The Best Stud Finder for Around the House

If you need to find a stud in your walls (and you eventually will), we recommend the Magic Stud Finder Plus. It’s reliable and accurate, and because it’s magnet-based, it doesn’t need batteries or any kind of calibration. Unlike other stud finders, the Magic Stud Finder Plus allows you to mark multiple points on your wall without having to use a pencil. Because locating studs isn’t an exact science and to do it accurately, you need to double and triple-check your work, this is a feature that elevates it above the rest.

Last Updated: March 20, 2014
Our new step up recommendation, the Franklin ProSensor 710, costs quite a bit more than our main pick, but it's the most accurate stud finder we've come across. We also reviewed another magnet-based finder, the StudPop, and added it to "The Others" section below.

If you want a stud finder that is quicker and easier to use and are willing to invest some coin, we recommend the Franklin ProSensor 710 ($55). Of all the electronic stud finders that I’ve used over the years, this is by far the most accurate. Because it scans 13 points simultaneously, the tool can visually display both sides of a stud, making it painless to use and virtually eliminating the false positives that plague other electronic stud finders.

My experience with construction and home improvement

I’ve been in construction for 10 years and have been writing about tools and gear for the past six. In that time, I’ve used all kinds of stud finders and have nearly mastered the art of locating one by tapping a knuckle on the wall. I’ve also managed to pick up a wide variety of stud locating tricks, mostly from grizzled old carpenters.

Why use a stud finder?

There are a lot of reasons why you would need to find a stud in your walls. The most common is if you’re trying to hang something heavy like a large mirror. You could also be installing a pot rack or maybe an anti-tip bracket for a tall bookshelf. In all of these instances, it’s possible to use some kind of wall anchor, but if you really want to feel secure in the stability of your work it’s smart to screw directly into a stud. To locate one, you’ll need a stud finder. And to properly use a stud finder, it helps to know a bit of basic information about how your house’s walls are (most likely) built.

Basic wall construction

A standard framed wall is made up of horizontal pieces at the top and bottom (plates) and the vertical members that connect them (studs). Most framing is done with 2 x 4s or 2 x 6s, which are 1½ inches wide (they used to be 2 inches, thus the name). For the most part, studs are placed 16 inches on-center, leaving 14½ inches of clear space between the studs (this area is referred to as the stud bay). Some new construction is done with 2-foot on-center spacing, but it is not that common. Older houses can be a mixed bag. My own house, built in the early 1900s, has framing that is anywhere between 16 to 30 inches on center. It also has true dimension 2-inch studs. So it’s good to know the basics as a guideline, but you never know what exactly you’re going to find.

In most post-1960 construction, the wall surface is made up of sheets of ½-inch thick sheetrock or blueboard that are screwed directly the studs. To finish a sheetrock wall, the screw heads and seams are filled in and smoothed over with joint compound. A blueboard wall is entirely covered with a skim coat of plaster, usually about ⅛-inch thick.

Previous to 1960, either wood or metal lath was nailed to the studs and plaster was applied on top. The lath served the purpose of providing a backer to hold the plaster and lock it in place. In this type of construction, the plaster is much thicker and can be anywhere from ½ to 1 inch thick.

How to use a stud finder

Anytime you’re trying to find a stud with a magnetic stud finder (or any stud finder, for that matter), it’s a good idea to double and triple-check your findings.
Anytime you’re trying to find a stud with a magnetic stud finder (or any stud finder, for that matter), it’s a good idea to double and triple-check your findings. There are many instances where something in your wall could be give you a false positive. Maybe there is some horizontal framing or maybe a few of the drywall screws have missed the studs. When I gutted my own house, I discovered some very amateur, very inconsistent, and very frightening framing (which caused us to have to rip a large portion of the roof off – not in the budget). Sometimes remodelers get creative in bizarre ways (or, worse, a weekend warrior gets in over his head) so you need to be positive that you’re hitting a stud before you take out the drill and start making holes.

To confirm a stud using the Magic Stud Finder Plus’ targets, locate points to each side of it, typically 16 inches apart, and then above and below it, typically 8 to 10 inches apart.

To do this sort of double-checking with a stud finder, you need to locate multiple points and cross-reference them against one another until you’re sure you know exactly where the studs are. If you get a hit with the stud finder, check above it and below it to try to get other hits that are in a direct plumb line with the first (it’s typical for screws to be about 8 to 10 inches apart on sheetrock). Then check to the right and left of it and try to find more screw heads at the 16-inch mark (remember, common framing is done 16 inches apart). With a normal stud finder, this process means putting quite a few marks on your wall either with a pencil or little pieces of blue tape. The stud finder we’re recommending lets you leave non-marking magnetic markers on the wall for you so you don’t have to mar your paint job.

SH_stud_finder_vertTypes of stud finders

There are two different types of stud finders for home use: electronic and magnetic. We prefer the simpler magnetic type because they’re cheaper and more reliable1. A reliable electronic finder will run you north of $50—too much to pay for something you only use a few times a year, if that. A good magnetic one, like our pick, can be had for less than $20.

Magnetic finders are attracted the metal fasteners that hold the sheetrock or blueboard to your studs. If you find the screw, you’ve found the stud. Simple.

But even magnetic stud finders aren’t perfect. While they work great for sheetrock and blueboard, they are less effective on plastered walls because of the thick coat of plaster. About ½” of total thickness seems to be the upper limit of detection for most magnetic stud finders. But there is a work around for these thick walls. Because baseboard is nailed into studs, all you have to do is scan that for nail heads and you’ve found the stud.

How we picked

Once we narrowed it down to magnetic stud finders, I checked out all of the major online retailers (Amazon, Home Depot, Lowes, Ace, Walmart, Menards) and decided on five models to test out of the 10 or so that are widely available. I read all of the reviews I could (there aren’t many) and noted which finders were recommended at the contractor message boards. I also got a sense of each unit’s success by reading the user reviews at Amazon. Both Amazon and the message boards need to be taken with a grain of salt, but I was able to isolate some consistencies about how well each one worked. With one exception, I opted for units that offered additional features like level vials, an audible detection sound and removable magnets. The ones we tested were the CH Hanson Stud4Sure, Magic Stud Finder, Stud Thud, Johnson 160 Stud Finder PlusStud Pop, and the Rev-A-Lock2 .

We also tested one electronic stud finder, the Franklin ProSensor 710. We did this because of the overwhelmingly positive feedback from respected tool reviewers as well as its high Amazon customer rating. The tool has a unique design and based on what I read, it doesn’t have many of the problems that hinder other electronic stud finders such as calibration issues or an abundance of false positives.

How did we test?

For testing, I used all of the finders to locate studs in various rooms of my house. I have portions that consist of sheetrock and joint compound and other parts that are blueboard with a skim coat of plaster. These two conditions (prevalent in post-1960 construction) don’t pose a high level of difficulty for the finders because at most the screwheads are only about ⅛” below the surface of the wall. But not everyone has a house built after 1960.

SH_stud_finder_group

Clockwise from top: Rev-A-Lok, Johnson, Stud Thud, C.H. Hanson Stud4Sure, Magic Stud Finder Plus with targets.

To simulate the thicker plaster on lath wall, I took a piece of ½-inch sheetrock and held a screw head to one side while I scanned the other side with the stud finders. Then I incrementally backed off the screw head, as if the wall were thicker. It’s my experience that ½” to ⅞” is a good range of plaster thickness. When I gutted my hundred year old farmhouse, the horsehair plaster averaged about ½”.

Our pick

It’s the only unit that goes beyond the basic task of locating screwheads.
After testing, I became convinced that the Magic Stud Finder is the way to go for finding studs. It’s the only unit that goes beyond the basic task of locating screwheads. Because it consists of two parts, the carriage and three removable magnets, it can help you locate a number of studs at once and easily mark them without having to use a pencil—and it does so very quickly. As previously explained, this is crucial for confirming that you do in fact have a stud and not a false positive.

The way the Magic Stud Finder Plus works is that the underside of the body has two cut-outs where the little magnetic targets fit. When the unit is being used, the targets are captured between the body of the tool and the wall that is being scanned. When it moves over a metal screw head, the targets click and stick onto the wall where they stay as you remove the body of the finder. Then, you can load another target and locate another screw head. Once that one is placed, you can do it a third time (the set comes with three targets, and additional ones are available standalone in case you lose some or need more). When all of the targets are on the wall, it’s easy to trap one of them with the body and slide it to a new location. So you can first check vertically, then horizontally. Using the Magic Stud Finder, I was able to get a firm understanding of the framing layout of an entire wall in well under a minute. Here is a video that I found of the tool in action.

Using these targets is way easier than making little marks on a freshly painted wall (which is when a lot of mirror hanging or shelf installation might take place). The Magic Stud Finder Plus was also the only finder with felt pads on the back of the body, which is another nice touch and will protect your walls as you drag it around. The body also has level and plumb level vials.

Three studs confirmed: 19 seconds.

Three studs confirmed: 19 seconds.

The weak point of the Magic Stud Finder is that the target magnets aren’t particularly strong.
The weak point of the Magic Stud Finder is that the target magnets aren’t particularly strong. They had no problems with the ⅛” of plaster or the sheetrock and joint compound, but they couldn’t detect the screw head through the ½” of sheetrock. However, all of the magnet-based stud finders struggled with this. The best of the bunch was the Stud Thud, which makes a little clicking noise when it detects a metal. But even this one couldn’t detect the screw head when it was ⅞” deep.

So the magnets are all a bust when it comes to deeper scanning on older walls. But as mentioned earlier, the workaround for this is that you can find the nails in the baseboard which should be driven into the studs. You still should check to the right and left for a consistent 16 or 24-inch pattern to confirm. There are also a number of other tricks that I’ll get to in a bit that you can combine with this to increase your chances of success.

A DIY option

If you’re the crafty type, it’s not a lot of work to make a magnetic stud finder yourself. After all, it’s basically just a magnet. Instructables has a tutorial on how to make a magnetic stud finder, which consists of tying a piece of dental floss around a magnet. That’s it. There’s something to be said for the ergonomics and the built-in level vials of the manufactured ones, but if you’re in a pinch or if you just like making stuff, then there’s no reason you can’t use any old magnet as long as it’s strong enough.

A Step Up

Also Great
With just the push of a button, the ProSensor can visually display the entire width of a stud, making it fast, easy, and reliable. It also has a pretty hefty price tag compared to the magnet-based finders.
If the idea of moving around multiple magnets doesn’t appeal to you and you just want quick and easy, the best bet is to go with the Franklin ProSensor 710 ($55). Unlike other electronic sensors, the ProSensor simultaneously scans the wall at 13 different points. Through the corresponding 13 LED lights, the sensor can display the exact width of a stud, indicating both edges at the same time. Other electronic stud finders can only locate one point at a time, so it can be a fishing expedition to confirm both sides. The ProSensor is a pricey item for around-the-house use, but well worth the investment if you want ease and accuracy.

SH_Studfinders_prosensor

With its wide LED display, the ProSensor can indicate multiple studs at once.

We’re not the only ones who like the ProSensor. Clint DeBoer, writing at ProToolReviews, states that “if you want a dependable product for [finding studs], something that should last a good long time and which won’t frustrate you with false positives, then the Franklin Sensors ProSensor 710 is your tool. We loved it and wouldn’t mind seeing more products from this company.”

In a Fine Homebuilding editor’s review, Andy Beasley writes, “Unlike other basic models that require endless back-and-forth scanning and a host of smudged pencil marks to locate the edges of a single stud, the ProSensor 710 can display the full width of a hidden object—or multiple objects—the moment it’s placed on a surface.”

And finally, Eric Jopp of Tools In Action sums up his review by saying that “overall this is the best home market stud finder we have tested or used.”

User reviews over at Amazon are also very positive. As of this writing, the tool holds 4.6 stars (out of 5) with 844 reviews.

The others

The CH Hanson Stud4Sure is a popular item (1,000 five-star reviews at Amazon and counting) but because it’s just a magnet, it can only find one screw head at a time and nothing more. That means that you’ll need to mark up the wall in order to locate more than one point. The Stud4Sure’s magnet is stronger than the ones in the Magic Stud Finder’s targets, but this added strength doesn’t really matter because all of the magnetic stud finders can detect a screw head through a skim coat of plaster or a layer of joint compound. The Stud4Sure could just barely locate metal through the ½-inch sheetrock simulating a thin plaster on lath wall, but had trouble going any deeper.

What the Stud4Sure really has going for it is durability. It was the only unit that I tested that looks like it could really withstand a beat down. The others are all cheaper plastic and look fairly fragile. This shouldn’t matter much for someone hanging a mirror, but to a contractor or carpenter this is important.

The other finders were basically all just magnets and little more. The Stud Thud made a noise when it found metal and the Johnson magnet pivots on a center point like a dowsing rod. The Rev-A-Lok didn’t prove to be any stronger than the rest.  With all of these simple magnets, you’ll be marking up your wall trying to find a stud.

Another model, the Stud Pop, combines aspects of the Stud Thud and the Johnson. It’s a small round object with what looks like a Sorry game piece held in the center. When it moves over a screwhead, the middle piece pops up, making a little noise as well as giving the visual indication. Like the other magnet-based finders, it’s easy to use, but we still prefer the Magic Stud Finder.

An interesting spin on the magnetic stud finder is the Shinwa 78610. This tool is cylindrical, like a pen, and it combines magnetic detection with a needle probe. Once you locate the fastener in the wall, you can send the needle in to confirm you’ve hit a stud. The needle has a built-in depth gauge, so it also tells you how thick your wall is. The tool received a positive review from Make Magazine and the Amazon feedback is all glowing as well. The Shinwa still requires you to manually mark your walls, and for most newer construction, it’s a given that your walls are going to be about ½” thick, so in many cases, the needle won’t be needed. There’s also the added inconvenience of putting little holes in your wall, but the review at Make has an image of the puncture, and it is quite small.

The Milwaukee Sub Scanner and the Bosch D-Tect are representative of the higher end of professional-level wall detection. These tools are capable of deep scans that can locate rebar in concrete at a depth of up to six inches. They can pick up live electrical wires and differentiate between ferrous and non-ferrous metal, meaning they can isolate copper pipes. Because of the price and the amount of functionality that exceeds the homeowner’s need, these aren’t practical tools for hanging pictures. The Milwaukee is in the $160 range and the Bosch (with more advanced capabilities and a much better visual display) is around $675.

Another type of wall detection tool that is worth a mention is the CL10 made by General Tools. It’s a two part system that can be used to locate wires and pipes in a wall (but not studs). One piece, the transmitter, sends a frequency through a wire or pipe while the other piece scans the wall like an electronic stud finder and visually displays the location of the frequency. The receiver can pick up the signal from a distance of over six feet. At $200, the CL10 is out of the range of general use.

The old tricks

Beyond electronic and magnetic stud finders there is also the old-fashioned method of rapping your knuckle against the wall and listening for when the hollow sound shifts over to a solid thunk. Another crafty way to do it is to shine a flashlight down the wall and look for slight vertical ridges that indicate the studs. This doesn’t work well with plastered walls, but if you’ve got sheetrock and joint compound, you’re likely to have success.

Another trick is based on the fact that electricians are usually right-handed, so electrical boxes tend to be mounted to the right of a stud. Which brings me to another good move, which is to remove the cover of an outlet and see if you can tell which side the stud is on. Then measure your 16 inches from that point.

Wrapping up

It’s a good idea to have a stud finder kicking around the kitchen drawer, but there’s no need for it to be a high-end piece of tech. A simple magnet-based stud finder combined with a little knowledge of traditional wall framing should do the trick in most situations. It’s not an exact science, so you’ll need to double and triple-check your findings. That’s why the Magic Stud Finder Plus is so valuable. The fact that it lets you leave magnetic targets on the wall makes it very easy to confirm where the studs are located.

Footnotes:

1. I’ve been in construction for 10 years and I’ve found that the electronic stud finders are actually not that reliable, particularly the low-end models that cost under $25. The reviews over at Amazon confirm this, with not a single one under that price getting more than four stars. Because they only detect changes in density, they can give false positives on pipes (which is precisely where you don’t want to put a screw). In old homes with plaster on lath walls, they can also be set off by globs of hardened plaster keyed into the lath. So as high-tech as they may sound, they’re not all that great, particularly the inexpensive ones.

There are a number of places online that describe how electronic stud finders work, but I’m going to quote extensively from Roy Berensohn’s piece at Popular Mechanics, which has by far the most clear and thorough explanation. He writes that stud finders “work by emitting an electric field that penetrates the wall or floor surface. The field is tiny but extremely precise, so much so that the sensor can detect changes in the field as it moves through air or lumber. When you slide the sensor over a surface, the field moves with it. As the field approaches any material that is denser than air, the field’s electrons accumulate on the material. The sensor’s circuitry monitors the change in the field and alerts you with a visual display or by beeping.” Jump back.

2. The Rev-A-Lock actually isn’t sold as a stud finder. It’s really the key portion to a magnetic child-lock system. During my research, I read on a message board at The Journal of Light Construction that some contractors use similar products with great success. I added it to the test group thinking that maybe the magnet was more powerful than the rest and it would have an easier time locating nail heads through thick materials. Jump back.

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  • Vince

    I am looking to buy an electronic stud finder and have been comparing the Franklin ProSensor to Zircon’s offerings. The ProSensor seems better at finding studs, but the Zircon models do have extra features that look pretty useful – for example, their WireWarning feature that detects live wires. Are these extra features worth weighing in a purchase decision? Do they even work in practice (I ask out of complete ignorance – I have no experience using them myself)?

    • Doug Mahoney

      Vince, the consensus seems pretty split on how well AC detection really works. In general, I’ve found electronic studfinders to be fussy and unreliable. The exception seems to be the ProSensor which has gotten nothing but terrific reviews.

      One thing worth considering, if it’s possible, is to spend a little time mapping out your electrical system. When I moved into my current house, I bought a non-contact voltage tester and shut off every breaker but one and traced it through the basement and up into the first floor walls. From there I was able to make some guesses as to how the curcuit spread out through the house. Then I did the next breaker…and the next….it took a little time, but it was good knowledge to have.

      • Vince

        Thanks for the great reply! I’ll go with the ProSensor then – and figure out wiring through other means (as you’ve suggested).

  • randomthoughts

    I feel like spending an extra 30 bucks or so on something that will occasionally make life easier (and less frustrating for non-handy me) is worthwhile. This is why I love SweetHome – even when the choice doesn’t suit me, the analysis points out what I should get!

    Though I guess if I had my way, the ProSensor would be highlighted as an ‘also great’ or ‘step up’. I’ll be on the lookout for one now!

  • Rigged

    Doug, I will say that the Franklin Sensors ProSensor 710 Precision Stud Finder has been absolutely the best stud finder that I have used. I install home theater systems as a hobby and it has never let me down. I have tried everything from the Zircon series to the old hammer on the wall. The ProSensor has never given me a false positive but you do still have to put pencil on the wall.

    • Doug Mahoney

      Rigged, you’re 100% correct. The Franklin is really incredible. I got my hands on one for testing and it truly deserves the hype. We updated the article accordingly with the Franklin as an official step-up. Thanks for the feedback.

  • tomahawk51

    I bought the recommendation, and love it. It made installing a 10 foot shelf I made a breeze. That is, after I bought a pack of additional magnets (it only comes with 3).

    Previously I struggled to get any of my detectors to work well (e.g. fairly pricey electronic ones).

    So, my recommendation to you is: buy it in addition to an extra magnet pack. It looks like they sell a combo pack on their website. I might have saved money in finding a combo if I realized this in the first place.

  • Brandon Ashton

    Got this based on this recommendation, and it’s blown a lot of people’s minds haha. Stupid simple, not expensive, and it’s a cool party trick for less handy people.

  • Jeff Shepherd

    I dangle a line of rare earth buckyballs http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neodymium_magnet_toys to find the screws and then leave one or two behind to mark the location.

    • FirefighterGeek

      I love this idea. Will have to try it out, as I have a bunch of these (now no longer considered safe for sale in the U.S.). I imagine it works best of you choose the right height to test — away from where wire and plumbing tends to run in the walls.

  • FirefighterGeek

    Thanks for the update to the Franklin. I do a lot of DIY work and one thing I am absolutely terrible at is finding the studs in the walls. An extra few bucks — or even twenty or thirty — is NOTHING compared to guessing wrong.

    I can’t explain it, but I’m just terrible at it. I once tripped over some kids toys and fell into a wall, leaving hole in the way with my forehead — in the middle, between studs. I didn’t even find them on accident.