How to Use a Picture Rail

How to use a picture rail to hang art.

One of the first things we noticed when we first toured the Broughton Street House was an unused picture rail in the downstairs hallway. We’ve always been fascinated by picture rails and really wanted to put this one to use. While we’ve seen them before, we’ve never actually used one, so we needed to figure a few things out.

A quick background: A picture rail is a somewhat archaic way to hang art on your walls. The advantage of a picture rail is that avoids putting holes in your walls. Subjectively, it can be beautiful due to the extra ornamentation of the hanging system. They went out of fashion mid-twentieth century and most picture rails have been removed from houses that originally had them. The physics of hanging objects via an attachment point on one side dictates that the art will lean forward to a certain extent, but this is manageable. Cost is another disadvantage when compared to a simple nail.

However, they grab your attention since they are so rarely seen these days.

In order to hang a picture from a picture rail, you need 5 components.

First: Picture Rail.

A picture rail is a piece of moulding that runs parallel but below any ceiling moulding you may already have. In many cases it will be just below the ceiling an inch or two, but in the case of the Broughton Street House the picture rail is significantly below the 12 foot ceiling.

If you don’t already have picture rail, that’s not a problem. You can find this in the moulding / mill work section of most Home Depot stores. Here’s an example.

As you can see in the profile below, picture rail fits flat against the wall, and projects a lobe upward and away from the wall. That lobe is where your picture rail hangers will rest.

Second: Picture Rail Hangers

Picture rail hangers are harder to come by, but if you’re adding this to your historic home then I recommend ordering them from House of Antique Hardware. They have an interesting selection of hangers derived from various historical styles. We chose their “Regency” style as the best fit for the Broughton Street House.

Three: Picture Hanging Cord or Chain

We bought our picture hanging chain from House of Antique Hardware so it would match the rail hangers. It’s pretty high quality stuff with a nice antique brass finish.

Brass Picture Chain

You could also choose rope or wire. If you like to get really ornate, the rope options are pretty fancy. In our case, we chose the metal for both durability but also a little less fussy and ornate. Here’s a link to the product page for the chain we purchased.

Four: Art

It may seem obvious

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, but you do need something to hang. The particular art you’re going to suspend will dictate some choices you have to make regarding the hangers, cord, and attachment points.
We’ll be hanging George here. I Have no idea who this really is, but George seems to fit.

Five: D-Rings Attached to the Art

You will attach the cord or chain to the frame via D-rings. While many frames will already have D-ring attachments about 1/3 of the way down the frame

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, I’m going to recommend you install your own. You can get them in a variety of sizes at the Home Depot.

Here’s a link to the product page at Home Depot.

Putting It All Together

It might seem obvious how it should all go together but I’ll tell you we learned a few lessons in our project.

The hangers themselves are the easiest part. You need a ladder, but you simply slip the hanger over the rail. It sits neatly onto the contour of the rail and provides a stable peg for the picture to hang from.

Our Rail Hanger in Place

More challenging was hanging the art and getting it to not tilt forward too much. Here’s our first attempt:

The Art Leans Forward Due to the Location of the D-Rings

On a typical picture frame, the D-Rings are located 1/3 of the distance from the top of the frame, on either side. With the chain and rail system, this turned out to not be optimal. Having the fulcrum point so low caused the picture to lean forward over an inch from the wall at the top.

Installing D-Rings

Two Sets of D-Rings: We Added the Rings in the Top Corners

As you can see here, we added D-Rings in the top left and top right. They’re pretty easy to install on a substantial frame like this. If you were hanging something with a thin, light frame it might be much trickier. Given that the whole picture rail system is a very traditional system, I recommend you stick with thicker frames in order to get the look and the durability that you’ll want.

Once we had the new D-Rings in place, we got much closer to the wall:

Much Closer. Still Leaning, but We’ll Take It

Another note: We could have purchased heavier chain and a heavy duty picture hangers, but we didn’t. Since we generally do these projects during a single stay at the Broughton Street House, we can’t reorder parts if we discover we’ve missed something. For that reason, when we hung the VERY heavy mirror, we used two hangers and two chains.

Our Finished Picture Rail

Our Hallway Picture Rail System

We are unable to get a straight on photo, being a hallway. However, you can see the final results in this photo with three ornate frames hanging via the rail.

We are very happy with how this turned out. While we don’t have any other existing picture rails, we’re considering other locations. This is a classic way to display your art.

13 Replies to “How to Use a Picture Rail”

  1. How did you attach the chain to the picture wire/d-rings? I got a similar chain from house of antique hardware and am struggling a bit with it. Thanks!

  2. I guess I didn’t show that in the picture! Sorry, I’m using tiny little S Hooks to connect the rings to the chain.

  3. I am putting picture rail in a living room of a house that was born about 1850s. The previous owners stripped all the personality out of the house.
    I restored the ceiling height to 10+ feet, and would like to mount multiple pictures on the wall. Example; four across, 3 down. Have you put multiple pictures on one chain? Opinions please and thank you.

  4. Hi, Barbara! I didn’t set mine up that way but I definitely saw it in my research. I’ve seen it two ways: the top picture hangs from a single point, but then you let the chain go long and use hooks on the chain for the pictures below. Alternatively, I’ve also seen it where you drape the chain across two rails hooks right from the start, and then use hooks in the chain as you go down for each picture. Good luck!

  5. Hello, I have a very heavy old ornate mirror which I’d like to hang using picture rail. How can I test the picture rail in my house to see if it will support the weight? Thanks!

  6. What a great question, Russell, but I don’t think I have a great answer for you. Since the picture rail itself might not be mounted properly, I’m not sure there’s a good way to test it other than to go through and ensure it is properly nailed and spaced. For the cords and hooks, most of the ones I’ve seen have weight ratings listed, usually 60 pounds for cords, 100 pounds for chains. Make sure you get hooks that are rated the same. For a very, very heavy mirror, depending on the width, your probably going to want more than one hook, possible three spaced across. One point I would make is that the alternative (using wall hangers) are generally lower rated than picture rails.

  7. If you would be using cord instead of chains. how would you connect the cord to the D-rings?

  8. Stephen, it should still work exactly the same, but you will need to connect hooks to the end of the cord (via knots) or thread the cord directly through the d-ring (in which case you would choose a large enough d-ring for at least 2x your cord diameter).

  9. Buying a house with what looks like crown molding that has a 1″ gap from the ceiling, I have learned that decorative hooks were hung to hold pictures instead of putting holes in the wall. Anyone heard of this before?

  10. I’m guessing that’s picture rail, and you can buy beautiful decorative hooks from places like House of Antique Hardware, and even Amazon, that will give you options for hanging pictures. Just search for “picture rail hooks”

  11. Hello. I have a very old painting that is in its original frame, which has a sort of ’tilt’ mechanism built into it. There is the larger wooden frame, and then the painting itself is mounted into a smaller frame that is inset inside of that one. That inset frame is hinged at the bottom and has small chains attached on either side, so it can be pulled forward from the main frame and tilted downward.

    It also has the chain on the back, as you’ve shown here, for hanging from a picture rail–however it is much shorter in length.

    I’m wondering if you’ve ever seen a frame like this, and if so, how it would be hung. I’m assuming it was designed to be hung higher on the wall, thus the tilt downward so it can be seen? Was this perhaps to avoid light reflections?

    Thank you in advance for your time.

  12. Hello and thank you for the post. I have picture rails in my 1889 house with 9.5 foot ceilings but they appear to be molding with no lob raised piece at the top where the hook would sit.. I wonder if it’s decorative and not actually a picture rail or if there’s another way to attach the wire to it?

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