Boxland: Work Stations and Boxing Tips #5: Mortising Piano Hinges In a Box (An Easy Method)

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Blog entry by Boxguy posted 05-31-2012 03:07 AM 35024 reads 53 times favorited 16 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 4: Separating The Top and Cutting a Hinge to Fit Part 5 of Boxland: Work Stations and Boxing Tips series Part 6: Making Great $5 Band Clamps! »

Overview: In the last blog I detailed how to separate the top from the box and how to start with a long piano hinge then size, cut, polish, round, crimp, smooth, and paint the hinge so it will fit any size of box.

In this chapter I will explain how to install a piano hinge in a box. We will go through how to mortise, fit and fasten the hinge. The essential tools are: router table, small try square, vix bit, drill and impact driver. If all goes well, it should look like this when you are done.

Centering: Exactly center the hinge on the back of the box using a try square. Move a small try square from left side to right side. Adjust the blade of the try square in and out until the end blade of the try square just kisses the hinge on both sides. No real measuring is needed.

It may take a few tries making fine adjustments and going back an forth, but when you are finished you will have your hinge in the exact center. Now lock down the stock of your try square to preserve that measurement. We are going to use this measurement to set up the router fence.

Fence Location: As you can see I use a simple clamping straight edge as a fence for this. It is light, easy to move and change, and stays in place. (Remember, when you are setting a router fence like this, all that matters is the distance between the fence and the cutter. If it isn’t straight so what? The bit is round so straight isn’t important, distance is.) With the head of the straight edged cutter bit turned so the longest point is closest to the fence, align the cutter with the stock and transfer the measurement you took when centering your hinge to be the distance between the fence and the point of the cutter. This needs to be an exact match and you should sight down the head to get the exact point of the cutter at the edge of your try square head. Bring your fence over until it touches the blade of your try square and lock the fence in place. With good light and some care this can be a very exact measurement…and it needs to be.

Cutting the Mortise: What I didn’t think to picture was setting the bit height. Put your hinge on the table and raise the bit until the top of the bit is at the exact center of the pin of your hinge. Since this mortising is all I do on this table, I leave it set for the hinges I buy.

Now bring your box down the fence to cut a mortise. Notice two things: One, I marked the back side with chalk so I don’t screw up and cut the mortise on the front side. Two, be sure your table and fence are free of sawdust. Any dust between the box and the fence will throw off your measurements. Now reverse the box and cut the other end of your mortise going along the fence from the opposite side of the bit. Thus, you have cut both ends of your mortise and now all you do is freehand cut the waste wood between the two exact ends.

This shows cutting between the end cuts. Be careful not to cut too far. Listening for the end of the cut helps. (Of course if you were using 3/4 hinges and a 3/4 inch bit, you would be done and not need to cut out the waste.)

Repeat the same process for cutting the top. First cut the ends…

Then cut the waste between the two end cuts.

The Completed Mortise: This shot shows the top and the bottom of the box held together so you can see the completed mortise. The ends match nicely, the mortise is evenly cut, and now you are ready to insert the hinge.

Install The Hinge: Here you see the hinge set in the mortise. If you have worked carefully (and are a little lucky) the hinge will be a nice snug fit. Install the hinge starting on the bottom of the box. This shows the reason. You can reach across the box and use your wrists and palms to hold the box down while you work. This is a good time to sand the inside and outside edges of your mortise to be sure there are no splinters to catch unwary fingers (like yours)...before you start putting the hinge in place.

Use a Vix Bit: A Vix bit is a must. This bit centers the screw-hole you are drilling in the center of the hole in the hinge. Don’t just set the Vix bit in the hole and jam the bit into the wood. Let the bit spin in the screw hole then while it is spinning lower your bit into the wood. Spinning the bit first lets it get better seated and you will have better results.

Drill One Or Two Holes In the Bottom: First put just one or two screws and screw holes in the top. Don’t drill all the holes yet. If you missed the mark you can still make adjustments using the other holes to straighten it up.

Put One or Two Holes in the Top: Check your fit. If it is just very slightly off you can sand the outside of the box so they match exactly. But if the sides and front don’t match well, remove one or two screws and get the fit right. Here again it is a help if you have a back-rest to lean the bottom against so you can hold it in place and it gives you two free hands to work with.

Check the Fit: See if the sides and front match. If they do match, carefully open the box and install a few more screws and then check the fit again when you work on the bottom. It helps if your work station has some kind of rest to let the open box lean against so you have two free hands to work with.

Now drill and install all your remaining screws. I like to use an impact driver. It takes a bit to get the right touch with this tool, but it is far less likely to strip out the screw heads and brings the screws down snuggly.

Hinge Completed: If all has gone well, your finished hinge will look like this on the outside of your box. As you can see here, I sand the back edges at the back corner to be sure the box will swing to 90 degrees

The next time I am daft enough to take on a pictured blog like this I will be writing about this sanding station. Who knew it would take 6 sanders to make a box? But it is much quicker than changing Velcro paper.

-- Big Al in IN

16 comments so far

View Roger Clark aka Rex's profile

Roger Clark aka Rex

6940 posts in 4673 days

#1 posted 05-31-2012 08:20 AM

Excellent tutorial Al. The time spent, is well spent.

-- Roger-R, Republic of Texas. "Always look on the Bright Side of Life" - An eyeball to eyeball confrontation with a blind person is as complete waste of Time.

View Roger's profile


21055 posts in 4042 days

#2 posted 05-31-2012 11:51 AM

Very interesting. Nice “how-to” tutorial

-- Roger from KY. Work/Play/Travel Safe. Keep your dust collector fed. [email protected]

View DocSavage45's profile


9069 posts in 4080 days

#3 posted 05-31-2012 04:52 PM

4 porter cable sanders? You are a dedicated “boxguy”! Not able to make anything right now, and I’m going to watch and learn for when I am ready. Have an idea for a different type of box for an srtist friend. All in my head right now , Have to store this as it makes it simple.


-- Cau Haus Designs, Thomas J. Tieffenbacher

View DocSavage45's profile


9069 posts in 4080 days

#4 posted 05-31-2012 04:58 PM

Oh yeah,

I’ve learned from watching dedicated guys like yourself that hinges are as important as the box. Not to promote anyone but do you have preferences?


-- Cau Haus Designs, Thomas J. Tieffenbacher

View Blackie_'s profile


4883 posts in 3750 days

#5 posted 08-15-2012 02:51 AM

Thanks for this write up Al and also leading me from single hinges to paino hinges.

-- Randy - If I'm not on LJ's then I'm making Saw Dust. Please feel free to visit my store location at

View itsmic's profile


1419 posts in 4356 days

#6 posted 08-17-2012 01:08 PM

Nice write up, good pics and clear explanation of the process, Great job, thanks for sharing

-- It's Mic Keep working and sharing

View DeLayne Peck's profile

DeLayne Peck

669 posts in 3439 days

#7 posted 08-27-2012 04:04 PM

Outstanding, again, my most sincere thanks.

-- DJ Peck, Lincoln Nebraska. Lord, keep your arm around my shoulder and your hand over my mouth.

View bigike's profile


4058 posts in 4526 days

#8 posted 08-27-2012 04:36 PM

I’m glad I found this post very helpfull thanks!

-- Ike, Big Daddies Woodshop, http://[email protected]

View Blackie_'s profile


4883 posts in 3750 days

#9 posted 08-31-2012 01:23 PM

I’m off to the box store this morning to pick up the hinge and bits needed.

-- Randy - If I'm not on LJ's then I'm making Saw Dust. Please feel free to visit my store location at

View Tootles's profile


808 posts in 3740 days

#10 posted 11-17-2012 12:39 AM

Thanks for this tutorial. Most helpful.

Do you have any tips for setting the depth of the hinge – if the thickness of the box side is greater than the width of the hinge?

-- I may have lost my marbles, but I still have my love of woodworking

View BadDavid's profile


86 posts in 3270 days

#11 posted 11-22-2012 11:20 PM

So far, I have just dado the the tops to sit in place. With this write up I might try to put a hinge on the next one. Thank you.

-- BD, where bad wood finds a home. Va

View The Box Whisperer's profile

The Box Whisperer

678 posts in 3308 days

#12 posted 12-09-2012 11:41 PM

3/4 inch bit, 3/4 inch hinge, set the bit height to halfway up the pin you say?

-- "despite you best efforts and your confidence that your smarter and faster than a saw blade at 10k rpm…. your not …." - Charles Neil

View Ken90712's profile


18066 posts in 4427 days

#13 posted 02-17-2013 04:20 PM

I like it, and will be using this info for sure on my next box…Thx so much for taking the time to shoot me this link.

Never enough sanders… or any tools for that matter.

-- Ken, "Everyday above ground is a good day!"

View Gary's profile


1508 posts in 5562 days

#14 posted 03-03-2013 04:04 PM

My method has been slightly different when producing a stopped mortise for long hinges.
I run the back of the box along the fence and have the stops set off to the left and right.
The way you have it, there’s still a potential to overcut the stopped end when wasting away the middle.
As you say, “This shows cutting between the end cuts. Be careful not to cut too far. ...”
Adding stops to the left and right at the proper distance would be easy and possibly make your method flawless.

-- Gary, Florida

View Tootles's profile


808 posts in 3740 days

#15 posted 03-04-2013 09:26 AM

Gary, that’s also what I did when I used piano hinge in a box. I had to do it as you did because my hinge was narrower than the thickness of my wood, so I had to set the depth of cut outwards from my fence as well as the distance for the stops.

I did like doing my hinge as you describe, but two possible problems occured to me that are worth highlighting (for the sake of others who read this):

  1. My fence was only just long enough for the size of my box. For a larger box, I would have had to install a longer fence, even if it was just an extra piece of wood temporarily screwed to my normal fence.
  2. Obviously, care must be taken to set the left and right stops the same distance away from the router bit. To make this easy, I cut a piece of scrap wood to the length that I wanted the hinge to be less the diameter of the router bit. Then I simply placed the scrap on the table left and right and touching the puter bit to set the stops.

-- I may have lost my marbles, but I still have my love of woodworking

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