Consider these points when buying an old table

If you are going shopping for an older or antique dining table there are some things you need to pay attention to that probably would not be relevant to shopping for a new table.

Table Origins

“Table” – the word itself best describes its origin. It comes from the Latin word tabula meaning board in the masculine gender and for many hundreds of years that is exactly what a dining table was – a board sitting atop a trestle of some sort. It could quickly and easily be disassembled and stored, making room for more important activities.

The concept of a fixed flat surface is as old as Egyptian civilization but the exact purpose of the tables from that era is unknown. Like the art of glass making, the idea of a stationary dining table foundered for centuries until almost instantly achieving a modern configuration in the form of the refectory table, used to furnish the dining halls of 15th century European monasteries. Expanding tables in the form of the draw table appeared in Italy, France and England in the early 16th century and other types such as the drop leaf and the center opening came later in the same century.

Now that the obligatory history is out of the way let’s go table shopping. Most tables consist of two primary elements – the top and whatever holds it up. We’ll start at the bottom.

Anatomy of a Small Table

Small tables like lamp tables or coffee tables are usually constructed to remain assembled with the top securely fastened to the base or leg arrangements but many larger tables, like dining tables and banquet tables are designed to be disassembled for transportation or storage. And, as we all know, if it can be disassembled lots of things can happen, most of them not good. Pieces can be misplaced or discarded. Sometimes the person who took it apart isn’t the one who reassembles it so parts don’t always go back in the same place from which they came or in the same order in which they were removed. It doesn’t always matter but sometimes it does.

First, make sure the legs or base actually belong to the top. To do this you have to get under the table, down to its level. The support structure ideally is the same color and the same wood as the top. That is not always the case but it’s a place to start. What should always be the case is that the style of the base is the same as the skirt and top. A Duncan Phyfe-style pedestal base is rarely mated to an oak draw top. The base or legs should be securely attached to the top or the frame by screws, bolts, pegs, glue blocks or combinations of any of these. Closely examine the underside of the table and frame to detect evidence of the existence of another base or set of legs. Look for unused screw holes in key places and keep an eye out for variations in color of the adjacent wood, a shadow which perhaps indicates where something else used to be. One key clue to major restoration work or alteration is sometimes the existence of measurements or notes written under the table.

Eye on Mechanisms

While you are under there pay particular attention to the slide mechanism if the table is a center opening expansion model. Many tables that open to accommodate more than two leaves were originally fitted with a center support leg to take a load off the actual sliding mechanism. Center support legs are notorious for their absence. Check the under portion of the slides for evidence of a missing center leg in the form of screw holes to nowhere and the outline of the cross member that was attached to the missing leg. This cross member would have been attached to the center of the middle component on each side of the mechanism. Tables with center legs almost always have an odd number of components in the slide mechanism so that the center component, which is not attached to either table half, stays in the center with the extra leg when the table is opened. While you are checking out the slides, make sure they are securely fastened to the tabletop with both screws and glue blocks. Rock them back and forth to check the stability.

Understanding Hardware

The last thing to check while you under the table is any auxiliary hardware or the lack thereof. If the table is an expansion table there should be a locking mechanism of some sort to keep the table closed. It may be as simple as latches, similar to window locks. In older tables the halves of the top are sometimes held in place with square “C” shaped appliances called “table forks” that fit into receivers on each side of the table opening. Make sure the forks are present and that they fit. The lock may be a combination opening and closing mechanism consisting of a handle with a long operating rod or wire. Again vacant screw holes are an indicator that something is missing. Now get out from under there and let’s go to the top.

A flat level top is an admirable trait in a dining table and that should be the first thing to look at. With your eye next to the edge at tabletop height, look down the length of one side of the table. The side view should present a straight, level, and undrooping horizontal line. Check out both sides and the ends just to make sure. If the table drops or rises where it opens that means there is a problem with the support structure and you have to go back down below to find it. The same if the top is not exactly horizontal.

Joint and Operations

Run your hand across the joint where the table halves meet in the middle of the table. You should barely be able to feel it. It should be level across the joint – i.e. one side not higher or lower than the other. The two sides of the joint should not rise or fall as they approach the middle. A swelling across the joint may indicate unseen water damage in the wood or in the underlayment beneath the veneer.

Now it’s time to check the operation of the table if it is an expansion table. With a person at each end of the table (and with any locking mechanism disengaged) the table should part smoothly without excessive force or jerking. If it doesn’t open at all, recheck the locks and then look for screws in the slides that might indicate the table has been screwed closed.

The slides may need lubricating to make them work easily. Use an upholstery grade silicon spray for that purpose. If the table has a single pedestal it may have what are called “equalizer” slides. This type of slide has a gear operating a toothed track in the slide that allows one person to open both sides of the table at one time. When they work they are a delight. When they don’t they are a nightmare and will need to be repaired or replaced. 

Level Leaves

Now it’s time to check out the leaves. There should be enough leaves to fill the entire opening in the table with the exception of two or three inches for installation purposes. Do the leaves match the table? Do they match each other? Are they numbered in some way? Check the edges and the bottoms for a numbering system that indicates how the leaves fit best when installed in the table. Finally, install the leaves and make sure everything fits.

There is nothing like the facts. Use a tape measure to determine if the table will fit in your intended space. Remember that you need to have at least 36 inches of clearance between a chair back and the wall; measured while someone is seated at the table. Most importantly, measure the height of the table. The distance from the floor to the top surface should be between 29 1/2 and 30 1/2 inches. You may be surprised at how accustomed you are to that standard height and how uncomfortable a variation of even an inch can be. If the table is less than 29 1/2 inches high, either it has been cut or it’s missing a piece like a caster. If the table is too tall, something has been added or it has been altered. One possibility is that the slides have been replaced with the wrong size mechanism. Another possibility is that the top and base do not match. 

Table Philosophy

Now a little philosophy: A dining room table is often a very expensive acquisition. It will serve as the focal point of the dining area and should be displayed with pride. However, when dinner is served your guests aren’t there to admire the table and you should take precautions to insure that your table will look as great after dinner as it did before. You can’t adequately protect your table with placemats, sheets, blankets or a plastic tablecloth. You need professionally made table pads. Good ones. They are cheap in the long run.


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