Learn 5 Ways To Build The Most Important Shear Wall Connection

FEMA P-1100/ICC 1300 Shear Wall Connections

When building a retrofit shear wall, the studs are  2 by 4 Douglas Fir and the mudsills (a piece of wood on the concrete) are full-sized 2 by 6 redwood.  If plywood is installed without some kind of modification the plywood will not be attached to the bolts. Below is an illustration showing why this is a problem.

The American Plywood Association has conducted thousands of tests on various ways of constructing shear walls and their tests always used 2 by 4s on the top, sides, and bottom.  The challenge is to make our retrofit shear wall the same configuration as those tested by the American Plywood Association.

Screenshot at Sep 07 18-40-55


There are five ways to modify the framing so that the plywood is attached to the bolts.

Two mudsill connections are found in FEMA P-1100/ICC 1300 Vulnerability Based Seismic Assessment and Retrofit of One and Two-Story Dwellings as shown in the two detail below uses nails.

As you can see, for the first detail 4-10d nails are required.   Nails can split blocks and ICC 1300 addresses this by requiring pre-drilling holes in the blocks before putting nails in.  The detail does not mention drill size.  In addition, it is not possible to pre-drill holes and shoot nails with a nail gun with the precision required to enter the pre-drilled hole.  Contractors will not use this system.

Nailed blocking for one and two story houses


However, it does allow the use of 1/4″ screws that do not split the wood.  These screws are the Simpson Strong-Tie Heavy Duty Connectors.  They don’t split the wood and are very easy to install.

Code citation for 3 screws.

Here you see three 1/4″ Heavy Duty Connectors in a block exactly as described in the detail for retrofit of one and two-story dwellings.  These screws have only recently been approved by building departments. Before then, it was only nailed blocking.  ICC 1300 made a great stride in improving these connections.  There are, however, three better ways of making this connection that are not found in ICC 1300. They are discussed in great detail in this paper, though the material below and watching the video above will tell you most of what you need to know.


Diagram of plywood nailed to mudsill using the flush cut method

In this method, the 6-inch-wide mudsill is cut flush with the 2 by 4s.  The plywood is then nailed directly to the mudsill.  The Flush Cut Method is the only way to build retrofit shear walls that is very close to those tested by the American Plywood Association, a National Laboratory for Testing Shear Walls.  These tests are the basis of the building code provisions for new shear wall construction for the entire country.  This is not an approved system in ICC 1300.

The following photographs show the step-by-step process used in this method of retrofit shear wall construction.

A special saw flush cutting the mudsill.


The entire process

Carpenter Cutting Mudsill Flush for an earthquake retrofit



Removing mudsil from foundation bolts

The flush cut method is the only way to install the plywood component of retrofit shear walls as tested by the American Plywood Association, a National Laboratory for Testing Shear Walls.  These tests are the basis of the building code provisions for new shear wall construction for the entire country.

One of the reasons this method is used is because the plywood can now be nailed into old-growth redwood that is many times less prone to splitting than wood grown on tree farms.
Pnoto: Flush cut sill is best for earthquake retrofits

Shear walls slide on the foundation, but they also try and overturn, no matter how tall they might be.  When they do this, they must push up on the wall which has a tremendous amount of weight on it (the wall above the cripple wall, ceiling, and roof) which all prevents the shear wall from overturning.  Other retrofit mudsill connections do not have this trait.

The second method, called the reverse block method attaches a 2 by 4 to the plywood and then the 2 by 4 is nailed to the mudsill.


  1. A 2 by 4 is placed along the long edge of a piece of plywood.
  2. The plywood has been nailed to the 2 by 4 from the back where you can’t see the nails.
  3. The 2 by 4 of this assembly is nailed to the top of the mudsill and along all edges.







This system is very close to systems tested by the American Plywood Association but is not included in ICC 1300.

Stapled blocks are a third method. This is similar to the reverse block method except blocks are stapled and not nailed.





This system virtually eliminates the possibility of block splitting but is not included in ICC 1300.

The Nailed Blocking Method

Here is a construction detail from a set of engineered plans that tells a contractor how to do this.  As shown by the red arrow 8 nails are specified through the mudsill blocking which has a very high potential of splitting the block. Unfortunately, this is the method recommended by all extant retrofit building codes.

Untested Nailed Blocking Method of Connecting the Plywood to the Mudsill.

On the left, 2 by 4 blocks have been nailed onto the mudsill. On the right, the plywood has been nailed to the blocks.

Shear Wall Blocks being Installed

2 by 4 blocking for plywood nailing.

Blocking PSA

This is a construction detail from Standard Plan A.  This is a similar perspective of how blocking is used.  The 2 by 4 Blocking is behind the plywood and the plywood is nailed to it.

Blocks and plywood

This is a construction detail that illustrates the nailed blocking method is similar to those found in other retrofit guidelines.


Why is the Nailed Blocking Method a Problem?

The problem with this method is that the blocks split. The blocks, usually 14 inches long and often dry, are installed between the studs on the cripple wall as shown in the photo above.   If the blocks split, then the shear wall will fail.

Standard Plan A requires the blocks be nailed into the blocks with nails that are quite large.  They need to be large in order to resist an earthquake.  These large nails are what caused the split here.  When the blocks split, it is quite tempting for the installer to leave those split blocks in place because of the time and labor involved in removing them.  The plywood covers the blocks when nailed to the wall framing.  Private home inspectors cannot tell if the blocks split when installed.  This can leave lingering doubts in the mind of the home buyer.  Seismic retrofit contractors often believe “the more and bigger the nails, the stronger the shear wall” which further exacerbates the problem.  This inferior system is part of ICC 1300.

Photo: Block Split in an earthquake retrofit

Block Split during an installation.

Retrofit Shear Wall built with a Split Block

Split Block will not perform as intended.

Another Split Block on a Cripple Wall Retrofit

Furthermore, once the plywood is nailed there is no way for a private home inspector to see whether the blocks are split.  He can only tell the buyer he hopes they are OK.


The Best Ways to Avoid Split Blocks

The most common solution is to use smaller nails.  That, however, seriously compromises the effectiveness of the retrofit.  It is not possible to tell the size of the nail unless it has been color-coded, which is the exception rather than the rule.  8d nails and 10d nails have the same head size so color coding is the only way to tell the difference.

Color Coded Chart

Color Coded Nails

Which Method is Best?

None of them is “best”.  They all have pros and cons.  The Nailed Blocking Method is a good choice when tools are limited.  This method is a good one for non-professionals who want to do the work themselves and who can be relied upon not to split the blocks.  The Stapled Blocking Method is good in that you don’t have to worry about splitting the blocks, but the staple gun needed is very expensive.  The reverse blocking method is excellent in that you don’t need to cut lots of little blocks, and long 2 by 4s are much more difficult to split than short blocks.  The Flush Cut Method is probably the best of all because it saves on blocking material and labor on cutting the blocks.  It is also the method that most closely resembles tested shear walls.  The big downside is that the flush cut saw is extremely dangerous.

Below is a letter written by the chief engineer in charge of research at the American Plywood Association, the organization that tests shear walls and informs the building code about how they should be built.  This letter was in response to a query made by one of the Standard Plan A committee members.  Standard Plan A and ICC 1300 were both designed for the retrofit of one and two-story dwellings and both ended up using the nailed blocking system.  You can review the complete letter here.

ICC 1300 and Standard Plan A also vary tremendously in cost.

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