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How do I Set a Formal Table?

By Deborah Ng
Updated May 16, 2024
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Setting a formal table isn't as difficult as it looks. Sure, there are a lot of components to put into place, but everything is set up for the sake of convenience. If you're planning a formal dinner party, but aren't sure of how to set the table, perhaps these tips can help.

Table Linens: If you'll be setting a formal table, only a linen table cloth will do. A white cloth is preferred but not mandatory. The only rule is to make sure linen patterns and china patterns don't clash.

Chargers: Chargers or dinner plates should be placed on the table first. Chargers are decorative elements that are placed underneath plates to add color or texture to the table. Each plate should set in the center of the place setting and each place setting should be set equidistant. The rest of the components used to set a formal table will be set with the dinner plate in mind. If a charger is used, soup and melon bowls will be placed on top. The charger will generally be removed just before the main course.

Napkins: Linen napkins should be folded elegantly and placed in the center of the dinner plate.

Silverware: Silverware is to be placed in order of use. In other words, the diner will start at the end and work his way in. The first course will use silverware farthest from the dinner plate, while the last course will utilize the silverware closest. Place all silverware an inch from the table's edge.

  • Knives: Set knives on the table to the right of the dinner plate. Technically, one should only use a knife if one is cutting meat; however, up to three knives can be placed on the table, in order of use. Blades should face inside, towards the table setting.

  • Forks: Forks are to be set to the left of the dinner plate in order of use. In most cases, there are three: one each for seafood, the main course and the salad. When dining formally, salads are generally served at the end of the meal.

  • Spoons: Spoons are set to the right of the knives in order of use. If there is a melon course, this spoon will be set closest to the plate with the soup spoon on the end. If there is a dessert spoon, this will be set above the plate. Coffee spoons are set on the saucer when it's time for dessert.

Glasses: Glasses are set above the plate to the right in order of use. From left to right: Water glass, red wine glass, white wine glass, champagne flute.

Dessert: Dessert plates and coffee cups will be set out after dinner. If a fork is to be used with dessert, this will be placed on the dessert plate. A dessert spoon should have already been set above the dinner plate. Coffee spoons will be served on the saucer. Coffee mugs aren't used for a formal dinner.

Above are the basic components used to set a formal table. Note that all items are placed in order of use. Even though it may look confusing, a good rule of thumb is to set silverware and glassware by course and to work your way in. After that, the only thing left to do is enjoy your meal.

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Discussion Comments
By anon123588 — On Nov 02, 2010

I think that I might use this for my demonstration speech. Lots of good info!

By anon75955 — On Apr 08, 2010

a lovely article, but I want to know the proper placement of the linen and chairs, not the plates, silverware, etc!

By anon34858 — On Jun 29, 2009

Great information for a speech on topic. I am using it for a demonstration speech in my public speaking class at college.

By olittlewood — On Dec 09, 2007

those are all really great tips! i would add a beautiful centerpiece that can be as simple as a few candles, or a beautiful floral arrangement. during the holidays, there are so many fun things to do. i like taking simple hurricane glasses, fill them with something like fresh cranberries, then put a cream colored candle in them. scented candles are nice, but they may interfere with the smells of your delicious dinner! although i have to say that a complimentary scent such as evergreen or citrus would be a nice addition to a formal table.

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