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Installing Butt Hinges

Traditional cabinet butt hinges are mortised into the edge of the door and cabinetwork. We sell these hinges either with or without decorative tips. The installation is the same for either type except in one detail. Decorative tip hinges are set further forward of the cabinetwork than are their untipped equivalents. The plain untipped butt hinge serves a function without drawing attention to itself. It should therefore be fitted so as to allow it to do its work while remaining unnoticed.

The hinge mortise should be cut to a depth that leaves only the radiused barrel of the hinges and a hair extra forward of the cabinetwork. So long as the center of swing is not within the cabinetwork the hinge will function as intended.

The tipped butt hinge must have the full diameter of its barrel forward of the cabinetwork. This allows the pin to be removed without interference.

Regular butt hinge Tipped butt hinge

For regular butt hinges set a marking gauge to a measurement taken from the edge of the hinge leaf to a point just short of the center of the hinge pin. Use this setting to scribe lines on the casework where you have chosen to place the hinge. Next measure accurately the hinge length and bring corresponding lines forward to the front of the casework with a square. A scalpel or other sharp knife is the best marking tool for this layout. Set a small router with a sharp 1/4" high speed steel straight cutter to a depth that equals the hinge barrel diameter minus desired door gap divided in half. Waste away the mortise and square up the corners with a sharp chisel.

Set the door in place and shim it to create equal gaps. Mark lines on the door to match those on the casework. Use your marking gauge setting to mark the vertical lines. Set the door in a bench vise and route the mortises. The door can now be fitted. Use only one screw per hinge as this time. If the door closes properly then fit the remaining screws. Small adjustments to the depth of the mortises can go a long way to compensate for a slightly twisted door.

The same technique will work for installation of a tipped hinge with the exception of the marking gauge setting. For a tipped hinge the gauge will be set to the inside width of the hinge leaf.

One Mortise or Two?

In recent years it has become common to see butt hinges mortised fully into either the door or the casework. This is a time saving technique that provides the installer some latitude for hinge adjustment. An English manufacturer of traditional kitchen cabinets has invested this dubious technique with undeserved respectability. Much of the long term durability of a correctly fitted door is a direct consequence of the mortises the hinges sits in. These mortises prevent the weight of the door from bearing on the woodscrews that hold the hinges in place. While a woodscrew is easily able resist the forces that try to pull it straight out it is not suited to resist significant sideways loads. The wood fibers around the screw will eventually crush and the screw will loosen.

(The following is an exception to my general condemnation of the above technique.)

Some doors are surrounded by a bead, either on the door itself or on the surrounding casework. It is difficult to resist the temptation to set the hinge into this bead. In this case you are obliged to cut the hinge either fully into the door or the casework. Some loss of principal is perhaps worth it in this case.