AW Extra 7/25/13 – How to Install Butt Hinges

How to Install Butt Hinges

For this work, hand tools are better than power tools.

By Lonnie Bird

Fitting butt hinges is exacting work. For precision,
you might think that power tools are the way to go,
but I always turn to a small set of hand tools to do the
job. Using a marking knife, pin gauge and chisel, you
can precisely lay out and cut hinge mortises in a very
short time.

First, let me share a few thoughts with you about
the hinges themselves. When selecting butt hinges,
I steer clear of the inexpensive stamped variety and
instead purchase high-quality extruded and machined
hinges made from solid brass. The leaves of these
hinges are typically thicker and stronger than those
found on stamped hinges. They pivot smoothly and
precisely. Look for hinges that appear proportional in
size to the door and cabinet. I usually select a hinge
that’s approximately the same height as the lower rail
of the door.


Bevel the lock stile

After carefully fitting the door to the cabinet, with
a small but even margin all around, bevel the edge
of the lock stile (the stile opposite to the one that
receives the hinges). A bevel here prevents the back
edge of the stile from striking or binding on the case
as the door closes. To determine the degree of bevel
required, use a compass to strike an arc with a radius
equal to the width of the door.

I use an edge-trimming block plane, which has
a built-in 90° fence, to cut the bevel (Photo 1). I
change the angle of the fence by attaching a wooden
wedge to it with spray adhesive. (You could use a
standard block plane without a fence for this operation,
too.) Pencil a reference line on the outside corner
of the stile and stop planing when the shaving
reaches the line.


Mortise the door

The next step is to layout the hinge mortises on the
door. First determine where you’d like to locate the
hinges along the length of the door stile. This is primarily
an aesthetic decision; as a rule of thumb, I
position each hinge so that it aligns with the inside
edge of the door rail.

Invert the hinge and position the barrel against
the corner of the door stile. Use a thin knife to
scribe lines around the hinge (Photo 2). A knife is
more accurate than a pencil—it creates an incision
that serves as an indelible stopping point during the
mortising process. The edge of a chisel will slip into
the incision; you simply cannot achieve an equally
high level of accuracy by trying to cut along a pencil

Mark the mortise depth with a marking gauge.
Set the gauge by aligning the end of its pin adjacent
to the hinge leaf (Photo 3). Then scribe the face of
the door stile (Photo 4).

Begin cutting the mortise by making a row of
shallow chisel cuts within the layout lines (Photo 5).
It’s important to make these cuts across the grain;
chopping parallel with the grain risks splitting the
stile. Gently tap the chisel with a mallet nearly to the
full depth of the mortise. Next, pare to the layout
lines (Photo 6). Be sure your chisel is sharp; if it’s
slightly dull, greater pressure is required and you
may overshoot the lines.

Once you reach the lines, test the fit of the hinge
in the mortise (Photo 7). Ideally, the hinge leaf
should be flush with the stile, but it’s best to err on
the side of a slightly shallow mortise. You can easily
pare the mortise a shaving deeper to fine tune the
door’s fit later on, if necessary. If the mortise is too
deep, shim the hinge with veneer.

Finally, drill pilot holes for the screws. Tap each
hole with a steel screw (Photo 8). Tapping the holes
reduces the torque and strain on the soft brass screws
that typically come with hinges. Tapping also prevents
damaging their slotted heads, or worse, twisting off
the screws. Fasten each hinge in its mortise (Photo 9).


Mortise the cabinet

Before marking the cabinet, make certain that the
door is accurately positioned in the cabinet opening;
if necessary, use shims of paper or veneer between the
door and cabinet stiles to hold the door in place. Use
the layout knife to make a small incision at the ends
of the hinges to mark their locations (Photo 10). This method ensures that the door and cabinet mortises
will be in perfect alignment. Once you’ve marked
the corner of the cabinet stile, simply extend the
incised lines.

Using the same layout process that you used on
the door, mark around the leaf of the hinge with a
knife. To avoid removing the hinges from the door, I
keep a spare hinge on hand. Chiseling the mortises
on the cabinet is easier if the cabinet is lying on the
side and supported at bench height.

Once the mortises on the cabinet are cut, you’re
ready to hang the door and test the fit. The door
should swing smoothly without binding on the rails
or stiles, but you may find it necessary to trim a shaving
or two from one edge of the door. As another
test, shut the door to see if it remains closed. If it
springs open when released, the mortises are too
deep. This causes the stiles of the door and cabinet
to bind; a thin shim of veneer under the hinges will
correct the problem.

Click any image to view a larger version.

1. Fit the door
to the opening
before laying
out the hinges.
To minimize the
gap on the side
opposite the
hinges, I bevel the
lock stile using
a Veritas edgetrimming

2. Lay out the
on the
door first. Mark
each mortise by
tracing around
the hinge with a

3. Set a marking
to the
thickness of the
hinge’s leaf.

4. Mark the depth
of the mortises
along the inside
face of the hinge

5. Make a row of
shallow chisel cuts
the full length
of the mortise.
Gently tap the
chisel with a
mallet for each

6. Pare across the
to remove
the waste. For the
best control, your
chisel must be
very sharp.

7. Test the fit. The
hinge should be
flush with the
surface of the
rail. Use a selfcentering
bit to
drill pilot holes for
the screws.

8. Tap the holes
with a steel screw.
A steel screw is
stronger than a
brass screw and is
less likely to break.

9. Install the brass
both hinges on
the door. Install
the door in the
cabinet, centering
it with shims.

10. Mark the ends
of the mortises
on the cabinet’s
side. Lift off the
door, remove the
hinges and cut the
mortises using the
same method as

This story originally appeared in American Woodworker August/September 2012, issue #155.