My sweet sister in law sent me this question recently:

image courtesy of Horia Varlan via Flickr
"I have a really stupid, basic question but I've never had to deal with it before because of living in student housing. How do you nail up pictures and bookshelves and things? Is there anything more than just nailing or screwing it in where I want it? Do I have to look for a stud? How? If I'm using screws, can I just use a screwdriver or should I buy a drill and drill a pilot hole? Look how lost I am. What is your advice? I'm going to have to fill these holes when I leave the apartment."

There are a couple of options:

Image courtesy of Charles & Hudson via Flickr.
A stud sensor is a fancy tool that senses the metal
fasteners which attach the wallboard to the stud.
  1. 3M sticky hooks. These can supposedly be removed without damaging the wall and can actually hold things up.  Haven't tried them myself. 
  2. Studly.  You can nail into a stud or screw into a stud (yes, drill a pilot hole just smaller than your screw shaft; you won't need a pilot hole for 99% of nails).  You have to find the stud first.  Try using a magnet to locate where there are already metal fasteners holding the wall board onto the studs. Typically studs are spaced 16" on center, so once you locate one, try 16" away for the next one.  Nails are fine for most pictures unless they are very heavy, or you can use picture hanging hooks, which make tiny nail holes and are very strong.   For bookshelves or TVs, use screws. Be sure to 
    Stanley Hotel @ Estes Park, Colorado.
    Image courtesy of daveynin via Flickr.
    Really heavy items like big mirrors really
    need to be hung from more than one stud.
    get WOOD screws (not sheetrock screws, which are just meant to be strong enough to hold on the sheetrock).  A wood 
    screw will have a pointed tip and the threads will be coarse (not too close together).  Get ones that are rated for the weight you want to support.
  3. No Stud. If you want to hang where there is no stud, do NOT just screw or nail into the sheetrock.  You've got to use an anchor.  There are several kinds: plastic & metal wing toggle-bolts are most common (don't use lead, that's for a masonry wall).  I hate the toggles, so I usually use plastic anchors.    You drill a pilot hole for the anchor, set the anchor, then use your screw to hang your picture into the secured hole proved by the anchor.  

As you can see, not a stupid question. :)

You'll find everything you need on the "fasteners" aisle at HD or Lowe's, and the picture hanging stuff is typically all together in one spot.  

But What If I Don't Have Sheetrock?

hook on a picture rail
Image courtesy of karindalziel via Flickr.
Oh.  I happen to know you live in a new place, which means studs & drywall (aka sheetrock or gypsum board). If you've got plaster or masonry, it's a bit different...

For wood lathe & PLASTER, you can still use the stud approach, but not the no stud approach (the sheetrock anchors won't work).  

If you absolutely must hang something where there is no stud, consider the old-fashioned approach of hanging a picture rail high up on the wall.  The rail is a piece of wood trim that is attached to the studs.  The pictures then hang from the rail with often pretty long wire.  If you can find actual "picture rail" trim--which my HD & Lowe's do not carry--it is a very specific shape that will take supercool picture rail hooks.

On our lathe & plaster wall, I installed a basic chair rail (very easy to find), and then hang my wire from a nail in the top side.

If you have MASONRY walls like brick or concrete block, there are no studs.  You have three options.

  1. if you have brick, use a simple brick hanger.  It grabs a standard size brick and provides a hook with no holes to drill.
  2. Use a lead anchor/shield the same way you would have used a plastic anchor with sheetrock.  Drill a hole to fit the anchor, tap the anchor in and use the secured hole to fit your screw.  Do not expect that anchoring into a mortar joint will provide the same strength as the masonry unit.
  3. Use the picture rail approach mentioned above, but instead of hanging the rail to the studs, use lead anchors into the masonry.  
hang tight,

p.s. If you are a LANDLORD, picture rails are awesome, because it allows residents to hang stuff where they want them without adding holes to your walls.