Hanging Cabinets on Plaster Walls

Cabinet installers discuss the classic old-house problem: finding some meat behind the plaster. March 18, 2006

I am going to be installing some upper cabinets on plaster walls in a 100 year old home. What's the best method to attach them?

Forum Responses
(Cabinet and Millwork Installation Forum)
From contributor A:
I believe they still used wood stud framing 100 years ago. Screw them to the studs.

From the original questioner:
My concern was being able to find them behind the plaster. But thinking about it, I can just cut a section away behind the cabinet to figure out what's back there. Maybe I was overthinking it.

From contributor B:
If the plaster is in good to excellent condition you can literally screw it anywhere. The base of the plaster will be a split lath and there is a 90% chance of screwing into it. You can also hunt for the studs with a screw where the cabinets will be hung, then put the cabinets up and the extra holes will be hidden behind the cabinets. They do have stud finders that can penetrate the plaster walls and reliably find the studs - don't expect them to be 16" on center.

From contributor C:
Isn't there usually chicken wire in the plaster? It seems like that would interfere with the stud finder. I did mess with plaster once in the 70's and it seems to me I had to use a carbide masonry drill.

From contributor A:
To contributor B: I donít know. The lath I have seen during a demolition seems like it was 1/2" thick by 1" wide if that. I wouldn't trust that to hold a cabinet.

To the original questioner: When there is plywood sheeting behind the sheet rock (I wonít fasten a wall cabinet to sheeting either) I take a drill with a 1/4" drill bit and hunt for studs. I can tell when I am between them because the drill goes the same depth every time and then frees up. When it goes deeper and is still drilling wood, that is a stud. I am sure this will work on plaster and lath too. If you hit chicken wire the bit should just deflect. After you pinpoint the center of a stud, try to determine what the framing spacing is by measuring a logical distance like 16". I always make sure I have positively located enough studs to secure a particular cabinet before I raise it.

From contributor D:
I disagree with contributor B. The lath wonít hold up a loaded cabinet. It might be great for holding up a picture but not a cabinet. As for chicken wire, Iíve never seen it in houses. Find the stud with a nail and hang the cabinet on studs. The studs might be 16 '' center to center but itís no guarantee in older homes. Donít be surprised to find 2 x 4's that are actually 2 x 4 and no round-over on the edges.

From contributor B:
To contributor D: I've done cabinets this way on good plaster. And I've swung from them, and I'm no lightweight. The lath that the plaster is laid on is usually oak or chestnut. It is at least 3/8" thick and embedded in plaster. A lot of plasters were reinforced with horsehair and are even stronger. I recommend finding a stud but it isn't possible to always get one with a smaller cabinet. I've worked within the 18th century style homes for 17 years and know how they are built. If you find chicken wire in the walls instead of lath then the walls were redone at some later time and then I wouldn't recommend screwing anywhere as you would be screwing into plaster only.

From contributor D:
To contributor B: With all due respect to you and your experience, you sound like youíve been around and know your stuff but I lived in a plaster house and the lath was 3/16 thick at most. It was built in 1927. I got the feeling that the builders used less and less lath as the house went up. I had to move a few walls and widen doorways for a modern fridge and washer/dryer to fit in. Nothing was uniform as far as studs and lath. Space between the studs got wider and the lath was spaced wherever the worker thought was ok. So, I stick to my position to find the stud.

From the original questioner:
The general contractor took out the old cabinets on Friday and told me that they were installed with lots of nails. I suppose the 90% chance to hit wood theory. What also probably helped is that itís a wall to wall run, so both sides can be fastened as well as the back. I'll hunt for the studs and be safe.

From contributor B:
To contributor D: A 1927 house is still a ways from a 100 year old house. Most of the homes Iíve dealt with are about 200 years old. I've never seen a house with 3/16" lath in it. That's pretty thin. In your situation I would definitely not use the lath as a support. But in most cases it is feasible to do so. You can even use some liquid nails or other construction adhesive on the backs of the cabinets for more support, just as long as you don't want to take them down in the future. If you can find the studs, that's always the best way to go. But I've seen stud spacing as far as 37" in older homes. The studs are used primarily to make the walls and add no structural support to the house at all in a post and beam structure, so there is no reason to have a lot of them. They may be too far apart to help you hang cabinets.

From contributor E:
Have you thought about installing a hanging rail to the walls first? This leaves you a fastener free cabinet and also works out the kinks in that old wall.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor A:
The chicken wire is actually a derivative of a wet cement application, also known as King's cement. The wire is needed to hold the plaster mix together and the wire (or mesh- the range is good mesh; plated and heavy to a poor man's actual chicken wire) is held to the wood backing or primary smear of cement or plaster via nails or pins. It is easy to rip off by pulling downwards with a bar behind the wall. Horse hair binder within the plaster mix would be a good guess, for it was used during the same time period; late 1900's to 1930's. Remember, this may be more like cement and very hard as compared to wet plaster or drywall.