How to Set a Formal Table

Build beautiful place settings with these smart moves and easy tricks for remembering the right way to do it.

By: Caylin Harris

Everything in Its Place

It's not about being fussy, stiff or old-fashioned — setting a table properly is all about making your guests feel at ease. Make sure they have everything they need without having to ask by keeping these table-setting etiquette tips in mind. It’s subtle insurance that your dinner will go flawlessly.

Start With the Tablecloth and Plates

Think of the tablelcloth as your canvas for the table. “If you have a nice, wood table you don’t need one, but a tablecloth adds a formal look,” says Myka Meier, founder and director of Beaumont Etiquette. “Position it so the tablecloth is draping equally all the way around the table, but avoid having the tablecloth resting on someone’s legs. They could accidently grab it by mistake thinking it’s their napkin.

While chargers offer a decorative element, they also help to protect your table from heat or condensation if you’re not using a tablecloth. Your charger should be placed an inch to an inch-and-a-half (or the length from the knuckle to the tip of your thumb) from the edge of the table.

“Start with a charger on the bottom, then add your dinner plate (10 inches), salad plate (8 inches) and a soup bowl. Only include pieces if you’re serving a food that requires them. No soup? Skip the bowl,” says Eddie Ross, style director for the home décor site The Mine.

Forks Go On the Left

“Forks always go on the left and you’ll have a salad fork and dinner fork," Meier says. "Here's an easy way to remember this: the word fork has four letters and so does the word left."

Place Knives and Spoons on the Right

“Knive (for both salad and dinner) belong on the right with the blade facing toward the plate," says Meier. "A knife facing outward used to be taken as a sign of aggression towards the person sitting next to you. Knife has five letters and so does the word right. Spoons (if needed) go on the right as well — the word spoon has five letters too!"

There are two types of soup spoons. First there's one that is short, stout and with a very deep round bowl. That is for cream-based soups or stews with large pieces in it. A "normal-sized" soup spoon is for clear broth-based soups. Not serving soup? Skip the spoons!

Keep Things Straight

Silverware should never be tucked under the plate or charger and should always be equally spaced. The bottom of each utensil should be in a straight line, so if you placed a ruler underneath they would all be touching the top of the ruler.

Now for the Napkin

The size of your table can determine where you place your napkin. “The napkin should be folded and can be placed to the left of the forks or on top of your plate. Technically it’s not impolite to put the forks on top of the napkin, but it does make it a little inconvenient for guests to have to move the silverware,” Meier says.

“You never want to put a napkin in a glass because it will mess up the creases from the fold and guests could knock the glass over while removing it," she says. The creases in a napkin (like you’d get with rectangular fold) help to keep the napkin on a guests' laps while they’re dining!

Get the Glasses

Unless you’re going uber-fancy and have a different wine for each course, you can get away with using an all-purpose wine glass.

“Start with the water glass — it will go directly above the dinner knife," Ross says. "It’s almost like the knife is pointing at where to start your glassware."

“You don’t want it to be in a straight line; the glasses should gradually arc downward," he says. "So your all-purpose wine glass could come next or you could do a white and red glass in the order of what will be paired with its respective course.” Curious about cocktails? Most people bring those to the table so you don’t need to include a separate glass for them.

Also, you should always wait until everyone is seated to pour the water. Meier explains that pouring it too early creates condensation on the glass and the water can get warm during the wait.

Don't Forget the Bread Plate

The bread plate and butter knife should go on the left hand side. "Always remember that bread doesn’t count as a course. You should have a separate knife for the butter placed on the top of the bread plate, blade down, the ends touching 11 o'clock and 1 o’clock,” says Meier.

A Handy Trick

Here's another clever way to remember some place-setting locations: Holding your hands in front of you, touch the tips of your pointer fingers and thumbs together. They’ll form a "b" and "d". The bread plate ("b") always goes on the left and the drinks ("d") belong on the right.

What About Dessert?

Think about dessert as a reset. At that point everything else should be off the table, especially the salt and pepper shakers.

“You should have a clean plate when comes time for dessert, but you can place dessert forks and spoons on the table at the beginning of the meal or bring them out with dessert,” says Meier. "They’d go above the plate, with the fork facing right and the spoon facing left. It is important to offer both a spoon and fork (if your dessert could be eaten with either) and let guests decide which one to use.”

All the Extras

Serving meals family-style has become really popular; if you’re going to let people help themselves, make sure the serveware has a dish placed underneath to catch any drips or juices.

“I like to set my serveware on my set table so I can see how much breathing room I have,” says Ross. “I vary the size and height of the serveware and I always keep my flower arrangements small enough so people can see over them and they’re not blocking conversations.”

Keep the size of your table in mind too. For every four to five people you have at dinner, add another set of salt and pepper shakers, bottles of wine, and pitchers of water so people aren’t waiting for it to come all the way back around the table.