Posted by: Brad Nixon | June 29, 2018

How Do I Use a Butt Marker?

I had occasion to use my butt marker yesterday. If you’ve never used a butt marker, it’s simple and extremely helpful. This article provides some simple instructions for effective use.

Some etymological background will explain the origin and meaning of the term.

As we often do with language, we English speakers have conflated a number of antecedents and use the single word, “butt,” to signify a number of different things and actions. It’s the despair of non English-speakers who try to master the language.

Butt Origins

First, most obviously, the butt is the end of a physical object, typically the thick end. It may be the end of a cigarette, spear or pool cue, and many others.

My dictionaries disagree on its origin. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) — compiled a century ago — says there are a number of possible antecedents in Old Danish, Norse, German and other languages that have a word like “butt,” signifying the end. The American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) directly controverts the OED, claiming Middle English got the word from French, where it still persists as but, “end.” It’s likely that “buttocks” is descended from “butt.” My Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (CAD) — from 1894 — cites the existence of an 11th century buttuc, presumably derived from “butt.” However, butt appears nowhere in recorded Old English and the OED ignored the CAD citation, so I assume it’s been discredited.

A now-obsolete use of butt referred to a large variety of fish, possibly because of their blunt heads. It’s preserved in our present-day name for halibut.

Several other butts derive from a different meaning of French but: “target” or “goal.” For example, a French football goalkeeper is a gardien de but. Middle English adopted the word in that sense as butte. It was common in archery, in which there’s something behind a target to stop errant arrows. Since then, we’ve shed the final e, but Archery still has “target butts.” However, many things were used as target butts, including hills, and tall, individual prominences in the American southwest preserve the Middle English spelling and are buttes, like Fajada Butte, in New Mexico.

Chaco Canyon Brad Nixon 2888 Fajada Butte adj (640x507)

Another related sense of butt as target is when one is the butt of humor or ridicule. The word looks the same as a cigarette butt, but has a separate etymology.

Yet another butt in English is a large cask or barrel, alternatively a measure of volume equivalent to approximately 126 U.S. gallons or about 477 liters. That one derived from yet another Old French word, boute, which both OED and AHD tell us stems from a late Latin word, buttis, although it’s not listed in my Cassel’s Latin Dictionary.

Sigh. So many butts, and we’re not yet to the reason that I have a butt marker in my toolbox, why I need to mark a butt, or what sort of object that particular butt is.

A Verb Butts in

There’s a predicate sense of “butt,” which is to bump into or collide with something, usually with the head, typically indicating intention, as when one animal butts another. The original Middle English verb butten derived from Old French bouter, to strike. Now we have a verb, butt — not to mention the derived substantive, head-butt —that looks just like the noun with all those other meanings. Welcome to English.

And, finally …

Associated with that verbal sense of butt, we reach our goal, the sort of butt for which one needs a butt marker. It has do with butting two things together, as in placing them end-to-end or edge-to-edge.

A common type of door hinge abuts the edge of a door. The hinges are called butt hinges. That’s different from a typical cabinet hinge or the hinge on a gate, which is usually mounted on the face or surface of the door. You’ll use your butt marker when you install butt hinges.

butt hinge Brad Nixon 3016 640

Using the Butt Marker

A butt hinge rests in a recess routed into the wood so that the face of the installed hinge sits flush with the surface of the door and the door jamb, as you see above. You want to rout that hinge recess carefully, neatly. That’s where your butt marker is indispensable.

butt marker Brad Nixon 3030 640

As the photo above shows, butt markers have sharp edges that score the wood, and are available in sizes that match the hinges you’re installing. Align the butt marker on the edge of the door precisely where you want the hinge (I’m using the edge of a 2×4, so I don’t mark up a good door).

butt marker position Brad Nixon 3034 640

Strike it a sharp, clean blow with your hammer.

butt marker hammer M Vincent 3033 640

That scores the wood to provide a guide for your chisel as you remove wood to the correct depth.

marked butt chisel Brad Nixon 3027 640

As you cut deeper, use the butt marker repeatedly to further score the wood until you have your finished hinge slot. Tidy, convenient and accurate. Congratulations. You’ve marked and installed your butts.

hinge routed Brad Nixon 3017 640

A Final Tip

Never hire an amateur etymologist to install a door. You’ll be stuck standing there listening to him explain the origin of the term “butt hinge” while the meter is running and you agonize over how to shut the guy up and get him to work. Advise him to spit out all the butt-ends of his ways and days and get on with it.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Citations from A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, J. R. Clark-Hall, 2011, Wilder Publications; The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 2000 Houghton Mifflin; The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 1971, Oxford University Press




  1. I love this. I deal with butt hinges all the time, but I didn’t know there was a butt marker, and I certainly hadn’t thought of all the ways butt butted into our language. An enjoyable read, for sure. I’ve sent it on to one of my finish carpenter friends who probably will enjoy it, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your carpenter may well tell you that HE (or SHE) uses a butt gauge, not a marker. A different approach to accomplish the same thing, probably favored by more traditional craftsmen (e. g. my dad). I wanted to include it, but simply spent too much time on etymology to introduce another tool.


  2. Thanks! Came across your site while I was searching (in vain) to try and find a butt hinge marker that will mark hinges with a 1/4″ radius. There are 5/8″ radius and square corner versions galore, but I can’t find one to fit the very common 1/4″ radius hinge. Aargh! Enough of my griping though. Interesting article!


    • Hi – just wondering if you came across the 1/4″ radius. I’m looking for the same thing.


      • I’ll reply. Sorry to be tardy. Thank you.


  3. How timely! We are replacing the butt hinges on our front door. It also inspires me to ask if everyone has noticed that screwing a screw in straight is a lost art? My father worked on renovations of government buildings, including the White House, during the Depression; he would have had a fit!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Not sure what to say. Use a hand screwdriver, not a machine. And don’t drive ’em in with a hammer, which my great-grandfather called “Pittsburgin'” a screw.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. After positioning the hinge use an awl to make a hole to start the screws.


    • Andrew, thank you.
      Using an awl not only marks the spot, but gives one a starter in which to drill a pilot hole. Practical.
      I’ll reread the post and consider incorporating your advice.


  5. Good description and explanation of how use this tool. Thx, Dan


    • Thank you. My apologies for the tardy response.


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