The Stud Finder
Great moments in building history: You never know when a stud finder will come in handy
We hadn’t been living in our new house for long before my husband and son hauled a monster TV set into the middle of the family room.
“Now I’ll really be able to see the puck,” my husband said. He looked at the space where our old TV stood, on the floor in the middle of our built-in bookcase. “Too bad we can’t fit it in there, though.”
My son asked, “Why don’t you just move the two middle boards farther apart?”
I stared at the bookcase. It had four vertical boards from ceiling to floor and three sets of shelves between them. The space had to be widened by only about a foot for the new TV to fit, I thought, and only halfway up. All we had to do was remove the bottom half of the two middle boards, cut 6 in. from the lower left- and right-hand shelves, then replace the boards 6 in. farther apart on each side and put the shelves back up. At the same time, we could brace the upper shelves, which were sagging. I asked, “How hard could it be?”
I turned around. My husband and son were gone.
When my husband went out of town a few days later, I decided to do it myself. This was when I discovered two golden rules of home improvement: Never do anything that could end up worse than when you started; and always have a backup plan. Unfortunately, by then it was too late.
The hardest part was bracing the upper shelves. The man at the home-improvement center said that I had to attach the braces to studs that were behind the wall. To find them, I’d need a gadget with an obvious but incredible name: a stud finder.
Blushing, I bought one. It looked like a TV remote control, with a column of five tiny lights on the front. It seemed so easy to use, I should have been suspicious right away. All I had to do was slide it across the wall while pressing a button on the side. When it reached a stud, all the lights would go on, and when it passed it, they would go off. The midpoint would be the middle of the stud. Because studs are usually 16 in. apart, this would probably happen every 16 in.
I told everyone about my stud finder. My daughter wanted to take it to her high school. All my friends asked if they could borrow it.
I went to work. It took about an hour and a half to take down the shelves and to saw the middle two boards at the bottom and halfway up the bookcase. I spent the rest of the day wrenching boards from the wall.
The next day, I got out the stud finder and confidently slid it across the wall. After a few inches, all the lights flashed on. A few inches after that, they went off.
Excited that the thing actually worked, I penciled in a dot midway between the two points. But the lights blinked on again a few inches farther, and again a few inches past that. By noon, I had drawn little dots all over the wall, most of them only 3 in. or 4 in. apart. I panicked and asked a friend if her husband could help.
I think he tried not to smile when he saw my dot-covered wall. Then he rubbed his chin. “This is an outside wall,” he said at last. “The sensor is picking up the wire mesh in the frame.” (Our house’s exterior is stucco.) He tapped a long nail into the wall, exactly where I had put my first dot hours earlier. “There’s a stud here,” he said half a second later. “Now we have to find out where the middle of it is.”
Using deductive powers I’ve always associated with the Y chromosome, he tapped the nail into the wall again, about an inch to the left and to the right of the first hole. He hit the stud on the left side. Another tap farther to the the left went straight into the wall. “The middle of the stud is between the first hole and the one to the left of it,” he said. “Do this every 16 in. It won’t take long to find all of them.” He was right. By the time my husband came home, I was admiring our custom bookshelves. My husband was impressed, too, even after I told him how close I’d come to disaster.
I don’t think I’ll do any more carpentry for a while. But I’m keeping the stud finder—just in case.
—Janet Aird, San Gabriel, CA
Drawing by: Jackie Rogers