There is really no such thing as a "universal" cabinet hinge. Most are designed to work with a specific type of cabinet and cabinet door. On this page, we'll cover the two basic types of cabinet, the three most common types of cabinet door, and why the difference matters.
Face Frame Cabinet
There are two basic modes of cabinet construction, and two main types of cabinet: face frame cabinets and framelesscabinets. For the purposes of choosing a hinge, the difference is a simple one: A face frame cabinet has an approximately 2" wood frame overlaying its front edge, and a frameless cabinet does not.
Why is that important? On a face frame cabinet, the hinge attaches to the edge or front surface of the face frame, while on a frameless cabinet, the hinge normally attaches to the inside of the cabinet wall. The simple difference in hinge geometry that results is enough to make many "face frame" hinges incompatible with frameless cabinets, and vice versa.
Hinges that are restricted to use on a certain type of cabinet are almost always designated as such. Before selecting particular a hinge, check the its specifications to make sure that it's designed to work with correct cabinet type.
Along with being designed for use with a certain type of cabinet, most hinges are designed for use with a certain type of cabinet door and may not work with other door types. Cabinet door "type" is defined by how the door is mounted in relation to the front of the cabinet and may be "overlay", "full inset", and "partial inset" (or "lipped").
Overlay Doors are larger than the opening of the cabinet and are mounted over the front of the cabinet opening.
Overlay doors are currently the most common type of door in manufactured cabinetry, and are also the easiest type to install. Because overlay doors completely cover the cabinet opening - rather than having to fit perfectly inside - they tend to be more "forgiving" when it comes to hinge installation and final alignment.
Overlay doors are common on both face frame and frameless cabinets. A "European style" cabinet is, in essence, a frameless cabinet with an overlay door, and usually employs a European style concealed hinge. Traditionally, overlay doors were most frequently mounted to face frame cabinets using standard pin type overlay hinges. But over the past few decades, European style hinges have been increasingly adapted for use on face frame cabinets, and are currently one of the most popular choices.
Full Inset Doors are inset into the cabinet opening so that the cabinet door and front edge of the cabinet are on the same plane.
Full inset are doors are the traditional choice for face frame cabinets. They offer more of a challenge for the installer than overly doors, however. To look good and operate correctly, an inset door has to fit almost perfectly into the cabinet opening, and has to be aligned to produce an equal gap (or "reveal") on each of its four sides.
Butt hinges are the most traditional type of hinge for full inset doors, but many alternatives are available, including Soss hinges, knife hinges and some types of European hinges.
Partial Inset (Lipped) Doors have a rabbet, (notch) cut into the outside edge of the door so that the door is partially inset into the cabinet opening.
Partial inset doors were a mainstay of North American cabinetry for much of the 1940's and 50's, but are much less common now.
Partial inset doors require a special type of hinge, which is sometimes called an "offset" hinge. Hinges for 3/8" inset doors (the most common dimension of notch in the door) are still available in a number of styles.
Together, the two types of cabinet and three types of door yield six possible combinations of cabinet and cabinet door. Of the six, five are common.