If you’re hanging heavy pictures, mirrors, or shelves, you need to know where your wall studs are—and the best tool we found for the job is the C.H. Hanson 03040 Magnetic Stud Finder. After 30 hours of research and testing against five other magnetic stud finders, we found the C.H. Hanson to be reliable, durable, and accurate, and because it’s magnet-based, it doesn’t need batteries or any kind of calibration. While the other magnetic stud finders in our test group have only one magnet, the C.H. Hanson has two, which doubles the scanning area and reduces the time it takes to get a hit. It’s also the most durable model we looked at, by far—from what we can tell, breaking it would take some serious effort. Included is a small level that you can rotate either vertically or horizontally depending on the orientation of the tool, a feature that helps with locating the stud as well as leveling a picture or mirror. In addition, the tool has a pointed end that makes marking the center of the stud easy. Lastly, the C.H. Hanson is relatively inexpensive, especially compared with electronic stud finders.
If the C.H. Hanson isn’t available, we also like the Studpop, another magnet-based stud finder. The Studpop is unique in that it gives both an audible and visible signal when it detects a stud. It isn’t as compact or durable as the C.H. Hanson, and it has only one magnet, so the scanning area isn’t as wide.
If you want a stud finder that is quicker and easier to use (although pricier), we recommend the Franklin Sensors ProSensor 710. Of all the electronic stud finders that I’ve used over the years, this is by far the fastest and most accurate. Because it scans 13 points simultaneously, the tool can visually display the entire stud, rather than just a single edge, making it painless to use and virtually eliminating the false positives that plague other electronic stud finders. In addition, this model doesn’t require a fussy calibration step each time you use it, which gives it another advantage over the electronic competition. It isn’t cheap compared with a magnetic tool, however, and it requires batteries.
I have a decent amount of knowledge about locating studs. With 10 years in residential construction and eight years writing about and reviewing tools (with articles appearing in Fine Homebuilding, The Journal of Light Construction, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, This Old House, and Tools of the Trade, where I’m a contributing editor), I’ve spent a lot of time with a stud finder in my hand. I’m familiar with electronic stud finders, magnetic stud finders, and all of the classic tips and tricks for stud finding (which I learned from grizzled carpenters with white beards).
A standard wood-framed wall consists of horizontal plates at the top and bottom and the vertical pieces that connect them and create the body of the wall—those are the studs. You might need to find a stud in a wall for a lot of reasons. The most common is if you’re trying to install something heavy, such as a large mirror or a TV mount, or an anti-tip bracket for a tall bookshelf. In all of these instances, you could use some kind of wall anchor, but if you want to feel secure in the stability of your work, your best bet is to screw through the wall and directly into a stud.
Most wall framing uses 2 × 4 or 2 × 6 wooden studs, which are 1½ inches wide (they used to be 2 inches, thus the name). In most post-1960 construction, studs sit 16 inches on-center, leaving 14½ inches of clear space between the studs. Some new construction uses 2-foot on-center spacing, but it isn’t that common. Older houses can be a mixed bag: My own house, built in the early 1900s, has framing that ranges from 16 to 30 inches on-center, and it also has true-dimension 2-inch studs. So understanding the basics as a guideline is a good thing, but you never know exactly what you’ll find.
Some newer houses and condos are framed with metal studs. Such studs are dimensionally the same size as their wood counterparts, but if you intend to hang something heavy on them, you should take certain precautions. For smaller items, use a sheet-metal screw with a predrilled hole (slightly smaller than the screw) or a self-drilling metal screw, which has a mini drill end at the tip. For heavier items such as large mirrors, install some sort of toggle bolt, such as a Toggler Snaptoggle, directly into the stud.
You can choose from two different types of stud finders for home use: electronic and magnetic. We prefer the simpler magnetic type because they cost less and tend to be more reliable.1 A very good electronic finder will run you north of $50—too much to pay for something you might use only a few times a year, if that. A good magnetic one costs about $10, so we focused our search on a good magnetic option.
Magnetic finders don’t exactly find the stud; rather, they locate the metal fasteners (usually drywall screws) that hold the wallboard to the studs. If you find the screw, you’ve found the stud. Simple. Even if the wallboard is glued to the framing (see the video here), you still have perimeter screws for the magnet to find.
But magnetic stud finders have their shortcomings. About ½ inch of total thickness seems to be the limit of detection for most magnetic stud finders. On the average wall, the screw heads are usually only ⅛ inch deep, so this is plenty. With old-school plaster coats, however, you can encounter problems, specifically if your walls have steel lath—this sheet of metal mesh behind the entire wall surface creates a confusing situation for the magnet. Wood lath is nailed into the studs, so the magnet can pick up the nails if the plaster coat is thin enough.
If you run across plaster-related problems, you have a work-around. Because the baseboard is nailed into the studs, all you have to do is scan the baseboard (instead of the wall) for nail heads. When you find a magnetic point, you’ve likely found the stud.
To uncover the best magnetic stud finders, we checked out all of the major online retailers (Ace, Amazon, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Menards, Walmart), read all of the reviews we could (we didn’t find many), and noted which finders popped up as recommendations on contractor message boards. We also got a sense of each unit’s performance by reading user reviews at Amazon. We knew to take both the Amazon comments and the message boards with a grain of salt, but we were able to isolate some consistencies about how well each stud finder worked. With one exception, I opted for units that offered additional features such as level vials, an audible detection sound, and removable magnets. The six magnetic finders we tested were the C.H. Hanson 03040 Magnetic Stud Finder, the Johnson 160 Stud Finder Plus, the Magic Stud Finder Plus, the Rev-A-Shelf Rev-A-Lock Magnetic Key, the Studpop, and the Stud Thud.
When we originally published this guide in 2013, we zeroed in on magnetic stud finders, but afterward several commenters asked us about electronic models. Specifically, they steered us toward the Franklin Sensors ProSensor 710, which we then tested. In 2015, we added the Zircon StudSensor e50 to the mix. Zircon, a leading name in stud finders, recommended this particular model. The e50 was also the lone $20 electronic stud finder with a four-star rating on Amazon at the time we checked.
We hoped to find a more affordable electronic option than the ProSensor 710, but most other electronic stud finders in the lower price range had underwhelming customer feedback at Amazon and Home Depot. Examples include the Black & Decker SF100 and the Zircon StudSensor e40.
Some electronic models in the price range of the ProSensor 710 enjoy better user feedback, such as the Zircon MultiScanner i520 with its four stars, but they have limitations in comparison with the ProSensor 710. For one thing, before each use, they require a calibration step that can result in false positives. They also scan only one point at a time (whereas the ProSensor 710 scans 13), so they detect only the edge of a stud instead of its entire width.
For testing, I used all of the stud finders to locate studs in various rooms of my house. Portions of my walls consist of wallboard and joint compound, and other parts are blueboard with a skim coat of plaster.2 These two conditions (prevalent in post-1960 construction) don’t pose a high level of difficulty for stud finders because at most the screw heads are only about ⅛ inch below the surface of the wall. But not everyone has a house built after 1960.
To simulate the thicker plaster-on-lath wall prevalent in older homes, I took a piece of ½-inch wallboard 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. In my experience, ½ inch to ⅞ inch is a good range of plaster thickness. When I gutted my hundred-year-old farmhouse, the horsehair plaster averaged about ½ inch.
I also handed the tools to a carpenter who brought them on a remodeling job and used them to locate studs for a wainscoting project.
After all of our testing, we’ve concluded that the C.H. Hanson 03040 Magnetic Stud Finder offers the best combination of functionality, durability, and cost. The C.H. Hanson is unique in that it has two magnets instead of just one, giving it twice the scanning area of the others and making the process of finding a stud that much faster. It has a multiposition level that assists with marking studs and positioning pictures. The tool’s impressive durability was one of the reasons our carpenter tester chose it as his favorite. Lastly, the C.H. Hanson won’t break the bank, as it retails for around the $10 mark, which puts it right in the middle of the units we looked at.
Because the C.H. Hanson has two magnets instead of just one, it scans twice as fast as the other magnet-based finders. When you swipe it across a wall, it covers approximately a 2½-inch swath. The other models, with their single magnets, scan only about 1¼ inches’ worth of space at most. During testing, the superior two-magnet design meant we had to slide the tool back and forth only five times (instead of 10) to locate a screw head.
The C.H. Hanson has two features that assist with marking a detected stud. In the center of the tool is a small level vial that you can rotate; it clicks securely into place at the horizontal and vertical orientations. After detecting a stud, the tool can hang on the wall for you to plumb it with the level. Once you do that, you can use the pointed piece that sits off the bottom (or top, depending on the orientation) of the tool to accurately mark the center of the stud (assuming that the screw is placed in the center of the stud, which it should be). If you’re hanging a picture, you can then rotate the level vial and position the C.H. Hanson tool horizontally to level the picture frame. The Johnson stud finder also has a level vial, but you can’t rotate it, so it can help only with marking the stud.
The durability of the C.H. Hanson really stood in contrast to that of the other tools we tested. The unit consists of a compact and solid frame with no loose parts. Only the level vial can move, and that part remains securely embedded in the tool. The body is made of a strong plastic covered in a rubbery sheath. We tried our best to twist the tool apart with our hands but couldn’t get it to budge, not even a little. You could probably run over it with a truck, and it would be fine. None of the other models feel anywhere near as stable as this one.
Our carpenter tester chose this model as his favorite due to its wider scanning area and its durability. He liked how fast he could find studs with it, and he really appreciated how he didn’t have to coddle it, as he did the other ones. While he was testing, it fell a few times, no harm done. In contrast, we accidentally dropped the Stud Thud during our testing, and it broke.
The magnets of the C.H. Hanson were among the most powerful we tried, but that added strength doesn’t really matter because all the magnetic tools we tested can detect a screw head through a skim coat of plaster or a layer of joint compound (⅛ inch thick). The C.H. Hanson just barely located metal through our ½-inch drywall simulating a thin plaster-on-lath wall, but it had trouble going any deeper. It might have a better shot on a plaster wall than most of the others, but we can make no guarantees.
The main flaws of the C.H. Hanson are the limitations that come with its being a magnet-based stud finder. The located screw head might be at the edge of a stud (or not in the stud at all), for instance, or you might run into a thick plaster wall. For the first situation, it’s a good habit to double- and triple-check your findings by locating other screw heads on the same stud. Once you find the top one, put a long straight edge on it (or even a weighted string) and confirm that the ones below line up. For the second scenario, above we outline a few tricks that may help, and below we also discuss some of the time-tested methods of stud detection.
Another negative concerning the magnets is that storing the C.H. Hanson can be tricky. The magnets are powerful enough to securely lock on to other tools in your toolbox. It’s something that comes with the territory, but having to constantly pry it away from my hex wrenches in order to use it gets to be a little tiring.
If the C.H. Hanson isn’t available, we also like the Studpop. It consists of a small round object with what looks like a Sorry! game piece loosely held in the center. When you move the tool over a screw head, the middle piece pops up, making a little noise and giving a visual indication. Although it isn’t as sturdy as our main pick, it feels more durable than the rest of the field. It also has only one magnet, so it takes longer to find a stud than the dual-magnet C.H. Hanson. And it doesn’t have a level or provide any assistance with marking the center of the stud.
A couple of the other magnetic stud finders we tested gave either an audible indication (the Stud Thud) or a visible one (Johnson 160 Stud Finder Plus). The Studpop was the only one that combined the two types of alerts. The feature is certainly nice to have but not totally necessary, because feeling the pull of the magnet as it goes over a screw is easy enough.
As for cost, it’s in the same ballpark as the C.H. Hanson.
If you’d rather skip magnets in favor of an effortless digital device, we really like the Franklin Sensors ProSensor 710, which is more accurate and easier to use than other stud finders of its kind. Unlike other electronic sensors, the ProSensor 710 simultaneously scans the wall at 13 points, and it uses a row of 13 LED lights to display the exact width of a stud. Other electronic stud finders can locate just one point at a time, so confirming which edge of the stud you’re seeing (and more important, where the middle is) can be tough. We think the ProSensor 710 is great, although it’s a pricey item for occasional around-the-house use. It’s worth the investment if you’ll be using it a lot, or if you just want the most ease and accuracy.
A significant benefit of the ProSensor 710 is that it doesn’t need a calibration process. To use it, simply put it against the wall, press the button, and move it across the wall. The LEDs will light up in the area they detect a stud. Other electronic stud finders require you to activate them while they’re positioned over a stud bay (and when you start, you don’t know where those are). Then, those stud finders need a few seconds before you can move them, and if you’ve calibrated the tool over a stud, it doesn’t work—so no matter what, calibrating one correctly takes trial and error. The ProSensor 710, in contrast, skips all that hassle yet remains in the midrange of pricing when compared with other high-quality electronic stud finders.
The wide LED display can light up in sections if multiple parts of the tool sit over several studs at once, which can happen in corners or near doors and windows. Getting the same kind of results with a regular stud finder would require quite a few passes over the wall (each with its own calibration process) and multiple pencil marks on the wall.
We’re not the only ones who like the ProSensor 710. Clint DeBoer, writing at Pro Tool Reviews, 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 writing that “overall this is the best home market stud finder we have tested or used.”
User reviews at Amazon are also very positive. As of this writing, the tool holds a rating of 4.6 stars (out of five) across 1,843 reviews.
Beyond electronic and magnetic stud finders, you can turn to an old-fashioned method: rapping your knuckle all over the wall and listening for when the hollow sound becomes a solid thunk. Another crafty approach is to shine a flashlight down the wall and look for slight vertical ridges that indicate the studs. This technique doesn’t work well with plastered walls, but if you have drywall and joint compound, you’re likely to find success.
Another trick depends on the fact that electricians are usually right-handed, so electrical boxes tend to be mounted to the right of a stud. And that brings me to another good approach, which is to remove the cover of an outlet and probe around to see if you can tell which side the stud is on. Then measure your 16 inches from that point.
After years of using electronic stud finders, and finding the Franklin and Zircon through recommendations, we focused our testing for this guide on the magnet-based stud finders from our initial search. The Stud Thud makes a noise when it finds metal, and the magnet of the Johnson 160 Stud Finder Plus sits on a little hinge so that it pivots like a dowsing rod. The Stanley 47-400 Magnetic Stud Finder, which we didn’t test, works on the same principle. Rev-A-Shelf’s Rev-A-Lock Magnetic Key didn’t prove to be any stronger than the rest, which made it the most basic of the bunch.
Our previous pick, the Magic Stud Finder Plus, was unique in that it came with three detachable magnets, allowing you to mark multiple studs on the wall at once. This design greatly facilitated the process of double- and triple-checking a stud’s location. At some point in the middle of 2015, it went out of stock at all retailers. We tried repeatedly to get in touch with the company but never received any response. As of early 2016, the item is still not available, and we are no longer comfortable recommending it.
An interesting spin on the magnetic stud finder is the Shinwa 78610, as well as the newer Shinwa 78592. Each Shinwa tool has a cylindrical shape, like a pen, and combines magnetic detection with a needle probe. Once you locate a fastener in the wall, you can send the needle in to confirm that 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 has a positive review from Make Magazine, and the Amazon feedback is glowing too. The Shinwa still requires you to mark your walls manually, however, and for most newer construction it’s a given that your walls are going to be about ½ inch thick, so in many cases you won’t require the needle. Putting little holes in your wall adds another inconvenience, but the Make review includes a photo of the puncture, and it is quite small.
We dismissed the idea of making your own magnetic stud finder, as described in this Instructable. Although this approach seems to be an easy and cheap option for crafty types, in reality the cost puts it in the same realm as off-the-shelf magnetic models. You can find a wide variety of magnets, such as from Rockler,3 but they’re generally sold in multi-packs for about $10. If you have magnets sitting around, this technique might work fine.
As for electronic stud finders aside from the Franklin Sensors ProSensor 710, we tested the Zircon StudSensor e50, a model that also has a wire-detection feature. Because it scans just one point, it registers the edges of the stud. It requires a calibration process that works only if you activate it at a spot that does not have a stud. What this means in functional terms is that you must scan the wall multiple times starting from a different spot each time. Overall, we found that the Zircon tool works well, and in our tests it consistently found studs. But because it finds only the stud edges, we needed to make little pencil marks as we confirmed our findings from both sides of the stud.
We tested the wire-detection feature by scanning a wall with one finished side and placing a live wire on the other side. We then moved the wire around to check the Zircon’s sensitivity. The results were strange: During one session, the Zircon picked up the wire location every time, but in another round a day later, we got nothing but false positives. Those readings were enough to make us extremely wary of any others that we obtained elsewhere in the house. Given this spotty performance, the hassle of calibration, and the need for working batteries, we believe it’s easier to pay about $10 less and get the dependable performance of the C.H. Hanson.
Other electronic stud finders that we didn’t test include the Stanley FatMax Stud Sensor 300 and a host of other Zircon models, most of which have so-so feedback and none of the abilities of the Franklin Sensors ProSensor 710.
The Milwaukee Sub-Scanner M12 and the Bosch D-Tect are representative of the higher end of professional wall detection. These tools are capable of deep scans that can locate rebar in concrete at a depth of up to 6 inches. They can also pick up live electrical wires and differentiate between ferrous and nonferrous metal, meaning they can isolate copper pipes. Because of their price and their extensive functionality (which exceeds a homeowner’s needs), these tools aren’t practical choices for hanging pictures.
Another wall-detection tool that is worth a mention is the General Tools CL10. You can use this two-part system 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 more than 6 feet. At about $200, however, the CL10 is out of the range for general use.
(Photos by Doug Mahoney.)
Originally published: January 15, 2016