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. They can easily support 75 pounds or more of weight, depending on how many screws are used to attach them to the wall and what is being hung, as well as how securely those screws are run into the studs. 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 sometimes referred to as Clips and 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 cleat 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 below, works something like this.
A variation on the French Cleat is also made, where the two pieces interlock a little more positively and the overall thickness of the cleat is lessened, making it possible to use in cases where there isn’t enough of an indent in the back of the piece to be hung, to allow for a ½” or ¾” thick cleat.
Cutting and Installing French Cleats
You can make your own 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. But you could also use thicker pieces of material, especially if what you’re hanging has a deep recess. It all depends on what I have at hand and what you’re trying to hang. 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.
I mentioned that the thickness of the material you use for your French cleat is not that important. Even so, you’ll probably find that a certain thickness will work best, for each item you are trying to hang. Ideally, you’re going to want the item being hung to sit flush up against the wall, without a gap. So you’ll want to select a piece of wood that is as deep as the recess in the back of the piece you are hanging and no deeper. You’re actually better off with it being not quite as deep, rather than too deep.
To turn any of these pieces of wood into a French cleat, simply rip it through the center at a 45 degree angle. I would recommend doing this on a table saw, unless you are really good with a handheld circular saw. If nothing else is available, band saw would work as well, especially if you have a fence for your band saw. You can even use a scroll saw for cutting short ones. While the French cleat will still work if 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.
This problem can be solved by planning the angled edge of the cleat, once it is cut. Planning allows you to straighten the cut line, eliminate saw marks and generally clean up the edge. A sharp plane will often give you a finish that’s as good as sanding.
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 essentially the same, even if your cut was off-center. 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 to make sure that both pieces are mounted in such a 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 usually ¾” of an inch thick, it needs to be inset into the object by that amount, leaving the surface flush with the back of the mantle. 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.
If You Don’t Have a Table Saw
I mentioned earlier that you could use a band saw, circular saw or scroll saw to cut a French cleat, if you don’t have a table saw (the saw of choice for this). But what if you don’t have any of those options available to you? Or what if you do, but you’re not confident in being able to freehand that cut with your circular saw? Is there a way to make French cleats using only hand tools?
Of course there is. I don’t know how long French cleats have existed, but they’ve been around longer than most power tools. I seriously doubt that carpenters in the 1800s went to their local sawmill to get the bevel cut for their French cleats; they cut it themselves.
This means cutting the French cleat with a hand saw, a task that is not for the faint of heart. Making a long, straight cut with a hand saw is difficult, if you haven’t had a lot of practice. Making it at an angle is even worse.
I personally switched over to using the Japanese style “pull” saws a number of years ago, rather than continuing to use what we would consider the more traditional “push” saw. My reason for this was that it is much easier to control a pull saw, keeping it on the line. I never got quite good enough at doing that with a push saw.
The trick to making the angled cut is to support the board you are ripping at an angle which allows you to keep the saw vertical, just as if you were ripping it square, rather than having to maintain the board at an angle for your cuts. Your eye can easily see if your saw is not vertical, but it has a hard time telling if you are holding it at 25 or 30 degrees.
So, to rip the boards, it is helpful to make a couple of blocks that will hold them at the angle you wish to rip them. Even though it is normal to cut French cleats at 45 degrees, I’d recommend going with something like 30 degrees, if you are hand cutting them. While 45 degrees is convenient, literally any angle will work, just as long as both pieces are cut at the same angle.
These blocks can be placed or clamped on whatever support you would normally use for ripping a board with a hand saw. Ideally, that would be a ripping bench, which puts the board at a good height for cutting, allows you to kneel on it with one knee to clamp it in place, and has a slot for your saw, so that you don’t cut into the bench itself.
Hanging Cabinets with French Cleats
Kitchen and bathroom cabinets can be hung with French cleats, providing a strong, secure means of mounting. One advantage to this is that even if the drywall suffers water damage the French cleat will remain strong, holding the cabinet in place.
On the downside, French cleats cannot be used in conjunction with a soffit over the cabinets, as some kitchens are built. It is impossible to use the two together, because the soffit makes it impossible to slide the cabinet down onto the cleat. This also makes it impossible to use French cleats in situations where the wall cabinet goes all the way up to the ceiling.
Fortunately, today’s styling allows for mounting wall cabinets with space above them, which is often used as a display space. In such a situation French cleats are especially nice, as they make it easy to hang the cabinets evenly and properly spaced.
When using French cleats with multiple cabinets, it helps to use a template for the part of the cleat that attaches to the cabinet, in order to ensure that all cleats are mounted at the same level. A template or level can be used to mount the part that attaches to the wall, depending on personal preference. In either case, the idea is to have the French cleats all attached at the same height, so as to ensure that the cabinets are mounted evenly.
Using French Cleats in the Workshop
French cleats are also very useful for creating tool storage in the workshop. While it has been fairly common to use pegboard for hanging tools on for quite a few years, anyone who has worked with a pegboard tool storage wall knows that the only convenient thing about it is that your tools are where you can see them easily. Other than that, they’re a bit of a pain to put the tools on and take them off.
In contrast, a French cleat wall allows you to build a wide variety of tool holders, each customized for the category of tools you are going to be hanging on it. Typically, the French cleats themselves will be made the full width of the space you have available to you and hung every four to eight inches apart. Individual tool holders or tool holder “centers” for a specific category of tools can be hung anywhere on the French cleat wall, as well as moved around to make room for new tools.
The only precaution in making a French cleat wall is to make the cleats consistent, so that everything is interchangeable. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself boxed into a corner, where you can only mount tool holders in specific places, which may not be convenient.
French Cleat Workbench
The same idea of using French cleats to make a tool wall can be used on a workbench. Mounting French cleats to the sides of your workbench allows you to use the same sort of tool holders mentioned for hanging tools on a French cleat wall. Those tool holders could be moved back and forth between the wall and the bench, as needed for working on specific projects.