Butt Hinges Without Fear Or Loathing

This post is adapted from my book “Bob Lang’s Complete Kitchen Cabinetmaker”. You can buy a signed copy of the revised edition from our store.

Few things are more terrifying to many woodworkers than hanging a door on butt hinges. Even pros avoid using them, but there really isn’t a better way to hang a door than with quality butt hinges, set in mortises. Properly done, the butt hinge will be stronger, operate better than other types of hinges, and last virtually forever. No-Mortise hinges put the entire load on the screws, and European hinges are just plain ugly. Both of these are sloppy to begin with, and become more so as time goes by. A good door in a well-made cabinet deserves to be hung on quality hardware. The keys to success are making parts the size you want them, in the location you want, and square to each other.

It’s possible to fit a door to a crooked opening, but that is a lot more work than doing it right the first time. Ignore advice to make the door bigger than the opening. Stiles are frequently left a few inches longer than needed, but this is only necessary if you chop mortises for the rails with a chisel. Make the door oversized, and you need to be extremely careful when trimming to keep the width of the stiles and rails consistent. If you can do that, you have the skills to make the door the right size to begin with.

Fit the Door, Shim the Gaps and MarkI make the door the exact size of the opening, this allows some margin to fit a less than perfect opening, but minimizes the waste of material and time. The gaps should be the same all the way around the door. I size the gap based on the space between the two leaves of the hinge when the hinge is closed. Close the hinge, and measure the thickness of the leaves next to the barrel of the hinge with a caliper. Then measure one leaf. This thickness (times 2) subtracted from the overall thickness gives the desired gap.

If the door is the same size as the opening, you can fit it with minimal trimming. A plane works well for trimming the width, but I trim the length on a crosscut sled on the table saw. Start with the hinge stile. Make it straight, then trim the bottom edge of the door to fit the opening. If it is slightly out of square, place a thin shim at one end of the hinge stile, between the stile and the fence on the crosscut sled to make the angled cut. With one corner square, place the door tight against the side and bottom. Measure the gap at both sides of the top of the door. Trim  the top so that the gap is twice the desired finished gap. I wait until the hinges are set before trimming the other stile.

Place the door in the opening, and insert some shims at the top and bottom to hold the door in place with even gaps. When you’re happy with that, you can set the locations of the hinges. There really isn’t a set distance for the hinges to be placed. For appearance sake, I line up the ends of the hinges with the edges of the rails.

mark location from hingeMake a mark across both the cabinet and door stile to indicate the end of the hinges, and remove the door. Place a square on the mark, and put the hinge against the edge of the square. Wrap the hinge around the corner as shown; this will locate the back edge of the hinge.

mark line with knifeWith a knife, mark the edges of the hinge on the edge of the stiles. You now have the exact size of the mortise you need to make, and because you marked the cabinet stile and door stile together, you have the exact location.

There are several ways to cut recess, or gain. You can do it entirely by hand, with a chisel to remove most of the waste, and a router plane to get the depth right. If you are adept with a chisel, you don’t need the router plane.

I remove the waste with a straight bit in a laminate trimmer and use the chisel to do the edges. If there are a lot of doors to do, as in a kitchen, it’s worthwhile to make a template to guide the router, but if there’s only a door or two I just guide the router by eye, coming to within 1/16” to 1/8” of the lines.

It is helpful to clamp a piece of scrap wood to the back edge of the stile to help support the router base and keep it from tipping. The advantage of using the router is that the bottom of the mortise will be flat and at a consistent depth.

Set the depth of the cutter directly from one of the hinge leaves. With the router upside down, place one of the hinge leaves on the base of the router, next to the cutter. Adjust the depth of the cutter until it is even with the top edge of the hinge. Make a test cut in a piece of scrap to confirm the proper cutting depth. The face of the hinge should be even, or barely proud of the surface of the wood.

Use a chisel that’s a little wider than the hinge and you can make the end cuts in one shot, ensuring a straight line. Set the edge of the chisel in the corner of the knife mark, with the bevel of the chisel facing in to the mortise. Push down and rock the chisel toward the edge, stop when the edge of the chisel meets the depth mark.

The long edge is cut the same way, working from each corner in to the middle of the mortise. When the edges have been cut to the right depth, paring cuts will remove the small amount of remaining waste. Be careful paring to the back edge, as it is easy to split the wood at that point.

The hinge should fit snugly in the mortise. If it doesn’t, take a close look at the edges. If those cuts are angled slightly the hinge won’t fit. With the hinge in place, drill one hole and set one screw. A Vix bit will help locate the screw hole, but you still need to be careful that the drill bit is at ninety degrees to the edge.

Use one steel screw to check the fit. When the fit is right, use steel screws in all the holes, then replace them with brass screws

If you have brass screws, set them aside and use a steel screw temporarily until you are happy with the way the door hangs. Drill one screw hole in each mortise of both the door and the cabinet for the test fit.

Fasten the hinges to the door, then place the remaining leaves in the mortises on the cabinet. Have your screws and screwdriver handy to fasten the door in place. The door should fit well, but in case it doesn’t, there are a few ways to make minor corrections. If the hinges are too deep in the mortises, or if the gap on the opposite side of the door is too big, place a piece of cardstock or veneer under the hinge to adjust the gap.  If the door needs to move vertically, or farther in or out in relation to the cabinet, you will need to move the screw holes, and enlarge the mortise. The old hole needs to be filled; if you drill a new hole close to an existing one, the bit or the screw to fall into the old hole. Whittle a piece of scrap to fit the hole and glue it in place. When the glue is dry, trim the end of the patch flush with a chisel, then drill the new hole.

If the mortise only needs a slight increase in length, re-cutting the end and paring out the waste will leave a gap that likely won’t be objectionable if it is only 1/16” to 1/8”. A gap any larger than that should be repaired by cutting and fitting a small piece to fill the mortise. Match the grain on the patch to the face of the door, and bevel the ends so that the repair isn’t so obvious. Once the glue on the patch has dried, the mortise can be cut again.

 –Bob Lang

This isn’t the only way to hang a cabinet door, click here to read about hanging cabinet doors with European concealed hinges.

This post is adapted from my book “Bob Lang’s Complete Kitchen Cabinetmaker”. You can buy a signed copy of the revised edition from our store.

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