Building Tables – Table Design

The original and quintessential function of a table is to provide a flat surface for writing, playing games, eating, or working. And the form of any given table may be as varied as these uses. So it is of the utmost importance to be clear at the outset about the requirements of the table you intend to design, whether it’s a small coffee table or large dining table. There are not only structural requirements – so that the table can do its intended job – but also ergonomic requirements. The most exquisite dining table will be a failure if it proves too small to seat diners comfortably.

Attention to function is absolutely the designer’s first responsibility. Familiarize yourself with tables designed for similar functions, and note features designed for specific purposes, such as sturdy legs for heavy loads, drop or draw leaves for tables that must expand, lipped tables designed to prevent objects from falling off, and drawers or shelves for storage. A reference such as Architectural Graphic Standardsby Charles Ramsey and Harold Sleeper (John Wiley & Sons, 1998) is a useful place to explore table types by function and a basic reference for dimensions.

While your own experience and tools will dictate to a large extent how any given table is constructed, resist the impulse to build only what you are comfortable with. It is worth researching a new technique or a new joint for better function or a more pleasing shape.

At the same time, don’t get carried away by the urge for novelty. Use appropriate species, relevant construction methods, the right joint for the job – dovetail, mortise and tenon, dowels, biscuits, etc. – and a finish consistent with the intended use.

Dining dimensions

While it’s important to make sure a table is sized to fit its intended space, these dimensions will get you close to a design that gives people elbow room.

Comfort a critical factor

Overall table height, legroom below the apron, overhang on the table ends, and the space allotted for each diner should all be considered when designing a dining table.

Table size and seating capacity

While 29 in. of elbow room per person is ideal, it’s not always possible. These examples give an idea of how many people fit comfortably around a given table size.

Legs set the style

To a great degree, all tabletops are the same. They’re flat and intended to support something. While the wood species, the edge treatment, and the apron certainly can make stylistic statements, the legs most clearly establish a table’s function and style.

It is possible to discern the function of the table by looking at the legs. Four heavy legs joined by a horizontal stretcher tell us that this is a library table intended to sup-port a load of books. Light and gracefully tapered legs that focus attention on the tabletop, as if it were floating, suggest that this may be a hall table for the display of some precious ornament.

Legs are frequently the key to identifying a table’s style. For example, a Queen Anne table’s top and apron are typified by restrained ornamentation. It is the cabriole legs that allow us to recognize the style. The same is true of the Shaker style, whose simple and efficient legs carry their load with no ornamentation or excess weight. And the Art Deco tables designed in the 1920s by Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann cast away traditionalism in favor of legs with sensuous curves.

Table-height guidelines

Although there are endless possibilities regarding style, shape, ornamentation, and proportion when designing furniture, start with proven dimensions suited to the function the piece will serve.

Occasional tables

A coffee table should afford views across a room, while an end table should be a convenient height to someone seated in an armchair or sofa.


The height of a table is critical to someone who spends hours working at it.

Three paths to pleasing proportions

A design rationale is crucial to building tables with pleasing proportions. The three described below are proven approaches, but others are possible.

Repeating geometric shapes provide order

Squares, cylinders, cubes, circles, ovals, or ellipses can be used to define both the overall shape and the details of a table, providing it with a repeated pattern that unifies the whole structure.

A number progression is a subtle design device

Starting with a 1-in.-thick tabletop, for example, you might construct legs that measure 2 in. sq. and an apron that is 3 in. deep. Relating all dimensions to a common unit, either in multiples or regular increments, provides the table with an implied pattern that unifies components without being immediately apparent to the eye.

Classical proportion system pleases the eye

The Golden Mean is the ratio of 1 to 1.618, represented by the Greek letter phi (φ). A tabletop might be designed so that its long side was 1.618 times longer than its short side. The ratio might also be used to determine the dimensions of the various parts of a table. The apron might be φ times the width of a leg, the leg φ times the thickness of the tabletop.

Tie all elements together

Given that the functional requirements have been satisfied, and that the construction is sufficiently workmanlike, the most striking feature of any table is how well it fits in with its surroundings. This can mean designing in an established style such as Queen Anne or Arts and Crafts, or designing so that the general proportions, shapes, and colors are compatible with neighboring pieces. Compatibility can result from similarity or contrast. A severely modern design might fit very well with the relatively simple lines of a room full of Shaker furniture, but might look uncomfortably out of place in a room furnished in a ponderous Gothic or an ornate 18th-century style.

Designing in a particular period style can be difficult. It is not enough to employ superficial features of a period to achieve the right feeling. Slapping cabriole legs onto a table, for instance, does not guarantee that it will look “Chippendale.” Arts and Crafts furniture is not as uncompromisingly rectilinear as it may appear. And Shaker furniture, for all its apparent simplicity, is often surprisingly sophisticated in its proportions. Incorrect details can produce ludicrous and unhappy results, similar to applying a distinctive Rolls-Royce hood to a Volkswagen Beetle.

Before attempting to design a table in a period style, understand the typical construction techniques, the common materials, and the forms that governed the proportions. This last point – forms that govern proportions – is more important than almost anything else. The term simply means that, functional and structural requirements aside, some method has been employed to decide on all the dimensional details of your table. Making decisions about the exact width of a leg or the depth of a skirt or apron based on structural requirements alone may guarantee solid joinery, but your table may not look as balanced and graceful as it could if designed according to some plan.

There are, in fact, numerous paradigms commonly used by designers, some exceedingly simple, others sophisticated. You may, indeed, invent your own paradigm or plan – the point is that using virtually any plan is better than making decisions about exact dimensions based on nothing more than what material is conveniently at hand, or what size router bits are available.

Table-base options

Not only must legs be appropriately sized to support the tabletop, they’re usually the element that makes the strongest design statement.

Simple leg and apron construction

For lighter-duty tables, the apron-to-leg joint (above) is stiff enough, and provides a light, graceful look. Stretchers add both physical and visual sturdiness to tables that bear heavier loads (right).

Two other time-honored systems

Dining tables must provide room for people to sit. Both the trestle and pedestal designs accomplish this by minimizing the number of table legs. The legs of trestle tables typically are set in from the end, making room all around for chairs.