The First Trestle Tables
by Christopher Schwarz
Many of the fantastic furniture forms of the Middle Ages have disappeared and have been replaced by pieces that are more complex but not necessarily better.
One of my favorites is the early trestle table. It’s three pieces – a top and two sawhorse-like things – that can be instantly broken down, moved or stored. The form shows up in early paintings as being used for everything in the household: making pasta, butchering, surgery, writing, woodworking and fine dining.
Last year I built two of these tables for our home and have been delighted with how they look and function. One table is a roomy desk. The other table is used to accommodate extra dinner guests, serve wine on the front lawn and wrap gifts.
Not only are the tables versatile, they are simple and quick to build. The trestles are built using “staked” furniture technology, essentially a conical mortise-and-tenon joint that is more forgiving than its square-shouldered cousin. Each 8″-wide trestle top receives three legs for stability.
The two front legs are connected by a decorative stretcher, which features Arabic and Mughal motifs. If this stretcher doesn’t appeal to you, substitute a simple turned rung or a stretcher that is pierced with Gothic shapes.
The tabletop is a simple flat panel made from three pine 2x12s. The tabletop doesn’t have to be pretty because it typically was covered by a linen tablecloth.
Do not let the compound geometry of this project intimidate you. While it looks complex, even a beginner can manage it. Construction begins with the legs.
Online: Visit this Pinterest board for a look at the many interesting furniture forms in a circa 1390 health manual.
Blog: See other pieces of furniture from the Middle Ages.
Blog: Explore six-board chests, another early form.
Blog: Learn the toolkit for building staked furniture.
In Our Store: “The Woodwright’s Shop,” DVDs of this long-running PBS show that explores early woodworking techniques.