Putting up a picture rail in a house with plaster walls

Picture Rail

This was a post I intended to write… two years ago. In fact, I thought I did write it! But then I went to direct someone to it and found I’d never written it (except, apparently, in my head.)

So this post will be about how my husband and I put up a picture rail in our 1920′s plaster wall house. Putting things up in a plaster walled house is different from putting it up in a drywalled house – stud finders and the like are pretty much useless.

So here goes!

New Picture Rail

Equipment you will need:

  • Picture rail moulding. We bought ours at lowes (search for “picture moulding”). Not all Lowes carry it, we had to go to omaha. Hilariously, lowes apparently has no idea how to use picture rail, as evidenced by this mailer I got from them. You can also find picture rail at blick art materials online (search for moulding) and salvage shops usually have some around, though it’s often encrusted with several decades of paint. You will need enough to cover all the area you want moulding on (duh) plus some extra because you’ll have to cut most of the pieces before the edge to line up with studs. I think we bought 4 extra pieces and used all but one. Important! When picking out boards, be sure to sight along them (like this picture demonstrates) to make sure it is not too warped. (We bought almost all the stock lowes had, so our options were not great.)
  • Electric Screwdriver. And an extension cord if corded.
  • Drill bits. You’ll need a variety of drill bits, mostly in smaller sizes. I found these broke while drilling into plaster a lot, so get extra.
  • Screws. 3″ long skinny screws to go into the studs.
  • Miter box and saw. I used a crappy mitre box and saw – it works, but a nicer saw especially would have been better. (note, you could use a mitre saw, but the boards are so small and you need to measure as you go – we found it was easier and less messy to just use a mitre box.)
  • Clamps. To clamp the mitre box to a table.
  • A step stool. Especially if you are short, like me.
  • Ruler.
  • Level.
  • Coping saw.
  • Small piece of wire.
  • Optional: hot glue gun. This is really useful for holding boards up while you are prepping stuff, but if you have extra hands you may not need it.
  • Picture rail hooks. You can find these at a variety of places, from the heavy duty to the lightweight. Our local hardware store has the lightweight variety, but we had to order some heavier duty ones as well. (a big heavy picture fell when we used the lightweight ones to hang it… oops.)

Step 0: Prep

Measure out how much picture rail you will need (see above), gather supplies and clear lots of space to work.

 Step 1: Paint

Painting the living/computer room

Paint the walls if you are going to. Paint the picture rail to match the walls at this time. We chose to hang our picture rail about 2.5 feet from the ceiling, so we painted two colors and then painted the picture rail to match the bottom color. I’ve seen some places recommend you put them up and then paint, but we found painting beforehand much easier and it only required a little touch up paint afterwards. If you are going to stain the picture rail, I dunno what the easiest approach is.

Step 2: Find the Studs!

New Picture Rail This turned out to be one of the most challenging things. Stud finders didn’t find anything under our plaster walls, so we had to make some educated guesses. Step one is to find one stud – usually located to the right or left of a door. How we did this was to use a small drill bit and drill a hole where we suspected there was a stud. If we were right, wood shavings came out when we pulled out the drill bit. If we were wrong, I used a curved piece of wire to feel around for the stud. If I didn’t find anything, I’d move over about 6 inches and try again.

Some notes:

  • Do this where you’re going to put the picture rail (I guess that’s obvious) and the picture rail will cover up the small holes. If you want, you can fill back in the holes, but we didn’t.
  • Be careful of false positives – we had pipe for old gas lamps in the wall, wires, all sorts of stuff. You really have to feel around with that wire to make sure what you have found is a stud and confirm it with the drill bit.
  • Studs are generally 16″ apart, and will probably be pretty regular in some homes. Ours were not super regular – they varied from 12″-20″ or so.
  • Use level to make a vertical line where the stud is. You can touch up the paint later to hide it.

We found the studs on one wall and then put up the picture rail on that wall, and then found all the other studs on the floor.

Step 3: put up the picture rail

Start in a corner, and keep the end flush – that is, don’t cut this end at a 45 degree angle. File a bit off the back if you need to to keep it flush- old houses have curvy corners sometimes. hold up the picture rail and find the stud closest to the end. Here’s the tricky part: you need to cut the picture rail at a 45 degree angle so when you put up two boards, the screw goes through both of them and into the stud.

New Picture Rail

So, mark the first board, cut it, and glue it into place (or have someone hold it). Then, cut the next board at an angle to match the first (it’s easy to get it backwards) hold it in place, and figure out where the next cut will need to be made before you glue that board in place. This is how you connect the boards on a straight wall. This is why you need so much extra – you’ll be losing up to 16″ off each board.

Going around outside corners is pretty easy: just cut each board at a 45 degree angle. It’s really easy to cut these just a teensy bit too short, though, so be careful! Imperfections can be hidden with plaster and paint later (provided you’re not staining, in which case: good luck!)

Working on inside corners is a bit tougher – you’ll need to do a coping joint. This makes it so you can fit one piece to another flat piece, and it works better than a simple miter because it’s a bit more forgiving. For instructions on how to do a good coping joint, take a look at this tutorial on coping joints from family handyman.

Picture Rail

Once you are done, you will have a rail with 3″ screws every 16″ or so, which means you can pretty much hang anything you want on it.

step 4: Finishing work

All that is left is to finish it up! Use plaster, sandpaper and paint to hide screw and edges.

New Picture Rail

You can also use plaster to hide any gaps caused by slightly wavy walls (oh, the joys of older houses!)

New Picture Rail

Just keep shoving plaster in there with a paint knife (or butter knife) and when it’s dry sand it and paint over it.

Finally, hang everything up. Some things take some ingenuity: For the guitar below, I straitened the bottom of a picture rail hook and screwed it into the guitar hanger.  Other useful hanging equipment might include: wire, twine, chain, ribbon, etc. Just remember, get hooks weighted for the thing you are hanging. That big tiger photo is the one that fell (luckily it didn’t get damaged) because we used the flimsy hooks to hang it up at first.


Why picture rail?

After almost two years with the picture rail, I am loving it as much as I thought it would. Nails are incredibly hard to put into plaster without damaging it – especially older plaster. But I have a lot of stuff I want to hang on the walls and change out often, so the picture rail was the perfect solution. You can check out my picture rail photo set on flickr for a few more images of our picture rail.

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