American Woodworker

Important Information >>


AW Extra 1/24/13 - How to Hang Inset Doors


How to Hang Inset Doors

Install butt hinges perfectly and establish consistent, slender margins.

By Tim Johnson

Nothing signals skillful craftsmanship like an inset door with elegant hinges and eye-pleasing margins. This challenging job leaves no room for error: Uneven surfaces and unsightly gaps will tell the tale if the hinges, door and frame don’t fit precisely. Like mastering handcut dovetails, successfully hanging inset doors on mortised butt hinges is a woodworking milestone.

I’ll show you a three-step method for installing inset doors that produces great results every time. First, you match the door to the opening. Then you rout mortises for the hinges. And finally, you create uniform, attractive margins between the door and frame. Of course, you can skip the mortising step altogether by choosing different hinges (see “No-Mortise Hinge Options,” below).

To complete the job, you’ll need a couple simple jigs, a mortising bit, and a laminate trimmer. A laminate trimmer is a compact router that’s a really handy addition to any woodworking shop. (If you don’t own a laminate trimmer, this is a great excuse to buy one.)

Round out your door-installing arsenal with a pair of secret weapons—a plastic laminate sample swiped from the home center and a double-bearing flush-trim router bit. This great new bit should be a fixture in every woodworking shop.


Choose hinges

Your first task is to choose between extruded (also referred to as drawn or cast) or stamped hinges (see photos). Extruded hinges are machined and drilled, so there’s virtually no play between the knuckles or around the hinge pin. Stamped hinges are made from thinner stock. Their leaves are bent to form the knuckles that surround the pin. Extruded hinges will last longer, because their knuckles have more bearing surface.

I often use stamped hinges because they cost about one third as much as extruded hinges and they’re available at most hardware stores. They work fine in most situations. Examine stamped hinges carefully before buying. If you notice large gaps between the knuckles and vertical play between the two hinge leaves, keep looking. Be aware that some stamped hinges are brass plated rather than solid brass. Hinges with loose pins make it easy to remove and reinstall the door, but they aren’t widely available.

Before you install the hinges, make sure the screws’ heads recess fully in the chamfered holes in the hinge leaves. Amazingly, the brass screws supplied with brass hinges often don’t fit. If that’s the case, you’ll have to deepen the screw-hole chamfers or use smaller screws.

Brass screws are delicate. The heads strip easily or break off, leaving the shaft buried in the wood. Avoid trouble with broken brass screws by threading the pilot holes with steel screws, which are much more durable. Install the brass screws only once, after the piece is completely finished. Or forget brass screws altogether and leave the steel screws in.


Friction-fit the door

I make each door about 1/32 in. larger than its opening. Then I trim it to fit squarely and snugly. First I joint the latch stile until the door slips between the face frame’s stiles without binding. Then I check the door’s fit: While holding the hinge stile flush against the face frame, I butt the door’s top edge against the frame’s upper rail. If no gap appears, the door and opening are square. Then I joint the door’s top and bottom until the door wedges into the opening—I want a friction fit, so the door stays put.

If the door or the face frame are out of square, I true them by tapering the door’s hinge stile. I mark the end that needs to be tapered while I hold the door in position (Photo 1). If the gap along the top appears above the hinge stile, as in the photo, the side’s taper increases from top to bottom. If the top’s gap appears above the latch stile, the side’s taper runs in the opposite direction. The taper increases from zero at one end to the width of the top’s gap at the other end. If the top’s gap is wider than 1/16 in., I taper both the side and the end, removing one half of the gap from each edge.

Routing is one way to taper the stile (Photo 2). You could also use a hand plane or your jointer. Just make sure the taper runs the full length and the tapered edge is perpendicular to the door’s face. When both the hinge stile and top edge fit properly without any gaps, trim the bottom edge so the door fits snugly in the opening.


Rout the mortises

Make two jigs, one for routing the hinge mortises (Fig. A, below; Photo 3) and the other to position the hinge in the mortise (Fig. B, below; Photo 4). Then rout test mortises to dial in the depth of cut (Fig. C, below; Photo 5). Laminate samples make perfect gap testers for frame-and-panel doors with stiles and rails up to 2 in. wide; these samples are usually slightly less than 1/16 in. thick. Doors with wider frame parts should have slightly wider gaps, because they’ll exhibit greater seasonal movement.

Rout mortises in the door first (Photo 6). Make sure they go in the correct stile! It’s easiest to rout hinge mortises all the way through. If you want to rout halfblind mortises, to shoulder the hinge leaves along their length, simply modify your mortising jig by moving the fill block forward to meet the hinge leaf. This modification eliminates the need for the hinge projection guide, but it requires squaring the mortise corners by hand after routing.

No hard and fast rule exists for locating the hinges on the door. One method is to align the hinge with the door’s rails. However, this doesn’t work if the top and bottom rails are distinctly different widths. Another method is to divide the door’s length by six or seven and center the hinges one unit from the ends. Use your eye and trust your gut.

Carefully transfer the mortise locations to the face frame (Photo 7). Your marks have to be perfectly located, because the hinges fit the mortises so precisely. Use the door’s top-to-bottom friction fit to hold it in position, and make sure the door’s hinge stile is flush with the face frame’s stile.

Rout mortises in the face frame (Photo 8). If you don’t have a laminate trimmer, your options are to chop these mortises by hand or to change your entire procedure and rout these mortises first, before you assemble the face frame.


Mount the hinges and create even margins

After mounting the hinges on the face frame, temporarily install the door by pressing the mortises onto the mounted hinges’ loose leaves. Then mark the door’s ends and latch stile for trimming (Photo 9).

Remove the door, clamp on a straight board and rout the ends to final length using a flush-trim bit with two bearings (Photos 10 and 11). Clamp the board so its straight edge barely covers the line; the line indicates the laminate sample’s thickness and the goal is to remove exactly that thickness.

If you build during the summer’s high humidity when your lumber is at its widest seasonal dimension, a one-laminate sample gap between the door’s latch stile and the face frame is sufficient. But if you build during the winter, it’s wise to provide extra room for the door’s seasonal movement (Photo 12).

Fig. A: Hinge-Mortising Jig

Fig. B: Hinge Projection Guide

Fig. C: Mortise Depth


(Note: Product availability and costs are subject to change since original publication date.)

Woodcraft,, 800-225-1153, Drawn brass cabinet hinge, 2 in. x 1-1/2 in., #16R59; Stanley solid brass butt hinge, 2 in. x 1-3/8 in., #149747; Self-centering hinge-drilling bit, 5/64 in. for No. 3 and no. 4 screws, #16i43.

Amana Tool,, 800-445-0077, Mortising bit, #45460-S.

Freud Tools,, 800-334-4107, Top- and bottom-bearing flush-trim bit, 1/4-in. shank, #50-501.

This story originally appeared in American Woodworker May 2006, issue #121.

May 2006, issue #121

Purchase this back issue.

Click any image to view a larger version.

1. True an out-of-square door by tapering the side, rather than the end. The side is longer, so the taper will be more gradual and less noticeable. In this case, making the hinge stile narrower at the marked end will eliminate the gap at the top.

2. Taper the side with a straight board and a flush-trim bit. Position the board so it’s offset by the width of the gap at the marked end and flush at the other end. Routing this taper eliminates the guesswork associated with creating tapers with a jointer.

3. Use the hinges to make your mortising jig. This guarantees that the hinges will perfectly fit the mortises. After installing the guide blocks, add the fill block to provide continuous support for the router.

4. Locate the hinges on a test piece, using a projection guide to position the center of the barrel 1/32 in. out from the board’s face. Drill pilot holes using a self-centering bit.

5. Test the mortise depth by mounting hinges on scrap stock. The gap should equal the thickness of laminate. If the gap is too wide, the mortises aren’t deep enough. Widen a gap that’s narrow by jointing the door stile.

6. Rout mortises in the door stile. Locate the mortise at least one hinge length from the top. Because of its small size, a laminate trimmer works great for this delicate job.

7. Transfer the mortise locations from the door to the face frame using a straightedge. The door’s snug top-to-bottom fit holds it in position.

8. Rout mortises in the face-frame stiles using the mortising jig. You’ll need a laminate trimmer for this job, because the mortises are so close to the corner.

9. Mark the door’s final size, using a laminate sample to establish uniform gaps. Slightly recess the door in the opening, using the hinges and the top-to-bottom friction fit to hold it in position. Mark with a mechanical pencil, so there’s no gap between the laminate and the line.

10. Rout the door to final length. Use a fence and a flushtrim bit with top- and bottom-mounted bearings to avoid blowing out the back edge. First, rout halfway using the top bearing.

11. Flip the door over, adjust the bit to use the bottom bearing and finish routing.

12. Allow for seasonal movement between the door’s latch stile and the frame. Make the gap wider if you build during the winter, when the humidity in your heated shop is probably significantly lower than during the summer months.

No-mortise hinge options

If mortising hinges isn’t your idea of woodworking fun, consider one of these two options for mounting inset doors.

Euro-style hinges only require drilling holes for hinge cups and mounting screws. They also have the advantage of adjustability: Once the door is installed, you can easily move it up or down, side to side and in or out—whatever it takes to even up the margins. These hinges take up a lot of space inside the cabinet, though, and some versions only swing open to 95 degrees.

No-mortise hinges are quite simple to install and they leave an acceptably narrow gap. Some no-mortise hinges have elongated slots for adjustability. Still, the door must be carefully fitted to the opening and the hinge locations have to be carefully laid out. It’s a good idea to use a projection guide, like the one shown in Photo 4, to ensure that the door and frame faces will be flush. No-mortise hinges are available in a variety of finishes, including polished and satin brass, but they’re often made of plated steel instead of solid brass.