Hinge Placement Rules and Traditions

Here's a long and thorough look at the reasons for the traditional placement of hinges on architectural doors. April 22, 2014

I am making an interior door and was wondering what if any rules of thumb there are for hinge placement? I plan on taking a look at standard doors and seeing what manufacturers do, but would like to know if there are any guidelines.

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Forum Responses
(Architectural Woodworking Forum)
From contributor H:
If you are working on only one door, I would make it match any other doors in the structure. I just replaced all the interior doors in a house and left half the hinge in the jambs and routed hinge mortises in the new doors to fit.

From contributor W:
Match what is there or 7 from the top, 11 from the bottom. That's how I was taught anyway.

From the original questioner:
Thanks. Just curious, what's the rhyme and reason to these rules?

From contributor D:
The rules are there to be broken. I have no problem with the Stanley standards, or anyone else's hinge placement. Mostly it is what we are used to seeing, even if subliminally. When I think of hinge placement, I don't see the physics as being different if the hinge is 9" or 11" off the floor. More important today is the proper shimming and fastening of those industrial 9/16" thick jambs.

From contributor N:
I always heard the bottom hinge was higher to be able to use a punch and hammer to knock the pin out. Every time I try to knock a pin out on a door that has been cut shorter from the bottom I can see why.

From contributor D:
By the way, better hinges should not have the pins removed. If they do, they need to be kept together so that each leaf and the same pin all go back together. I get calls every now and then from rookies that knock out the pins on ball bearing 5x5s or 6x6s and then complain that they all fell apart. This is after they break off 3 or 4 #12 brass screws or strip out the heads, because they were too lazy/naive to punch and pre-drill.

From the original questioner:
This is starting to make more sense to me. I've dismantled my fair share of doors and noticed just what you say about knocking out the pin. I thought there was another more scientific reason for the hinge placements. I just thought I would use my fabrication of interior doors as an opportunity to learn something new.

From contributor L:
I've always done 6" from the top and 10" from the bottom and the other centered between them.

From contributor C:
7-11 as stated. Also, I recently learned from a door shop that door knobs are now standard at 42" from top down of 6-8" door vs 36" (on center) from floor in order to keep more consistency.

From contributor K:
Left to my own devices, I like to line up the hinges with the top and bottom rail heights on a stile and rail door, with intermediate hinges equally spaced.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for all the information. I started with the fabrication and decided to go with 6 from the top and 11 from the bottom. There are no comparable doors in the client's home and most doors have pipe or barrel type hinges so the look and function are completely different.

Here it is in progress. I mocked up the frame to some cabinets and the floor in my shop. The doorway is lower than the standard height, the adjoining walls that I will attach the door frame to are concrete so I will use expansion bolts countersunk and covered with a molding. It's really a sort of basement door; it'll get attached to the walls of a hallway leading to the stairs going down.

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From contributor L:
No center hinge? Hope that long stile is going to be stable over the years.

From the original questioner:
Nope, no center hinge needed. The door is less than 2 meters tall and the door frame is getting attached on either side to concrete walls. I will use expansion bolts so there won't be any movement whatsoever.

From contributor S:

I am not an expert but have hung thousands of doors. Hinges are sized and the number required are based on the size and weight of the door. Light, hollow core doors that are 6'8" only require 2 hinges with a cheap pin. Bigger solid core doors require 3 or 4 or more hinges with ball bearings. Hinges are generally spaced out equally to also keep the door straight. The top hinge is a little closer to the top, usually about 7" as it is always in tension with the forces applied. This keeps the top of the door from rubbing on the frame opposite the hinge. The lower hinge is usually about 10" from the bottom and it is always in compression with the forces applied to it. The doors also have 3 degree bevel on both edges. But honestly if it works and you like the looks, put the hinges wherever you like!

From contributor I:
The rule of thumb I learned in apprenticeship was 11 inches from the bottom, 7 from the top, with other(s) spaced equally in between. Nobody ever told me why, but I believe I know the reason. In traditional trim here in Chicago, the base was often around 10" tall, and the door casings rested on plinth blocks also around 10" tall. And bottom door rails were around 10" tall. This way, the base and door bottom rails aligned, with the top of the plinth slightly above, and the hinge sitting above them.

The attached photo shows a door from a salvage yard I hung in my own house, taking a shortcut of using the existing door hinge mortise cut lower than 10". You can see that the hinge now falls part way on the plinth, rather than above it, which is not very attractive (to a trim carpenter, anyway).

Also here in Chicago, every old door you will ever come across was hung on two hinges, not three. Three hinges were not necessary, I believe, because stile and rail panel doors are relatively light, the jambs were thick, and the old-growth wood stayed straight.

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From the original questioner:
To be honest, it is a heavy door. I tried to keep the weight down but with solid cherry there is only so much you can do. Now the client is pressing me to deliver and install them and doesn't want any lacquer smells. I just can't get him to understand that between three and four weeks is real quick for fabrication and installation.

From contributor L:
That's one of my favorites. So as soon as you are done with the finishing you can deliver, right. And I don't want any smell, okay?

From contributor D:
I agree that the upper hinge is in tension (lower hinge in compression is assumed). But does anyone think a 1-3/4" x 5" stile is going to deflect - across the width, no less - if the hinge is located 10" or 14" down, letting that upper corner rub the frame? Only if the hinge bends or the jamb is not properly secured and shimmed could that happen.

Any play inherent within the hinge leaves would be magnified and eventually come into play if one (theoretically) kept moving the upper hinge down the stile, and/or the lower hinge up.

I agree with the various placements and reasons, but I see hinges as also keeping the door flush to the jamb when closed. Out of flat stiles can be tamed by good hinges. Not that I would ever do that, of course.

From contributor A:
The actual reason for keeping the hinges higher on the bottom of a door versus the top are the rails themselves.

Back in the day, many doors were made with through mortises. Meaning that the tenon of the rail went straight through the stile. It would be a poor location for mounting the hinge, since you would be going into the end grain of the rail.

The through tenon was a UK joinery thing. In America they switched to a stopped tenon joint. Interestingly they still use the through tenon joint with wedges on new doors in Australia. Obviously with modern adhesives the wedges are not necessary.

From contributor D:
Makes perfect sense. I never thought about the through tenons in light of hinge placement. We have done several through tenon historical repros over the years, but I honestly don't recall where the hinges went. I would also much prefer to mortise the hinges into stiles instead of end grain. Through tenons in Australia? How about that. I see more and more doors here with just stick and cope as the tenon - maybe a dowel or two.

From contributor N:
If a door is open flat against a wall, does the bottom hinge then become the hinge in tension?

From the original questioner:
I moved on to finishing and I see I need to do a lot more standing. The reason for hinge placement may be because of the through tenons, but there is very little movement of the hinges if any. I know because I really tried yanking the doors to see how they would fair in use. As for the smell I will wax the doors two days after finishing and I find that really helps.

From contributor Q:
For me nothing is more unsightly than a door littered with hinges. Properly sized and quality hinges coupled with a good installation is what makes the door. I find it fascinating how many big old entry doors you see hung on two hinges, and doing fine a hundred years later.

From contributor A:
I worked for 4 days at a joinery shop in South Australia a couple of years ago. They do the through tenon. These are not fancy doors. These are basic, simple square edged doors. It is the standard construction method.

I am painting our house today. It is a typical house built in 1970. The simple exterior doors are all through tenon. When I worked in Connecticut we built a couple to match some real old doors. You just don't see them too often in New England.

They do the wedges by cutting the outside of the mortises last. So that the chisel deflects. Making a slightly tapered opening. Hammer two wedges for each tenon. It holds like a bastard. I think it makes for an ugly door, but I guess only you and I look at the edges of doors.

Very quickly I noticed they use flat shims for hanging doors called "packers." No shingles. I have to make my own. I have never seen someone waste so much time looking for stuff to pack a door out. The carpenters I work with were amazed when I started using my own shims. I felt like a genius. It's amazing the things you notice when you move country. Yes, I like the metric system.

From Gary Katz, forum technical advisor:
7 and 11 are the most common layouts, but I've seen homes where the third hinge isn't centered but very near to the top hinge - as much as 12-14" lower. I saw a lot of doors with that hinge layout in England, and if you look at the instructions for Soss hinges, you'll see the same thing - I think the reason is to carry as much of the weight of the door on two hinges rather than one (top tension weight). I really don't think carpenters ever worried about hinge stiles bending. They worried about the hinges and the jamb moving.

And from personal experience, I believe the 11" bottom hinge rule is because of plinth blocks and pin removal - I know I've thanked that tall layout many times!

From contributor U:
That is a common way doors are hung in Europe. We hang heavy doors that way with screw hinges.

From the original questioner:
I completed the job and had to go back the next day to do the nitty gritty stuff. Thanks - this has definitely been a learning experience.

From contributor Y:
I make most all my doors with through tenon, pegged or wedged. Hinge placement is certainly dictated by the location of the through tenon. I was not following historic detail - it just made sense.

I wonder how much of the current trend in door hanging is dictated by cheap doors, cheap hinges, and quick and easy installs. Finger jointed doors may certainly need a third hinge just from an engineering standpoint. I have seen failure in the finger jointed door many times over. The newer flat slab veneer skinned doors are mortised to be used upside down or inside out whatever. Maybe others as well.

From contributor G:
I've been building custom doors for about twenty years, and hanging doors for longer than that. I can't say I remember where I first learned the rules on hinge placement, but I think it was simply by observation of the existing doors in the 18th and 19th century New England homes that I was working on. I grew accustomed to the aesthetics of the traditional hinge placement used on these older homes. And why second-guess something that was time-tested?

The top of the upper hinge butt lines up with the bottom edge of the head rail. The bottom of the lower hinge butt lines up with the top of the kick rail. Any additional hinges are distributed equally between.

These rules are clearly based on traditional proportioning of the door components, such as a wide kick rail, and obviously won't work in every situation, but have served me well for many years doing mostly historically-based architectural millwork.

One other note: many years ago I met a retired union door-hanger and lock-fitter who spent his career working in Manhattan. He followed the same rules that I did, and was vehement in his belief that this was the right and only way to place hinges. He told me that he would test an aspiring apprentice by asking him to lay out the hinges for a door. If he did it wrong he would kick the trainee off the job (the guy was a bit of a jerk, but he sure knew his way around a door).

From the original questioner:
I'm not sure the rules would have worked for my doors being that the top (head) and bottom (kick) rails were the same dimensions as the side rails so the spacing would have ended up the same for the top and bottom hinges. I believe in more traditional doors the lower rail is wider than the top and dividing rails (if any). Even though (at least in my case) there aren't any pins to be removed, I thought the forces of pulling open and closing a door would best be served by having the hinges placed at the 6" and 11" positions. I wasn't sure this would matter so much but I tried to follow the advice that was given in previous posts (playing it safe).

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From contributor I:
Having apprenticed and learned the trade as a union carpenter myself, I can tell you that the description of the Manhattan door hanger's rules sounds about right. We were always taught to align everything around the room as much as possible.

However, one of the reasons that carpentry is a trade and not just a set of rules that can be looked up, is there are many variables that require judgment and experience. Head blocks are very common in traditional Chicago door trim. The bottom of the head blocks also often align with the bottom of the top door rail. So if you try to align the top of the hinge with the bottom of the top rail, the hinge will crowd the head block.

The photo is the same door I posted earlier. The top hinge mortise is at 7". Looks about right to me.

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From contributor Z:
A lot of good practical sense here. For what it's worth, I was told by a mathematician that, in order to keep the door and jamb parallel, hinges should be placed by Karl Gauss' rule for equalizing curves.

Draw a semicircle from the center of height of the stile. Cut that 180 angle by as many lines as there are to be hinges. Where those lines hit the semicircle, draw horizontals to the door. Center the hinges on the lines.

That said, I like them lined up with the rails as described.

From contributor D:
I love it! That has to be the most oblique reasoning I have ever heard. I will have to look that one up.

From contributor P:
That's why he's a mathematician. I need another coffee or beer to understand that answer.

It's dictated by the tenon location. Ideally you would want the hinges at the very edges of the doors to counteract the tension at the top and the compression at the bottom.

It's very common to shim the bottom hinge because being 11" off the floor is not enough to cope with the bottom binding on the jamb.

My opinion on 2 hinges versus 3 hinges is simple. Many old doors had 2 large hinges with thick leafs and large screws. As long as that deals with the shear load the door should be fine. They used much coarser threads on larger screws which resist pullout better than the smaller screws we now use.

Three hinges allows you to reduce the overall size of the hinges by distributing the loads. The location of the middle hinge is more aesthetic than anything. Unfortunately these days three hinges are necessary to keep the jamb straight on cheap doors.