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When Oak Was New
Yours Sincerely

Early English Oak Gateleg Tables

The gateleg table is the first intimate dining table. The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 brought many innovations in both lifestyle and forms of furniture: family dining, and the appropriate tables and chairs, was one of the most significant. Everyday dining moved out of the great hall into a smaller chamber and became an occasion for family and guests, not for the whole household and retinue. Larger gatherings still dined in the hall, but were seated in groups around a number of “oval” tables. Roger North, who visited the Duke of Beaufort at Badminton in 1680 noted that he had “nine original tables covered every day” and noted as peculiar that the Duke’s own table was “an oblong not an oval.” In their day, gateleg tables were called “oval’ or “round” to distinguish them from the “long” tables that they replaced. The oval shape of these new tables, not only made conversation easier, it also did away with the rigid status distinctions that organized the seating at long tables.

Form and Construction

Most gateleg tables are made of oak, though some are of walnut, and a few (the most expensive) of yewwood. Sometimes the base is oak, and the top of elm or walnut.
Gateleg tables have two drop leaves, usually D-shaped, that are supported, when raised, upon “gates”. These gates are hinged or pivoted at both the apron (or frieze) and the stretcher (this, incidentally, distinguishes them from the later “swing leg” which is hinged at the apron only.)

The raised leaf is supported on its outer edge by the outer stile of the gate (the rail is lower, because it has to fit under the apron when the gate is closed). The inner part of the leaf is thus supported only by the hinges. This often caused the hinges to pull out from the underside of the table, a problem that was solved by giving the edge of the leaf a tongue that fitted into a groove running along the edge of the table top, thus taking the weight off the hinges. The rule joint, which served the same purpose and looked cleaner, was introduced towards the end of the century.

All the legs are block-and-turned. The blocks are at every join, enabling the joiner to use a strong mortice and tenon joint. Between the blocks are turnings of any combination of balls, rings, balusters, and spirals (a particularly desirable design.) The stretchers are usually of square section, often decorated with edge molding, though sometimes they are turned to match the legs (another desirable feature.) Some tables have a long, narrow drawer at one end that is supported on a central runner. The design and extent of the turnings is an important value-factor.

The fixed tops are usually of one or two boards, and the leaves of two: the wider at the hinge end, and a small, narrow one on the curved tip of the D. These “tips” have often been replaced and, even the originals can look like replacements because they were usually cut from different, narrower boards.

Gateleg tables come in a wide range of sizes, seating any number between two and eight or even ten. The larger ones had two gates supporting each leaf and are known as “double gatelegs.” They are hard to find and expensive. The smallest are about 36” wide when open, and can be as narrow as 10” when closed, thus making them popular as side tables in smaller rooms or narrow hallways. The mid-sized tables that seat four or six are relatively common. A 36” or 40” example serves well as a card table, or as an intimate supper table for two. With only one leaf raised, the four- and six- seaters are also useful dining tables for two. When placed in front of a window, a gateleg table is ideal for a leisurely Sunday breakfast.

Gateleg tables are comfortable for those seated at the leaves, but less so for those at the ends. If you need to sit at the ends, make sure that the top is wide enough to allow your legs to fit comfortably between the legs of the table. This position is not recommended for the hostess, because getting in and out can be awkward: once in, however, the diner is more comfortable than might be expected.

Common Faults and Restorations

Many gateleg tables have had a variety of running repairs, restorations and replacements. The hinge history is sometimes complicated, but it’s the place to start. All marks and holes on the top, leaf and apron should coincide: any that are not should raise red flags about the originality of the top or leaves.

Faults that devalue little: replaced or repositioned hinges, minor height loss, re-tipped feet, relined drawer.

Faults that devalue modestly: replaced tips on the leaves, repaired hinge breaks, re-cut rule or tongue-and-groove joints, replaced drawer.

Faults that devalue significantly: top and base associated (or “married”), replaced top or leaf (very common), a stripped and refinished top, rebuilt underframe.