For the last two years, Peter Follansbee and I have been having a conversation about trestle tables – or rather, we’ve been talking about two different forms of furniture that seem to share the same name.
The term “trestle” is first recorded in the English language about 1400 (“Richard Cœur de Lion” c1330-1450): “They sette tresteles, & layde a borde”). These early references and the paintings from the same period indicate a “trestle table” is actually two or more freestanding stools that are then covered by a board to make a table. It is early knock-down furniture.
Sometime in the last few hundred years, that form has mostly disappeared as a dining table, and the name “trestle table” now belongs to a permanent table where two end assemblies are joined by a long stretcher. The top is joined to the base. Something more like this:
This is basically the form of table that I have at my home, and I love it. It is remarkably lightweight, strong as heck and requires little material to build (the materials for the base cost me $30). I have no desire to replace this table, and I don’t think it could be improved in any way. I even like where my youngest daughter burned through the finish with some nail polish remover the week after I completed the project.
But I need to build another “trestle table” for an upcoming class on the form at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking that starts Monday, July 8. During this class, we’ll spend a day learning about trestle tables from the 1400s to the present so that each student can design a table that suits their minds and materials.
Me, I’m going to build a table like the one shown being dismantled by apes in the early 16th century Flemish painted glass window quarry at the top of this blog entry. The “trestles” are built much like an early sawbench. The top of each trestle is fairly thick, and the legs are tenoned into that thick piece. Each trestle has three legs that are splayed for stability – it looks more like a Windsor chair or perhaps a Roman workbench if you squint your eyes a bit.
I don’t expect any of the other students in the class to follow me down this dark path, so I’ll be loading my laptop with tons of photos of later trestle tables, from the Shakers to George Nakashima.
If you would like to blow off your job and join us next week, there are a few spots open in the class. Click here for details. Otherwise, stay tuned here and to my blog at Popular Woodworking next week as we build a bunch of different tables – all that share the name “trestle.”
— Christopher Schwarz