Perfect Hinge Mortises on Small Boxes


Patience and Accuracy Pay Off.

There is nothing quite as beautiful as a small wooden jewelry box and its promise of treasures hidden inside. Poorly installed hinges that bind or catch can ruin the anticipation of opening the lid. Installing hinges to hold the lid in place can be tricky, if not downright maddening. The hinges have to be perfectly spaced and correctly oriented on the lid for it to function correctly. Furthermore, brass screws are soft and prone to breaking. Here are some simple steps to make sure that you avoid all of the pitfalls of this challenging operation.

Practice these techniques on scrap first and in no time, you’ll be ready to perfectly place hinges on your precious jewelry box.

perfect-hinge-mortises-boxes-1 Mark the location for the hinge with a pen knife, not a pencil. Set the desired distance on an adjustable square and use this setting for both sides to insure they’re the same. Clamp the top and bottom together and mark them at the same time, so the marks are perfectly aligned.

perfect-hinge-mortises-boxes-2 Scribe the hinge in place with a pen knife, aligning the hinge knuckle on the back of the box. Index the side of the hinge with the mark you made on the box in the previous step. Make multiple passes to gradually deepen the scribed mark.

perfect-hinge-mortises-boxes-3 With the router unplugged, set the depth of the router bit for mortising the hinges. Install a straight bit in a palm router. Use the actual hinge to determine the perfect depth for the mortise. Make a test cut to check depth.

perfect-hinge-mortises-boxes-4Mill the hinge mortises with a palm router, cutting up to the line you made with the pen knife. Clamp a support board inside the box to support the router. The router guarantees mortises with perfect depth and flat bottoms. This level platform for the hinge to sit on prevents binding and uneven alignment of the hinges. This technique takes a little practice, but free handing this cut is easier than you think, thanks to the shallow cut required for small hinges.

perfect-hinge-mortises-boxes-5Using a chisel, square the corners of the hinge mortises and pare back to the line in any spots where the router bit cut short of the line. Use the flat surface created by the router to help guide the chisel.

perfect-hinge-mortises-boxes-6Drill pilot holes for the hinge screws. I use a self-centering bit, available at woodworking specialty stores, for a foolproof hole. Driving screws into un-centered holes can pull the hinge out of alignment.

perfect-hinge-mortises-boxes-7Brass screws are very soft. To prevent the brass screws from breaking, first drive the same size steel screws in each hole to cut threads. Then remove the steel screws and replace them with brass screws. For this step, I pick up a screwdriver instead of my drill in order to get better control and break fewer screws.

Photos By Mike Krivit

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12 Responses to “Perfect Hinge Mortises on Small Boxes”
    • WWGOA Team

      Hi Bill, It’s a freehand cut. Like Seth says, freehanding takes a little practice, but will be easy once you get the hang of it.

  1. Dale Wolery

    Thanks so much! Makes perfect sense for perfect installation. I appreciate the tip and the clarity.

  2. Ken Rexroth

    Question. On small butt hinges that do not fold flat, is it necessary to leave a space between the box and lid for proper closures?

    • WWGOA Team

      Some hinges are designed specifically for installation without mortising. They have thinner profile plates, and they are designed to that the plates from each side of the hinge do not sit on top of one another. Here is an example:
      For other box hinges you wouldn’t necessarily have to mortise for the hinge, but if you don’t it will create a gap between the lid and body of your box. It might also cause strain on the hinges and your box if you are forcing the box to close in the front while the hinges are forcing the gap to remain in the rear of the box. But if the hinge plates are thin enough you might be able to get away with not mortising.

  3. Abr

    Any way to use such small hinges and add a soft close mechanism, so it doesn’t close quickly and doesn’t make noise? Haven’t seen such online, but there must be a way, just maybe not the same way as a typical soft close hinge works on regular cabinets. Anyone ever came across that?

    • WWGOA Team

      This is a good question. I am not aware of any hinge mechanism that can control this on a small box. The challenge is that because of the light weight of a small lid it is a fine line between holding a small lid open (preventing it from closing on its own), and allowing it to close gracefully.
      Let us know if you come across anything that you like that solves this problem.

  4. Harry Poskitt

    Can you please tell me is the use of a router the only way to reach an accurate depth
    I am not familiar with the palm router and how to use it is there any need for a guide bush
    to keep the router on track

    Thank You

    • Customer Service

      Hi, Harry. A router is the best way to do this. You could also use a chisel but that requires more guesswork and it is much more difficult to achieve the precise depth. Guide bushings are not needed, and are not used in this article. A small router like this is easy enough to handle, and you just end up with a slight bit of cleanup work which takes only seconds with a good sharp chisel.

  5. John

    I have installed a lot of hinges over the years only I use a chisel to cut the mortises. My percentage of perfect door fits are pretty low. I usually have to shim a few of the hinges and often the doors dont close all the way before springing back open. Would you care to comment on how I can get perfect fits every time?

    • Customer Service

      Hi, John. When fitting doors, there are many considerations, and how the hinge is set is only one factor. First, the box and the door must be square. Second, the hinges should be high quality, with little or no play. Only then does the hinge set matter. While it is possible to use only a chisel, it is difficult to get an even and flat depth for the bottom of the hinge set, which is why I recommend using a router to control the depth. There is a tool called a router plane which would can ensure a flat bottom hinge set.

  6. Lorri Spitz

    Everyone always mentions that small steel screws should be inserted first. Where can I find these small screws in steel? Every place seems to offer them in brass.