I need to hang some cabinets, but I don’t own an expensive stud-finder tool. In the past, when I’ve borrowed one I had limited success using it. Can you share any secrets on how to find wall studs or ceiling joists hidden behind drywall or plaster without one? And how do I prevent making the walls look like a woodpecker was here?

—Ed R., Warwick, R.I.

I hear your lamentations about the electronic stud finders. They are great tools in certain situations, but sometimes they can be really frustrating.

Two years ago, I was using a stud finder and it was giving all sorts of false positive signals. It would indicate where a ceiling joist was behind drywall, and when you drove a nail, the joist wasn’t there. I even had the house plans and knew the direction of the floor joists.

It turned out that the device was finding them, but that they were recessed from the inside surface of the drywall by 3 / 4 of an inch. The builder’s rough carpenters had installed 1-by-3 furring strips across the entire ceiling at 90-degree angles to the floor joists. You can see why using these tools requires a knowledge of building habits in certain parts of the nation.

Just last weekend, I had to find some wall studs to hang wall cabinets. I reverted to my old-fashioned method of a hammer and a nail. It works well, and because I carefully picked the spots where I drove the nails, the cabinets covered the exploratory holes after they were hung.

The first thing I do when I have to find a stud is to look for clues as to where they would be. If the house is built after about 1950, I look for electrical wall outlets. In almost all situations, the boxes that house the outlets are nailed to the side of a wall stud. In rare instances, a wall outlet may have been added at a later date, but in these situations a special remodeling box is used that doesn’t need to be nailed to a wall stud.

I also look for poorly patched nail holes in baseboard. This is less accurate because in some places, rough carpenters install a double-bottom wall plate. This allows them to randomly nail baseboard trim to the bottom plates instead of a vertical wall stud.

You can also look on a wall for a return air duct if the house has central air conditioning or forced-air heat. Wall registers are commonly put between two wall studs. Remove a return-air grill covering, and you’ll almost always see two wall studs.

The general spacing for wall studs is 16 inches on center, but they can be 24 inches. At my home, the exterior wall studs are spaced at 24-inch centers, but the interior walls are 16 inches on center.

However, just because you find one wall stud, that doesn’t mean you can say that every other stud on the wall is 16 inches on center from that one. Rough lumber can bow and twist. It’s possible for the spacing to be off by as much as 1 inch or more either direction, especially halfway between the floor and ceiling, where studs tend to bow the most.

I use a 10d finish nail to find wall studs. These create tiny holes that are easily patched with spackling compound.

My technique is to find at least one part of the wall stud and then drive nearby holes that tell me where the edges of the stud are. Once I find the edges, considering that most studs are 1.5 inches wide, I then know where the center of it is.

— Tribune Media

Tim Carter is a columnist for Tribune Media Services. He can be contacted through his Web site, askthebuilder.com.