Photo: sun ok (Shutterstock)
Even if you’re not handy, there are certain universal projects that just about everyone tackles at some point in their lives, like hanging a towel rack or a shelf on the wall. And trying to hang stuff on your walls leads to a crucial lesson: Drywall absolutely sucks when it comes to supporting weight.
The problem with hanging things on drywall
Drywall is just a thin sheet of gypsum. It works great in terms of being a simple wall, but it has almost zero holding power. If you’ve ever hung a shelf on a wall only to have it fall off the wall the moment you put something on it, you know how weak drywall is. Of course, there are wooden studs you can drill into behind that drywall, and if you screw your shelves, racks, and other items into those studs then they will be there decades later—but studs are spaced in inconvenient ways.
That’s why drywall anchors were invented. Drywall anchors are plastic or metal sleeves that expand as you drill into them, increasing the area on the rear of the drywall that’s holding the weight of whatever it is you’re attaching. That distributes the force more evenly, strengthening the holding power.
But if you’ve ever purchased something like a towel rack or toilet paper holder from a hardware store, you’ve probably tried using the cheap plastic anchors that come with the kit. That means you also know the pure hell of trying to get these anchors to work, and perhaps you’ve concluded that physics is a lie. But those cheap plastic anchors you get for free are the biggest mistake you’re making when putting stuff on your walls.
Don’t hang things on drywall using cheap plastic anchors
The main problem with cheap plastic drywall anchors is, well, they’re cheap. In theory, they should work well—you drill an appropriately-sized hole in your wall, you insert the plastic anchor, then you screw in the screw, the anchor expands, and boom! You have a tight, sturdy attachment. But in reality, this happens: You start to turn the screwdriver, and the plastic anchor turns with you. The screw never drills into the anchor, and you either give up or wind up putting so much force into trying to insert the screw you push the anchor all the way through the wall, and now you have a hole that’s too large for your anchors.
The second problem with these cheap plastic anchors is their load capacities: Even if you somehow triumph over the maddening tendency for these anchors to just spin in place and actually get them to bite, they can’t hold much weight or take much force. It won’t be long before those anchors start to loosen, and removing them usually leaves a hole that requires a larger anchor, which can sometimes be problematic depending on the size of the fasteners you’re using. The solution is to immediately throw away the free anchors and use something better in the first place: Toggle bolts.
Use toggle bolts when hanging things from drywall
A toggle bolt is a spring-loaded fastener and a bolt. You can buy them in a variety of diameters, which will determine the size of the hole you drill into your wall for them. These range from 1/8th of an inch to about 1/4th of an inch, typically. The smallest ones are usually about the right size to replace the free anchors you get with something like a towel rack, but it’s always best to check the bolt diameter before you use a toggle bolt.
Toggle bolts are pretty easy to use:
Remove the bolt from the fastener. Insert the bolt through the bracket you’re trying to attach to the wall. Re-thread the bolt into the fastener, making sure the fastener folds in towards the bracket. Fold the fastener and push it through the hole you’ve drilled in the wall. Pull the bracket towards you until you feel the fastener bite against the back of the drywall. Tighten the bolt until the fastener is tight against the wall.
Step five is crucial: If you don’t pull the toggle bolt tight against the rear of the drywall, when you turn the bolt it will just spin back there.
For an even easier process, go for what’s called a snap toggle (sometimes called a strap toggle). These are toggle bolts that come with plastic straps that allow you to pull them tight against the rear of the drywall, then set them in place. You break off the plastic straps and then insert and tighten your screw. They can be a bit easier to work with.
Toggle bolts are not only easier and more reliable, they typically hold more weight—depending on how thick your drywall is, you can find toggle bolts that will hold hundreds of pounds of weight. The free plastic anchors you get with your kit won’t come close—they typically hold about 15-20 pounds. Do you need to do chin-ups on your towel rack? Probably not, but using toggle bolts means you’ll never have to replace it, either.
Getting a free plastic anchor is a nice convenience—but as with anything free, you get what you pay for. Level up your fasteners and sleep better at night knowing your toilet paper holder isn’t going anywhere.