Q: As my parents have gotten older, they have begun asking one of the towel bars in their bathroom to do double duty — as a grab bar. You can probably guess what happened. Last week my dad, who is not a small man, used the towel bar for an assist off the commode. The result was a dangling towel bar and a nice quarter-size hole where the screw used to be.
I have two questions: How do I fix the hole in the drywall, and what’s the best way to install a grab bar to make sure it stays put?
A: While properly installed grab bars can do double duty as towel bars, it doesn’t work the other way around. Even the best towel bars just aren’t beefy enough. Also, they generally aren’t fastened to a stud — wall anchors are usually the preferred hardware.
We’d bet that this is the case with your folks’ towel bar. After years of use — and a healthy assist from your dad — it was bound to come loose. The solution is to provide a solid backing for the screws.
1. Use a utility knife to cut a 6-inch-square piece of drywall from the damaged part of the wall. Make sure the failed screw holes are in the center of this piece. Try to make a clean cut because you will save this piece and replace it once the wood backing is installed. Don’t worry if the piece you remove is too badly damaged. Worst case, you’ll have to head down to the big-box store to buy a half sheet or beg a small piece from some damaged goods.
2. Once you have a hole in the wall, cut a piece of scrap wood a little wider than but not as long, as the 6-inch-square opening. An 8-inch-by-5-inch piece of 1/2-inch plywood will do.
3. Drill a small hole in the center of the wood and thread a string through it. Knot the string or tie a nail or metal washer to it so that the string can’t be pulled out.
4. Once this backing is prepared, apply construction adhesive around the edges of the plywood and, using the string, pull it securely against the back of the wall.
5. While holding the backing in place, drill a couple of pilot holes through the wallboard and into the plywood. Then secure with 1-inch drywall screws, making sure they are countersunk. While it’s possible to do this by yourself, a helper will make things go more smoothly.
6. After the construction adhesive dries — 24 hours to be safe — glue the piece of drywall you saved to the plywood backing.
7. Tape the joints with drywall tape and finish the patch with joint compound. It will take at least three coats of joint compound to properly finish the job.
8. Sand, texture to match and paint.
We realize that this seems like a lot of steps and a lot of time waiting for glue, joint compound and paint to dry, but if you fix it this way, no one will ever have to fix it again — providing it’s not used as a grab bar.
When installing grab bars we have three words for you: Find a stud. Grab bars, whether attached to drywall or a tiled tub and shower, need to be rock solid. We’ve seen them installed with metal toggle bolts, and although they seem sturdy enough, we just don’t trust them.
Bill has just finished a total bathroom remodel, and since he’s not getting any younger, grab bars are part of the design. Because all his walls will be open, the job will be easy. His plan calls for 2-by-8-inch blocking between the studs around the entire room, beginning at 30 inches from the floor. That way, when the drywall is up and the tile is in and grouted, he can place the grab bars just about any place he wants and be sure of hitting solid backing.
If we were in your shoes, we wouldn’t want to open up the walls. If the grab bar doesn’t hit studs on both ends, we suggest that you angle it upward so that the fastening points are 16, 32 or 48 inches apart. (Remember, in standard construction, studs are 16 inches from center to center.) Plumb and level isn’t important. It’s all about safety.
Finally, you should know that grab bars should be part of every friendly house, and they don’t have to shout "hospital" or "nursing home." Here are the ones that Bill has ordered: Gatco 851 Latitude II 12-inch grab bars.