengths, heights, window and door frames, etc. on a 2-foot grid (source).
These changes reduce the amount of lumber wasted, which in turn reduces cost. Even more importantly, it increases the energy efficiency of the wall.
Every stud represents a thermal bridge that can transfer heat through the wall. In traditional framing, more wood framing and therefore less insulation creates many places for thermal resistance.
Advanced framing naturally lessens this phenomenon because there are fewer vertical wall studs, among other framing reductions. More insulation can be placed between the gaps as well.
If you are considering this method, check with your local building codes. Some areas of the country do not allow advanced framing, particularly on exterior walls.
And if you are trying to locate an elusive stud, it may be your home was built with 24 inch spacing. Check for 24 inch on-center spacing between any studs you do locate, and that may solve the case of the missing stud.
Wall studs are an important part of any stick frame building, giving vertical support to upper stories and roofing if it is a load-bearing wall, and simply creating separation of rooms in a partition wall.
Wall studs are made or wood or sometimes steel and covered with drywall, plaster, or plywood. However, locating them can be tricky.
Several indicators can help you find studs within an existing wall, and by measuring the standard 16 inch on-center, or the advanced 24 inch on-center, you can usually find more studs for your hanging needs.