Displaying Art with Antique Picture Hooks and Cord
Have you ever wondered about the thin strip of molding running around the walls just below the ceiling or crown molding in Victorian, Craftsman, and Colonial Revival style homes? Or the explanation for that awkward gap that looks like it should be caulked? If so, you are not alone. This understated molding is called a picture rail, one of the most practical, yet currently under-utilized features of many older homes.
Prior to the 1940s, most paintings, prints, mirrors, even photos were mounted using a system of picture rail molding, hooks, and cord (or wire or chain). In a time when walls were made of lathe and plaster, this simple and practical method offered a secure way of hanging any item, even heavy ones, without damaging the wall behind. The use of braided silk cord and decorative hooks made this an elegant and eye-catching option as well. Whether your home is vintage or new, read on to find everything you’ll need to hang your artwork in true period style.
Picture Rail Explained
Picture rail is simply a decorative molding installed horizontally along a wall. The top of the molding is rounded over and projects forward, creating a ledge for the picture hook to seat itself snugly and securely against the rail. Braided cord, chain, or wire attached to the picture frame is draped over the bottom of the hook, holding the picture firmly in place.
Mounted correctly, the picture rail is affixed to the studs with sturdy nails, to distribute the weight of whatever it holds evenly along the wall (especially important for large and heavy items). Picture rail may be installed as a stand-alone molding, typically either ½ “ from the ceiling (in lieu of crown molding in bedrooms or more modest homes) or running between the door and window casings, creating a frieze zone on the wall above. In more formal spaces, such as the living and dining rooms, picture rail is often combined with crown molding to create a larger and more elaborate ceiling treatment. When installing new picture rail near the ceiling or together with crown molding be sure to leave a ½” gap for the picture hook to slide through.
A key benefit of hanging art from a picture rail is its flexibility. The hooks slide easily in either direction and the cord may be lengthened or shortened, allowing you to reposition frames quickly and easily. No more creating new nail holes or filling and repainting old ones!
Essential Items for Picture Hanging
Three ingredients are required to hang pictures using this century old method: picture rail, molding hooks, and cord (or chain or wire). Read about each type of item to determine the best options for your specific needs.
Picture Rail Molding
If you have a home built before 1940, chances are you have picture rail in some of your rooms. If you do not, or if your home is newer, picture rail is one of the simplest molding to add yourself. Reproductions of several antique molding profiles offer options for homes of any style, from High-Victorian to Colonial Revival. Our angular Craftsman profile even works well in modern homes, when paired with streamlined hooks and plain wire. Solid wood options are suitable for staining or painting, while primed finger-jointed pine moldings are less expensive and easily painted.
Picture Molding Hooks
Although they are tucked away near the ceiling, these small s-shaped hooks play an important role in the overall design of a room. With a wide array of styles, sizes, and finishes there are no shortage of options. Choose from hooks that are plain and understated or rich and ornate; hooks that recede visually and hooks that stand out. You can choose a style and finish to coordinate with your picture frame, the décor of the room, or the period of your home.
A practical consideration when choosing picture hooks is the location of the picture rail. If the molding is installed alone and well below the ceiling, most hooks will comfortably fit over most picture rails (the diameter of the molding bead is relatively consistent). If the molding is close to the ceiling or immediately below a crown molding, however, the gap may be too tight for thicker cast brass designs to fit. In this situation thinner and more flexible stamped brass hooks will usually fit through the opening and onto the picture rail.
Our heavy-duty cast brass hooks are ideal for larger items such as mirrors or paintings in elaborate frames. As these hooks are completely rigid, they require a gap of approximately ½” above the picture rail to slide into place. Our stamped brass picture hooks, however, are much more pliable. If the curvature of the hook is too wide to sit closely against the rail, it may be tightened by pressing the top of the hook firmly against a hard surface.
Hanging pictures with twisted silk cord adds a touch of luxury to any room. Offered in 11 period colors, our standard cord can harmonize with your wall color, your picture frame, or even your upholstery. For a more dramatic effect, try our multi-color twisted cord, with its vibrant combinations of gold, burgundy, blue, black, and white.
Strong and attractive, our triple strand cord generally comes in diameters of 3/16”, ¼” and 5/16” and will hold approximately 100-200 lbs. (depending on the cord diameter). See product details for suggested weight loads for specific cord options. To install, the cord is run through eyelet screws on the back of the frame and tied in the middle. The cord is then draped over the hook and the picture adjusted to make level.
Solid brass or plated steel chain is another fine option when creating an antique-style picture display. Light and airy, the finest gage chains are a delicate alternative to twisted cord, though suitable only for lightweight items. The heavier gage chains have a bold, graphic look and can support weights up to 160 lbs. (see product details for specifics). With finishes ranging from polished brass and nickel to oil-rubbed bronze and black, picture chain can coordinate with your frame, your hardware, or lighting in each room.
Our Victorian picture hanging kits are the finishing touch to your most special framed items. Including an elegant rosette with built-in molding hook, a decorative tassel, and 8’ of cord (60 lb. weight), they have everything you need to hang a single picture in true period style. The matching medallion, tassel, and cord are offered in the same 11 colors as our standard twisted cord, so you can coordinate your entire installation.
A "How-To" on Hanging Pictures with Cord & Hooks
While hanging pictures with cord and hooks is quite easy, getting pictures to line up consistently can be a challenge. Watch our handy tutorial on calculating the length of the cord to position a picture exactly the height you want it every time.
The key ingredients for an antique-style picture display may always be the same – molding, hooks, and cord (or chain or wire) - but the recipe is up to you. With so many choices of style, color, finish, and material at your disposal, you can create a display all your own.
What About Picture Lights?
If you want to put your artwork in the spotlight, consider investing in picture lighting. Designed to illuminate a single framed item, these tubular, directional fixtures also add subtle, ambient light to your room.
Picture lights come in a range of options to suit almost any situation. There are slim-line designs that are hardly noticeable and models with substantial metal shades that command attention. Some are attached to the wall and some are frame mounted. In addition to standard hard-wired options, there are picture lights with a plug-in cord and online switch. Extremely versatile, picture lights will also highlight items on bookcases, open shelving, and glass-front cabinets.
For ideas on using picture lighting in your home, see our handy Picture Lighting Buying Guide.