Fine fitting hinges
Words: Damion Fauser
Photos: Linda Nathan
The correct installation of hinges is critical to the successful outcome of any project. Many woodworkers find this stage of their project stressful, but it doesn’t need to be this way. In this article we’ll first look at some ways to lay out and cut mortises for three common hinge types, and then take a closer look at choosing different types and brands.
Cabinet or butt hinges
These come in a range of sizes and offer a full range of motion to allow doors to swing fully open. Smaller butt hinges are good for boxes, particularly those with inbuilt stops to hold the lid open, but be aware that as they are mounted along the back edge of the box there can be a lot of rotational stress on the small fixing screws.
The installation method you choose will depend on your available tools, skill level and number of hinges you need to fit. You will need to know how to cut the mortises on both the faces (inside a case piece for example) and edges (boxes/ doors etc) of a board.
1. As with any joinery, layout is crucial. I start by laying out the ends of the mortise by first scribing one end.
2. I then transfer the reality of the hinge length by placing my knife in the initial scribe line, butting the hinge against the knife and then my square against the opposite end of the hinge. Carefully remove the hinge whilst holding the square in place and scribe along the square. Now transfer those mortise ends around the corner a little way to define the ends of the mortise on the adjacent edge.
3. Now set a cutting gauge to the width of the hinge leaf, and scribe this onto the workpiece. For hinges with no inbuilt stop, I like to set my gauge to around half the barrel diameter. This lets you set the hinge a little further in, therefore making the barrel a little more conspicuous. After scribing this setting for all mortises, reset your gauge to the thickness of the hinge leaf to determine the depth of the mortise and scribe this also.
4. To minimise the reveal on finer items such as boxes and smaller cabinets, I set the gauge to a fraction under the diameter of the barrel, noting this will mean the faces of the hinge leaves are set a little under the surrounding wood. For me though I find the reduced reveal is more of a priority.
I also find it useful to cut the mortises for one half of the hinge, place the opposing project component (door/lid etc) in place and then directly scribe the matching leaf location using the already cut mortise.
5. Now that you’ve layed out the mortises you can choose how to remove the waste. You can use a router – either a handheld trim router, or in the router table with stop blocks. Scribe the depth of the mortise with your gauge onto a test piece and set the router depth to this line, making some test cuts to make sure.
6. Rout as close to the line as you’re comfortable with and then clean into the corners with a chisel.
7. One hand tool method is to chop out the mortise with a chisel. Define the edges of the mortise first by enhancing your scribe lines. Hold the chisel upright in your scribe lines, bevel inwards and tap down lightly with your mallet. Then make a series of close, angled chopping cuts with a chisel held bevel down...
8. ....and then remove the waste by paring in from the side. A number of shallow passes of this method will see you at the correct depth quite quickly. The trickiest part of this method is maintaining a constant depth in the whole mortise but it’s really not that difficult.
9. Another hand tool method is to use a dedicated handplane called a butt mortise plane. This tool allows you to confidently chop to the correct depth consistently. Set the blade depth by placing the plane above the surface with a hinge leaf under each end as shown, lower the blade until it rests on the surface and tighten the locking screw. Make a series of chopping cuts by resting the toe of the tool on the workpiece and striking down on the tote with the heel of your palm. Pare out as before and continue chopping until the sole of the tool rests on the workpiece to indicate you’re at the correct depth.
10. In the case of a box side or door the hinge leaf may span the full thickness of the stock. You can then use a saw to make a series of relief cuts.
11. Then use a chisel or router plane (as shown above) to remove the waste. Be careful to always pare inwards to avoid breaking out any additional fibres.
Fitting these is a little more complex. Some quality manufacturers offer routing templates that can be used with guide bushings. With an L-shaped profile they require a concealed front-to- back mortise on the box/chest side and an exposed lateral mortise on the barrel section of the leaf. They also require a concealed mortise into the depth of the sides/lid to house the stay.
1. Start by cutting the front-to-back mortise in the same manner as described for side rail hinges. Now reset the fence to have the router bit cut a mortise perfectly along the edge of a piece of scrap stock. Place the workpiece against the fence with the front-to-back mortise registered directly over the router bit. Set a stop block on the fence at the opposite end of the box. This stop block will be the start point.
Now measure the length of the barrel element of the hinge leaf, subtract the diameter of the router bit and cut another spacer block. Use this to set an opposing stop block on the other side of the bit. This will be the finish point. Locate the corner of your box at the starting point, rotate it into the bit, run the cut to the opposite stop block and rotate back away from the fence. Run the two cuts for this setup and switch the stop blocks for the opposite two mortise cuts.
2. You will now have an L-shaped mortise and now need to cut a mortise for the lid stay to be housed while the box is closed. Set a hinge leaf into its mortise and transfer the circular outlines of the screw holes to the bottom of the mortise. This will guide the location of your stay mortise. I like to drill out my stay mortises at the drill press and clean up with a chisel, but it could be done with a mortise chisel or with a spiral upcut bit at the router table with some stop blocks.
3. This is what the final result should look like.
Side rail hinges
These are very easy to install provided you have a router table. Set a router bit of the same diameter as the width of the hinge leaves in your table. Spiral downcut bits are the best but a straight bit will suffice. Set the height of the bit at the thickness of the hinge leaves.
Set the fence to centre the mortise on your box sides – use scrap stock of the same thickness for test cuts. Measure the length of the hinge leaf and subtract the diameter of the router bit. Now rip a piece of MDF or ply to this dimension and use this to set a stop block on your fence to the left of your bit.
This setting will cut the upper right and lower left mortises. Push the workpiece into the bit until you hit the stop block and rotate upwards to exit the cut. To cut the mating mortises you will need to switch the stop block to the right side of the bit, again using the spacer block. It is very important to note that you are now cutting with the rotation of the router bit and it will want to pull away from you and move away from the fence. Careful control in this case will ensure safety and accuracy.
Installing the screws
Now you need to mark, drill and install the fixing screws. Noting that the screw holes in the leaves are countersunk, it
is possible to pull the hinges well out of alignment if you get the holes in the wrong location. I like to mark my locations with a sharp awl, as it is significantly more precise than a pencil point and gives a tangible start point for the drill bit to prevent the risk of wandering.
You could also use a self-centring bit such as this one by Vix (photo 16). This tool has a retractable, countersunk sleeve over the drill bit, which self-aligns in the screw hole. Place the hinge into the mortise (fixing it temporarily with a piece of double-stick tape if required), locate the end of the sleeve into the screw hole, turn on the drill and push down.
Quality hinges come with solid brass screws. If you proceed directly to installing these screws into the pilot holes you run a serious risk of stripping the heads off them. I pre-tap the holes with a matching steel screw that has been lubricated with some paste wax.
You’re almost there. For a traditional look I like to replace the Phillips head screws that almost invariably come with hinges these days with slotted screws and I keep a library of brass slotted screws in sizes 2–12 in various lengths at each size.
Dab the screw tip into a can of paste wax, align the slot a half-turn back from where you’d like it to end up and turn it home. I never power-drive hinge screws, but rather use a good quality screwdriver. Careful alignment of each screw in the same position when beginning to turn it will ensure they all end up ‘clocked’, or in the same alignment, another sign of quality work.
Careful planning, attention to detail and knowledge of a few tips such as those shared here will allow you to choose and install your hinges with far more ease and confidence.
Damion Fauser is a furniture designer/maker who lives in Brisbane. He teaches woodwork from his Willawong workshop.