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Tilt-top tables

tableTilt top tables have a top which is hinged to a central pedestal in such a way that it can be turned from a horizontal to a vertical position and, thereby, when not in use, take up less space. Originally the idea was applied mainly to occasional (e.g., light, movable) tables of the kind used for tea and similar occasions.

By the 19th century, elaborate tilting devices were used so that quite large, circular dining tables could be made to tilt and, when not in use, could be placed against the wall.

These style of tables were fashionable in England shortly after the Revolutionary War and soon were viewed as the ideal table in America as well. Tables from this period are rare and now found mostly in museums or in private hands.

Over the years, antique dealers, curators, and collectors adopted their own language for the features of these tables that were most valued in the modern marketplace. Circular tops with carved edges—usually called “scallop’d” in the eighteenth century—acquired the name “piecrust,” and the mechanism that allowed the tops of some tables to tilt up into a vertical position, rotate, and be removed entirely—referred to as a “box” by many colonial tradesmen—became known as a “birdcage.” These and other stylistic and structural features attracted some collectors, while large tops made of highly fi gured mahogany or tables with histories of ownership in prominent colonial families captivated others. Today, tilt-top tea tables are in virtually every major collection of eighteenth-century furniture, and they remain in great demand.

From the outset, tilt-top tables looked very different from conventional tables. Dining tables, dressing tables, and rectangular tea tables have joined frames, fi xed tops, and four or more legs, whereas tilt-top tables typically feature a single pillar supported by three legs. Although people generally invent new types of furniture to accommodate changing needs, this novel table form gained popularity more for its appearance than its utility. Undeniably, tilt-top tables were versatile and useful. Their tops tilted up and down on battens, and many had castors making them easier to move and store.


For example, on most old tables the block on top of the column is joined to the column with a true mortise and tenon.

Note that all edges are square and fl at. Even if the joint is not glued, the table top cannot turn because the shape of the joint itself. This type of joint is the most practical for a table meant for daily use as was the purpose of old original tables which were made as furniture.

The blocks of earlier tables are also usually made of a secondary, or less expensive, wood. The oldest columns are made of a single piece of wood; more recent tables are made of several pieces joined together.

You should be able to trace the wood grain in a continuous unbroken pattern. If the column is carved, inspect the width of the carving. Since carving adds considerably to the value, a genuinely old but plain column will sometimes have carving added later. Original carvings began with the wood turner leaving an oversize area to be fi nished by the carver. This results in a fi nish carving larger in diameter than the column.

Continue your examination of the base by looking to see how the legs are joined to the column. The oldest tables generally have a metal plate, usually brass, to help support the legs. Newer tables may or may not have a metal plate supporting the legs. If a metal plate is present it should always be removed so you can inspect the bottom of the column. Under the plate, you should be able to see older legs dovetailed into the column. Legs on many newer tables are joined by pegs or screws or sometimes just glue. In these cases there is no joint visible on the bottom of the column.

On genuinely old pieces, you should also fi nd a wear “shadow” on the bottom of the column that matches the outline of the metal plate. If the original wood has been covered by the plate for years, the wood underneath the plate should be lighter in color.

Also check for signs of normal wear between the block and table top. Years of opening and closing should establish matching points of wear. Signs of wear that appear on the block only or
on the table top only may be a clue that one or more pieces has been mismatched or replaced.

Another general test is to compare the diameter of the table top to the widest part of the base. Tops of older tables are almost always wider than the base. Newer tilt-top tables frequently have tops that are smaller than the base especially those tables made in Southeast Asia.

Also look for the same general clues to age you would look for in any other piece of furniture. If a table is represented as being 100+ years old, check the grain for shrinkage. Wood shrinks more across the grain than with the grain. This means that shapes which were originally round, or square, like table tops and legs will now be slightly out-of-round. It is not unusual for an old 28-40” dia. round table top to measure up to 1/2” less across the grain than with the grain.

The same is true for round turned legs. The differences in legs and other turnings will be slighter because of the smaller over-all dimensions but can still easily be detected with a pair of calipers.


These types of tables are favoured by many collectors of 18th-century furnishings since they are of versatile form and exclusive of other tea tables from the same period. When placed in any part of a room, its top can be rotated like a lazy Susan. With the top in a vertical position it can be placed neatly in a corner for easy, out-ofthe- way storage. English tilt-top tables no doubt were the inspiration for American cabinet makers to produce similar and elegant examples of the highest quality. Many of these were made with plain, circular tops, while others were executed with carved, piecrust borders. The fi ner examples always were made from the fi nest timbers, like walnut and mahogany, which were popular both here and abroad.

Collecting is a wonderful pastime; there always is something to research and plenty to learn about a particular area of interest. That research and subsequent knowledge may have you put off making a purchase, but it will pay off in the end. When shopping for a particular piece of antique furniture, patience, is a virtue.


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