Chris Schwarz's Blog

Details: Installing Hinges in Mortises

Installing traditional mortise hinges makes some woodworkers want to turn their electric drill on themselves to just end it all.

practice is the best teacher, there are little tricks that can help
when installing hardware. I have a bunch of “dodges” that people have
taught me through the years. This one is ridiculously basic, so stop
reading now and watch this silly video of cats.

you have your hinge mortise cut (an operation that has its own set of
tricks that I’ll detail later), put the hinge in its mortise. If the
hinge wiggles left or right in the mortise you should press it up
against the wall of the mortise that is your “reference wall” – the wall
where all your hinge layout began.

Then take a self-centering
punch and… what? … you say you don’t have one? Get thee to the home
center and get one. The Stanley 58-013 version is sloppier than the
Starrett version, but it’s usually about $6. OK, got the tool? Need
another video of cats before we go on? Alright.

the punch’s cone-shaped tip into the countersink of your hinge and
press the post down with your finger. Sure, you could use a hammer, but I
don’t recommend it. Hammers make a deeper hole, which is nice, but they
also tend to make the tool strike off-center.

After you have
punched in all the holes on your hinge, take a close look at the results
before you remove the hinge from the mortise.

Notice anything?
Yeah, frequently some of the holes will be off-center, even if you used a
self-centering punch. So select one of the holes that is dead center
and drill the pilot hole for that screw. Install it. Drill the other
holes for the screws that are on-center and install those. When you are
left with punches that are off-center, stop.

Get your bird-cage
awl, a nail or something metal and really pointy. Press it into an
off-center hole and push and wiggle it to create a deeper hole that is
centered in the countersink. In the photo above the hole was a little too
far away from the camera’s position. So I pressed the tip of my awl
into the hole and wiggled it toward the camera. It looks like this:

Then drill a pilot hole in the bottom of that crater and
install your screw. Isn’t that nice? Not the hinge or the screws. That
has got to be the ugliest hinge we have in our shop. And I really
dislike Phillips-head screws for traditional hardware. But you get the

— Christopher Schwarz

Like Tricks?
• Graham McCullough’s “601 Woodshop Tips & Tricks” is a nice collection of them.

• For the hand-tool woodworker, you can’t beat Percy Blandford’s “1001 Tips for Woodworkers.” Also good: “The Woodworker’s Technique Bible.”

17 thoughts on “Details: Installing Hinges in Mortises

  1. Michael

    You forgot to mention there’s a matching centering nail set. I felt like I had the salt without the pepper shaker. :)

  2. John

    I have been around plenty of guys who are installing hinges on cabinets and doors for the first time and end up destroying a great piece of wood. This is a great tutorial that a lot of people will benefit from.

  3. Mark Singleton

    I have been reading about Gimlets. Not the drink. I think it was on Garrett Wade’s website. The reviews indicated to me that a lot of woodworkers that have discovered them wish they had started using them earlier.

  4. Thomas Giacchina

    I agree with Roger. I have the spring loaded point and have used it for years, but was always frustrated by the off center punches. Now I just use my eye and a pencil. Much more consistent and I don’t have to go searching for my center punch.

  5. Roger

    As you alluded to, the eye is a good centering tool. I use a pencil to transfer the holes to the mortise. Holding the pencil vertically, depending on the hole diameter and the size of the pencil, you get a circle from about 1/16 to 3/32 diameter. Using an awl, press the pint into the center of the circle and adjust as your eye tells you to by using your correction method.


  6. Steve

    That "whoosh" you hear is all of the Starrett self-centering punches in North America being swept off dealers’ shelves and into people’s workshops…

  7. Don Peregoy

    As some one who can overcome even the cleverest device – I know that if the VIX bit is not perpendicular to the surface the hole will be slightly off center. I do better to start with an awl. If I am a little off I can make a correction before drilling.

  8. David

    I use a similar self-centering punch, but one thing I did was add a small block of wood to the end that you push. It’s a small cube, 1/2"x1/2"x1/2", with a hole drilled to fit the end of the punch. That way, you can exert a little more pressure without having to hammer, or without getting a nagging pain in the end of your finger. Then, if i have an off center hole, I mark the direction of the true center with a pencil on the edge of the punch mark. Then I take my pilot bit and drill at an angle to that side for 1/8", then straighten the bit and it is drilling true. Works for me at least.

  9. Milford Brown

    For the off-center punch mark, another very handy tool is the Japanese gimlet (kiri, for those familiar with Japanese terminology). It’s the metal tip on a long, slightly tapered, round shaft that is spun between one’s palms. The one with the short 3-sided tip not only has an extremely sharp point to start where it should be, but its taper very nicely matches that of the small brass wood screws that are frequently needed in small cabinetry, boxes, etc. Find these in several sizes at

    And Chris, now that you have been introduced to Japanese planes, and Toshio Odate’s book is still out of print (more promised soon if economic considerations permit), you might expand your knowledge by beginning with the earlier book on the basic Japanese woodworking tools written by Kip Mesirow and illustrated by Ron Herman. Kip was the originator of a business in Berkeley, Ca. around 1970 that sold some Japanese woodworking tools, with the name "The Japan Woodworker." Predating Odate’s book by 6 years, his was my first teacher about these tools.

  10. Christopher Schwarz

    I have a set of so-called VIX bits. You have to own several sizes to do much work. They are expensive. The drill bits slide up and down and often snap. And they don’t go deep enough for some hardware application.

    But other than that, they’re great!

    The punch is cheap and is one thing to own instead of a whole set.

  11. Michael Brady

    I kind of agree with the responders about the self- centering drills. Isn’t there a chance that the pilot hole will wander when you drill it? I also think that the wood species makes a difference as does the use of steel screws being installed first; to be followed by the brass finish screws.

    Is it me, or are wood screws that are available today pretty crappy?

  12. mdhills

    I’m also curious why you favor the self-centering punch rather than the self-centering drill bit.

    I’ll be looking forward to the mortising article as well, especially for advice on getting the desired alignment/reveal and how you avoid the thing from shifting while scribing around it.

  13. Chris G

    Excellent timing! I have 7 sets of box hinges to install this week. The mortising always goes fine but I always get off center with the drilling. Thanks for the tips Chris!

  14. Christopher Lindsay

    Very nice. I find that sometimes as I get to this point in a piece, I tend to get impatient. It’s nice to have a little easy to remember method to get through a mundane part of the job.

  15. Nick Webb

    Hey Chris,

    You need a set of number drills. Pick the one that just fits through the hinge’s hole, chuck it in a drill. Put the hinge in place, put the bit in the hole and run it for a couple of revolutions SLOWLY and IN REVERSE whilst pressing down firmly. You will now have a perfectly centred dimple which your pilot drill (running fast and forwards) will drop into.

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