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How to Find a Stud in the Ceiling (With & Without a Stud Finder)

Ceiling Stud

Ceiling Stud_shutterstock_photosthai

Studs hold up the sheetrock that makes up your walls and ceiling, and you’ll need to find them if you want to install a drop ceiling, ceiling fan, or repair a squeaky floor. If you’re unfamiliar with home construction and building codes, it can be difficult to know how to locate the studs behind the sheetrock. Even if you intend to use a stud finder, you may have questions about how they work and what type you should buy.

We’ll cover how to find the studs in your home without a stud finder, and we’ll explain how the stud finder works if you want to use one to make the task a little easier.

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Stud Facts

  • To have your terminology correct when talking to someone at the hardware store or reading directions, the first thing you should understand is that a stud is a vertical beam, while the joist is horizontal. You find studs in the walls and joists in the floors and ceilings. However, they are very similar, and you can use a stud finder to locate a joist.
  • Ceiling joists are always the same distance apart. The spacing will be either 16 inches or 24, and it will be the same everywhere in your home.

Finding a Ceiling Joist

There are two ways to find a ceiling joist after the drywall is up: with a stud finder or without one.

Using a Stud Finder

Using a stud finder is the easiest way to find your ceiling joist because there is no guesswork.

  • Purchase a high-quality stud finder. There are many great models from Perlesmith. M Marsian, and many more that are suitable.
  • Run the stud finder along the ceiling and watch for it to light up, indicating that it has found a stud. If it doesn’t light up every 16 or 24 inches, the ceiling joists probably run in the other direction, so try it again in that direction.
  • When the machine lights up, you have found the joist. A stronger signal will indicate the center.

There are many types of stud finders. Some use LUD lights, while others use an LCD. Some may also play a sound to assist you. We recommend one that helps you find the center of the stud instead of just alerting you that there is one because they tend to be more accurate.

Finding the Joist Manually

Finding the ceiling joist manually is a little more difficult, but you won’t need to buy any special tools to do it. These are the steps you will need to take.

  • It will be easiest if you can find out what direction the joists are running. There are usually exposed joists in the attic or the basement. If you can’t find any, continue to the next step.
  • Start at one corner and use a tape measure to extend to 16 inches. Knock on the ceiling at the 16-inch mark, and if it sounds solid, you found the joist. If it sounds hollow, continue to the next step.
  • Extend the tape measure from 16 to 24 inches and knock on the ceiling again. If it sounds solid, you found the joist. If it sounds hollow, repeat steps 2 and 3 from the same corner but in the other direction.

It will be faster if you know the direction of the joists. For instance, if the joists run east to west, start in a north corner and extend the measuring tape south to find your first joist at 16 or 24 inches. If there is heavy insulation in the joists or the ceiling has stucco paint, you might find it hard to hear a hollow sound. In this case, you might be able to use one of the following methods.

Trace the Outlets

This idea works better on wall studs, but if you have any outlets on your ceiling, they will be attached to a joist. If the outlet has two plugs, the studs will run in the same direction as the plugs, so the next stud will be 16 or 24 inches to the right or left. However, to use this method, you will still need to hear the hollow sound when you knock on the ceiling.

Besides outlets, any exposed nails you might find, especially in the attic, will be hammered into a joist and will give you a location and possibly a direction.

Use a Magnet

There are joist holders and nails in your ceiling joists that you can detect with a magnet—the larger and stronger the magnet, the better chance of success. Move the magnet over your ceiling until you feel a tug.

Try a Small Nail

If you have access to the ceiling joists in the attic and they are the joists you are trying to find, you can hammer a small nail next to the joist through the ceiling so you can see it from below. While you’re there, measure the distance between joists to see if they are 16 or 24 inches apart. When you go back downstairs, you will see the nail and know which way the joists run and how far apart they are, so you can use your measuring tape to find the joist you need.

Which Method Should I Use?

We recommend most people use a stud finder, especially if you are installing something heavy because you want to find the joist’s center for the highest strength. It’s a little more expensive than a tape measure but is much more accurate than the manual methods described here.

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We hope you have enjoyed reading over our look into finding your ceiling joists and determining how far apart they are. Using the steps presented here, you should have no trouble getting your light fixtures and other items installed. If we have helped answer your questions, please share this guide to finding a stud in the ceiling on Facebook and Twitter.

Featured Image Credit: photosthai, Shutterstock


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