French cleats are the latest in a long line of innovations whose stunning simplicity of design is massively outstripped by their utility. This has led to a wave of demand for these nifty items, but when doing your own hanging, you may wonder how to navigate the choice between wooden and metal French cleats.
Wooden and metal french cleats are largely similarly equipped to handle hanging in a range of contexts. Preference is largely a matter of choice, although metal cleats are more easily bought online or off the shelf and are weight graded more often than wooden ones. Both types are scalable.
We’ll consider the similarities and differences between wooden and metal French cleats. This will give a sense of how to choose between them from job to job.
How To Compare Wood And Metal Cleats
Not much separates wooden and metal cleats in terms of functionality. What remains is to consider a set of factors relative to the user and the context of the application. We’ll consider these factors individually below, summarising them by weighing the pros and cons of each type.
Important to note is that the critical sources of failure are the fasteners (screws and glues) rather than the cleats themselves. Both wooden and metal cleats are prone to this risk. Wood more so, as lighter wood has the possibility of the screws tearing through the wood, and some woodworkers have grown accustomed to gluing without screwing.
What Are French Cleats?
French cleats are beveled slats that are used to hang a variety of objects on a wall. The bevel on a French cleat is at forty-five degrees to its surface. Cleats work by fitting them in pairs, consisting of a “wall cleat” and an “object cleat.”
The wall cleat is affixed to the wall, and the bevel forms a concave angle at the top of the cleat. The result is a slat running across (not down) the wall, parallel to the floor, with a concave hollow at its top.
The object cleat is attached to the back of an object to be hung. It is fixed to run parallel to the floor after hanging. But in the case of the object cleat, the concave hollow faces downward.
A result of this arrangement is that the object cleat interlocks with the wall cleat. Hanging the object is as simple as lifting the object and hooking its cleat to one on the wall. If the cleats have been properly secured and are fit for the object’s weight, no further gluing or screwing is required.
The simplicity and power of French cleats have led to various configurations. Cleat walls are walls that have been fitted with multiple cleats in anticipation of a variety of objects – each with a compatible object cleat – being hung.
What Are Wooden French Cleats?
Wooden French cleats are built from any number of woods. Typically, plywood is chosen, but any number of hardwoods will do for decorative purposes. The common wood varieties have compressive strength measured in thousands of pounds per square inch, which places concerns around strength out of concern.
Of note, though, is that amorphous materials such as particleboard and MDF have little structural strength and should therefore be avoided. Cleats made from solid or plywood have been used to hang cabinets, provided that they and their cabinet counterparts are securely attached.
What Are Metal French Cleats?
Metal French cleats are fabricated from aluminum or steel. Aluminum is the most common. They come in three categories;
- Light Duty: These are used for hanging small items like paintings and artworks. They tend to range in length from two inches to eight feet.
- Medium Duty: These are for slightly heavier items such as decorative panels or larger signs. Here it becomes critical to ensure that the mounting surface can handle the combined weight of the cleats and object and that you have heavier duty tools.
- Heavy Duty: These are designed for very large items attached to brickwork or stucco. The usual rules of properly fancying the installation surface and tools, as well as considerations of minimum length, apply.
Metal cleats are not as easy as wooden ones to customize after purchase. Ensure that you have bought a length corresponding to at least seventy-five percent of the width of the object you intend to hang.
Factors Differentiating Wood And Metal French Cleats
We’ll go through the key differences between the two types of the cleat.
Construction Of Cleats
Wooden cleats are made by hand. Typically these are made with a table saw, but it is possible to use also a circular saw, jigsaw, miter saw, a band saw, or a hand saw. The main thing is to cut the bevel, typically at 30-45 degrees.
Metal cleats are fabricated from molds. This is an industrial process that generates large numbers of cleats. Small-scale metal cleats can be produced using welding tools. This allows the creation of customized cleats.
Mounting Of Cleats
Mounting of cleats on the wall side and object side is the same for both types of the cleat. The difference relates to the screws and bonding material that is used. An advantage of cleats is that the objects can be shifted laterally after mounting. This gives a degree of versatility.
In mounting the wall cleat, a spirit level is used to ensure that the cleat is parallel to the floor. Spacers should be used to ensure that the object bevel is fitted parallel to the object’s topmost edge.
Variety of Wood And Metal Cleats
Many different hardwoods, as well as plywood, can be used in the construction of wooden cleats. This reduces the costs and increases the aesthetic options.
Various grades of aluminum and steel are preferred for metal cleats, though other metals could, in theory, be used.
Costs Comparison Of Wood And Metal Cleats
On balance, wooden cleats are cheaper to acquire than metal ones. The long-term costs of metal cleats are lower because of their durability and zero maintenance costs. Wooden cleats derive their cost advantage from the variety of woods that they can be built out of and the fact that recycled materials (excess lumber) can be used.
When building cleats, the costs of metal cleats are further exacerbated by the costs of metalwork tools. These are likelier to be hired than owned by homemakers.
Wood And Metal Cleat Hybrids
Cleat hybrids arise when the members of a cleat pair are not constructed together. As cleats become popular, the use of hybrids grows likelier as owners of cleat walls are likelier to obtain second-hand objects with cleats pre-fixed. There are three varieties of cleat hybrid:
- Wood Hybrids: Pairs made from different blocks of wood, potentially but not necessarily of different types of wood.
- Metal Hybrids: Like the wooden counterparts, they are made of different metal stocks.
- Wood-Metal Hybrids: Here, one piece of the pair is wood and the other metal.
Wood-metal hybrids are the trickiest, as the metal may dig into the wood. Generally, cleats are not built with hybridization in mind, so metal cleats are likely to have sharp edges that do not anticipate edge contact with wood. Similarly, wooden cleats are built on the assumption of always interlocking with something similarly soft.
When fitting wood-metal hybrids, check the vulnerability of the wooden side, and pad the metal cleat if it is unduly sharp. Whatever kind of hybrid cleat you’re fitting, be sure that the angles interlock with little or no wiggle room. Maladapted cleat pairs can lead to objects hanging at an angle, as opposed to orthogonal to the floor.
Relative Strengths Of Wood And Metal Cleats
Having introduced the two classes of the cleat, we may consider their relative strengths. Some of these derive from the properties of the materials involved; others are contextual, relating to the context of deployment.
Wood Cleat Pros
- Decoration: Wood is easier to paint, lending itself to easier blending with the décor of the environment.
- Malleability: Forging wood is cheaper and easier for most homemakers. This means that wooden cleats do not have to be bought and can be constructed from leftover materials.
- Variety: A variety of woods can be used to build cleats. Given that the cleats are visible in cleat walls, their aesthetic impression matters, translating the variety of timber into versatility.
- Accessibility: Wooden cleats are easy to make and are an excellent diversion of spare timber.
Wood Cleat Cons
- Uniqueness: Wooden cleats are built by hand. This makes it hard to produce identical pieces or mass-produces them.
- Moisture: Wooden cleats need to be sealed in order to avoid denaturing due to changes in humidity and atmospheric moisture. Wood can also be ruined by leaks and damp gathering in the walls.
- Durability: Wood is prone to rot and is generally much less durable than metal.
- Infestation: Wood is susceptible to the risk of parasitic infection, a danger that requires sealing and maintenance to avoid.
Metal Cleat Pros
- Fabrication: Metal cleats can be molded. This leads to the mass production of items that have the exact specifications.
- Strength: Small pieces of metal are stronger. Corresponding weight-graded wood cleats are bigger.
- Jigging: In some contexts, cleats need to be mounted at an angle. This is easier to achieve with metal cleats than wood. A wooden jig is weaker in the joint.
- Availability: Most retail cleats are metal. This makes them more available to homemaker consumers than their wooden counterparts. It also makes a metal installation quicker, as there is no prior time required to build the cleats.
Metal Cleat Cons
- Cost: Metal cleats are more expensive than wooden ones. This derives from the overall cost of metal relative to wood.
- Flexibility: Metals cleats cannot be easily modified after the fact. A wooden cleat wall can be shrunk horizontally by dismounting and sawing the cleats. This is harder to do with metal.
- Construction: The metalwork materials required to build a French metal cleat are less accessible than woodwork tools.
- Weight: Metal cleats tend to be heavy. Some objects, like paintings, may require a light object cleat, which is easier to obtain with plywood.
Other Factors In Comparing Wooden And Metal Cleats
Generally, wood is favored over metal for framing because the wood is invariant to changes in temperature. On the other hand, metals are great conductors, so that metal frames are extremely cold in the winter. This may well be a factor worth considering if you’re building a cleat wall with generally exposed wall cleats. For single-object cleats, this is not a factor as the cleat will be completely concealed.
While steel is rot-resistant, it is prone to rust under moist and cold conditions. This should be borne in mind whenever building in such conditions. If possible, a rust sealant should be applied before mounting the cleat.
Metal is fire resistant, which gives it some safety advantage, especially where a large cleat installation is considered in a workshop that stores flammable material.
Wood, on the other hand, is naturally resistant to electrical conduction when dried. This conductivity happens to be the basis for a popular moisture measurement system. Heat does not affect the dimensions and strength of wood. These features give stability and safety implications for electrical fires.
Sustainability is a consideration for many. Some regard wood as a rare resource and prefer a metal-like steel that is fully recyclable. Steel production has also become resource-efficient, and the lightness of the material gives it a lighter fuel footprint through transportation.
Personally, I lean towards metal cleats. They are more efficient in that smaller, lighter metal cleats can hold comparatively more weight than their wooden counterparts. But next time I have a surplus of planks, I’ll definitely be looking into carving up a cleat pair or three.