Installing an Inset Door

Get fit with this 5-step program.

Well-fit inset doors are a hallmark of fine cabinetry, and for good reason. Installing an inset door requires a bit of skill, some patience, and a methodical approach. But the benefits are well worth the effort; the eye loves a door that’s flush with its surrounding surface, and that has a tiny, even gap, or reveal all around it. On the other hand, a door that appears undersized or skewed due to overly large and/or tapered gaps might raise eyebrows, at least among fellow woodworkers. Although the process can be a little fussy, it’s not that hard when you follow the right sequence. Here, I’ll share my approach for creating a neat, consistent reveal of about 1/32". After you go through the process a couple times, it’ll become second nature, and you’ll have tucked another serious skill under your woodworker’s belt.

Smart Prep: A square case opening and a fat door

To minimize aggravation when fitting inset doors, build your case openings as square as possible. When assembling your case, work on a dead-flat surface, use accurate squares, and take precise diagonal measurements to ensure your openings are square under clamp pressure. Also, consider cutting the hinge mortises in the case before assembling it, as it’s easier to do the work on the disconnected parts. 

To create a narrow reveal all around, you need to start with a door that will completely fill its opening. With a truly square opening, you simply build a square door to exactly match the dimensions. If the opening is out-of-square, however, you’ll need to build an oversized square door (adjusting the lengths of the rails and stiles), which you’ll then trim to fit the opening.

Before measuring the case opening to size the door, make sure the case is sitting on a dead-flat surface. I temporarily attach the case back with nails or screws at the corners to help keep things square.

                                                                               Step 1
                                                Trim the latch edge for a fat fit

The first order of business is to fit the door fairly tightly side-to-side in its opening. If the door is oversized in height, try tucking in each end individually, marking any areas that need trimming, as shown.

Remove material from the latch edge only. I use a #4 or #5 bench plane for the job because the sole is long enough to maintain a straight line, but short enough to allow creating a bit of curvature if necessary to mirror a slightly curved opening.

Too tight at the top. The bottom of this door fits snugly into its slightly out-of-square opening, but the top is a tad too wide. In this case, mark at the point of contact on the latch edge, and then take a few swipes with a hand plane above the mark on the latch edge until the door just slips into its opening.

                                                                              Step 2
                                                             Trim the bottom edge

The next step is to mark and trim the bottom edge parallel to the opening, making sure that the hinge stile is pressed tightly against the edge of the case opening. Set up for marking the cut by resting the door on its bottom edge, and shimming against the latch stile to close any gaps at the hinge stile. (Playing cards work well for the job.) If the door is taller than the opening, tape it at the top to secure it. Tape slipped through the case mortises and onto the back of the door also aids positioning.

Mark the bottom edge parallel to the opening. With the door’s hinge stile and bottom contacting the edges of the opening, measure any gap at the bottom at its widest end, and then mark the opposite end of the bottom to match. Extend a cutline from your mark to the opposite end.

Plane to the cutline. Use a sharp bench plane to trim to your cutline. Plane inward from the ends to prevent tear-out. Remove as little as possible, trimming and testing as you go, making sure to press the hinge stile firmly against the case as you check for gaps at the bottom of the door. Alternatively, this work can be done on the jointer, taking very light, careful cuts, and backing up the trailing edge to prevent tear-out.

                                                                     Step 3
                                                       Trim the top edge

With the hinge stile and bottom edge aligned with the opening, it’s time to trim the top edge, at the same time creating the reveal at the bottom. Start by marking the case 1/32" down from the top of the opening at both the left-and right-hand sides (see magnification).

Rest the door on shims to raise it about 1/32".Then knife the door stiles at the locations of the case marks, as shown. Connect the knife marks with a cutline, and trim to it. You may be removing 1/16" or so, in which case it’s best to do your trimming at the table saw, using a sled. Afterward, clean up the saw marks with a few swipes from a hand plane.

Mark the top edge for trimming. With the door raised 1⁄32", knife each stile at the location of the pencil mark you made 1⁄32" down from top of the opening. Afterward, connect the knife marks with a cutline that extends squarely across each edge and then across the front of the door.

Trim the top edge at the saw. Use a table saw crosscut sled to trim a hair shy of your cutline. To make a tapered cut, place a shim against the fence, positioning it so that the cutline is parallel to the sled kerf. Use double-faced tape to overlay a sloppy sled kerf with fresh sacrificial plywood backers. That way, you can use the freshly trimmed backer as a reference for your door’s cutline. Saw with the front face of the door upward so any exit tear-out will be on the rear face.

                                                                               Step 4
                                                 Mark and cut the hinge mortises

At this point, the top, bottom, and hinge stile edges should all be parallel to their mating opening edges. I find that it’s best to install the hinges now, and fine-tune the reveal afterward. Install the hinges in their case mortises with just a center screw. Install backer blocks in the corners of the openings as shown, press the hinge stile against the hinges, and shim under the door to create an equal reveal at the top and bottom of the door. If you’ve done your work well to this point, the latch stile will overhang the case opening by a bit, so tape it to the case to stabilize the door. Pressing the stile firmly against the hinges, precisely knife into the stile at the ends of each hinge. Then lay out and cut the mortises, working to your knife lines. Make sure to test the depth of your mortises in scrap to fine-tune the reveal, which should be about 1/32". Attach the hinges to the door with one screw each, and then mount the door on the case, again with only one screw per hinge. If slight hinge misalignment impedes installation, lengthen a mortise to suit, and reattach the hinge, drilling for a different screw this time. (This is why you only attach the hinges with one screw per leaf until the door is properly hung.)

Backer blocks for resistance. Use double-faced tape to attach scrap blocks to the case at the corners of the opening, setting them back the thickness of the door frame. They’ll help keep the door in place for final fitting.

Locate the hinge mortises. After shimming under the door to create equal reveals at the bottom and top, use a knife to transfer the hinge end locations onto the stile. Work as precisely as possible in order to maintain the reveals you have established at the top and bottom of the door. 

                                                                               Step 5
                                                       Trim and bevel the latch edge

The last step is to create a reveal at the latch stile, beveling it at the same time to allow easy door closure. If you’ve done your work properly to this point, the door won’t close at the latch stile. Start by simultaneously trimming and beveling it until it just barely fits into the opening. This is easily done on the jointer, cautiously removing small amounts at a time to avoid overcutting. If the resulting gap at the latch stile is very small, you can use shims as shown to gauge the final reveal. After hand planing to your cutline, rehang the door one last time to check the final fit, and finesse any edges to create consistent reveals all around the door. Keep in mind that some trimming can be done with the door attached, using a block plane. Then step back and admire your work. Nicely done! 

Jointing a taper. If a stile needs a tapered cut, you can do the work easily on the jointer. Simply lower the narrower end of the tapered cutline onto the jointer’s outfeed table just past the spinning cutterhead, and then feed normally. Repeat this procedure until the cut is parallel to the cutline, and then take full-length passes to reach the cutline. Here, the fence is angled to produce a 2° back bevel.

Perfect reveal scribing. Relocate the latch stile backer blocks inside the case to allow slightly insetting the door. Then use 1⁄32" worth of shims as an offset gauge to mark for the latch stile reveal. Finally, hand plane to the cutline. This ensures a perfect reveal, even if the case divider is slightly bowed. 

Well-hung doors need well-made hinges

When fitting inset doors, don’t thwart yourself by using crappy stamped hinges from the hardware store. Their poorly fit pins often result in sloppy door reveals, and the leaves look shoddy. Well-made extruded hinges cost considerably more, but are well worth it. They’re beautifully machined for precise operation, and will stand as lifelong testament to pride in your work.

Stamped vs. extruded. The cheap hardware store hinge at left clearly shows stamping imperfections, poor barrel wrapping, and a sloppily fit pin. The precisely machined extruded hinge at right has thicker leaves, beautiful fit and finish, and a pin/barrel fit with absolutely no slop.

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