Attach lightweight fixtures onto drywall or plaster without wall studs. Follow these expert tips to easily install an electrical box.

By BH&G Editors
Updated August 24, 2020
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Not all fixtures need to be attached to a wall stud or joist. Lightweight fixtures can hold up on plaster or drywall if you have a remodel electrical box ($1, The Home Depot). Installing these handy boxes only takes about 15 minutes and they give you the freedom to decorate your space exactly how you want. Try your hand at this small electrical project using our step-by-step instructions below.

Before you get started, plan the job carefully, as running cable through walls covered with drywall or plaster can be difficult. Remodel boxes (also called cut-in or old-work boxes) clamp to the drywall or plaster rather than attach to a framing member, making the work easier. However, they are only as strong as the wall surface to which they are clamped. If the drywall or plaster is damaged, cut a larger hole and install a box that attaches directly to a stud or joist. Select boxes that meet local codes. For a ceiling fan or a heavy light fixture, buy a fixture box that attaches to a fan-rated brace. Before cutting a hole, use a stud finder to make sure no joist or stud is in the way.

Bedroom with bedside lamps and wooden nightstands
Credit: Edmund Barr

How to Install an Electrical Box in a Finished Wall

Follow our step-by-step instructions for installing an electrical box in drywall.

What You Need

  • Stud finder
  • Torpedo level
  • Utility knife
  • Screwdriver
  • Hammer
  • Drill
  • Drywall saw (or rotary cutter or jigsaw)
  • Remodel boxes acceptable under local code
  • Cable clamps, if needed
trace box utility knife
Credit: Dave Toht

Step 1: Trace Box

For your safety, turn off power before starting this project. If the box does not come with a cardboard template, hold its face against the wall, use a torpedo level to make sure it is straight, and trace it. With a utility knife cut the line deeply enough to cut through the drywall paper.

drywall saw
Credit: Dave Toht

Step 2: Cut Hole

Cut the hole with a drywall saw. Cut to the inside of the knife cut to prevent fraying the paper. Test to make sure the old-work box fits in the hole.

thread cables remodel box
Credit: Dave Toht

Step 3: Thread Cables

Run cable through the hole. Strip 8-12 inches of sheathing and run the cable into the box. Whichever clamping method the box uses, 1/2-inch of sheathing should show inside the box. Tug to make sure the cable clamps tightly.

wall insert remodel box with cables
Credit: Dave Toht

Step 4: Insert Box

Push the box into the hole. If it fits tightly, do not force it or you may damage the drywall. If needed, use a utility knife to enlarge the hole in your wall.

securing remodel box
Credit: Dave Toht

Step 5: Secure Box to Wall

This type of box has wings that extend outward when you start to drive the screw, then grasp the back of the drywall as the screw is tightened. Tighten the screw until you feel resistance and the box is firmly attached.

Saber Saw Reciprocating saw
Credit: Dave Toht

What If the Wall is Made with Plaster?

Take your time cutting a lath-and-plaster wall when installing an electrical box. It's easy to damage the surrounding area. Most plaster is attached to 3/8-inch-thick wood lath, which cuts fairly easily if it does not vibrate. If it does vibrate as you saw, sections of plaster can loosen from the lath. It is difficult to make a neat hole in plaster and lath, so have patching plaster ($5, Walmart) on hand. If plaster is attached to metal lath, cut all the way through the plaster with a knife and then cut the metal lath with side cutters.

Make several passes with a sharp knife. Drill starter holes at each corner and then cut with a jigsaw. Press the saw firmly against the wall to minimize lath vibration. Alternatively use a rotary cutter equipped with a plaster-cutting bit. Practice first because it is hard to control.

remodel box options
Credit: Dave Toht

Remodel-Box Options

The round plastic ceiling box (left) has "wings" that rotate out and behind the wall surface. One metal box (center) has a flange that springs outward when the box is inserted; tightening a screw brings the flange forward. A variation on this has side clamps that move out and toward the front as screws are tightened. Yet another type (right) uses separate mounting brackets that slide in after the box is inserted and bend over the sides of the box to lock it in place.

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