Make Miniature Scale Hinges
Working scale miniature hinges on models or dollhouse furniture is not something modelers make often, but they aren't particularly difficult to make using sheet brass or scrap metal from tin cans. These are simple steps to make a simple hinge, which can be modified to make a range of hinge shapes and styles for modeling purposes.
You don't need special materials or tools. You will need a basic pillar or rectangular shaped needle file, a pin, and needle-nose or beading pliers. You can practice making the hinges from material salvaged from tin cans or aluminum pop cans then go on to making custom hinges from sheet brass or copper.
Note: The problem with scale hinges is that they won't support a lot of weight, and they are difficult to anchor in a project as scale 'nails' must be very short. You can use this method to produce slightly stronger hinges by soldering the hinge ends, but you will still have the difficulty of anchoring the hinge to the miniature piece (such as doors or windows) so that it won't pull out.
- Thin sheet metal: It is easiest to practice these techniques with metal salvaged from tin cans or pop cans. The same techniques will work with thin sheet brass and other metals once you have worked successfully with free materials.
- Needle-nose or round-nose pliers: You can make these hinges with fine needle-nose pliers, but round-nose pliers (completely round with no flat sides, available from beading stores) are easier to use. Find the thinnest-ended pliers you can (smallest diameter ends).
- Metal shears or tin snips: Some kitchen shears will cut thin metals (cans/tins) as well.
- Vice: You need something to hold the metal safely while you work. A vice works best, but you can substitute vice-grip pliers or a clamp if you do not have a vise. You can handhold the material for most of the work, but you need a leather glove or something that will protect your hand from sharp metal edges.
- Flat needle file: Use a standard flat pillar-shaped file (square edges on all four sides). You can substitute a craft stick with fine diamond or carbide grit sandpaper glued to it, some sturdy nail files will also work.
- Sandpaper: Sandpaper is needed for removing any coatings on your metal.
- Dressmakers pin or jewelry headpin: To make the hinge pin.
- Fine pliers: Needle-nose pliers (round on the outside and flat on the inside) work best, these are used to bend the end of the hinge pin and to bend the curl of the hinge into shape.
- Ruler: You will need a ruler with 1/16 and 1/8-inch markings to mark the cut lines for your metal.
- Awl: Use an awl or a sewing needle or pin to mark the measurement lines on your metal for the hinge.
- Eye protection: Do not work on metal miniatures without a good form of eye protection for safety.
Make a Test Piece to Determine Your Measurements
This tutorial for making a simple scale hinge cuts the sections of the hinge before the metal is rolled. This means you don't need to clamp and saw hinge pieces with a jewelers saw but can use metal snips or kitchen shears and simple files. To make this type of hinges you do need to determine how deep to cut your metal for the rolled edge.
- Prepare your strip of metal for the test: Take a clean tin or can, and cut a two-inch long by 1/2 inch wide strip of metal. Use a file or sandpaper on a stick to sand off the edges to make them safer to work with. Don't worry if your piece of metal is square, just try to avoid having jagged edges. If necessary, use a hammer or mallet to flatten the metal. Cut a series of long strips, roughly 3/8 inch wide and two inches long from your metal strip. If you have a hinge size you want to make, you can cut your metal to slightly larger than the width of the hinge you want. Sand or file the edges to round them slightly.
- Square and mark the ends of your metal strip: Use your snips or shears to square the end of your metal strip. It is much easier to make hinges if the strip is square, instead of angled. Use your ruler to measure 1/8 of an inch back from the squared edge, then mark the metal again at 3/16 and 2/8 inches away from the edge. See the flat side of the metal in the photo above for the markings. These markings will be used to help you determine how small a loop you can roll for your hinge using your metal and tools. If you change to a thicker or thinner metal, you will need to change the measurements of your cuts.
- Start the test roll: This is the first step in making a miniature hinge of any type. You want to roll the measured end of the metal strip towards your marked measurements, rolling it into a loop that curves just past the halfway point as shown in the photo above. You can use round pointed beading pliers or needle-nose pliers for this. With beading pliers, you take one side of the metal and twist it around (see photo next step). You do not use them across the entire width of the strip as your loop would be wider on one end than the other using that technique. With needle nose pliers you bend the metal around, then use the pliers on the edge of the metal from the top of the roll to curl the roll past the center. You cannot make a hinge if you bend the wire to a sharp edge, you must practice making a roll.
- To determine the length of your metal test roll: The length you used to make a full hinge roll, finish the step on crimping the hinge roll (two steps along in this tutorial) and then check the measurement that the rolled end of your test hinge meets up with on your markings. The roll shown in the tutorial, made from a scrap of a tuna tin, uses 1/8 inch of metal for the complete roll.
Rolling a Hinge Loop With Round Nose (Beading) Pliers
To roll a scale-hinge loop with round-nose pliers (beading pliers) work only on one side of the metal hinge strip at a time. Round-nose pliers increase in diameter away from the tips, and you need both sides of the hinge to be evenly tight, so only insert the jaws of the pliers into one-half of your metal strip to roll the initial half-loop shown in the previous step. Use the pliers on the other side of the strip to form the second half of the loop evenly across one end of your metal strip.
Crimp the End of the Roll to Close the Hinge Loop
To finish the roll for your miniature hinge loop, hold a set of flat pliers on either side of the start of the curved roll shown in the test strip, and gently push the sides of the roll together. This should keep your roll round, but force the end of the roll down to meet the rest of the strip of metal. You can use round-nose (beading) pliers for this, but needle-nose pliers with a flat gripping surface are easier to use. Do not over crimp the roll, you want it to remain round with no folded edges.
This may take a few practice tries before you can make successful rolls. Pay attention to making the first curve come past the halfway mark of the curve, and practice pressing evenly across the entire curve to crimp the starting curve into a wire loop on the end of your hinge strip.
Check that your roll is the right size to fit a pin through. If it is too large, try to make your roll tighter. If it is too small, you can relax and make the roll a bit bigger.
If you ruin the roll for your hinge, just cut off the bent bits of your metal strip and start again. The extra metal length on the strip is to allow you lots of length to get the roll correct.
When making finished hinges, you will use the same technique but on each section of your hinge, in order to get a neatly rolled hinge loop. In the test cases, you are rolling across the entire width of the strip, but you won't do that when you make your final hinges.
Cutting the Preliminary Lines for the Slot
The simple metal hinges we are making have tongues and slots which fit together. The more accurate you are with your measurements, the neater your scale hinges will be. The size of your hinge is determined somewhat by the size of the slot you can cut and file in your strips of metal. We started with a simple single slot hinge of three sections, but you can easily adapt the technique to make hinges with more than three sections.
- Mark the length and width of your slot: The slot is more difficult to cut than the tongue, so it is better to start with it and make your hinge tongue to match. Using the length you need to roll your hinge (determined from your test strip), mark that length down from the end of your hinge strip, marking across the entire width of the strip. Take the file you are going to use to finish off your slot and mark the width of it roughly in the center of your hinge strip. Draw the marks for either side of the file thickness down to the mark for the slot depth.
- Cut the slot: Use your metal shears or snips (or kitchen shears) to cut down one side of the mark for the edge of your file, ending your cut at the slot-depth mark. Now move your shears to the marking for the other side of the file, and cut from that point on the end of your metal strip to the base of the straight line you just finished cutting. This should remove a long triangular section from the slot as shown above. Finish your cuts with the metal shears by cutting down the straight line of the slot on the second side of the slot to the depth measurement then lay your shears along the line that would cut from the top of the slot on the opposite side, down to the depth mark on the side you just cut. Your finished slot should have two even parallel sides, just wide enough for your file to fit between, with a small triangular point at the bottom of the slot just above the depth markings.
Make sure you cut your slot to the correct depth or slightly deeper. If you need to trim the slot, it is easier to trim a slot that is cut and filed too deep than it is to file the slot to the correct depth. That is why you work with extra metal for the finished hinge sides and don't trim it until the hinge is completed.
Filing and Finishing the Hinge Slot
- Filing the slot for your hinge: Insert your file as shown in the photo above then place it square with the bottom of the slot (it is shown at too high an angle in the photo), and file the edges and the base of the slot to a smooth rectangular shape. It is important that you keep the corners in the slot as square as possible. Try to avoid making the slot any wider than necessary to fit your file or sandpaper on the wood strip. If you are using sandpaper to finish the slot, make sure it is glued to a narrow square-edged strip of wood or wrapped around a suitable squared metal edge (a metal ruler?) to make sure you can finish the interior corners as neatly as possible. Don't worry if your slot isn't exactly in the center of your metal strip; you can trim the sides of the strip if necessary before finishing your hinge. Do make sure that the slot is squarely down the strip, however. A slot that has an angle across the strip will not work for a neat hinge.
When you have finished filing the slot, remove the strip from your vice or clamp, and lay it flat on a work surface to file down any burs along the flat edges of the strip. File down the burs on both sides of the metal strip if there are any along the edges of the slot.
Measure and Cut the Tongue Side of the Scale Hinge
Use the measurements you worked out for the depth of material you need to roll a loop for a hinge and mark that depth back from the end across a second strip of metal that is the same width as the strip you used for the slot of your hinge. Mark the width of your slot on this second piece of your hinge using a pin or an awl. Use your metal snips or shears to cut away the sides of the metal strip leaving a tongue that will fit as exactly as possible into the slot you cut in the previous step. File the edges of the tongue slightly to dull the edge, file them more if necessary to fit the tongue exactly into the slot on the other side of your hinge. Make sure that the corners at the base of the tongue are square, and that these edges meet the top edge of the slotted hinge sections when the tongue is inserted into the slot.
When you are sure the fit is as exact as you can make it (the tongue needs to slide into the slot without friction), use your round or needle-nose pliers to roll the end of the tongue, and the two sides of the slot into tight hinge loops. If you cut and filed everything correctly, the loops will be the same diameter, and there will be no extra material at the bottom of the loop.
Test fit your hinge pin into the rolled loop sections on your hinge. Make sure the pin will pass through the loop. Flatten the base of your hinge where the loop meets the rest of the strip, if necessary, using your flat-edged pliers.
- Soldering hinge loops: If you have the materials to solder the material you are working with, you can solder the hinge loop to the strip, taking care that you use a tiny amount of solder. This will make a sturdier join, but it won't add particularly to the strength of your hinge which is really determined by how you attach it to your work.
Fit the Hinge Pin Into Your Scale Hinge
If all has gone well, you should now be able to lay the two sections of your hinge on a flat surface with the loops facing up and insert the tongue section into the slot section.
Take a dressmakers pin, or jewelry head pin and insert it through all three (or more) loops joining them together. Check that your loops all meet the main section of the strip and that your hinge works as expected.
If your hinge has problems, you may not have cut the bottom of your slot square, or you may have an extra slot or tongue length past the end of your loop. As this is a skill that gets better with practice, note what went wrong, and adjust your methods to avoid the same problem next time.
Once you have a hinge that works, you can separate the sections of your hinge and use your metal shears and files to create the hinge shape you want for your project (strap, square, triangular, decorative). On paper, work out a pattern for your nail/screw holes for the hinge, and use a miniature drill appropriate to the size of pins or brads you will use to drill the holes for your attaching your hinge through the body of your hinge. It is much easier to do all of this before you cut off the extra length on the sides of your hinge. Cutting your hinge to length should be the semi-final step before filing the final edges and setting the hinge pin. In some cases, it may make sense to paint or distress the hinge to a final finish before cutting the hinge to its final length and touching up the small section where the hinge has no finish.
Setting the Hinge Pin Into the Finished Scale Hinge
To Set the Hinge Pin Into the Finished Scale Hinge
Re-insert the pin you used to test fit the hinge in the previous step, and trim the end of the pin very close (1/32 inch) to the end of the hinge while holding the top of the pin against the hinge. Use pliers to bend the end of the pin slightly. Depending on the thickness of the metal you used for your hinge and the strength of your hinge pin, sometimes it works best to gently hold the hinge with pliers along the length of the loops while you bend the pin to set it in place. This prevents the loops from springing under the stress of bending the pin.
Use a Hammer to Set the Pin
If you have a soft metal hinge pin (like brass), you can sometimes set the hinge pin by holding the hinge, finished pin end down, on a metal surface, and tapping a flat-faced hammer directly and squarely onto the cut end of the hinge pin. If done correctly (which is a bit tricky, depending on the metal for the hinge and the pin), this will flatten the end of the pin enough to hold it in the hinge. If done incorrectly, it can bend your entire hinge. Once again, practice and experience will guide you.
Your hinge is now ready to pin (nail) and glue into your project. Use glue suitable for metal and wood to hold your hinge in place. The rubberized 'gorilla' glues and two-part epoxy glues usually make the best bond.