How Do I Fix That? Part 2: Hanging a Picture with a Heavy Frame

How Do I Fix That? Part 2: Hanging a Picture with a Heavy Frame

While we might enjoy watching the various home improvement shows filling up cable programming, many of us can’t complete the most basic of home improvement projects. The How Do I Fix That? series will show you how to tackle a range of problems that have plagued homeowners for time immemorial. Each installment will provide a walkthrough for the problem at hand so you’ll know what to expect before you get started. Now, get into your old work jeans and roll up your sleeves – we’re going to get messy.

In this installment, we’re going to help you with one of those tasks that somehow feels simple and difficult at the same time – hanging a piece of art or picture with a heavy frame. We’ll discuss strategies for determining how and where to set your anchors as well as ways to ensure the picture remains on the wall.

“This,” my brother-in-law said, pointing first at the large-ish framed picture propped up against the sofa. He then pointed to the bare wall above the fireplace. “Goes up there.”

While the picture probably weighed only a few ounces, it was ensconced in a gold frame was a mass of milled lumber that writhed around the painting in Romanesque orgy of vines, leaves, and fluting. With the glass and the matting, the whole thing looked more like an art institution unto itself. All it needed was a parking lot.

“How do you go about hanging a nightmare like that?” he asked.

I hefted the thing – felt around 40 or 50 pounds. Time to get to work.

If this scenario sounds like we needed some serious hardware, relax.  The whole process was actually pretty easy, and you can do it, too. There are two basic steps:

  1. Determine what kind of support you have in the wall; and
  2. Choose what to use to hang it.
How Do I Fix That? Part 2: Hanging a Picture with a Heavy Frame
Carrying the picture into your room is one thing. Hanging it on your wall by yourself is something else altogether.

And it’s a good idea to have someone to help you. Hanging a bulky picture can be awkward, depending upon the dimensions and heft of the frame.

Locating Your Source of Support

With anything you mount on a wall, you first want anchor it to one of the wall’s vertical wooden studs or one of the horizontal fire blocks. Finding studs by knocking walls works -the wall space sounds loud and booming where there aren’t any studs and higher pitched where there is one. Still, this is an imprecise method requiring practice, and if you live in an older home with plaster and lathe walls, it can cause problems if you guess incorrectly.

How Do I Fix That? Part 2: Hanging a Picture with a Heavy Frame
You really can’t get more basic than this, but it does what you need it to do.

Electronic stud finders work by detecting density through changes in the electrostatic field. Battery-powered and relatively inexpensive, they can locate wall studs behind sheetrock, plaster, and the old plaster-and-lathe walls. Many are also able to detect live wires, which is a nice feature because it’s really quite unpleasant to discover one with a nail.

  • Turn on your electronic stud finder and sweep it slowly side to side against the surface of the wall in the area you want to mount your picture.
  • Stud finders will beep, squeak, or boop when they’ve located a stud.
  • Sweep back across that area until the stud finder locates the stud’s center.
  • Mark it with a pencil.
  • In the case of using multiple wall anchors, you may need to locate additional studs.

If the place where you want hang you picture doesn’t have a convenient stud, don’t worry. You can use an anchoring system to hold a strong picture-hanging hook. The common wall anchor is a plastic plug that inserts into a pre-drilled hole. Heavy-duty versions are called “Molly bolts”. As a screw is twisted into it, the anchor deforms to grip the sheet rock (or plaster) tighter, or it pushes out a toggle on the other side of the drywall to prevent the anchor from tearing out.

The trick is to choose the right one for the amount of weight you want to support and how you’re going to hang it. One key tip I have run into says it’s best to use an anchor that can hold 3-4 times the load you hang on it. If your framed monstrosity is 40 pounds, you want at least 120 pounds of anchoring capacity.

By Hook and Wire

How Do I Fix That? Part 2: Hanging a Picture with a Heavy Frame
To paraphrase the old adage, “Measure twice, and nail once.” Accuracy is important!

Most pictures can be hung the tradition way – D-rings nailed or screwed to either side on the back of the frame with brads and a piece of steel wire strung between them (preferably ones that don’t go all the way through the frame and damage the front). The picture is then placed on the wall with the wire catching on a conveniently placed nail.

Eye screws can also be used, but make sure they are not too long and don’t split the frame’s wood. While you can tie one end of stainless steel wire through each D-ring, using a swaging tool instead can give you a stronger, more dependable attachment.

With a heavy picture like the 50-pound one previously mentioned, you’ll want to use a stainless steel cable rated to 120 pounds. It’s also a good idea to use two (or even three!) picture hanging hooks anchored to the wall at the same height but spread event for almost the entire width of the frame to hold the cable. This way, the load is evenly distributed and, should one anchor come loose over time, you have one or two more to back it up.

The French Connection

In the picture for my brother-in-law, I settled on using a French cleat (or “gallery rail”). These are very strong and can be used for holding cabinets, shelving, and very, very heavy pictures. A French cleat is made of two pieces of wood or metal that are cut at an angle lengthwise. One is screwed securely with its angled face to the wall. The other is attached to the frame with its angled face to the back of picture, and when they are brought together, they interlock.

The tricky part is to make sure both halves of the cleat are mounted straight onto the wall or picture. Use a level to install the half on the wall and be sure to measure carefully to correctly position the one to be mounted on the back of the picture. Take your time and be as precise as possible.

Wooden French cleats can be 1/2” to 3/4” thick, so you might consider attaching a small spacer to the bottom of the frame. Metal French cleats are much thinner but sturdy and are available at home centers for under $15.

How Do I Fix That? Part 2: Hanging a Picture with a Heavy Frame
Teamwork does make the dream work!

Remember – always feel free to ask a more experienced friend, family member, or coworker for assistance with such projects. If you don’t know what to do, you don’t want to start a project and be unable to complete it (or hurt your home!) through your lack of knowledge.

Next month in How Do I Fix That?, we’ll help you install blinds in your home.

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Vernon Trollinger is a writer with a background in home improvement, electronics, fiction writing, and archaeology. He now writes about green energy technology, home energy efficiency, the natural gas industry, and the electrical grid.