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Is it possible to earthquake-proof furniture (e.g. tall bookshelves) when you have plaster walls?

I was dissuaded from attaching to studs by an employee at a local hardware shop, while at the same time he sold me the nails/screws required to hang a decently heavy picture frame and a closet rod to the same wall type. I understand the forces are different, but is stud-attaching and 45 degree angles suddenly a waste of time when it comes to earthquake proofing with plaster walls? I'm not even looking for permanent security, just something that at best can just buy a little more time in case of an emergency.

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Now I'm curious why they dissuaded you from attaching to stud... –  Alex Feinman Feb 19 '13 at 17:54
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There's no such thing as "earthquake-proof" anything, but attaching bookshelves to the studs seems like a good way to limit risk in a minor earthquake. (Bonus points: it will also keep the bookshelf from falling on a child.) –  Henry Jackson Feb 19 '13 at 18:50
    
@AlexFeinman I'm not sure either, the reasoning was basically "the screw will just fall out of the plaster and it's a waste of your time to even try", after telling us to nail the nail for the frame into a stud and how to find it without a stud finder.. but seems like my instinct was right so I guess I'm just going to disregard his advice :) –  janeylicious Feb 19 '13 at 19:00
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There's only one major difference in using an L-Bracket to stabilize a bookcase between a plasterboard and a plaster wall finish. Plasterboard is attached directly to the studs. Plaster is troweled over lath that is attached to the studs. There can be voids behind the lath. When you tighten an L-Bracket firmly against plasterboard, it forms a firm sandwich of material, doing the same on a plaster wall compresses the lath and plaster, leading to cracked plaster. Basically, use long enough screws and tighten till the bracket doesn't wiggle. A falling bookcase can crush you, go for the studs. –  Fiasco Labs Feb 19 '13 at 19:11
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up vote 5 down vote accepted

FEMA Earthquake Prep

According to the PDF, page 5-3

Figure 2

Figure 2 shows methods to anchor heavy, tall furniture to vertical wall studs, concrete, or masonry with steel angle brackets.
Fasten heavy objects to the building structure and not just to a movable wall in your home or office.
Even large, heavy objects that appear stable should be secured to the wall. The heavier the furniture, the stronger the restraints need to be. A heavily loaded file cabinet requires much stronger restraints to keep it from overturning than a light file cabinet with the same dimensions.

Plaster walls in this case are no different from drywall walls. The strength is in the vertical 2x4 structure, not the materials used to make it pretty.

Secure the furniture to the wall studs and at the floor if you can. Keep tall items away from beds and door and keep a flashlight close by.

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Thanks for the link! I should have thought about ready.gov/FEMA, but my google results were for plaster walls specifically and on yahoo answers, etc. and not conclusive. –  janeylicious Feb 19 '13 at 19:02
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