A stud finder can make the difference between that framed painting hanging majestically for years to come and it crashing to the ground an hour after you hang it as a chunk of drywall rips out in the process. Many stud finders can also make the difference between you drilling a hole or hammering a nail into a water pipe, thereby turning a modest project like putting up a shelf or mounting a TV into a serious home repair almost surely involving pricey professionals.
With a focus on residential and light commercial construction, our team uses stud finders all the time once the drywall is up. Even when we’re not using them professionally, there are always pictures and mirrors to hang, shelves to mount, and any number of projects going on around our homes.
There are a lot of “best” stud finder options out there. But let’s face it, there’s no single model that’s exactly what everyone needs. To help you out, our team has broken out a list of our favorite stud finders in a variety of situations along with what we like and don’t like about each.
What is a Stud Finder?
Stud finders help you detect where studs are in your wall. Most people using one are setting a nail or screw, usually to hang something that might pull through the drywall on its own.
Magnetic stud finders work by using a magnet to locate the screws that hold your drywall in place. They cost less than stud finders that use active sensors, but they’re more limited. They can’t detect the actual stud, so there’s some guesswork as you look for the exact center.
With the evolution of technology, you can find stud finding apps for both iPhone and Android smartphones. They use the phone’s magnetometer (the sensor that drives the compass) to detect metal nails or screws behind the drywall. Presumably, those nails or screws will be in the middle of that stud you’re attempting to locate. Note that these apps do not detect actual wood studs or measure wall density.
And of course, people still use a knuckle or hammer every day. While there are some folks that are really good at it, it’s somewhat less reliable as a go-to method for detecting studs.
What to Look for in a Stud Finder
Stud finders fall into two basic categories based on the method they use to detect studs, either magnetic or electronic. One’s not inherently better than the other; instead, each one offers different benefits for different situations. We tested both types of tools in our hands-on tests, with some pretty eye-opening results, so don’t miss those tests and reviews below our guide.
We found that there are 2 major types of sensors, electric and magnetic ones. Magnetic sensors are the simpler versions that have been around for ages now. These have no batteries or cords and hence will run for long.
However, this one will not be able to give you the exact location and details, and you will have to take it around a wall to find the spot. It could be more time consuming than a battery-operated one.
A battery-operated model could be your cup of tea if you are looking for an advanced option. It might cost you a bit more, but it will let you find the accurate location faster.
Some electronic stud finders let you adjust the depth to which the sensors penetrate into the wall. Typically, studs are buried around ¾-inch behind drywall, but there are times you want to go deeper to find other hidden objects, or you’re scanning floors for joists, rather than walls. Many stud finders with this feature can penetrate the surface up to 1.5 inches deep.
Sensors range in size. Stud finders with larger sensors have a few advantages, such as being able to cover a more expansive area and (sometimes) being able to penetrate thicker or more solid walls, such as plaster or concrete. Smaller sensors, on the other hand, can be highly accurate. For most home DIYers, sensor size is not an issue since a typical stud finder with smaller or larger sensors will be able to pinpoint studs behind drywall.
Display And Alarm
While magnet options do not have a display, most electrical stud finders come with one. A large display makes it easier to see the placement of the studs. It will allow you to mark the center, and arrows might guide you to the exact spot. Now this will vary with the model and the brand. Some will also have a backlit screen making it easier to see in the dark.
Further, you need to check if there is an audible notification option. These prove to be beneficial while spotting objects.
Our Top Picks
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the majority of stud finders I tested were accurate and dependable. The ones that weren’t didn’t make this list. The following stud finders detect anything from steel fasteners to live wires and pipes. Some even detect double-stud construction. To test the degree of accuracy, I constructed a test wall that mimicked the configuration of an actual wall and allowed me to see how precise the stud finders were. Find out what my tests revealed and why the following stud finders made it on the list of Top Picks.
Any decent stud finder is going to ultimately locate a wall stud, but usually not without an annoying process of calibration and sliding the thing back and forth along the wall, usually with a few false positives before you’re confident you have indeed found a stud and approximated the location of its center. Not so with the Franklin ProSensor 710.
This high-accuracy tool simultaneously detects the wall and framing hardware below it at 13 distinct points, instantly creating an accurate readout of the hidden materials. Its extra-wide body makes detection easier, and only those lights directly before the stud will illuminate, making end detection easy even without any sliding back and forth to be sure. That wide body design also helps you identify double studs.
The high sensitivity of the sensors also ensures an accurate detection through uneven materials, such as multiple layers of paint or wallpaper, textured plasters, and more. All that high tech, high accuracy detection requires nothing but the push of one button.
For the occasional weekend home project, there’s no need to break the budget on a stud sensor. You still need to be careful, however, since many lower-priced options lack the accuracy you need to reliably drill into your walls without striking something you didn’t expect to be there. Typically, the best budget options offer the basics without the extra detection capabilities. The Zircon StudSensor E50 will give you basic wood and metal stud detection at an affordable price, but doesn’t lack in precision.
This finder packs a lot of handy features within its small price tag. Capable of detecting both wood and metal studs, the finder will flash and beep once it has picked up the edge of a stud. It includes two scanning modes: StudScan for studs up to 0.75 inches deep and DeepScan for targets around 1.5 inches deep. The finder also includes the ability to detect live AC wires to avoid drilling into dangerous electrical hazards.
After all of our testing, we’ve concluded that the C.H. Hanson 03040 Magnetic Stud Finder offers the best combination of functionality, durability, and cost. The C.H. Hanson is unique in that it has two magnets instead of just one, giving it twice the scanning area of the others and making the process of finding a stud that much faster. It has a multiposition level that assists with marking studs and positioning pictures. The tool’s impressive durability was one of the reasons our carpenter tester chose it as his favorite. Lastly, the C.H. Hanson won’t break the bank, as it retails for around the $10 mark, which puts it right in the middle of the units we looked at.
Because the C.H. Hanson has two magnets instead of just one, it scans twice as fast as the other magnet-based finders. When you swipe it across a wall, it covers approximately a 2½-inch swath. The other models, with their single magnets, scan only about 1¼ inches’ worth of space at most. During testing, the superior two-magnet design meant we had to slide the tool back and forth only five times (instead of 10) to locate a screw head.
The Bosch Digital Multiscanner GMS120 is a powerhouse of a wall scanner. It has three modes; wood, metal, and electrical power, and is quite accurate with all three. In addition to the three scan modes, the Bosch has a center finder for studs, a magnetic sensor to show screws and other metal, and a ring that changes color depending on how close you are to the material you’re seeking. The light-up ring changes from green (no stud sensed), yellow (close), to red (directly on top of a stud). The ring is also hollow, allowing accurate marks right in the center of the sensor. We also like that we didn’t have to hold the buttons down when we used it, which was more comfortable in awkward positions, like looking for ceiling joists. It also has a light-up screen, making it easy to use in crawl spaces or other dimly lit areas.
We did wish the device was a little smaller, as it’s quite bulky and takes up most of a pocket on a toolbelt. We also would have liked an edge sensor, although the center sensor is quite accurate, so as long as we knew the actual width of our studs (usually 1.5 inches), we were able to make do. Despite its bulk, the Bosch GMS120 is accurate, multi-use, and easy to read, and for these reasons, our favorite all-around product we’ve tested.
If you fear drilling straight into a water pipe or a live wire, then the Tavool Store 5 in 1 Electronic Sensor is going to be an excellent option. This electronic option will go a long way in identifying studs providing you with a hassle-free experience. We were very happy with the accuracy that it showed.
Like some of its peers, this product also comes with 5 modes to toggle among. You can work with metal scan, AC scan, and stud scans of different depths. We were impressed to see that it could detect studs even at a depth of 51mm under the drywall.
Further, it works perfectly with drywalls, plaster walls, along with popcorn ceilings, textured surfaces, to name a few. The device can locate metal and wooden objects using upgraded internal sensors.
Moving on, you have got an LCD display which will show you the position of the stud. This also comes with a sound warning and will help in finding the edges and center of the studs.
This LCD display will guide you to the object with arrows indicating the direction. Accompanying this is a beeping sound that makes things easier. This will grow louder as you come near the target, and that will allow you to get the precise location.
How Does a Stud Finder Work?
As its name implies, a stud finder finds studs—aka places where there is wood or metal framework within walls—but it’s a little more complex than that. A stud finder relies on one of several technologies for detecting where studs are. These tools work by emitting an electronic or magnetic field to help sense and locate where studs exist. Most stud finders are electronic and are impressively accurate, but magnetic stud finders still have their place, too.
There are also other specific types of stud finders available. Some will pinpoint the edge of a stud, while others will lead you smack dab to the center. In addition, many stud finders have extra features these days that go beyond finding the perfect spot for hammering a nail or stapling something into a wall, like spirit levels, LCD screens, and live wire detectors. Understanding your needs will help you decide the kind of stud finder that will serve you best.
Not everyone can reliably rap on the wall and find a stud—most can’t—so using a stud finder makes projects go more quickly. Those who are new to the world of electronic and magnetic stud finders are in for a treat. Consider a few questions before picking one out.
How far apart are wall studs?
Standard wall framing is 16 inches apart, on-center (OC), meaning the center of one stud will be exactly 16 inches from the center of the next. Alternate spacing is 19.2 inches and 24 inches apart, OC.
Are outlets always on studs?
Most, but not all. Some outlets come with boxes that are designed to fit in a hole cut through the drywall. A stud finder that detects both studs and live wires can tell the user if this type of outlet box is in use.
Can stud finders be wrong?
It’s not uncommon for a stud finder to trigger an alert, and yet the hidden object behind the wall isn’t actually a stud, but is a pipe, bracket, or some other material. Many stud sensors differentiate between these various types of materials, but the tool is not infallible and it is possible to get false readings. That’s why it’s important to continue scanning the wall until you’ve located at least three studs; if the distance between each is equal, and is 16 to 24 inches, you can be confident that you’ve located studs, not some other building material.
Do stud finders work through ceramic tile?
If you are planning on installing grab bars in the bathroom, but have fully tiled walls, you might figure that you’ll use your stud sensor to locate the studs behind the tile. Unfortunately, while stud sensors have no problem in scanning through drywall and similar materials, very few of these tools owned by the average homeowner or DIYer can reliably work through ceramic tile. For that, you typically need a scanner that uses radar to “look” through the wall, and those are generally very expensive.
However, some deep-sensor stud sensors with settings to locate metal are able to penetrate tile with fairly reliable accuracy, so it’s worth giving one a try if you are set on fastening something heavy to a tiled wall.