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By Robert J. Settich
This article originally appeared in Taunton's Complete Illustrated Guide to Choosing & Installing Hardware (2003.)
If you’re the kind of person who has a tough time deciding at the 31-flavor ice cream store, then a first glance at the number of available hinge choices could send your brain into total overload. But before you despair, consider the fact that most hinges are engineered for very specific applications. So in some ways, hinge selection is a process of elimination. By defining the exact use for your hinge, you can ignore entire categories.
The butt hinge is probably the simplest and most familiar type of hinge. But a closer look reveals that even this most basic device holds a surprising number of engineering subtleties.
Butt hinge anatomy One of the simplest hinges yields subtleties and feats of engineering.
Referring to the drawing at right on the facing page, you’ll see that the hinge consists of two leaves that usually have countersunk holes drilled for flat-head wood screws. Along the center axis, the leaves bulge to form interlocking knuckles. The row of knuckles is called the barrel, and a hole through the barrel accepts the pin. The paint clearance slot keeps the knuckles from rubbing
against each other and provides room for a decorative coating or clear protective finish. Pitch refers to the length of a pair of mating knuckles.
Center of rotation For butt hinges, the middle of the pin acts as the center of rotation.
End play isn’t the result of sloppy manufacturing— modern machinery allows factories to produce even inexpensive hinges with astonishing precision. But generally, you’ll find more end play in hinges designed for utility-type applications because this clearance allows a hinge to operate even if the
ends of the leaves are not perfectly flush. In addition, end play allows you to easily disassemble and reassemble hinges with loose pins. In high-end hinges designed for jewelry boxes, you’ll find absolutely minimal end play.
The first thing you need to know about butt hinge geometry is that its center of
rotation is located at the middle of its pin. So it stands to reason that this point must be located beyond the back edge of the box or the face of a door. Anything past the tiniest fraction of an inch will allow the hinge to work, and adding more projection is a matter of aesthetics and controlling the arc of motion.
Of course, when you mount hinges on the surface of a box or door, you automatically position the hinge pin in a location where it can operate. But when you mortise a hinge, you’ll need to make certain that the pin’s centerpoint is always out in the open.
Preventing bound hinges
Bound hinges are those that prevent a box lid or door from closing completely. This condition often results from initially hinging a lid so that the base and lid make contact all around. But then the wood expands, and the front edge of the box gapes open in an ugly sneer. The drawing above shows a practical solution. Here it is recognized that the lid may develop a gap, so its location is controlled by concealing it at the rear of the box.
A Bound hinge Conceal a bound hinge by placing it at the rear of the box
To prevent bound hinges when you use surface-mounted hinges, simply place a
spacer between the base and lid at the back of the box before fastening the hinges. You’ll get the same result with mortised hinges by making the mortise not quite as deep as the diameter of the hinge’s barrel.
Setting the mortise depth
Full-depth mortise Cutting a full-depth mortise in the box's base made it easy to position and mount the lid.
Another useful fact about the geometry of a butt hinge is that the depth of the mortise is governed by the diameter of the barrel, not by the thickness of the leaf. This assumes that you’re working with hinges that have flat (unswaged) leaves. Swaging alters the relationship between leaf thickness and barrel
diameter, and that changes the mortise depth required.
A pair of half-depth mortises Cutting matching half-depth mortises in the base and lid is more difficult than the full-depth version, but neat results are the reward of careful worksmanship.
There are two different ways to mortise the hinges—you can cut half-depth mortises in both the base and lid, or a full-depth mortise in the box’s base. Checking a test cut for a full-depth mortise is as easy as verifying that it is just short of burying the hinge’s knuckle. For half-depth mortises, make two test cuts, and hold them face to face with the barrel of the hinge in the middle. If the test boards close completely, the hinges will be bound—the front edge of the lid won’t meet the base. Decrease the depth and make another pair of test cuts.
Butt hinge variations
The butt hinge has evolved into an extraordinary number of forms to suit a wide range of applications. With the leaves stretched in width, the butt hinge becomes a strap hinge. Stretched in length, it becomes a piano hinge. The leaves can also be flanged—bent around the back of a door, a face frame, or
the edge of a box to offer additional strength. If you want a hinge that’s as easy
to install as a surface mount but hides nearly as well as a mortised version, try a no-mortise hinge. The thickness of the metal automatically sets the reveal between the door and its frame.
Variations on a theme You can quickly and accurately install a surface-mounted strap hinge on a rustic project.
For reasons of both aesthetics and function, the shape of a hinge isn’t restricted to the familiar rectangular shape. You’ll find three no-mortise hinge varieties meet special applications. The hinge shown at left is for an inset door; the bent flange of the version in center attaches to the edge and back of a face frame; and the flanged hinge at right is useful for box lids. You'll find hinges with leaves in fanciful shapes, as round as a bullet, or stretched with rounded ends. An elongated double-pinned hinge is often used for a folding card-table top, and the familiar butler’s tray hinge has a built-in spring.
No-mortise possibilities Three no-mortise hinge varieties meet special applications. The hinge shown at left is for an inset door; the bent flange of the version in center attaches to the edge and back of a face frame; and the flanged hinge at right is useful for box lids.
Separating hinges can be very useful, and they are scaled to handle a wide range of jobs—whether you want to build a sturdy toolbox or a dainty jewelry container. Either way, you can make a removable lid that allows unrestricted access to the contents. The larger sizes can also be used on cabinet doors or clock cases. Plan your project carefully because many of the hinge designs
require you to specify right- or left-hand application when you order.
Separating hinges Choose a separating hinge that’s scaled to fit the size and strength requirements of your project.
The barbed hinge is nearly an exact opposite of the separating hinge. Once you install a barbed hinge, removal is nearly impossible without destroying the wood. The barbed hinge is inexpensive, but installation requires you to use a specialty sawblade chucked into your drill press. The hinge is widely used for production runs of small boxes.
Barbed hinge The barbed hinge is small, discreet, and inexpensive. But installation demands careful setup.
Hinges that hold their own
Many box hinges require you to add a separate support to hold the lid open for easy access. Other hinges, though, build the support right into the body of the hinge, eliminating the need for additional hardware. The hinge usually holds the lid open at about a 95-degree angle. You’ll find stopped piano hinges that you can surface mount or mortise.
Stopped hinges Each of these stopped hinges requires a different mounting method. Cut traditional mortises into the base and lid for the hinge at left, mortise the center hinge into the back of the box, and surface mount the hinge at right.
Or choose from styles of butt hinges that you put into a traditional mortise, let into the back of the box and lid, or surface mount for utility applications. Side rail hinges and quadrant hinges are two other lid-supporting choices. The quadrant hinge requires a mortise in both the back and end of the box’s lid and base. In addition, you’ll need to excavate a channel into the base for the quarter-circle stop arm that gives this hinge style its name. You’ll have a much easier time installing the side rail hinge—simply rout mating mortises in the base and lid.
Quadrant hinges The quadrant hinge (left) and the siderail hinge (right) are stop-hinge designs that are popular for jewelry boxes and humidors.
The barrel hinge is virtually invisible when closed, and it also has the advantage of easy installation because the mortise is simply a hole drilled into each workpiece. But there are a few disadvantages. A slight mismatch in hole locations will make the hinge’s operation very difficult, while a larger error will
make installation itself downright impossible. But a more serious drawback is the fact that it will not overclose—move past the point where the axis of the lid hole meets the axis of the base hole. As a result, you can’t get the lid of a box to close firmly against the base at the front. This drawback is not as serious if you’re using the hinge to swing an inset door.
Barrel hinge The barrel hinge (left) and Soss hinge (right) are both nearly invisible
when installed in boxes and doors.
To the right of the barrel hinge in the bottom photo at right is another invisible
hinge that nearly everyone refers to by its brand name: Soss. Installation requires a two-level mortise, but a jig and bushing-guided router make its production certain and relatively fast. This hinge does overclose, and it’s also self-revealing—a term I use to refer to hinges that automatically produce a
consistent gap between the edge of a door and its frame. You can purchase Soss hinges in several sizes, and the largest one can be used to hang architectural doors with no hardware visible from either side when the door is closed.
Miniature barrel hinge The miniature barrel hinge teams modest price with easy installation,
a combination that recommends it for production runs of containers.
The miniature barrel hinge installs into a 5-mm hole drilled into the base and lid of small boxes and pen presentation cases. You then chamfer both pieces so the tip of each cut meets the centerline of the holes. The mating chamfers provide operating clearance as well as a stop mechanism. A drop of epoxy wiped onto the walls of the holes with a toothpick grips the hinges. It’s an inexpensive hinge, a highly desirable virtue for hardware used in producing large batches of boxes.
The four-way hinge gets its name from the number of door-positioning options it
offers: inset, half overlay, overlay, and mitered corners. It opens 175 degrees to get the doors well out of the way if you want to operate pullout shelves. It’s a solid handful of steel that’s suitable for heavy-duty applications.
Four-way hinge The chunky four-way hinge offers the ease of surface mounting and a wide 175-degree opening angle.
It wasn’t that long ago that the overlay hinge was the undisputed king of kitchen and bath cabinets. To order the hinges you needed, you simply counted the number of doors and multiplied by two. But the old hinge king has lost his throne and been replaced by a new group of hinges from Europe. Instead of a single hinge, the new dynasty is actually an extended family of hinges, each one engineered for a specialized purpose. Even a small kitchen may have a half- dozen or more different hinge varieties.
European tastes Utilize the adjustability designed into Euro hinges to achieve absolute perfection in door alignment. The crossshaped screw head recesses
with the four radiating marks indicate that these are Pozidrive screws.
Almost all Euro hinges are completely concealed when the door is closed. That
makes a cabinet that’s cleaner, both physically and visually. And because the hinges are hidden, their style or finish can’t go out of fashion. Most hinges also have three-way adjustability, a feature that transforms door fitting from an exercise in “close enough” to micrometer precision. The hinges have also
created new options that let the creative designer unleash his imagination. You can now select between face-frame or frameless construction, inset or overlay doors, and cabinets that angle inward or out.
European options European hinges offer a realm of possibilities to fit your woodworking needs. However, they are not without drawbacks.
Choices, choices, choices
Hinge-mounting plates Hinge-mounting plates include (top left) a plate with vertical adjustment slots; a plate (top right) with an integral screw that moves it up and down; a post plate (lower left) that mounts to the rear of a face frame; and a plate (lower right) with pins that expand as you press down levers.
If you’re accustomed to having only a handful of hinge choices, you may be shocked when you see the options offered by Euro hinges. For example, take a fairly simple hinge, such as a hinge that opens 125 degrees on a frameless cabinet. You can choose whether you want the door to overlay the cabinet’s edge, whether two doors are hinged on the same cabinet support, or whether the door is inset. Then you choose between free-swinging or self-closing hinges. Next, you select whether the hinge clips onto the mounting plate or attaches with screws. Then, there are up to four alternate ways of attaching the hinge cup to the door.
Positioning doors European hinges offer a number of design opportunities. For example, a door can fully overlay a cabinet's edge (top left). Or, you can opt for a half overlay (top right) or make the door an inset (bottom center.)
But before you feel confused by this everwidening array of choices, you should realize that every decision you make about building your cabinets rapidly rewinds the process, quickly bringing you to the exact hinge you need. Look at the drawing of the kitchen above, and you’ll begin to see your choices come into focus.
Photos by Robert J. Settich; Illustrations by The Taunton Press, Inc.