How Do Drywall Anchors Work and How to Install Them

Whenever you hang a fixture onto drywall, you’ll usually need to use a drywall anchor. A drywall anchor is an insert that will secure the screw against the drywall between the wall studs. They are typically made of plastic, steel, or zinc, each with different weight capacities. Different drywall anchors work differently and also have different installation methods. 

In this article, you’ll find out:

  • Why do you need drywall anchors
  • Four common drywall anchors and their weight capacities
  • How to install drywall anchors
  • When NOT to use drywall anchors

Why do you need drywall anchors

Drywalls are brittle and too weak to hang fixtures on if not installed directly to wall studs. This is because drywalls are made of gypsum and are only ½ inch thick. So, screws will fall off easily if installed without drywall anchors. 

A drywall anchor not only provides a secure insert but also increases the holding strength of a screw. However, you don’t need a drywall anchor in certain situations. Read on to find out when NOT to install drywall anchors when hanging fixtures onto a wall. 

Four common drywall anchors 

There are four common types of drywall anchors: expansion drywall anchors, self-drilling drywall anchors, molly bolts, and toggle bolts. Generally, expansion and self-drilling drywall anchors are more suitable for hanging lighter objects, whereas molly and toggle bolts are meant for heavy-duty applications. 

Expansion drywall anchors

Blue expansion drywall anchors.

When you drive an expansion anchor into the drywall, they expand and push itself into the drywall. These are the most common drywall anchors that you’ll find packed together with photo frames. 

Expansion drywall anchors are affordable and easy to use. However, they’re designed to only hold lightweight objects between 5 to 20 pounds, depending on their size. This is because expansion anchors are made of plastic, which is less sturdy than metal expansion anchors. 

Weight rating: Expansion drywall anchors can hold up to 20 pounds, depending on their size. As their sizes can vary greatly, you should contact the seller for its specifications and weight capacity.

Best for: Picture frames, clipboards, and other light-duty applications. 

Self-drilling drywall anchors (threaded drywall anchors)

Plastic self-drilling drywall anchors, also known as threaded drywall anchors.

As its name suggests, self-drilling drywall anchors do not require pre-drilled holes in drywall for installation. These anchors are threaded like screws that allow you to drive them into the drywall with a screwdriver. Self-drilling anchors can hold more weight than expansion anchors. However, like expansion drywall anchors, these plastic anchors are only meant for hanging lightweight objects

Weight rating: Generally, Self-drilling drywall anchors can hold up to 50 pounds. Some are made of metal and can hold more weight. Nonetheless, you should always check the brand’s specifications. 

Best for: Light to medium-duty applications such as small mirrors, photo frames, and small shelves. 

Molly bolts

Several metal molly bolts.

Also known as steel hollow-wall anchors, these metal anchors expand and create an anchor once inside the drywall. The molly bolt wraps the screw with a metal sleeve to secure it to the wall. Some brands of molly bolts even allow you to remove the screw from the sleeve. Moreover, molly bolts are one of the two types of drywall anchors that you can use in plaster walls.

Weight rating: Can hold up to 100 pounds depending on brand and size. 

Best for: Medium to heavy-duty applications such as towel racks, bookshelves, and mirrors. 

Toggle bolts

Metal toggle bolts.

Toggle bolts are the strongest drywall anchors available. These metal anchors are designed to hang the heaviest of wall fixtures. However, they are the most difficult drywall anchor to install. They are also the most expensive out of the four wall anchors in this article.

A toggle bolt works by expanding its collapsible wings behind the drywall. The expanded anchors will fasten the toggle bolt to the entire sheet of drywall rather than one small area. Once secured into the drywall, you can’t remove the screw from the bolt. Like molly bolts, you can also install toggle bolts in plaster walls. 

Weight rating: Can hold up to 300 pounds depending on brand and size.

Best for: Heavy-duty applications such as televisions and large shelves. 

How to install drywall anchors

Expansion drywall anchors

You’ll need: Electric drill, screwdriver, hammer, screw. 

  1. Drill a hole the same size as the expansion drywall anchor.
  2. With a hammer, tap the anchor into the drywall until it is flush against the wall.
  3. Using a screwdriver, insert the screw into the anchor.

Note: The screw head should be flush against the wall. 

Self-drilling drywall anchors

You’ll need: Screwdriver, screw. 

  1. With a screwdriver, insert the anchor by turning it clockwise against the wall. 
  2. Insert the screw into the anchor until it feels snug and flush against the wall.

Note: Sometimes, the tip of the drywall anchor will break off. This is completely normal and will not affect the performance of the anchor.

Video guide

Molly bolts

You’ll need: Electric drill, screwdriver drill bit.

  1. Insert the screw into the molly bolt’s sleeve. 
  2. Drill a hole the same size as the molly bolt. 
  3. Insert the anchor into the drywall with your hand.
  4. Switch to a screwdriver bit and turn the screw clockwise for the anchor to expand behind the drywall. 
  5. Before installing other hardware or mounts, remove the screw by drilling it counter-clockwise. 
  6. Once done, drill in the screw back together with the mount. 

Video guide

Toggle bolts

You’ll need: Electric drill, screw washer.

  1. Drill a hole large enough for the anchor to fit through the drywall. 
  2. Insert the screw and washer into the toggle bolt with its flat side facing the screw head. 
  3. Press the toggle and insert through the hole. You should hear a ‘click’ sound as the anchor expands. 
  4. Drill the screw until its head is flush against the wall. At the same time, gently pull the bolt toward you to prevent the toggle from spinning.

Video guide

When NOT to use drywall anchors

When hanging fixtures directly against the wall studs

Drywall studs are wooden frames that support the structure of your home. You only need drywall anchors if you are drilling between wall studs, which are usually spaced 16 or 24 inches from each other. 

The reason is that wall studs provide more support than drywall anchors would. This is also why you should always try to mount heavy things against wall studs rather than drywall anchors. 

Against plaster or masonry walls

Drywall anchors are not designed to be installed in masonry (brick or concrete) walls. When hanging anything on brick or concrete walls, you should use masonry anchors rather than drywall anchors. Masonry anchors are thicker so that they don’t crumble in the wall. 

On the other hand, you should only use molly bolts and toggle bolts in plaster walls. Expansion and self-drilling drywall anchors will pull out easily from plaster walls. 

To hang fixtures that get touched often

Plastic drywall anchors will get loose when used to hang fixtures that get touched often. The primary example would be toiler paper holders. Instead, you should use toggle bolts or other metal anchors for fixtures that are frequently used.  

Without mounts for heavier fixtures

You should only use toggle bolts for hanging heavy fixtures between wall studs. TVs, large mirrors, floating cabinets, you know the drill. Moreover, always try to use mounting plates or mount brackets to bridge the studs. 

These mounting plates and brackets will provide much more support than any drywall anchor would by itself. You can also paint wooden mounting plates to match the color of the wall. 

Key takeaways

There are four common types of drywall anchors: expansion drywall anchors, self-drilling drywall anchors, toggle bolts, and molly bolts. Toggle and molly bolts are suitable for heavy-duty applications whereas expansion and self-drilling drywall anchors are more suited for light-duty applications. Moreover, you can’t use drywall anchors in concrete or brick walls. 

Written by Jason Beischel

Jason Beischel is a Remodeler by profession and is always ready for the challenge and surprise that the next remodeling job throws at him. And given his extensive knowledge in real estate, contracting, and interior design, he provides actionable DIY tips online and has consolidated extensive excerpts with details on how to go about the various home repair activities. Enthusiasts will also access information on the best products that they can use in the process. Jason leads a team of renovators, he loves traveling and does not shy away from challenging opportunities that present away from familiar ground. According to Jason, every human deserves a comfortable home from where they can build their future.

July 26, 2021

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