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  • Writer's pictureMarni Jameson

Hang It Up: Picture Hanging Pro Nails Common Problems, Offers Advice

Raise your hand if you and your partner have ever argued over how high to hang a picture.

Raise your other hand if you have ever lazily hung a picture on a nail left by the last resident. Okay, now that we’ve created a nationwide wave, put your arms down. My friends, this is no way to go through life.

Although humans have been hanging art on walls since a caveman asked a cavewoman to please display, in a nice shadow box, the tooth of the woolly mammoth he’d slaughtered, we still often do this wrong, says Shaun O’Dwyer, who’s been hanging pictures professionally for 20 years.

Where has this man been all my life?

To find out just how wrong I’ve been doing this, I invited O’Dwyer, of Winter Park, Fla. To my house. “You can’t offend me,” I told him, which wasn’t entirely true, but, hey, I will take a bullet for you. It’s my job.

We start in the entryway, where a large oil painting is hanging – I just notice -- crooked. I rush to straighten it, but he gets there first, and peeks behind the painting. “Uh-huh,” he says, with one cheek pressed to the wall, “just what I thought.”

My eyebrows coil into twin question marks.

“One nail,” he diagnoses. “Most paintings need two. I see this all the time.”

This is bad news. Hanging two nails exactly even, so artwork hangs level, requires the math skills of Pythagoras. “Every time I’ve tried this, the wall looks as if I’ve used it for archery practice,” I say.

“I’ll teach you,” he says. But first we walk the house. In the kitchen eating area, he calls out a painting hung too high. “It needs to come down,” he shows me, “three inches.” In the family room, he likes how I’d centered the art on the wall, but wants to move the sofa underneath it, so the art is centered over it as well.

In the hall, he wants to stack two, small, framed pieces that I’ve hung side by side, and put the larger piece on top. In the master, the matched pair of decorative mirrors that flank the bed need to go up six inches. Occasionally, based on the law of averages, I’d hung a few pieces right.

“A home doesn’t become a home until the art goes up,” he says, “but people freeze. I’ve been in homes where the owners are afraid to hang anything, so they live inside blank walls.”

“Tis better to have hung art wrong than never to have hung art at all,” I say, badly misquoting Tennyson.

We shake our heads gravely, as if discussing North Korea. Then O’Dwyer shares the following picture hanging advice:

  • Get equipped. You’ll need a hammer, measuring tape, pencil, level, assorted picture hooks, eyehooks, picture wire, and a drill, he said. “If I need a drill, I’m calling you,” I said.

  • Get the height right. Pictures hung too high is the most common problem O’Dwyer sees. Because eye level is relative, he uses an average unisex height of around 5’6.” You want the middle of the art to hit that person at the bridge of his or her nose.

  • Factor in furniture. Break the eye-level rule to allow for furniture clearances. For instance, the bottom edge should fall 10-12 inches above a sofa back, to allow for head room. In dining rooms, where chairs are close to walls, you want to pull out chairs without hitting art.

  • Keep sets close. When hanging a pair of pictures or a group, two-inch margins between all frames are ideal. As art gets larger, say over 24 inches, add an inch.

  • Eliminate slips. Rubber-adhesive bumpers or sticky dots placed on lower back corners help keep art from sliding.

  • Use two hooks. Hanging a picture with two hooks distributes the weight, and helps pictures stay straight and secure. “I can’t tell you how many homes I’ve seen where a 75-pound mirror dangles from a single nail just one door slam away from catastrophe,” he said. Use two hooks and check packaging for how much weight the hook system is designed to hold. “You can do this,” O’Dwyer assured me, and drew out the steps.

§ - First, you need eyehooks on either side of the wood frame an equal distance from the top edge. Stretch picture wire between the hooks and secure well. (On acrylic frames, or small light canvases, you may just have a zipper-like hook across the top, which is designed to hang on one nail.)

§ - Hold your art where you want it and put a pencil mark on the wall at the top center of the frame edge. This is your top mark.

§ - Flip art over, pull the wire up in two places with your fingers, say 12 or 24 inches apart depending on the width of the artwork; measure the distance from the lifted wire to the top of the painting. For this example, let’s say that measures six inches.

§ - Back at the wall, measure six inches down from the top mark and mark the spot. This is your wire mark.

§ - Measure the distance from the wire mark to the floor. Let’s say it’s 60 inches.

§ - If you want your hangers 12 inches apart, measure 6 inches to the right and left of the wire mark (a level may come in handy) and rough in your side marks.

§ - Measure from the floor up straight 60 inches to each side mark and pinpoint them.

§ - Hammer in two hangers so the bottom of each hook hits the side marks.

§ - Say a little prayer, and hang your art.

As soon as O’Dwyer left, I got out my hammer and measuring tape, and lowered, raised, stacked, and stood back. You know, the guy’s right.

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