Hanging things on a wall in a way that will be secure and stable isn’t easy. The typical methods of using angle brackets or picture frame hangers are only acceptable for lightweight objects. Even screwing through part of the casing, as is normally done for hanging kitchen cabinets isn’t all that secure, considering that it is depending on the strength of two screws to support a whole cabinet. If you’re got something heavy to hang, you need a heavy-duty hanger.
This is where the French cleat comes in. Although simple in design, the French Cleat provides a very safe and secure method of attaching literally anything to a wall. The interlocking cleat is strong, allowing you to hang much more weight than otherwise, with little to no risk of it falling off. In fact, in the case of kitchen cabinets, the bottom of the cabinet is more likely to fall out, than the French cleat is to fail.
French cleats are especially useful for hanging things like fireplace mantles, wall-mounted cabinets, wall-mounted headboards and other heavy items which you need to have well-secured to the wall. Their simple design makes using them quick and easy, while providing superior strength.
What is a French Cleat?
So, what exactly is a French cleat? It is a two-piece interlocking method of hanging, where gravity pushes the cleat harder together, ensuring that it can’t come loose. The more weight you put on a French Cleat, the stronger the grip becomes, pulling the item hung into the wall and ensuring that it can’t come loose. About the only thing that could cause it to break loose, other than taking it apart intentionally, is an earthquake.
You can buy commercially made, metal French cleats at any hardware store or home improvement center. These are either made of extruded aluminum or bent steel (usually stainless steel). However, there’s really no reason to pay $10 to $30 for a commercially made French cleat, when you can make one yourself in a matter of minutes, often out of scrap wood.
Commercially Manufactured French Cleat
Any French ceat depends on the interlock of the two pieces to make it work. This simple interlock, created by having two opposing angles, allows gravity to push the pieces together, ensuring that they won’t come apart. The commercial French cleat, shown above, works something like this.
Cutting and Installing French Cleats
You can make French cleats out of pretty much any long, narrow piece of wood. I’ve used 1”x 3”s, 1”x 4”x and strips of ½” or ¾” plywood. It all depends on what I have at hand. The actual material doesn’t matter as much as what you do with it. You’ll want to cut your French cleat just a little bit shorter than the object to be hung, so that it can remain hidden, and the position of the object can be adjusted slightly, while providing the most support to whatever you are hanging on the wall.
To turn any of these pieces of wood into a French cleat, simply rip it at a 45 degree angle. I would recommend doing this on a table saw, unless you are really good with a handheld circular saw. While the French cleat will still work if it the cut line is a little wobbly, you won’t have contact throughout the full length, so the hanger won’t be as strong. There’s also a chance that whatever you are hanging will end up a little bit crooked.
One of the two pieces of your French Cleat has to be mounted to the wall and the other to whatever you are hanging on the wall. It doesn’t matter which is used for which part, as they are the same. Use flathead screws, such as drywall screws, so that you can make sure to sink the screw heads below the surface of the French cleat. If necessary, countersink the holes, before installing the screws (this may not be necessary with drywall screws, as they will countersink into softer woods, without drilling a countersink).
You want make sure that both pieces are mounted in such as way as to have the shorter side against the surface of the wall or whatever you are hanging and the longer side is away from the surface. The piece mounted on the wall needs to be mounted in such a way that the angled edge is pointed up, and the piece mounted on whatever you are hanging needs to be mounted so that the angled edge is pointed down. Otherwise it will fall off.
Always make sure that you are mounting the French cleat into something solid, as it has to support the weight of whatever you are hanging. In the case of the wall, always find the studs within the wall and anchor the cleat to the studs with 2” or longer drywall screws; for heavy items, use 2 ½” or longer drywall screws.
Be sure to remember the thickness of the cleat, when positioning it on the back of whatever you are hanging. This is especially important with large items, like fireplace mantles. Since the cleat is ¾” of an inch thick, it needs to be inset into the object by that amount. Otherwise, the mantle will sit ¾” away from the wall or fireplace brick, looking like it is ready to fall off.
When hanging something that needs to be positioned exactly, such as a fireplace mantle, it is easier to measure the exact position for the cleat if you attach the piece that goes on the back of the mantle first. Then you can measure how far this is above the floor, to find where you should mount the part of the cleat that attaches to the wall.
It is not necessary to nail or screw the item to the wall, if you use French Cleats. Gravity alone should hold it in place. The only thing that nailing it would do is make it harder to remove the item later, should you need to.