Dining tables are humble, hardworking home furnishings. We eat at them day after day, pretty them up for holiday dinners, yet pound on them when we need a work table. A well made table requires almost no maintenance, and in return gives generations of solid service. I’ve made over 2,000 tables in my 20 years as a reproduction furniture maker. What follows are basic points to consider in table design.
How much room to allow for each person?
Along the side of a rectangular table, allow 23" minimum width per place setting or per side chair. A roomier arrangement is 30" per setting, and that’s what you need with most arm chairs. Allow about a foot in front of each chair for a place setting, plus whatever space you need for food or centerpiece type décor in the middle of the table.
A 30 inch wide table can be really intimate, or can work in tight quarters such as a small kitchen. A table of this width unfortunately leaves little room between diners for food, dishes or décor. Table widths between 36 and 40 inches gives you about 12" in the middle of the table for dishes and décor. Forty-two inch wide tables give ample room in the middle. For extra large tables, or in extra large rooms, tables with widths of 44" work well. Widths greater than 44" begin to be almost too wide, making conversation and food passing more difficult. see Table Width Diagram
Allow at least 12" for the place settings at the ends of a table. If the table is to have a trestle or stretcher base that might encroach on knee room for the person seated at the end of a table, add even more room. Many historical examples exist where tavern tables had 14" of end overhang. see Place Setting Depth Diagram
Round tables are real space savers in that they don’t have the sharp corners. Plus, they curve away from a person seated at them, so it’s easier to slide in and out of one’s chair when in a tight room. Allow more room around the perimeter of a round table for a place setting because the place setting tapers like a pie wedge towards the center of the table. Twenty-six inches is good. Thirty inches is better. The formula for calculating the distance around a round table is pi (3.14159) multiplied by the diameter of the circle.
Consider the room dimensions, too.
People seated at a dining table need to be able to get in and out from their seats without feeling cramped. Leave 32" minimum back from the table edge for seating clearance, or you may find that someone is constantly upsetting the juice glasses, soup bowls, wine goblets…yikes! Thirty-six inches is a better space to allow for pushing a chair back from the table. When you see a diner push a chair back from the table's edge, cross their legs or clasp their hands behind their heads in a pose of relaxation, get out your tape measure. You'll find they've taken up a minimum of 44" back from the table edge for this type of behavior. see Room Dimension Diagram
The Table Base See selection of Dining Table Base Kits
Dining tables are a very standard 30" in height. This is a dimension that is in the middle of two undesirable extremes. Shorter tables are hard to get one's legs under. And higher tables put one’s plate uncomfortably high. Dining table legs are 29", which leaves about an inch for top thickness. If you’re planning on a top thicker than one inch, you can shorten the 29" legs to maintain a finished height of 30".
The apron boards that connect the table legs to form the base are generally about ¾" thick and 4" wide. This again has become standardized. Thinner or narrower aprons fail to give the required support; wider aprons fail to give the clearance for knees and thighs. One exception can be found in tables of the Queen Anne period. The aprons have a scrolled edge profile that affords more knee room by virtue of the cutaway portions of the apron. This trick can be applied to any table base if it needs to constantly accommodate a tall person.
Mortise & tenon joinery is the standard for hitching aprons and legs. It’s the traditional method and still the best. Corner braces of either wood or metal also get the job done. If you’re contemplating an exceptionally heavy top of stone or metal, you may want to consider using the mortise and tenon joint supplemented with corner braces.
A word about extension tables.
Extension tables feature tops that pull apart in the middle. Leaves are inserted in the void to make more surface area. Table slides bridge the void and support the leaves. Table slides come in many different configurations. Some are really short to fit underneath small tables, but open really wide for Thanksgiving dinner. I call these "holiday slides" because they’re great for occasional use, but somewhat rickety when used frequently. You want to select the slides that are the longest length that will fit between your aprons. This gives the best support.
Design wise, you want to plan on at least two 12" leaves in order to obtain an additional place setting on either side of the table.
One of my favorite extension tables is a fixed square base that supports a round top. The semicircular top halves open to allow plenty of room for conventional leaves. This makes a nice racetrack oval table for company, but reduces to a small space saving table for everyday use. This is made possible through the use of equalizer slides, one of the slickest gizmos in the trade. The equalizer makes opening an extension table so easy that one person can do it. It eliminates the necessity of two people pulling in absolute harmony to get the table apart. Equalizers are geared so that both leaves open at once, from one end, with one easy motion.
Top thickness is to a large extent dictated by personal preference. My background in reproduction furniture has led me to use top thickness dimensions like those on the antiques I’ve studied. Most table look good with a top thickness dimensions in the ¾" to 7/8" range. For a more informal table with a country feel, especially with larger legs I will sometimes go with a thickness up to 1 ¼". On end tables and small hall tables, I often settle on 5/8" thickness. On Shaker tables, creating a sweet balance between the base and top can be achieved by cutting a bevel on the underside of the table top to create a more delicate edge reveal.
Overhang is how much the top projects out over the base. Four inches along the sides and ends is a safe dimension. If you go more, whatever details are in the aprons (beaded edges, scrollwork, moldings, et cetera) will be overshadowed. On the ends of the table, you want a little more for visual balance, especially when using Hepplewhite legs. And for stretcher base tables, you need at least 12-14" of overhang for knee room.
A Final Caution
Style maven Martha Stewart recently put a metal top onto one of our table base kits on national TV. Ever since we have been deluged with calls about metal and stone tops to go on our bases. This creates a really nice look- and potentially a lot of weight, too. If you’re designing with metal or stone, pause and think about the weight. For heavy tops like stone, I recommend using "center turned" legs rather than off-center turned legs (such as cabriole, Queen Anne, etc.) This gets the load bearing element (the leg) "in column" with the load. This minimizes the chance of overloading the cross grain planes of weakness inherent in cabriole legs. Also, consider using additional means of bracing the base (corner brace kit) to minimize racking forces. And please, use common sense when designing tables with heavy tops. Our legs can take the weight, but if Uncle Larry gets excited and falls laterally against a table with a stone top, it could be enough force to set off a really ugly chain of events. Stay safe!
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