How To Hang Heavy Shelves on Horsehair Plaster Walls

This post is sponsored by IKEA Stoughton, but all words/ideas/opinions are entirely my own!

Last year I discovered that my local hardware store teaches mini home repair workshops on the weekends. Which is how I found myself trekking over one morning, chai soy latte in hand, to watch a demonstration on plaster walls.

I was the only person who showed. Apparently plaster walls are not as riveting to my neighbors as they are to me.

But if you’ve ever lived in a pre-1950s home, you know the agony of those crumbly plaster slabs masquerading as walls. Boston-area readers, I know you’ve been there: how hammering a tiny nail hole turns into spackling a tennis ball-sized gash. Or how the cleanup from that tiny hole fills an entire vacuum cleaner cup with dust and bits of horsehair (ew ew ew ew ew). Or how it’s impossible to hang anything heavier than a cheapo 8×10 frame.

Well, my home repair nerdiness has paid off, because I have learned a secret. And that secret has allowed me to finally, finally have the modern, open, bright white Scandinavian workspace of my dreams.

How to Hang Heavy Shelves on Horsehair Plaster Walls @idlehandsawake

That’s right, you can hang up stuff in your charmingly impractical turn-of-the-20th-century home. All you need is a little piece of hardware you’ve probably passed a million times while bee-lining it for the copper pipes in the plumbing aisle: the toggle bolt.

If I sound a little info-mercially, it’s because I’m practicing for my debut Vanna White impression below, which is not embarrassing at all. But first, everything you need to learn how to hang heavy shelves on horsehair plaster walls:

Tools + hardware:

IKEA ALGOT components for my corner workspace layout:

Ok, first we need to learn how to install a toggle bolt. It’s super easy as long as you know how to use a drill. (Which is also super easy, but if you’ve never done it, just ask the employees at your local hardware store). To show you just how the toggle bolt works, I photographed a short demo using a bit of scrap wood. Here we go:

How to use a toggle bolt:

How to Use a Toggle Bolt - Idle Hands Awake

Grab your drill, a small drill bit, a spade drill bit that’s big enough to fit the toggle, your toggle bolt, and whatever it is you’re hanging up (in this case, ALGOT wall uprights).

How to Use a Toggle Bolt - Idle Hands Awake

Drill a hole with your spade bit.

***When drilling into horsehair plaster walls, first drill a small pilot hole with the regular drill bit to help prevent the plaster from cracking. Then make the hole bigger with the spade bit.

How to Use a Toggle Bolt - Idle Hands Awake

Thread the bolt through the hole in the bracket, and attach the toggle from the other side. Don’t tighten it — you want it to be able to push all the way through the thick wall, so it needs to be on the end of the bolt as pictured.

How to Use a Toggle Bolt - Idle Hands Awake

Close the toggle…

How to Use a Toggle Bolt - Idle Hands Awake

And push the toggle through the hole. Inside the wall, the two “wings” will pop open like an umbrella.

How to Use a Toggle Bolt - Idle Hands Awake

Tighten the bolt with the power drill as far as you can until it stops. The toggle will now lie flat against the lathe inside the wall, distributing the weight of the bracket/shelf/heavy mirror and keeping the bolt in place.

Easy, right? Now we’re ready for the real thing. Go shop IKEA and then come back here to hang those heavy shelves.

FYI, this next part was totally impossible to photograph “live” because even with two people there were just not enough hands to shoot and install at the same time. Get ready for some killer reenactment photos!

How to Hang Heavy Shelves on Horsehair Plaster Walls - Idle Hands Awake

Check out the classic vintage grain on these photos! Yeah, I need a new camera. Early birthday gift, Alan?

step one: Hold the first wall upright in place on the wall where you want to install the shelves, and ask your helpful friend to mark all the holes with a pencil. In this case my helpful friend is imaginary because Alan doesn’t really like being in photos.

*Note: if you are installing your ALGOT shelves in a corner configuration like I did, hang the shelves for one of the walls completely before starting on the corner. This way you can line the brackets up as closely as possible to make a proper corner.

How to Hang Heavy Shelves on Horsehair Plaster Walls - Idle Hands Awake

Ok, I probably could have managed a photo of drill holes.

step two: Drill your holes! Four of the holes should be large enough for the toggle bolts — the top and bottom holes, and two holes near the middle (this will be more than enough toggle bolts to hold the weight of the shelves). Don’t forget to drill a pilot hole with a regular drill bit first, then widen the holes with the spade bit. The other four holes can be made with a regular bit for the screws.

Yes, I know, the upright is already hanging behind me. Just pretend with me, ok?

How to Hang Heavy Shelves on Horsehair Plaster Walls - Idle Hands Awake

The next Vanna White? Er, no.

step three: Attach four toggle bolts to the wall upright. Then, insert the toggle bolts into the pre-drilled holes by closing the toggles and then pushing them through until they pop open inside the wall, just like in the piece of scrap wood above. It’s a little tricky to coordinate all four at once, so I found the easiest way was to do the top ones first, then the bottom ones.

***Don’t completely tighten the bolts at this point! Just tighten them enough that it will loosely hold the upright in place. Use your bubble level to make sure it’s straight before moving on to the next step. (Since the bolts are slightly loose, you can wiggle the upright around until it’s level).

How to Hang Heavy Shelves on Horsehair Plaster Walls - Idle Hands Awake

step four: Hold up the next upright and have your helper friend attach brackets and shelves towards the top and bottom — this makes it super easy to know exactly where that second upright should go. Check that everything is level and mark where to drill with your pencil.

Tip: Leave the plastic cover on the shelves while you’re installing them (just expose the bracket tabs on the ends). That way they won’t get scratched while you’re putting them up and down and finding just the right spot.

step five: Drill the next set of holes just like you did in step two.

step six: Attach the toggle bolts into the upright, pop them through the wall, and loosely tighten.

step seven: Triple-check that the uprights are level from top to bottom, and hang up those two shelves again so you can make sure they are level from left to right.

step eight: Finally (finally!) tighten the bolts all the way to secure the uprights to the wall. Drive in the regular screws in the remaining holes for extra security.

Now you are free to hang your ALGOT shelves and rearrange to your plaster-hating heart’s content!

How to Hang Heavy Shelves on Horsehair Plaster Walls @idlehandsawake

Be honest, was that as bad as you thought?

I can’t waaaaaiiiiiiit to show you the full reveal of the workspace next week! I’m so close to done that I’ve been salivating with anticipation. (TMI?)

I’d be happy to answer any questions you have about this tutorial! Hit me with your horsehair plaster woes!

Read the whole series:

Scandinavian workspace inspiration for renters

Scandinavian workspace makeover — Before

How to shop IKEA like a pro

Scandinavian workspace makeover — The Reveal

DIY Copper Inspiration Board

This post was generously sponsored by IKEA Stoughton, but my words and opinions are truly my own, pinky promise. Thank you so much for supporting the brands that support Idle Hands Awake!

Author: Marlene @ Idle Hands Awake

Maker, baker, cat momma, total nerd, perpetually covered in glitter/sawdust/paint. Blogging DIY and design for modern creatives.

8 comments on “How To Hang Heavy Shelves on Horsehair Plaster Walls”

  1. This is brilliant. I am super impressed with your skills, our house is olllllld and we have plaster walls, too. Great tips.

  2. This is such great info! I live in an old flat in SF, so all of my walls are plaster! Thanks for the tips!

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