Dining Table Design Basics

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 30 years as a 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 below)

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.

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.

The Table Base

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 the apron-less tables of the Mid-Century Modern period. These are fun, light furnishings, that when kept to modest scale, work very well without support by aprons.

Mortise & tenon joinery is the gold standard for hitching aprons and legs. You can buy a table base from us using this joinery here. These bases require glue, clamps and at least a D.I.Y. skill level.

Our Easy-Base system (patent pending) combines authentic mortise and tenon construction with the best modern technology for a base that assembles in minutes, requires no extra tools or glue, will not work loose and can be disassembled for transport or storage. Easy-Base gives you an heirloom table base with less fuss and more practicality.

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, (LINK) 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 Tips

Design your own table top using our nifty table top configurator here.

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 3/4" 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 1/4". On end tables and small hall tables, I often settle on 5/8" thickness. There is a whole article on table top thickness here.

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.

The full package

Design your own complete table with the easy-to-use Table Configurator here. A table you feel good about is derived from many inputs- ergonomics, room size, table width, base considerations and top thickness. Once you have pondered these questions, you can move on to style. Remember that the character of a table is largely determined by the style of the leg. Color is largely based in the choice of wood species. I encourage you to noodle around with the Configurator to help you design a table that you will treasure for a lifetime! Have fun with your project.

VIDEO: Table Building Made Easy

Watch Matt assemble a base kit and learn tips & technique in this 4-part series.

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