16th Century Italian Folding Table
Folding table made of walnut. Brass hooks and chains to adjust height. Black iron butterfly hinges. Aluminum pivots with brass washers.
Top Size: 2’ x 3’ fully open
Height Adjustment: 20” to 30”
Folding furniture has been used from at least Egyptian times up until the modern day. A gilded folding stool was part of the treasure horde in King Tutankhamen’s tomb. A type of folding chair known as the “Savonarola” was extremely popular during the 16th Century throughout Europe. Even today you can find examples of folding furniture such as the folding luggage rack in hotel rooms and the ubiquitous “TV tray”. The basic concept has remained the same through the ages. Two rectangular frames are connected with pivot points on two opposite sides near the middle to form and “X” shaped base. Some means of restraint (leather or cloth straps, chains, wood braces) are used to keep the “X” shape. In the case of a chair, a seat can be attached to act as the restraint. This provides a lightweight but strong support structure that is both collapsible and easily transported.
The folding table I am displaying is based on an extant 16th Century Italian example that is currently in the collection of the Victoria and Albert (V&A) museum in London (see Fig. 1). This table was recently displayed as part of the “At Home in Renaissance Italy” exhibit at the V&A. It is constructed entirely of walnut, and both the top and legs are covered with “certosina” inlay. Black iron hinges (see Fig. 2), hooks and chains (see Fig. 3), and pivots are used. It was pictures of this table in the catalog for this exhibit, as well as images of a similar example found on the Mary Rose (King Henry the VIII’s warship - see Fig. 4), that inspired me to make this piece.
The original table is approximately 3’ wide and 5’ long, and adjusts in height from 30” to 40”. In this respect, it was most likely used as a small dining table for four or six people, or as a sideboard to hold dishes during a meal. Portable furniture was used extensively in Renaissance Italy. The main room of the house was the “sala”. It was here that most of the public activities of the house took place. As such, it was necessary to quickly and easily rearrange, reorganize, or even remove the furniture to accommodate the constantly shifting requirements. A folding table such as the one at the V&A would have been eminently suited to this task.
|Figure 1: 16th Century Florentine folding table||Figure 2: Detail of table. Black iron hinges.||Figure 3: Detail of Florentine table||Figure 4: Example of folding table on the Mary Rose|
I started with an initial “proof of concept” (POC) table constructed of poplar. This was mainly to make sure that the proportions would achieve what I was looking for. I used lap joints to build the frames because they are easier and faster to make, but still provide a sturdy joint. I did make one mistake during the construction of POC #1. I placed the lower stretchers too high on the legs of the frames (you can see where I glued blocks of wood in to fill the lap joints). The higher location did not allow the legs to fully collapse. I moved the lower stretchers to approximately ½” from the bottom of the frame sides, and this allowed them to fully collapse. This is why you should always do a proof of concept in cheap wood!
POC #2 was constructed of red oak – still a relatively inexpensive wood, but much sturdier than the poplar. The point of POC #2 was to work out the mortise and tenon joints, which I had never attempted before. The original appears to use mortise and tenon construction for the frames (I would have to examine the piece in person to be sure). It would seem to be a logical conclusion, as this type of joint was used extensively during this period for furniture construction.
The final piece is constructed entirely of walnut, with black iron butterfly hinges similar to those used in the original. I was not able to obtain black iron hooks or chain in the time frame I had to finish the product, so I used brass hooks and chains. I had some aluminum ¼” diameter rod and brass washers from a previous project, so I used those to create the pivot pins. As soon as I obtain some ¼” diameter brass rod, I will remove the aluminum and replace it with brass. The original was almost completely covered with “certosina” inlay work. Indeed, most upper class furniture in period was painted, carved, inlaid, or otherwise decorated. However, I am letting my modern aesthetic take precedence and not adding any inlay or other embellishment to this piece. I just love the look of the grain pattern on this piece too much!
There is one thing I would do different with this piece, and that has a lot to do with that beautiful grain pattern. I used a planer to get the boards for the top down to the proper thickness, and then I set them aside and worked on other projects for a while. Unfortunately, this allowed the tops to “cup” slightly. In retrospect, I should have sealed the end grains immediately to prevent this from happening, or at least reduce what cupping that might have occurred.
The beauty of this particular design is that I can store two of these tables in a space approximately 2’ x 3’ x 10” high - perfect for taking to events and setting up a small dining table and side board. The blueprint for the construction of this table can be found here.
|Figure 5: Tenon on POC-2||Figure 6: POC-2 Base||Figure 7: POC-2 Complete with top||Figure8: Final version in walnut: Detail of the top showing black iron hinges||Figure 9: Final version in walnut: Top folded in half. One of the beauties of this design||Figure 10: Walnut. Detail of pivot|
Ajmar-Wollheim, Marta, and Dennis, Flora, eds. At Home in Renaissance Italy. London: V&A Publications, 2006
Currie, Elizabeth. Inside the Renaissance House. London: V&A Publications, 2006
Gardiner, Julie, and Allen, Michael J. eds. Before the Mast – Life and Death Aboard the Mary Rose. Portsmouth: The Mary Rose Trust Ltd, 2005