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European hinges for wooden furniture doors

I have been using European hinges for years... people love the smooth action of these invisible hinges, including a built in spring (in most models) to hold the door closed. There are lots of choices... so many that selecting the right hinges can be confusing, intimidating, or even scary. I thought I was doing fine until I got a surprise with a recent order... I didn't receive what I expected. With the help of my friend, Ron Mazzarella, I learned a lot more, and hopefully can help.

The overlay hinges

European cabinets are normally built without a face frame. The doors and drawers are often mounted in front of the cabinet, overlaying and largely hiding the sides of the cabinet. The plywood or other material in the cabinet carcass can be covered with simple edge banding, since it is largely hidden and doesn't receive constant wear. Face frames are required for the decorative hinges popular in 1970s and 1980s cabinets. The European style cabinets, without a face frame, take less material, simplifies cabinet construction, has simple hidden hinge installation, and provides more usable space inside the cabinet.

Full Overlay: Start with a one-door cabinet, with ¾ inch sides, and a ¾ inch thick door (okay, it's European so we should say 19 mm, but 19 mm = 0.748 inches). The door is normally the full width of the cabinet, overlaying and hiding the sides of the carcase. If a simple butt or piano hinge is used, the ¾ inch door will need another ¾ inch space beside the cabinet where the door can open - extra space so it doesn't hit the wall or interfere with the door on the next cabinet. Therefore a more complex hinge is used, mounted firmly on the inside of the cabinet, rather than on the edge. As the door is opened, it moves out and pivots so the open door is nearly aligned with the side of the cabinet... the cabinet can be tight against the side wall, and the door will open, or a door on an adjacent cabinet can open at the same time.

Half Overlay hinges are used when two doors (or a door and a drawer) share a common divider, so only overlap half of the cabinet side. These are sometimes called 3/8 inch overlay, half of ¾ inch, but more practically are 5/16 or ¼ inch overlay, allowing for a small space between the doors. Now the door must move towards the opening as it opens, since the other door may also be open, back to back, and there is only one ¾" space for both ¾" doors. These hinges are sometimes called "half cranked" hinges, since they move the door in a funny cranking opening pattern, and move the door 9.5 mm (about 3/8 inch) farther away from the hinge mount. Using the doors and looking at them, nobody will notice the difference unless you try to use the wrong kind of hinge - then it makes a big difference.

If a "half cranked" hinge moves the door over 9.5 mm compared to a straight hinge, is there a "full cranked" hinge? Yes and no... in some models of Blum hinges there is a full cranked hinge that moves the door over 18 mm, and allows for inset doors. It is much more common to use a half cranked hinge with a special mounting plate (below), so Blum no longer makes the full cranked hinge in the "standard" 120 degree clip top hinge.

Blum is the primary vendor of European hinges (Tandem is their brand of drawer slides and other hardware). The most common type for cabinet doors is the "120 degree clip top hinge." The doors open 120 degrees, and clip to a separate mounting plate attached inside the cabinet. The part attached to the door is on the left in the picture - much of the mechanism is hidden in a 35 mm (1.378 inch diameter) or 1 3/8 inch hole drilled in the door. The part at the right clips to the mounting plate, and provides easy adjustment in/out, left and right.

The one at the bottom of the picture is the full overlay "straight" hinge, the one at the top, with the "2" written on the cup is the half overlay, or half cranked hinge. Now here is the zinger... both hinges have the part number 70T555 stamped on them. Don't believe it (apparently Blum makes the cups separately, and doesn't bother to change the number when the cups are used for different model hinges).

In the table below I have tried to summarize the Blum part numbers. Notice the leading "71" rather than "70" on all the hinges with springs to hold the door closed (self closing). Notice the 5 in the middle of the number on all the full overlay hinges, the 6 in that position of the number on the half overlay hinges. Note the 8 instead of 5 near the end of the number for dowel mount hinges (more on that later). Sometimes vendors drop the last zero in the part number.

Full Overlay Half Overlay
Screw mount, self closing Blum 71T5550 Blum 71T5650
Dowel Mount, self closing Blum 71T5580 Blum 71T5680
Screw Mount, free swinging Blum 70T5550 Blum 70T5650
Dowel Mount, free swinging Blum 70T5580 Blum 70T5680

Mounting the hinge on the door requires a 35 mm diameter hole, ½ inch deep, in most cases centered 7/8 inch (or 15/16 inch) from the edge of the door. This is a scary hole, since it has to be precisely positioned, and it goes most of the way through the door. Use a drill press if possible! If the door is thicker than 3/4 inch, exceptionally large, or other exceptions to the "standard" configuration, see the detailed Blum instructions. There are countless options, even for the 120 degree clip top hinges, so take your time if you have to go to the manual - compare the charts to the pictures - it really isn't as hard as it seems, but it may still drive you to drink.

What is the dowel mount specified above? Many cabinet shops have a machine that drills the scary 35 mm hole, plus the two side "screw holes" to mount the hinge in the door. If the screw holes are the right size and exactly the right position, you can buy the hinges with a plastic expanding piece (Blum calls it "expando") over a special screw, so you just press the hinge in and do a slight twist on the screw to install the hinge. If you don't have the special machine, the dowel mount hinges cost about the same as those without the dowel, so unscrew the plastic dowels, discard, and you have a screw mount hinge. I use screws (I don't have the machine), use a square to be sure the hinge is straight, and then use the hinge holes to position the screws in the door.

Mounting Plates

The plates that these hinges clip to, on the inside of the cabinet, are sold separately. The type I normally buy are on the right in the picture, made of two parts, Blum part number 175H7100 . Although there are three screw holes, they are normally mounted with just the upper and lower screws (#6 x 5/8"). Note the screw that is part of the plate... loosen this screw for the 2 mm up/down adjustment of the door, without loosening the mounting screws.

The plate on the left in the picture allows you to use these same hinges on a face frame cabinet. There are little bumps on the back, next to the two "oval" screw holes, to align the plate with the front edge of the face frame. These are normally mounted with #7 or #8 ¾ inch screws. The part on the left of the picture sticks into the cabinet, with nothing behind it. Blum part number 175L6600.22 (Face frames waste space, right?). Of course, with the plate on the edge of the face frame, this does not work for inset doors.

What if you need a half overlay hinge, and don't have one? If you could move where the hinge attaches to the cabinet over an extra 1/4 or 3/8 inch, wouldn't it solve the problem? Okay, put a thin piece of wood, ¼ inch thick (6 mm) or 3/8 inch thick (9 mm) under the mounting plate above, and the door is moved over that far. Blum to the rescue. You can buy a plate similar to 175H7100 above (0 mm boost), with a 3 mm boost (175H7130), a 6 mm boost (175H7160), or a 9 mm boost like the one in the picture (175H7190)

An inset door is not common in European cabinets, but if you want to use these hinges on inset doors, note that the half overlay hinge moves the door about 3/8 inch, or 9 mm, away from the hinge side of the cabinet (half the thickness of the side), so if you used a mounting plate with another 9 mm boost (or the equivalent shim), the edge of the door would be inside the cabinet. Now just put the mounting plate ¾ inch (the thickness of the door) deeper than usual in the cabinet, size the door as required, and you have an inset door hinge.

If you make lots of face frame cabinets, these are inexpensive one-piece hinge-and-plate (the picture is not Blum) that attach to the side of the face frame.

Blum has several series of similar "Compact" hinges such as their B33.3600. The Blum hinges have separate mounting plates (the doors can be taken off without removing the hinges), with your choice of plates that screw to the edge of the face frame for ½ inch overlay (B130.110.23), or ¾ inch overlay (B130.1100.22), or 1¼ inch overlay (B130.1130.02), or 1½ inch overlay (B130.1150.02).

I have not used these hinges but I have seen forum discussions that complain that they leave a substantial gap (3/16 inch) between the overlay door and the face frame.

Pull-out shelves behind doors

The standard "full overlay" hinge opens almost in alignment with the side of the cabinet... but not quite. To leave room for fine adjustment, or to allow for knobs and handles, the door intrudes into the opening by a few millimeters - less than 1/8 inch. There are two solutions: