How to Set a Table: A Guide to Silverware Placement

You’ve sent the invitations, you’ve finalized the menu, but have you thought about how your dining table will look? Knowing how to set a table can set the entire mood for your gathering. Whether you seek a casual place setting for a more intimate get-together with friends or you desire a formal table setting for a (future) engagement or retirement gathering, this article will walk you through place setting essentials and will offer ideas for showcasing your heirloom silverware in its best light. 

Basic Table Setting

Basic table setting diagram

This is perhaps the go-to table setting for 2020. For weeknight dinners at home or for the more informal meals shared, the basic table setting is an essential tool in a host’s toolkit. Let’s start with the basics and imagine your serving plate is the face of a clock. With that plate at the center of your table setting, you should separate your silverware to align across the center: forks should be placed adjacent to 9:00, while knives and spoons should be set next to 3:00. With a glass positioned near the knife around 2:00, you should be all set.

Casual Table Setting

For a laid-back luncheon or casual affair that calls for a step up from a basic table setting, you can begin with the same foundation, but add your flatware in the appropriate order of increasing height as you approach the plate. The smaller salad fork, for instance, should be placed before the dinner fork, which will most likely lie next to your plate.

The same goes for the knife, which should be closest to the plate on the right side, and next should come the larger soup spoon, followed by the teaspoon. Another utensil that might be used in such a casual composition is a butter spreader. If this utensil is in the mix, it should rest horizontally across the bread plate, which is typically placed — following the clock analogy — around 10:00 and parallel to any drinking glass or wine glass.

The finishing touch will be the napkin, which may be artfully placed atop the serving plate at center, perhaps accented with a napkin ring. Depending on the level of formality of your gathering, your napkin ring could take the shape of an heirloom accent in polished nickel or unlacquered brass, or simply be composed of an artfully tied ribbon with a sprig of greenery tucked inside. Any additional dinnerware, such as the salad plate or the soup bowl, may also be added as a finishing touch. 

Formal Table Setting

When your mother’s fine china is called to task for a holiday meal, a formal table setting will likely be your place setting of choice. When setting a formal table, you can begin with the same components of the casual setting and then build from there. This typically means the addition of a salad knife between the dinner knife and the soup spoon.

It can also mean the incorporation of both a dessert fork and spoon that are aligned in opposite directions and placed horizontally above the serving plate (positioned between the bread plate to the left and drinking glasses to the right). Once again, you can top off your setting with an elegant napkin and a place card if so desired.

Types of Silverware

Now that we’ve covered proper silverware placement, the next challenge becomes selecting a pattern among the many types of silverware settings available. Since silverware settings come in an incredible variety of styles and at myriad price points, let’s cover the essentials when it comes to selecting your silverware settings.

Sterling Silverware versus Silver Plated Flatware

One of the first aspects to consider when selecting your silverware service is whether you wish to have a sterling set or are amenable to silver plated flatware. Sterling silver sets are among the most coveted because they are made to the sterling standard – 92.% silver, combined with 7.5% of metal alloys – and exude brilliance. Some of the finest makers in history worked exclusively in sterling, so if a show-stopping setting is what you seek, then sterling should be your focus. Be prepared, though, as exceptional sterling sets can come at exceptional price points.  

Silverplate (or electroplate silverware), though lower in prestige because they feature a surface layer of silver over a core of base metal, does nevertheless have its own benefits. The first relates to price: silver plate sets will be notably less expensive than their sterling sisters. The second perk pertains to upkeep: while sterling silver will oxidize over time, resulting in tarnish, silver plate silverware is spared this fate and thus can prevent incessant polishing.

Best Silverware Sets

Types of silverware

Another aspect of your search for the ideal silverware set for your table is to consider the aesthetic appeal you hope to achieve. If your goal is to impress your diners with an exquisite set of antique silverware, here are some marvelous examples to seek out:  

  1. Baroque Beauty

When you want to set your table to impress, then the Grand Baroque pattern produced by Wallace Silversmiths from the mid-twentieth century might be a prime choice. Exuding brilliance with detailed floral motifs, a flatware service in this style is sure to scintillate your guests, but be prepared for a substantial investment as a complete set in this pattern can be pricey. As one example: a Golden Grand Baroque set sold at a 2011 Christie’s auction for more than $540,000.

  1. Naturally Art Nouveau

For those who are fans of the turn-of-the-century Art Nouveau aesthetic, then Tiffany and Company’s iconic Chrysanthemum pattern might suit your tastes. Using as its foundation the delicate architecture of a chrysanthemum bloom, this elegant yet organic style debuted in 1880 but continues today to be one of the most celebrated ever produced by the iconic silver company. Antique settings or table accents will set you back substantial sums – for example, these spectacular Chrysanthemum candelabra crested $150,000 at a 2007 Sotheby’s auction – but you can also see out modern Tiffany Chrysanthemum sets that are relatively more affordable.

  1. Masterfully Modern

If a more modern flair is more your taste, Danish silversmith Georg Jensen’s iconic Continental flatware services are a timeless choice. They offer the clean lines and sophisticated silver styles for which Jensen is revered, this pattern emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century and still today dazzles fans of Danish design. It also can be acquired for lower sums, with this antique service selling at a 2010 Sotheby’s auction for less per place setting than a modern Tiffany Chrysanthemum service.

How to Buy Antique Silverware

Let’s be honest, though: “best” is a relative term, and we might not all have budgeted a small fortune to lavish on the flatware featured on our table. With this in mind, here are some tips to set your table with antique silverware or heirloom pieces without overspending:

  • Seek Out Silver Accents
    Following the classical adage, “less is more,” a cleverly selected antique silver accent piece, for example a tazza or candelabra, can be equally as compelling for your guests while also allowing you to save some money on a less costly flatware set. Less-than-perfect silver display pieces or those from mismatched or unpaired sets can often be acquired for lower prices than mint condition partner antique pieces, so you can hunt down a bargain and still bring silver brilliance to your dining table.
  • Embrace the Eclectic
    For a bit of a bohemian vibe, you can also assemble an array of mismatched flatware sets and combine them into your own unique silverware setting. This way your table can exude the allure of antique beauty while also offering a contemporary take on the table setting.
  • Research Makers
    The makers noted here are some of the most celebrated of all time, but that doesn’t mean they were the only producers of beautiful silverware services. Do some research to discover other companies and brands whose wares inspire you and that might sell at a lower price point.   

Setting for Success

When thinking of how to set a table, always consider the setting and atmosphere you seek to achieve from your event — be it a casual night in with your partner, or a more formal dinner party in the future. Set the tone by selecting from a basic table setting, a casual table setting, or a formal table setting, and let your table decor help complement the vibe.

Feel free to get a little playful and whimsical with more casual tablescapes, or opt for heirloom pieces and more traditional decor and floral arrangements in settings that call for more formality. However you choose to adorn your table, may your place settings and table decor surprise and delight your guests, and may the conversation flow effortlessly.