The Dream of the Brown Monkeys


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

A trestle from the wreck of the Mary Rose, a 16th-century English ship.

A trestle from the wreck of the Mary Rose, a 16th-century English ship.

15th-century French A-trestles.

15th-century French A-trestles.

15th-century German trestles.

15th-century German trestles.

Another 15th-century trestle.

Another 15th-century trestle.

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15 Responses to The Dream of the Brown Monkeys

  1. frpaulas says:

    Table on work horses!?! I love it. Although I would hate to give my work horses to my wife when company comes over

  2. Have you found examples of “transition” trestle tables? It seems like the photo you chose as the modern, permanent dining table actually has a knockdown joint attaching the stretcher to the legs. If the top was either floating or was connected using a loose dowel or something, that would be a rather elegant solution, not unlike the folding banquet tables of today: lift off the top, detach the stretcher from the legs, and the whole thing folds flat.

  3. Eric Erb says:

    Brilliant! I’m a big fan of the middle ages so you’ve got my attention with this one!

    Frequently, and as depicted in the painted glass window, the lone leg is a right angle to the top of the trestle.

    Eric Erb

    mobile: 240-328-3373

  4. jonathanszczepanski says:

    Kudos on your recent trend in covering design into the mix. I’m sure it makes things more complicated, but your students will probably be better off for it.

    • Amen! I really wish I was able to attend this class. I was already setting time on the calendar for next year in hopes you’d teach it again. I fear it won’t happen. I’m looking forward to what transpires.

  5. bsrlee says:

    Chris – have a look at this blog
    the author is a medieval re-enactor who lives in Europe and travels around a lot of museums/collections. Lots of interesting photos and a few measured drawings.

    People may also be interested that ‘Before the Mast’ – the source of the first line drawing of a trestle from the Mary Rose wreck – is being reprinted by Oxbow Books/David Brown & they are taking pre-orders. The reprint will be easier to use as they have divided it into two volumes instead of being one huge tome.

  6. I am so bummed I had to cancel this class, I was really looking forward to it and a new dining table this year. Good luck!

  7. robert725 says:


    In “Furnishing Louisiana: Creole and Acadian Furniture 1735 to 1835” there are several examples of trestle tables that utilize the “board on sawhorses” form. There may be an example of a transitional trestle table as well, though I can’t remember – the book is at home and I am at work. Sounds like it could be a great project to display a big ass live edge board, in a beautiful yet utilitarian way. (Shockingly Nakashima like!)

    By the way – you sure those guys are monkey? They could easily and more arguably be Daemons.

    One aside (please take this as compliment): Your writing and insight and the comments that it generates are the reasons that I enjoy reading this blog. Write more entries! Be careful of losing your audience due to lack of their engagement. Check and compare numbers of posts that generate comments.

  8. henryeckert says:

    Some trestle tables are sometimes found to be unstable / wobbly over time due to the fact all the strength is reliant on the ‘T’ joint in the centre top (or bottom) of the trestle, which may pivot with age.
    A trestle with a wide / thick top and 3 legs would fix this issue.
    Chris, you just need to make it look nice!

  9. Not long one of your articles inspired me to search for images of “camp desks” and I found a few that were very much in the campaign style (drawers and all), yet the tabletop with drawers stood on top of various forms of folding legs (wood, iron and brass of various designs). Some even seemed to be set on sawhorse-like legs – but I liked those the least, since the legs would interfere with the user (I think).

    Now, enter these 3-legged trestle “horses”. They would make a good general design for campaign desk legs, no? Maybe a set that were lighter and less rustic looking? It seems like the side with just one leg would be perfect for the side of the desk facing the user.

  10. Lin Niqiu says:

    There can be no diningroom tables before the time of single use diningrooms. This design speaks of a need for flexibility in a time when space was limited and functionality was multiple. I’ve just gotten a similar setup from Ikea to host a dinner party in time. for the other 11 months of the year, the tabletop will be a wallhanging.

  11. Kat Ferneley says:

    You also see trestles (the sawhorse type) used to support embroidery frames. So they may not be your work horses after all- they may be your lady’s! 🙂

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