Box hinges are always a problem.
Hingeing is the nemesis of all box makers. We all get a little twinge when it comes time to fit the hinges. We generally have a lot of work invested by the time we get to the hinges, and a slip here can make a real mess of many hours work. And, I am no different. When it’s possible to spend $100 on hinges and a lock for a single box, picking the right ones for your box project is worth a little time. Perhaps this will help a little for anyone struggling with the question of hinges. I’m going to focus only on hinges in this blog. Perhaps some thoughts on locks another time.
First Rule: select and buy the hinges before you begin the box. Nothing is worse than trying to fit a too-large hinge, and as little as 1/64th too large will look terrible, and cause you no end of grief. If you don’t want to keep an inventory of different hinges on hand, buy the hinges first, then make the box.
Second rule: Don’t treat the hinge-fitting casually. I’ve learned this the hard way. I now take the time to get my router table set-up absolutely perfect before I cut. I always make one or more test cuts on scrap before I reach for the box. If I’m to fit the hinges by hand, then get the set-up absolutely perfect before you mark and cut. Tape the hinges in first and work the lid. Check the alignment. Great care is the only way to avoid a misaligned lid or unsightly gaps around the hinge. Take your time.
Selecting hinges: Here are the ones I know about.
There are a number of hinges readily available to the box maker, and the choice of hinges will go a long way in deciding the final result. The best rule of thumb is to start with the best hinges (and locks) that you can justify. Of course, if you’re making a box to sell for $40 or $50 at craft shows, you have few choices. Anything other than the 50 cent stamped butt hinges (or a nail/pin hinge) and you’re probably working for nothing.
Even the butt hinges differ considerably though. Left and center in the picture below are very inexpensive stamped brass (3/4” and 1” long, for 1/4 and 3/8 thick stock) butt hinges available by mail from Rockler or WoodCraft, or maybe even at Home Depot or Menards. They are cheap and have no stop, so the lid will flip all the way back when opened. For comparison, the hinge at right is the machined butt hinge used by Andrew Crawford for his flute cases. (Flute cases are by their nature thin and intended to lay flat when open.) It is much higher quality, machined brass hinge, without a stop. The example here is shown prior to hand polishing.
Brusso (not shown) offers a quality machined brass butt hinge with a built in stop in 3/4” and 1 1/4” sizes. If you really prefer to use a butt hinge, these are a huge step up in quality over the stamped hinges. The brass is available for $22.50 to $24.50 for small and large size and the stainless for $52 and $57.
Ideally, the butt hinge should match the thickness of the case back, permitting a simple router table cut all the way through the case thickness, and not leaving a tiny sliver of wood on the inner edge to split out and look terrible.
I generally don’t use butt hinges, as I much prefer other choices for the type of boxes I make, mostly for visual reasons.
Barrel hinges, cylinder hinges, Soss hinges, and kerf hinges:
Sorry, I have no experience with these types of hinges. They appear to me to be most suitable for small or inexpensive boxes, and while they probably work fine, they aren’t aren’t good choices for the type of boxes I like to build.
They do look like they would be easy to use, and they are inexpensive. I also prefer to avoid any hinge that requires chamfering or rounding the back side of the lid, as I just don’t like the appearance. The kerf hinges I’ve seen are probably fast to install, but lacked the quality feel of the hinges listed below.
Hence, I don’t have much to offer on these four types of hinges.
“L” Shaped Quadrant Hinges: Traditional mark of a quality piece.
These are generally stamped brass, relatively inexpensive, and can be quite attractive. They are suitable for a very nice box if you don’t want to spend much. They can be had for $6.00 – $9.00 a pair, in two sizes from numerous mail order sources as well as WoodCraft or Rockler. However, these are a real stinker to install flawlessly, and I know of
no commercially available router jig to fit them, so unless you can build your own jig, be prepared for a difficult and frustrating experience. It can be done, but if you are unsure of your abilities there are easier choices.
Brusso (not shown) is an exception in the L-shaped quadrant category, offering a nicely machined, quality hinge. They are no easier to install, unless you spend $33.50 for their proprietary brass hinge routing template (one for each hinge type and size). I don’t use this hinge, as they look a bit too “heavy” for my taste, but there’s no denying they are very well machined (and they do offer a jig). Taste is taste, after all, no more or less. These come in two sizes at $40 and $59.50 respectively. Brusso hinges are available at a variety of sources.
These have become my favorite hinges. These are the type hinges I have been using on nearly all my boxes. I prefer them for a number of reasons I’ll mention below. There are three basic types available, and I’ll say a bit about each.
First (at left) is the square back internal stop, non-quadrant hinge. This is a nice looking hinge that can be installed with a single cut on the router table, and can be used with a 3/8 thick box wall. (at 3/8, the hinge must be fitted close in to the inside edge, as the hinge is 5/16” wide, leaving only about 1/16” of wood on the outside to hide the hinge from view. The inside can be covered with box lining to completely conceal the metal edge.) In 1/2” stock the hinge can be centered, leaving wood on both sides.
This particular hinge, because of the square back, requires that the wood must be relieved on the rear (both top and bottom) to allow for movement of the square pivot stops or it will jam and splinter the wood when the lid is pivoted with the hinge screwed in tight. While also a bit of a nuisance to relieve, the relieving at the top is visible, and constitutes my major objection to this hinge.
Second, (in the center) is the side rail hinge with a quadrant. These do not require the relief cuts. This hinge is slightly longer, and offers the look of a quadrant if you prefer it. It offers an attractive look on larger boxes. The quadrant, of course, requires excavating a fairly deep cavity in both the lid and base to contain the quadrant as the box is closed. This operation is not too demanding if you have a Dremel router attachment. It can also be done with a drill press and chisels if you are careful, as you are working very close to the edge.
These two hinges are available from Rockler, Woodcraft, and BCSpecialties.com and generally run from about $30 – $40 a pair. They are gold plated, so do not touch them with sandpaper if you are working close in with the hinges installed. These are the hinges pictured on previous boxes in my projects section.
If you are looking for a chrome/nickel side-rail hinge, Ian Hawthorne offers similar hinges in both brass and chrome. I have not personally used his hinges, but if his work is any indication, they should be good. These ship from Northern Ireland and run £25 (about $42) a pair.
Third, (at right) is the new SmartHinge, offered recently by Andrew Crawford. Andrew is an absolutely uncompromising craftsman, and his hinge reflects the extreme precision of his boxes. I received my first shipment of these custom machined hinges a couple weeks ago, and have begun using them. I presently feel these are the best high quality hinges available on the market today. They’re also the easiest to install perfectly, (instructions included) as the hinge stop is internal, permitting a round, smooth appearance at the back, and does not require any relieving or notching for clearance. The countersunk screw holes are even “stovepiped” slightly to conceal any odd reflections from screws that might be less than perfect. At the moment, they are highly polished brass, but he’s exploring a plated option as well. They’re also extremely strong and sturdy.
Andrew ships these directly from England, and I received mine very quickly. They may seem expensive at £39.95 (about $65), but for a fine box they’re a solid investment. A beautiful box deserves beautiful hardware. Besides,these are only a couple dollars more than the Brusso quadrants, are much easier to install, and do not require buying a routing template. The stress reduction alone is probably worth the cost. I plan to use the SmartHinge exclusively in the future.
I hope this provides some help for all the box makers out there who also find hinging a box to be frustrating. I have not tried to provide detailed installation instructions, as that would make this a very long blog indeed. There is so much more that can be said. But, I hope it has been at least somewhat helpful.
Here are some sources:
-- "Everybody makes mistakes. A craftsman always fixes them." (Monty Kennedy, "The Checkering and Carving of Gunstocks", 1952)