Canadian Woodworking

Installing hinges

Author: Carl Duguay
Published: April May 2007
Installing Hinges
Installing Hinges

While hinges may look different from each other, they all have the same basic function.


Look around and take note of the number of hinges that you encounter in your daily activities. From the time you get up in the morning until you pull away from the curb on the way to work you’ll encounter hinges everywhere – on the bathroom door, refrigerator, the kitchen cabinets, the front gate and even getting into your car. Each and every hinge is specifically designed to serve a unique purpose and they all look vastly different from each other. Yet they all serve the same function.

Hinges have been designed for almost every conceivable situation. The variety of hinges available to the woodworker is staggering indeed, and selecting the right hinge and installing it correctly can be a challenge. In most cases, hardware is installed during the final phase of construction after much time has been invested in the project; this is definitely not the time to make a mistake in choosing or installing the hardware. Even though the hinges are installed after the project is complete, you should choose the hinges early in the design phase and purchase them at the same time as the lumber for the project. Some hinges, such as knife hinges, require you to locate and cut the mortises before the case is assembled, so it is best to work from the actual hardware when laying out the location and size of the mortises.

Hinges allow one part of a project to move relative to another, a door on a cabinet or a lid on a box for example. For the hinge to operate smoothly through its range of motion without binding, requires that the hinge be mounted with a certain precision and an understanding of the geometry involved. Generally, less expensive utility hinges have more play in them, which allows them to operate with a less than perfect installation. However, as you move into the higher end, solid brass hinges, from manufacturers like Brusso and Soss, which are built to much higher tolerances, there are less opportunities for adjustment. Precision hinges like this demand no less than the same level of precision from the maker.

The material that the hinge is made of will impact the final look of your project. Steel hinges tend to be more utilitarian in nature while brass hinges are more suitable to furniture projects. Brass hinges can be stamped, extruded or milled from solid brass. Stamped hinges are thinner, often the mounting holes are not accurately drilled, and the hinge pin may be poorly fitted to the hinge.

No matter what type of hinge you use, they will all need to have three features. A leaf that mounts to the cabinet, a leaf that mounts to the door, and some form of pivot between them. For the most basic hinge, the butt hinge, this takes the form of two flat leaves with interlocking knuckles held together with a pin. How each of these is designed will dictate where the hinge is to be used.

Hinges come in a variety of styles

Cutting mortise with a router

Cutting mortise with a chisel

 Cleaning up with chisel

Polish dull hinges dull hinges

Butt Hinges

The most common hinge you will encounter is one version or another of the butt hinge. There are many variations, but with all of them the center of rotation is located at the center of the pin. When working with hinges having flat (unswaged) leaves, it is the diameter of the barrel that determines the depth of the mortise, not the thickness of the leaf. Some hinges are swaged – this changes the relationship between the leaf thickness and barrel diameter and as a result the depth of the mortise.

When mounting butt hinges, failure to account for wood movement can lead to a condition where the lid will not close completely – called ‘bound hinges’. In most cases having the top and bottom in tight contact with each other when the hinge is installed causes this. As the wood expands seasonally, it forces the front of the box open with the hinge pin providing the pivot. This can also happen when you drive in screws that are off center to the hinge holes. This has the effect of decreasing the gap between the two pieces of wood at the hinge and causing them to be bound.

Butt hinges come untipped (referred to as regular butt hinges) and tipped. For untipped hinges the mortise is cut so that the centerline of the hinge knuckle sits slightly proud of the cabinet front. For tipped hinges locate the knuckle just forward of the cabinet front. For either type of hinge cut the mortise to the depth of the thinnest part of the hinge.

No-Mortise Hinges

No-mortise hinges are a category of butt hinge that does not require a mortise for installation. The two leaves are thin, usually 1⁄16″, and this sets the gap between the lid and the box or an inset door and the cabinet frame. The two leaves nest together, one smaller tab inside a larger tab. You may not need to cut mortises, but the hinge must still be mounted accurately for it to work. There is no measuring involved when hanging inset doors with this method.

To install these hinges make a simple jig to set the location for the hinge and drill the holes. Begin with a piece of wood about 1″ square. Find some metal or laminate the same thickness as the hinge leaf, approximately 1″ x 2″, to act as a spacer. Determine the placement of the hinge on the door. Cut the wood to the same length as the distance from the bottom of the hinge to the bottom of the door. Fasten the spacer to the bottom of the wood block. Place the jig against the bottom edge of the door and place the hinge against the top of the jig and register the barrel against the edge. Drill holes for the screws in the two countersunk holes that are exposed. Repeat this at the other end of the door. To locate the hinge on the frame, place the jig in the bottom corner of the frame. Place the hinge on top of the jig and register the barrel against the edge. This time, use a self-centering bit to drill holes in the non-countersunk holes. Your door should be the height of the opening minus twice the hinge leaf thickness. Mount the hinge to the door with the proper undercut hinge screws, and then the door to the cabinet.

Knife Hinges

Knife hinges were popularized by James Krenov and reward careful installation with a clean unobtrusive appearance. The straight knife hinges are used on doors that overlay the cabinet sides. Doors can open 180º. Overlay hinges are used on both overlay and inset doors. They enable doors to open 270º and 180º respectively. These hinges require careful measurement and fitting to mount properly. (For more information on installing knife hinges, see October/November ’06 Issue #44, and February/March ’07, issue # 46)

Barrel Hinges

Barrel hinges get their names from their barrel shape. They have a hidden hinge mechanism and have the virtue of being completely invisible when closed. These are great hinges for jewellery boxes and small chests, and come in a variety of diameters. Careful layout and drilling of the hole is important, as the only axis of adjustment is how far it is inserted into the hole. When installing these, use a drill press with a tall fence. The depth of the hole will depend on the diameter of the hinge, so confirm this with the hardware at hand. Either lay out the holes on both sides individually or lay out one side and use some dowel centers to transfer the measurements to the other side. To ensure that both halves come together, use a fence against two adjacent edges. Once the holes are drilled there is no adjustment possible. To install the hinge, clamp the box and lid in the open position using a spacer between the two if needed. Open the hinge to its fully open position and insert it into both halves at once, this keeps the arm that the hinge swings on perpendicular to the side.

Piano Hinges

Piano hinges are more functional than beautiful and are best left to projects that don’t demand a great deal in terms of appearance from the hardware. They are especially effective on chests and toy boxes, and could not be easier to mount. In the case of a toy box simply cut the back panel for the box a little shorter than the front and sides. Measure the barrel of the hinge and subtract 1⁄16″ to determine how much you need to take off the back of the box. Subtracting 1⁄16″ ensures that your top will always close properly at the front of the box.

European Hinges

These are the hinges you will find in most modern kitchen and bathroom cabinetry. They are completely hidden when the door is closed, and are completely adjustable making it easy to adjust the door for a perfect fit after installation. These hinges come in many different configurations and allow for a wider range of design options. They will work with either framed or frameless cabinets, for inset doors, or overlay doors. They also come in variations for mounting at different angles, for blind corners and for situations where the door must be fully off to the side to allow access to a drawer. In a typical kitchen project several different types of hinges may be used. To avoid confusion it is best to use hinges from one manufacturer for the entire project.

European hinges come in two pieces; the piece with the cup mounts to the door and the screw plate is attached to the side of the cabinet. The mounting holes are typically 35mm in diameter, but check the details included with your hardware. Most manufacturers also make specialized jigs for locating the holes for their particular hinges. All you have to do is mark the centerline of the hinge and align the jig with the line and drill the holes. Such jigs make sense if you will be using many of one brand of hinge exclusively.

The Right Tools Help

There are a number of tools that will make installing hinges easier and more accurate. Templates for use with router jigs can guide a straight bit to cut a perfect mortise in no time at all. If the hinge you are using does not have radiused edges, you will need to square the edges of the routed mortise. This can be done with a sharp chisel. Try to direct the chisel down into the mortise rather than along the bottom of the mortise as this can have the unintended effect of having the chisel follow the grain and take out a larger chunk of the side. Veritas Tools make a specialized corner chisel for just this purpose. Place it on the corner, tap it with a mallet, lift out the waste, and you are left with a perfectly square corner in no time.

Possibly the single most useful tool you could have for mounting hinges is also one of the least expensive; a set of centering bits. These are special spring loaded bits that are self-centering in holes on hinges. Place the tip of the bit in the hole and as you press down, a drill bit is exposed and drills a pilot hole of the correct size and depth. When you insert the screw it will be centered in the hole and won’t have the tendency to pull the hinge out of alignment.

Not all hinge screws are created equal. Some hinges require very specific screws for them to operate properly. If the wrong screw is used, it won’t seat properly in the leaf and may conflict with the other side when the hinge is closed. For applications like the no mortise hinges, and other applications where a lower profile is required, use special hinge screws with undercut heads. The shoulders on these screws have been cut back to allow them to sit lower in the hinge.

Easy Installation of European Style Hinges

Mounting European hinges can be confusing to the novice woodworker. Fortunately Veritas Tools has addressed this with the Veritas Hinge Boring Jig. This is a stand-alone unit designed to locate and drill the cup holes for the hinges. It also functions as a guide for drilling the screw plate mounting holes in the cabinets.

To use the hinge-boring jig to drill the cup holes, set the depth of the 35mm carbide cutter to that of the hinge cup you are working with. The two brass micrometer fences on either side of the jig are used to adjust the setback of the cup hole.

With the fences turned all of the way in, the cup hole will just break through the edge of the door. For every complete turn, the fence moves out 1mm so setting the proper setback for your application is simple. With the fences adjusted, they are locked in place with brass set screws. Some applications call for the more compact flap hinges that require the mounting holes to break through the edge of the door and it’s adjoining member. By using the supplied spacers the necessary breakout can be easily achieved.

A hook gauge is used to set the distance in from the edge of the door and can be positioned to either side for use on both ends of the door. The base also comes marked out and dimpled and ready to be drilled out as a guide for drilling the holes for the screw plates.

This is a well thought out jig that makes drilling the holes for European style hinges simple, accurate and repeatable. The carbide bit cuts cleanly and is easily replaceable should it ever require it. If there are any European hinges in your future you owe it to yourself to check out this jig.

Carl Duguay - [email protected]

Carl is a Victoria-based furniture maker and the web editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement.

1 comment

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  2. A picture says a 1000 or so words. It would have been great if you had used a few pictures during the actual instillation instructions of the various hinges. This was a good article, it could have been a great article. Maybe next time.

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