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I'm looking to determine the type of wall I have so I will know the best way to go about hanging heavy items on plaster veneer(?) walls with a cement base. I've spent about a week looking through posts here, etc. and talked with/showed photos to the employees at the local hardware store (most of whom are retired contractors) as well a few employees at a big box store today and they were all stumped.

It appears similar in composition to the wall in this post; however, my wall is much thicker and the plaster appears to have a 'wet sand finish' - from what I've been told.

My wall - https://imgur.com/a/I7yDY8R (no asbestos from what I've had tested and it doesn't cut like drywall, its much harder - like concrete)

Another photo of wall from behind the dishwasher, the material behind the plaster is sandy/gritty but there are threads of some material throughout.

I've always lived in places with basic/standard drywall and recently moved into a home that was built in 1940. This is my first residence with plaster, but when I've tried to determine the best way to go about hanging heavy items (curtains, paintings, etc.) all advice is geared towards lath & plaster, which is not what I have. I have a thin and roughly 1/8-1/4 coat of plaster over what is essentially a cement(?) base. This makes it difficult to determine where the studs are, much less how to hang anything.

Some of the advice I've seen:

  1. Use wood screws to get into the lath behind the plaster → Doesn't apply here as there is no lath of any kind
  2. Use toggle bolts → I will use toggle bolts for heavier items like mirrors, but we have a lot of smaller and lighter frames that have held up on normal drywall just fine with 1-2 small nails
  3. Use drywall/plastic anchors → These were in the wall previously and they pop right out (see photo) since they don't catch on either the plaster or the concrete, I had the unfortunate job of removing every single failed attempt and all of the ones made by the previous residents
  4. Double-sided tape, 3M Command Strips, etc → In addition to the fact that I just painted, I haven't had good luck with these and would prefer not to use them
  5. Use Masonry Nails nailed straight into the wall instead of at an angle → Would this apply when the concrete board behind the plaster is bearing the weight and I need to get through the plaster without it chipping/cracking? I would rather put a drywall screw into the wall vs. try nails, have the plaster give way/chip and have whatever I'm hanging fall/break anyway

So since I have thin plaster veneer over cement, do I treat the plaster more like drywall for light items if I use small nails?

Initially I tried to put in nails and it took chips out the plaster... so I've determined my best bet for larger items is to pre-drill the plaster veneer for the thickness of the nail/screw, etc. then switch to a masonry bit for the concrete. That's the plan moving forward so that I'm able to put up curtains/heavier items.

Do you know what a wall like this is called? Any other advice or approaches I should consider? Anything you wish you knew before you started hanging pictures on this type of wall?

This is my first post, all suggested edits for clarity are welcome and appreciated! Thank you.

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  • Vintage might indicate button board, depending on location. Have you tried strong magnets for stud (nail in stud, that is) finding? Oct 29, 2023 at 2:52
  • Looks like fiber board backing (era after lath and before drywall) with two layers of plaster, idk what they are called but the red is more coarse and the white finishes hard and smooth. Not cement. If you confirm you can get screw advice.
    – jay613
    Oct 29, 2023 at 15:54
  • See also this question
    – jay613
    Oct 29, 2023 at 16:05
  • @AloysiusDefenestrate - That looks like a possibility, taking out the medicine cabinet later today and will (hopefully) confirm one way or another. I'm working on getting strong magnet situation with an old hard drive. Thank you!
    – Leapee70
    Oct 30, 2023 at 19:24
  • @jay613 - Here is a photo from behind the dishwasher. The material behind the plaster has a sandy/gritty texture with threads of some sort of material throughout. I will update the post with this pic as well.
    – Leapee70
    Nov 7, 2023 at 15:49

1 Answer 1

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I think you have the same plaster-over-gypsum wall as shown in these other posts:

I think you're mistaken about total thickness--yours looks the same to me as those, and the photo from the back is exactly as I'd expect.

I also think you're mistaken about what you're calling "cement". Wall plaster does have sand in it as a cost savings and strength component. That's what it looks like, and it contains (Portland) cement as a component. There may also be a finishing (topping) mix that doesn't contain sand so as to create a smoother finish. (Ironically, many painters of the day then mixed sand into the paint to add texture.)

I've actually found that type of wall to be the best I've encountered. It's much tougher than modern drywall but can be penetrated and cut without the disaster that lath-and-plaster usually brings, assuming proper technique.

So yes, you're on the right track:

  • Pre-drill for fasteners to prevent spalling. Masonry bits will work fine, but I usually just used high-speed steel bits knowing that I'd need to sharpen them after. They make cleaner holes and I have more and smaller sizes on hand.
  • Use hollow-wall anchors as appropriate, but use toggling/clamping types or simple plug types for light items--don't use the screw-in type.
  • You can actually hang many things on a nail alone due to the wall's hardness--just pre-drill at a slight downward angle (so the nail is up a bit) and be gentle as you drive the nail. I found ring-shank drywall nails vert useful for photo frames, etc., as they grip the plaster to prevent movement.
  • Adhesive mounts are fine as long as the paint layers are all bonded well. You don't have to worry about paper facing coming loose like you might with drywall.
  • Cut with a keyhole saw or similar where you need a larger opening, such as for a new outlet box. Use light pressure and high speed.
  • If you need to patch an area, 5/8" drywall gets close to the ~3/4" thickness you probably see, but you may need some cardboard shims behind to bring it close to flush.
  • Masonry nails have no business near your walls.
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  • Thank you. Your advice was spot on. There was one area (over the center of a large window) that remains a mystery as neither nails, screws, or drill bits can penetrate it - so I'm leaving that alone.
    – Leapee70
    Dec 11, 2023 at 15:59
  • I determined what the 'mystery' spot was, its the lintel over the replacement window.
    – Leapee70
    Dec 30, 2023 at 20:17

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