Hiring Handymen & Contractors - If Your Walls Could Talk!

Posted October 21, 2017 by Admin

With so many big city apartment buildings built years, decades and centuries ago together with untold amounts of renovations, retrofits and repairs, should drilling into your walls be considered an adventure?

A huge reason why D.I.Y. projects for city residents often fail or stop midway through is when people struggle to confirm which combination of materials are within your walls. Since the adoption of the massive grid plan for New York back 1811, followed by the development of its thriving neighborhoods and boroughs over several centuries, multi-unit and single family homes in the Big Apple have been built, repaired, renovated, demolished and undergone enough interior and exterior changes to make it often impossible to know the exact composition of the walls.

"So why doesn't he just use the stud finder?" you think to yourself as you stand back and watch the handyman puzzle over the composition of your wall. Well, if it were only that simple. In New York and other cities across the U.S. even some of the most advanced stud finders give false-positives due to the combination of materials in the walls. This can sometimes result in faulty, inadequate and poor quality work. Especially when your handyman follows through by putting multiple holes in your wall in his hunt for that all mighty stud. Stud finder or not, the multiple layers of materials in the walls of multi-unit resident buildings can be perplexing.

So to help make sense of things for future projects, we've gathered some valuable information about what might be hidden beneath the surface of your walls, as well as why and how it got there in the first place. We'll also throw in a few little known facts about a few noteworthy, big city locations and give you a few tips on how to better help your home improvement projects from going sideways the next time your helpful handyman shows up.

Overall, many of the basic construction methods that were conceptualized centuries ago still prevail today, (although we've come a long way from straw, mud and log cabins). Historic images show many of the same basic, concrete foundations, stick or metal framing and interior/exterior wall materials used for residential homes today that were applied years ago. However, due to advances in technologies and updated building codes there are some key differences in materials and techniques which include:

the discontinued use of Asbestos in building materials which has been determined by the National Institute for Safety and Health (NIOSH), to be a very dangerous health hazard. [Photo: www.CDC.gov]
Lead Paint
the discontinued use of Lead based paints and primers, which is also well-known health hazard. [Photo: www.terapeak.com]
Balloon Framing
banned balloon framing – due to potential health risks during a fire as the unimpeded space between vertical studs act as chimneys, promoting rapid spread of fire throughout the house. [Photo: William Henry Jackson - 1877; The National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution]
Lath Plaster
the drastic decrease in the use of laths and plaster (a labor intensive and expensive application). Wooden lath also fools stud finders giving false-positives and making it impossible to find wooden studs [Photo: Kirk & Jason Giordano]
Mesh Brickwall
a discontinuation of the wire mesh, brick and plaster combination. Often applied as a means of renovation before the popularity of sheetrock
the discontinued use of 20-60 amp electrical wiring, porcelain and fuse boxes for old appliances and electrics. They are insufficient for most current electronics. [Photo: www.thecraftsmanblog.com]

In comparing old materials and techniques to those used currently, contractor (GJC, 2010) stated:

"1st Older building methods were very wasteful of lumber. It is going to be a long time before the supply of old-growth species is back to what it was 100 years ago. So it is relatively more expensive to get things like wooden floors with nice long planks, or really nice solid panels in walls.

2nd Old building methods were more labor intensive. If you had good craftsmen, you got a better job. Current methods are a bit more plug-n-play and the average quality level is better. A nice plaster wall is probably nicer than drywall, but bad plaster was really bad.

3rd Compare apples to apples- the cheapest houses built in the 20's are no longer standing. We only see the good examples of old construction.

4th Current building methods rarely over-build anything."

However, there are many commonly used, non-harmful materials and techniques used in walls built during renovations and buildings erected sometime between the current day and the 1800's. They include:

Stick framing with wooden studs:

Framing Lumber Photo source: www.dunkirksupply.com

Light-gauge metal stud framing:

Metal Framing Photo source: Getty Images

Electrical wiring and plumbing:

New Wiring & Plumbing Photo source: www.drncarpentry.co.uk


Sheetrock Photo source: www.houseofdecorusa.com


Brick Bedroom Framing Photo source: (stock image)


Plastering Photo source: www.gmplastering.co.uk

Varied layers/types of sheetrock:

Drywall Types Photo source: www.diynetwork.com
(Cindy, 2011): Improved Building Materials: "Virtually every component in the construction of today's homes is vastly improved. From roofs that integrate photo-voltaic energy collection to concrete fiber siding that requires no maintenance to 'TJ' floor joists that span larger areas and allow larger rooms without squeaky floors to 'Trex' decking that doesn't warp or weather, homes today are more solid, better-insulated and more comfortable than their predecessors. In addition to being better, many of the improvements in home construction are cheaper—either favored by builders who can build for less or driven by consumers who insist on lower heating bills or lower maintenance costs after they buy."

Any combination of the materials above can be within your walls, especially in many older buildings that have undergone one or more renovations. To cut costs, city building owners often choose adding to the façade of a wall over breaking them down and starting over. The result is multi-layered walls which deceivingly appear new on the outside, while decade old walls (and often all of the problems they host) remain covered within. Additionally, building managers, superintendents, handymen and even some contractors often ignore city building codes when making adjustments, improvements and repairs; all having a wide variety of personal techniques and styles, greater increasing the confusion about what may be within your walls.

Setting the complex material combinations which may or may not be in your walls, here are a few simple things which you can do to help decrease any chance of major missteps the next time someone shows up for a home improvement project:

  • Knock onto the wall with your hand to listen to the sound. A hollow sound signals possible drywall and wood or metal stud combination. However, be mindful that many cheap renovation techniques involve mounting slim 2"x3" studs to brick and then covering it with drywall to give the appearance of a newly built apartment. This means the slight distance between the back of the drywall and the brick wall is very small. This creates the challenge of efficiently using hardware that is good for both drywall and mason – given the small hidden gap between the two;
  • Ask your superintendent or building manager if they know the true combination of materials within your walls. There's nothing like getting accurate information from the horse's mouth. However, if that/those individual(s) are new to your building, they may not have been around when the improvements were made.
  • Always try to provide your contractor, handyman or any other person whom you've hired to perform the work, with as much details about your walls as possible before they begin. This helps them better prepare to bring the right tools and hardware. If the combinations of materials within your walls are just too confusing to figure out, tell them that too. This will better help them bring enough tools and hardware to cover all possibilities. (FYI: Many times crazy techniques and unorthodox fixes are performed simply due to a worker being ill-prepared and/or ill-equipped for a job, then opting to make due with whatever is available rather than stopping to retrieve what's necessary to perform quality work. )
Scaffolding With seemingly neverending development, finding a Manhattan street without scaffolding is like finding a rare flower. In 2015, 56,248 permits were issued in New York City, the most since 1962, according to Census Bureau figures.
  • Before work begings, tell your hired help whether the project will include:
    • Interior walls (which divide two rooms to within your unit);
    • Common walls (which divide your unit from a neighbor's unit);
    • Exterior walls (which separate your unit from the outside world whether it be an elevator shaft, hallway, stairwell, or outside of the building);
    • any combination above.
    This will automatically let the worker know that he may be dealing with more than just drywall or plaster. Exterior walls in many city buildings have brick on the outside and drywall or plaster on the inside resulting in a separate type of hardware and tools needed to mount things on them what's use for drywall.
  • If you think it would be helpful to learn the history of your building and when it was built before your project starts, visit the page titled: "A Guide to Researching the History of a New York City Building" on The New York Society Library's website at https://www.nysoclib.org/.../guide-researching-history-new-york-city-building for detailed & comphensive references on how to researc the history of your building.
  • Unless you live in a bomb shelter, parking garage or basement of a building, it is highly unlikely that your walls are made of "cement". To save yourself some embarrassment or possibly sounding silly while describing your project to a potential worker, never say that you think your walls are made of cement.) However, most ceilings in city apartment building (are) made of cement to prevent the total collapse of a building during a fire. It is also require by city building codes.

Did you know:

Building Codes have a long history going back 4000 years. The "Code of Hammurabi", circa 1780 BC, contains what are generally considered the first written laws concerning building construction. The "Code of Hammurabi" consisted of 282 laws. Laws 228 thru 233 dealt with building construction and appear like this:

  • 228. If a builder builds a house for someone and completes it, he shall give him a fee of two shekels in money for each sar of surface.
  • 229. If a builder builds a house for someone, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built falls in and kills its owner, then that builder shall be put to death.
  • 230. If it kills the son of the owner the son of that builder shall be put to death.
  • 231. If it kills a slave of the owner, then he shall pay slave for slave to the owner of the house.
  • 232. If it ruins goods, he shall make compensation for all that has been ruined, and inasmuch as he did not construct properly this house which he built and it fell, he shall re-erect the house from his own means.
  • If you're handy with tools and have a few of them, use a stud finder to find your studs by pre-marking the left and right side of your studs with painter's tape. Bear in mind that the wall studs should be no more than 2 1/2 inches in width and typically 16 inches apart. (Tip: Hang a strong magnet from a string and slide it against the wall to see if there is a slight pull in places where metal studs are present.) Wall studs can be difficult to find when a contractor uses two layers of drywall and thick insulation for noise reduction; or for walls where wooden and/or metal mesh lath is used for plaster. These types of walls make a stud finder go wacky and deliver readings that often make little sense.
  • Give your handyman or contractor a heads-up if you know that there is a fuse box, breaker box, extensive wiring or plumbing pipes on the opposite side of the wall or within the wall that they are working on. The last thing you want to see is an uninformed worker blow the lights or spark a fire within your walls by accidentally drilling into a breaker box or other wires; or causing extensive water damage to your walls (and/or the neighbor's walls below you) by accidentally drilling into plumbing pipes. Many licensed contractors and seasoned handymen will already know to check for this. Still, it never hurts to help make certain they are on their game. Even the most experienced workers make mistakes.

These tips not only help prevent costly mistakes often made during home improvement projects, they may likely cut down on your contractor's time and save you money if some of the mysteries within your walls are worked out before your hired help begins the work.


GJC (2010, May 23). Modern vs bygone home building techniques.

Cindy (2011, April 26). How Homes Have Changed Over the Last 50 Years: