Matt Springer has been giving presentations around San Francisco about home earthquake preparedness since 2008 (for more information about the presentation, go to his earthquake preparedness website). This Quaketips blog is devoted to posts ranging from technical "how-to" articles to more philosophical "should-you" topics. New articles will be posted at most about once a month, so people who subscribe won't be subjected to lots of e-mail.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Earthquake Safety: What about Hanging Art from Picture Moldings?

This month, Quaketips hosts guest blogger Fred von Lohmann.  Fred attended one of my talks and absolutely stumped me with a question about hanging pictures on picture moldings (a.k.a. picture rails) in homes with lathe and plaster walls.  In all these years, nobody had ever asked me about that before, and in all these years, I had never lived in a home without drywall and simply wasn’t aware that these things existed.  Now I know they were the only game in town for a few hundred years, until just about 80 years ago.

Fred said he’d find some more information about the topic for me, and got back to me with basically an entire article, so he agreed to let me run it as a guest article pretty much as is, with no editing on my part other than to stitch together a few of his photos.  So without further ado, take it away Fred, and thanks!


Before the 1940s, it was common for houses to have picture moldings (also known as crown moldings, or picture rail moldings) for hanging art, rather than using nails and picture hooks affixed to the wall. And since nearly half of San Francisco’s housing stock was built before 1940, a lot of us rely on these picture moldings today (renters often have no choice, as leases frequently forbid making holes in the lath-and-plaster walls that are common in 100 year old houses). Surprisingly, however, there’s almost no discussion out there of how to secure art hung this way in the event of an earthquake.

Here’s a picture of a small frame hung in my house from a molding hook in the traditional manner. I’ve used fishing line (sorry, hard to see!) tied to eye hooks on the back of the frame. The fishing line then rests on the lower hook of the brass molding hook, while the upper portion of the molding hook rests on the molding itself.

There are several different sorts of picture molding hooks out there (see photo below), but all of them seem vulnerable in the event of an earthquake. First, there is nothing to prevent molding hooks from jumping off the picture molding in the event of a big quake. Second, the wire or cord holding up the picture frame could jump off the molding hook. (The good news, however, is that since the wire or cord is generally attached to the back of the picture frame, at least that connection will be secure.)

So what can be done? Well, one possibility is to screw the molding hook directly into the picture molding. Some brass molding hooks come with a hole to make this relatively easy (see photo below). But this still leaves the problem of the wire or cord attached to the picture frame jumping out of the relatively shallow lower part of the hook. This lower hook could probably be bent to make it deeper and more secure, and the wire or cable could perhaps be looped around the hook twice. But without having any way to close the top of the hook, the risk remains (although friends have suggested using museum putty to fill the gap).

In my case, after doing quite a bit of online searching, I discovered picture molding hardware that seemed to solve most of the problem. A company called Gallery System Art Displays sells a hanging system designed for picture moldings that solves two out of three problems (here’s a UK alternative system that looks similar, but I’ve not tried it). The system consists of a molding hook (you can have brass or stainless steel) that has a captive metal cable that hangs down. A separate secure hook attaches to the cable, from which you can hang pictures (up to 44 pounds) using whatever you would use to attach it to a nail and picture hook. The secure hook slides up and down on the captive wire, allowing you to adjust the height of your picture. This also makes it much easier to adjust than the “cable triangle” that you have to rig up with traditional molding hooks. The bad news is that it’s not cheap: the hardware comes to about $20 per painting. As usual, a few photos make all this clearer than words. (You’ll see that I’ve left the additional wire hanging below my picture to the right, but you can trim the “tail”, if you prefer.)

This system still leaves the risk that the brass molding hook will jump off of the picture molding. In order to mitigate (but probably not eliminate) that risk, I added a pat of museum putty between the hook and the molding, which should help prevent it from jumping off, particularly since the design of the cable system should prevent the picture from putting any upward pressure on the hook itself.

As with lots of things, it’s not perfect, but it strikes the right mix of strengths for me.


(As mentioned up top, this article was guest-written by Fred von Lohmann.  Feel free to add comments, but you can e-mail Fred directly with questions at 

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  1. Ah, so that's what those things are in my home!
    Seems like the pendulum effect might amplify impact to the art, and increase the chance of projecting broken glass & other debris across the room.
    That reminds me - I need to remove the art that's near my bed...

    1. I agree about the pendulum effect; just like hanging pictures on maze hooks or any other hook, having some quake putty in the lower corners can stabilize it. However, as you can see in a recent article on this blog, it turns out that with some (but not all) matte wall paints, the quake putty can leave shiny areas if you end up moving the picture to somewhere else, and so can Gripeez pieces.


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