15

I want to install a towel bar in my bathrooms - and I went to Home Depot to get one - but all of their towel bars were 24 inch...
This to me is weird. Do all people just mount their towel bars to a drywall using drywall anchors? That just seems so hackish and unreliable.

Guys - could someone confirm what's the right way of installing a towel bar?

  1. Using drywall anchors
  2. Directly to studs
  • I've lived with both 16" and 24" towel bars. 16" towel bars are just too narrow to quickly get a man-sized towel over without it looking messy. I'm not sure if that is why they are usually 24" wide, but I am certain I wouldn't want to fight with a too-narrow 16" towel bar every time I shower. – alx9r Sep 7 '15 at 3:23
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    The problem is not in the device, but in the quality of your wall ;-) – yo' Sep 7 '15 at 12:17
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    16" o.c. studs is great overkill for an interior partition. – TDHofstetter Sep 7 '15 at 14:00
  • @TDHofstetter Good point. But the studs in every bathroom where I've mounted a towel rack were without exception in unusable positions. And I bet some of those studs were 24" o.c. – alx9r Sep 7 '15 at 19:47
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    @alx9r - good point yourself. Very often the designer and builder pay too little attention to things like that... partly because they can't predict where the owners will want things like towel racks. It'd be nice, though, if they installed vertically-oriented blocking between the studs at some standard height so you could screw towel racks to the blocking wherever you might want them to be. Even presheathing the wall with plywood under the 'rock would be good. – TDHofstetter Sep 7 '15 at 21:40
8

You will find many many installations of towel bars that are simply the crappy drywall anchors on each end. These will work as long as the towel bar is treated with kid gloves. Anything more and eventually the towel bar will end up loose at the wall mounts.

If there is not a framed in set of backing behind the towel bar location then your next best bet is to try to mount the towel bar with one end attached to a stud and the other end secured into the drywall. There is the unfortunate situation however that the stud locations may be sub-optimal for the aesthetic and usable placement of the towel bar.

Many towel bars are the bar itself that then fits into the end brackets. It is often practical to cut off the bar thus shortening it to the stud spacing at hand. This would permit both ends of the towel bar to be secure at the inconvenience of hanging towels on a nonstandard width bar.

  • +1 for one end on stud and the other on drywall anchors. It is absolutely possible to get a sturdy mount with just drywall anchors. It won't be sturdy if you hamfist a sloppy installation. But if you select and install them correctly, drywall anchors work very well. I use drywall anchors to mount towel bars regularly without incident. – alx9r Sep 7 '15 at 3:16
  • @alx9r - I agree that you can get initial installations with drywall anchors that look, feel and test out as being pretty solid. Thing is that 5-6-7-8 years down the road it may not be so sweet. – Michael Karas Sep 7 '15 at 4:49
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    I once demolitioned a 20 year-old bathroom that had a towel bar mounted with drywall anchors. Two circles of Sheetrock came off the wall with the original towel bar. The drywall anchors stayed intact. Good drywall anchors don't fail with time. They fail if they are installed incorrectly. Most installers never take the time to learn how to select the right drywall anchors or install them correctly. That's why we see so many failures. – alx9r Sep 7 '15 at 5:12
20

Drywall Anchors

I have had 100% success with drywall anchors but I am very careful about all aspects of the mounting hardware. You have to design and execute your plan carefully to have success, otherwise they'll be vulnerable to pulling out as Michael Karas points out. If you mess up any aspect of what I set out below, your anchors will probably pull out. If, on the other hand, you get it right, the anchors will be stronger than the sheetrock.

Select a Towel Bar with Appropriate Mounting Plates

Select a towel bar where the mounting plate at each end has the following attributes:

  • holes for at least 4 fasteners - You can only expect about 50 lb pullout strength from each drywall anchor, but the pullout strengths add up. So with 8 anchors altogether you end up with 400 lb pullout strength.
  • holes for 2 of the fasteners separated vertically by at least 1-1/4" - A towel bar is an overhung load so the tendency is for the top of the mounting plate to pull away from the drywall. Fasteners near the top and bottom will prevent gaps from forming between the mounting plate and the drywall when the towel rack is under load. You want a tight fit between the mounting plate and drywall because you need to at all times maximize the surface area in contact between the mounting plate and drywall. Drywall fails when it is subject to pressure (ie. force per unit area) above a certain, rather small threshold. Keeping the full area of the mounting plate in contact with the drywall at all times spreads the load over the widest possible area. Area is the denominator for pressure (i.e. P=F/A) so maximum area minimizes the pressure.
  • solid flat-back mounting plate that encompasses at least a 2" round circular area - A flat back and large area minimizes the pressure on any single point on the drywall which is good for the reasons in the previous bullet.

This is an example of a good mounting plate (installation guide):

mounting plate elevation view mounting plate side view

Note the flat, solid mounting plate and four-hole bolt pattern.

Select Studs or Pristine Areas of Sheetrock for Mount Points

Areas of sheetrock that are in any way damaged (from installation or otherwise) will reduce the pullout strength of the anchors dramatically. I use a power drill with a 1/16" drill bit to test how sound an area of sheetrock is. With a little practice you should be able to detect the difference between seams, drywall mud, studs, and pristine sheet rock. In general you want to avoid the following areas for mount points:

  • anywhere within 4" of any edge of a piece of sheet rock including seams and corners
  • anywhere within 2" of a stud - There's a good chance there are drywall screws near that spot on the stud and drywall screws damage the sheetrock in about a 1" radius around the screw head. On the other hand, if you can put the fasteners right into the stud, that is likely a better solution than anchors for that end of the towel bar.
  • anywhere there isn't enough clearance for the anchor and screw behind the drywall - The risk here is that the end of the anchor or screw contact a hard object (like an electrical box or concrete) and the anchor or screw acts as a jack against that object. That will certainly cause that anchor to fail because you will immediately exceed the holding strength of the anchor when the jacking starts.

Select Quality Deep Thread Screw-Type Anchors

Forget about toggle anchors: The toggles are so bulky and the bolt patterns so crowded that the toggles will usually interfere with one another and whatever happens to be behind the drywall.

Sheetrock only has strength because the gypsum is under compression. The gypsum is under compression only insofar the paper (yes the outside of drywall is paper) retains its tensile strength and gypsum does not leak out. These anchors, used correctly, work without compromising these critical aspects of the sheetrock:

anchor picture

Note how the anchor's threads achieve a large contact area with the gypsum and have deep threads. Note also how the head and barrel of the anchor seal against the paper to keep the gypsum in.

When these anchors are installed correctly they do two critical things to preserve the integrity of the sheetrock:

  1. They stretch the paper around the barrel preserving the paper's tensile strength.
  2. Their barrels displace the gypsum slightly into the surround area thereby preserving or slightly increasing the compression of the gypsum.

If your method of installing the anchors doesn't achieve these critical things, you need to re-think your approach because the anchors won't hold.

For reference, here is the data on the anchors I use (I got them from Home Depot):

front of box back of box

Note the table of shear and pullout strengths -- these are quality engineered anchors. Installed correctly, they have real usable anchor strength.

You have to get your layout perfect, the first time.

You need to get your layout perfect the first time. You cannot undo a hole, or move an anchor 1/4" to the right or left. Once you put an anchor in the drywall you must leave it in there if there are other anchors anywhere nearby. Otherwise the sheetrock in that area will be forever weakened and your other anchors' pullout strength will be severely weakened. You can easily sink an anchor into the paper and float mud and paint over it. You can't however move the location of an anchor once you have drilled for it. Here is my advice for layout:

Measure, check, measure, dryfit, measure, check for level, check what's behind the drywall, go for coffee, check it again, dryfit again, check for level again, and then repeat. You must be absolutely sure your layout is correct before you drill your first hole.

Pilot Drill at 75% the Barrel Diameter

Forget what it says on the box of anchors about self-drilling. You must pilot drill every anchor hole. No exceptions. Without a pilot hole, the anchor tips will do two things that are terrible:

  1. tear the paper - This undermines the tensile strength of the sheetrock in the surround area. If you do this, you no longer have sheetrock in that area. You just have a bunch of paper and dust.
  2. wander - It is critical that your anchors line up with the hole pattern of the mounting plates (which you carefully layed out, right?). If the anchor and hole patterns don't line up well enough, the anchors and mounting plate will fight one another, the shear strength of one or more of the anchors will be exceeded and those anchors will no longer have much holding strength. Without a pilot hole, the anchors will wander before they start to penetrate, and you are basically guaranteeing anchor failure because the anchor pattern won't match the hole pattern.

The pilot drill should be sized at about 75% the barrel diameter. This will result in the right amount of gypsum displacement and will stretch the paper around the barrel for a tight fit without tearing it.

Set the Anchor with a Slow Drill set to a Low-Torque Clutch

This point is extremely important. If you overtighten the anchor into the sheetrock, the anchor will fail. If the axis of the anchor changes as it is screwed into the sheetrock, the anchor will fail. The only reliable method I have found for setting the anchors into sheetrock is with a decent variable-speed cordless drill starting with the following settings:

  • low gear
  • lowest torque clutch setting

Do not use an impact driver.

The reasons I use a drill are as follows:

  • you reliably can apply torque and stay on axis - As you screw the anchor into the dry wall it is critical to keep the axis of the anchor perfectly still. Until the anchor is set all the way into the sheetrock, the gypsum is surprisingly vulnerable to damage. Even the slightest change in angle caused by the driving tool while the anchor is being screwed into the wall will cause the gypsum around the anchor threads to turn from its semi-solid form into a powder. When that happens, the strength of the drywall anchor is reduced.

  • you can drive rather quickly which reduces risk of damage - Once you have the clutch set to the right setting, you can set an anchor in one or two seconds. This speed is an advantage because while the anchor is screwed part-way into the sheetrock, it is very vulnerable to damaging the surrounding sheetrock and undermining its strength once set. With the speed of a properly-setup drill, you reduce this risk simply by getting through the vulnerable stage quicker. You only have to hold the drill perfectly on-axis for seconds (see previous bullet).

Start twisting the anchor into the pilot hole with the drill. Make sure you keep the axis of the drill completely still. If the clutch is slipping, increase the torque setting just enough that the anchor advances into the wall. Stop as soon as the head of the anchor makes contact with the paper. The clutch should slip just as the anchor this occurs. You might have to adjust the clutch to get this right. The head and paper should be snug when you are done. Do not overtighten. Do not back out. Doing either will almost certainly result in tearing the paper or losing some gypsum which will cause your anchor to fail.

Use the screws that came with the anchors.

The anchors and screws that go into the anchors are engineered to work together. Don't try to substitute. Their length and thread profile must be correct for the anchors to work correctly.

Assemble the towel bar to the mounting plates.

Once the mounting plates are installed in the correct position, the rest is just a matter of following the manufacturer's directions to assemble the towel bar.

Here is what one of my installations look like:

left hand mount point mounted towel bar

Note that even though the towel bar is overhung about 6", the mounting is plenty strong enough. People knock their elbows on it and grab it to steady themselves without a problem. This works because the load is distributed across 8 correctly-installed anchors for a combined pull-out strength of about 640 lbs and a shear strength of about 960 lbs. At that strength, the weakness is the sheetrock itself, not the anchors. In other words, to break this mounting you'd have to apply enough force to tear a whole section of sheetrock off the wall.

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    I always use a hand screwdriver to put these anchors is. I can buy both metal and plastic anchors with the same thread. the metal ones cut better but only work with the supplied screws, so I tend to start the hole with a metal anchor, back it out, and then use a plastic one. This doesn't tear the plastic. An awl is sufficient for the pilot hole with the metal anchors as well, and positions it precisely. Sometimes the screws supplied with the anchors aren't compatible with what you're trying to fix. – Chris H Sep 7 '15 at 11:06
  • @ChrisH When you back out an anchor you lose gypsum from where the threads cut the hole which weakens the Sheetrock exactly where you need the most strength. I doubt the pullout and shear strengths were tested by the manufacturer by first backing out and re-setting the anchor. – alx9r Sep 7 '15 at 12:18
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    @ChrisH Agreed. But if we could count on common sense I wouldn't have just written 1600 words on mounting a towel rack. – alx9r Sep 7 '15 at 19:15
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    Your excellent answer reinforces how terrible drywall is. – iLikeDirt Sep 7 '15 at 19:42
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    @iLikeDirt Pun intended right? – alx9r Sep 7 '15 at 20:00
6

The simplest high-strength solution, if there isn't blocking behind the plaster to support it, is to mount the towel rack on an attractive piece of well-varnished wood (or a piece painted to match the room's trim) and mount that to two studs.

Obviously this won't suit all tastes. Then again, no towel bar will suit all tastes.

  • This solution is not elegant if your interior design doesn't involve conspicuous trim. – alx9r Sep 7 '15 at 3:10
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    Sure it is. The piece will be hidden behind thevtowels most of the time anyway, and is no more out of place than the bar itself. – keshlam Sep 7 '15 at 3:15
  • You'd see it over the towels. Towels hang down. It would stand out like a sore thumb in most modern minimalist interiors. It certainly would in my house. – alx9r Sep 7 '15 at 3:20
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    @alx9r The fact that it wouldn't work in your house doesn't mean it's in general a bad idea. This is a valid and (for some people) possibly useful answer to the question. – yo' Sep 7 '15 at 6:35
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    @yo' I'm not sure I understand what you're getting at. I never claimed this is a bad idea in general. This answer, however, claims this is an "elegant solution" in general. I only ever claimed that this is not elegant for some specific styles of interiors. – alx9r Sep 7 '15 at 12:08
1

Pre-existing blocking is the best. Studs are ideal, but the (usually) supplied drywall anchors are adequate for the intended purpose.

If someone uses the towel bar as a grab bar, you can upgrade to toggle bolts in the future.

1

There is a product called SwiftStall Bathroom Accessories that solves the problems identified above. The design and installation method are different and patented.

Here are the features: 1) The accessories rarely come loose or wobble when tightened securely. 2) They can be installed practically anywhere -regardless of stud location. 3) It has far fewer parts that conventional accessories: no set screws or Allen wrenches, no metal plates, no plastic anchors that work loose and no templates are needed. Actual installation process takes about three minutes per accessory, or less.

For single post accessories, a 2-1/2 inch screw and a 2 1/2 inch wing bolt are supplied. The screw and bolt are stainless steel to resist rusting.

First, pick a desired location avoiding electric lines, water pipes, etc that can be behind the drywall.

Drill a 1/8 pilot hole in the wall. If the screw hits a stud, continue drilling deeper and this will be the pilot hole for the screw. If a hollow area is behind the drywall, switch the drill bit to a 5/8 bit to accommodate the width of a compressed wing on the supplied bolt. Towel bars are supplied with two screws and two wing bolts in order to be mounted on dry walls with or without studs present. Be sure to use a level when installing towel bars.

Insert either the screw or wing bolt into the top of the accessory and out through the bottom of the accessory and then into the screw pilot hole or the enlarged hole and allow the wing to expand behind the drywall. Tighten the bolt or screw securely. Finally, screw on the end cap that covers the screw or bolt head and tighten that securely. Nash Stephens

www.swiftstall.com - for photos, information and to order.

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    Hello, and welcome to Home Improvement. This sounds like an ad for SwiftStall; are you in any way connected to them? – Daniel Griscom Oct 10 at 16:57
  • Daniel, yes I own the company – Nash Stephens Oct 10 at 17:07
  • Then to prevent being deleted as spam, you should identify yourself in your answer. See the link for more info. (Thanks.) – Daniel Griscom Oct 10 at 17:55

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