How to Hang Outdoor String Lights (and Make Them Look Good)

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To help you determine your most ideal lighting setup, I spoke with some of our experts at Wirecutter to get their suggestions on the best ways to hang outdoor string lights, mistakes to avoid when hanging them, and how to get them looking their best.

 

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What should you use to hang outdoor string lights?

If you go by the product info for our outdoor string lights pick, the Newhouse Lighting 48 ft. 11-Watt Outdoor Weatherproof String Light, you could hang your lights using “cup hooks, guide wires or zip ties.”

To whittle down those options, I asked Doug Mahoney, senior staff writer and resident expert on all things home improvement, what he would do. Stainless steel screw hooks (or cup hooks, which are nearly the same) are his go-to for a litany of reasons. “They’re easy to install; if you have enough hand strength, you don’t even need to pre-drill the holes,” he explained. “They really cradle the wire and hold it off the house a little. They’re also better looking than an angled nail or screw. Some even have a little clip, like a carabiner, that holds the wire secure and makes it easier to hang the lights off a porch ceiling, which you can’t do with nails or screws.” Plus, the small threads won’t leave a gaping hole behind after you take the hooks down. Just make sure you’re installing them into a solid surface, and “give them a nice tug to make sure they’re secure,” Doug added.

If you don’t want to use hardware, zip ties and fishing line can also discreetly handle the job. Senior staff writer Rachel Cericola used the former to quickly and easily install her outdoor lights on the underside of her deck, and found that if your zip tie matches the color of your string lights’ cord, it should camouflage itself nicely with its end clipped off. Doug said that he finds 8-inch zip ties to be the most useful and durable size for this and other projects.

When senior staff writer Sarah Witman tested five different strands of lights for our review of outdoor and backyard lighting, she chose fishing line to affix string lights to a wicker fence, looping it through the installation holes on the lights and then weaving the fishing line directly into the wicker several times around. “Fishing line is clear, so it’s less noticeable, and it won’t rust like some metal hardware,” she explained. “And it’s really strong, because it’s made to pull in fish without breaking.”

As for what not to do: Doug warned that common nails “are likely to stain your siding” as they’re usually not made from stainless steel or galvanized metal, and that you shouldn’t try to cheat by using picture hooks, which “aren’t going to do well with wind or even someone bumping up against the lights.”

Where to hang outdoor string lights

In a small space, you may not have much choice on where to place your lights. But if you have some flexibility, different spots are best for different purposes, such as adding functional light, defining a space, or simply improving the aesthetic. For Rachel, stringing lights underneath her deck added a welcoming feel to a previously not so cozy space. Doug, ever the handyperson, gathered up some 10-foot branches, buried them in the ground around his patio, and used them as light posts for a cool, rustic look.

Even if you aren’t burying your own branches, running lights between two posts or trees is a popular and good-looking choice. If you go that route, consider using a string-light hanging kit, which Doug called a “nice, all-in-one” option, to help do the job. “What those kits do is, they string a wire taut between two posts and then you can hang the lights off of the wire,” he explained. “It takes the stress off the light wire and it’s an effective way to maintain the proper slope, but without stretching and taxing the lines.” (Speaking of not taxing the lines, the manufacturers of our pick for outdoor string lights also recommend: “To keep multiple strands together over long distances, use electrical tape to secure the plug connections.”)

 

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How to evenly space string lights

One of the most frustrating parts of hanging string lights is finding out halfway through that you don’t have enough lights for the job. To avoid that, Sarah recommended using “a piece of fishing line or string to map out the area where you’d like to hang your lights, complete with any stylistic dips you want to do and enough cord to reach your outlet, and then measure that string with a ruler or tape measure.”

As a next step, Doug suggested “spreading the lights out underneath where you’re going to hang them” before actually doing so, which will save you time and effort in the long run. “It means you can put all of the hooks or hangers in at once then put the lights up, which is a faster way to do it, rather than putting in a hook and then hanging a light off it before moving on to the next one,” he said.

How to hang outdoor string lights safely

Today’s outdoor string lights tend not to emit enough heat to be a fire hazard, but Sarah cautioned against wrapping anything around the cords or hanging anything else off them that could weaken the cord over time. (All of the string lights we recommend come with hanging holes or hooks so that you don’t have to use the cord itself as your hanging mechanism.)

Sarah hasn’t had any problems with the plastic bulbs breaking, but advised factoring weather and other considerations into account when setting up lights to avoid potential damage.

Doug stressed that “the instructions that come with the lights should tell you how many strands can be connected—so don’t go above that,” and to make sure the lights are plugged into a ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlet. Rachel’s lights are actually plugged into a GFCI outlet via our outdoor smart plug pick, the TP-Link Kasa Smart Wi-Fi Plug Mini (EP10), which allows her to use an app or voice commands to turn the lights off and on.

“We invested in nicer, more comfortable furniture and put up the string lights, and it’s a much more relaxing spot,” Rachel said. “We actually want to sit there now … and have other people sit with us!”

 

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