Setting Up And Breaking Down Your Wedding: Everything You Need To Know

AKA, "what do we do with this stuff?"

wedding ceremony set up

Recently my best friend assisted me at a wedding for the second time, and made the observation that if you made a pie chart of how my time is spent when actually on-site coordinating, the largest piece of the pie would be marked “dealing with physical stuff (hauling, loading, unloading, setting up, repositioning, packing up, loading).” This is totally true. Weddings, even simple ones without a ton of décor, involve a lot of stuff—tablecloths, plates, flowers, guest book, pens, programs, drinks, glassware, on and on. One of the most common mistakes people make when preparing for their wedding day is failing to fully think through the logistics of all the objects involved. There are several things in particular that need to be figured out:

  • What is being brought to the wedding?
  • How is it getting there?
  • Who is setting it up once it’s there?
  • How long is it going to take to set it up?
  • What is leaving the wedding?
  • How and with whom is it leaving?

You know you need eight cases of beer, but who’s bringing them to the venue, and how are they getting ice down once they’re there? (Related: bottle openers!) Your aunt made a dozen amazing table runners—who’s putting them on the tables? You don’t need your extra escort cards after the wedding, but you do need room to take cards and gifts home.

You Need A Pack List

The pack list is your friend, and handily for you, APW has a downloadable one. If you’re into being hyper organized and spreadsheets make your heart sing, I think you’re going to love it. On the other hand, if you’ve never gotten the hold of Excel and spreadsheets make your head hurt, you can definitely do a pack list in simple bullet point form. I suggest separating into two larger lists, “to go to wedding” and “to come home from wedding,” with bullet points for each item, followed by the person in charge of it. As in:

To Go:

  • Décor box—(Sister)
    • Escort cards
    • Table numbers
    • Card basket
    • Guest book
    • Pens for guest book
    • Flags for bar
  • Centerpieces (Bridesmaid 2)
  • 8 cases of beer (Uncle Mike)
  • 4 cases of wine (Uncle Mike)

To Come HomeALL goes into Parents’ car except alcohol

  • Card basket
  • Guest book and pen
  • Gifts and card
  • Leftover wine and beer (Best Man)

What You Need To Know About Wedding Setup

Setup inevitably takes more time than breakdown—it just takes longer to unpack, organize, and set up décor to be wedding-ready than it does to grab it and (gently) toss it into a box at the end of the night. It’s important to think through how long setup is going to take (breakdown generally takes an hour, unless you have super complicated décor that needs to come down). Many venues rent to you for a total number of hours, and if you go beyond that you have to pay additional for those hours (often at a not-inexpensive hourly rate). I’ve rarely had success with less than two hours of setup time, and that’s often been when working with people who do this professionally (i.e., me, my staff, and a catering staff). Some factors to keep in mind for set up:

  • Are chairs and tables going to need to be set up? Or will they be in place when the setup team arrives? (Add 30–45 minutes for table/chair setup.)
  • What is the table setting going to involve? Just tablecloths and one-piece centerpieces? Or full place settings, multi-piece centerpieces, favors, and place cards? Adjust accordingly. (If you’re DIT-ing set up, doing a sample table ahead of time can be great in figuring out how long it’s going to take.)
  • What other décor beyond the tables is there? Is there anything that needs to be assembled on site (huppah, lighting, complicated dessert table structure, photo booth backdrop)?
  • Who’s taking care of your alcohol, food, and music? If you’re providing or partially providing any of these things yourself, make sure to have both time and resources (i.e., people) dedicated to setting them up.

Wedding Breakdown Is Easy (With Sober People)

For wedding clean up, it’s important to pay attention to the rules at your venue—some just want all of your personal stuff out, some expect all furniture to be broken down and the floors to be both swept and mopped, most are somewhere in between. Make sure to allow room (and again, delegate resources!) for whatever is needed.

There’s inevitably less to bring home from a wedding than there is to take to one. Unless you’re using very expensive vases, I recommend sending centerpieces home with your guests—I generally move them onto one table near the exit with a sign that says, “Please take some flowers when you go!” sometime after cake cutting—they’ll love having pretty flowers at home for a few days, plus you then have a lot less stuff to haul out of there when you’re done. And don’t forget once again to think about delegation and space. Say you’re planning on keeping all the leftover alcohol*—whose car is it going to go home in, and do they have trunk space for it? Even if you haven’t registered, or did and the majority of people have been shipping their gifts directly to you, I can almost guarantee you that a few people will bring cards or gifts, so make sure someone responsible is, well, responsible for getting those home safely.

The key is that if you’re one half of the couple getting married, you don’t want to be stuck directing the hauling of leftover beer to your car after the music has turned off because you never thought about the fact that this needed to happen before that moment. In fact, you probably don’t want to have to deal with breakdown logistics at all the night of your own wedding, so even if you don’t have any professional staff, this is ideally something you hand off to friends and family. Planning ahead is in your best interest, and it doesn’t have to hurt your head. If you’re just starting to think about this and your wedding is in two weeks—don’t panic! The easiest way to start is to mentally walk through your wedding and make a list of everything as you go (i.e., you walk in and see the guest book table, so create a list of things that go on it) then organize the list as I mentioned above once it’s all down on paper. Stuff, and getting it all into and out of place, is maybe the dirty secret of the wedding world. (You mean, you don’t just walk into this beautiful space and then leave five hours later, a little tipsy on champagne? Only if you’re a guest, darling, only if you’re a guest.) But with a little bit of prep work it doesn’t have to be a headache for anyone on the actual day—not you, and not the people you delegate it to.

A final pro-tip: In the end, if even after planning ahead there’s no room for all of the extra beer in anyone’s car, your catering staff or other vendors will happily take it as a tip.

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  • Logistics of *stuff* has actually been one of my top priorities in planning, so I am very excited for this series. We literally have an hour for set-up (plus a little more for load-in) and an hour for breakdown at our venue, so I’m all about simplify, simplify, simplify!

  • Laura Lee

    This is great timing for me. With less than 5 weeks to go, figuring out the logistics of all the “stuff” is front of mind right now. Very helpful advice!

  • As someone in love with excel, google docs, and all things list-making, this series makes me incredibly happy.

  • Emmers

    Elizabeth/Lowe House Events, your posts are always so helpful! Loving the details.

  • I wish we had planned our Set Up and Take Down better, that’s for sure. I definitely could have used this advice when we got married!

    • CII

      So…if you could do it over again [the “setting up” and “breaking down”, what mistakes would you be wise enough not to make? Or what would you do differently?

      (So, so excited, about this post and this whole series)

      • meg

        We didn’t have planner, and it was fine. We were, however, super organized. Those APW spreadsheets were our spreadsheets, and (now APW editor) Kate was our friend in charge. But BE ORGANIZED. Do not just hope that it will all figure itself out somehow. (It won’t, or it will with you dashing around in a wedding dress helping. boo.)

      • Harper

        I am fresh from being a bridesmaid at a dear friend’s wedding. My topline is have a detailed plan and respect people’s time. People truly want to be helpful and totally get that there will be last minute issues the day before and day of the wedding but otherwise, give them specific tasks and AT LEAST a general timeframe to be available for ad hoc projects.

        In my recent experience, all the bridesmaids and friends asked the bride and groom for weeks, “what can we do to help?” as they seemed more and more stressed but got no response. Five days before the wedding they finally sent out a sparsely detailed itinerary and a somewhat rudely worded message that basically said, be available Friday and we’ll let you know what you can do, otherwise don’t bother us with questions. I get it – they are busy, they are stressed but when some simple planning could have cut all that in half it starts to be hard to be sympathetic. So Friday night rolls around, the night before the wedding, myself and three friends ended up decorating the entire hall (and making a Michael’s run for basically all the supplies) after the bride’s family left to go out to eat (huh?) and then stayed up until 3am creating ALL the place cards from scratch after buying all the supplies. Let’s just say I don’t ever want to see another teeny, tiny jar of Huckleberry jam again. Ever. We were grumpy but tried to be understanding and of course the wedding was a blast and in the grand scheme of things wasn’t the biggest deal. But a little planning, organization and foresight could have made that place card sesh a fun Sunday afternoon job that was done the previous weekend instead of a late night scramble.

        Back to the topic, they had also not planned the loading out at the end of the night. At that point, I was pretty spent and did not stay to help do another unplanned activity which could have easily been planned for, which was perhaps not the most mature in hindsight. Bottom line – try not to burn up all the goodwill of your friends and family on the stuff that can be planned for beforehand and at least ask so they have an idea of what is expected! Save that goodwill for whatever crazy last minute requests you need to throw at them, so they can do it happily instead of grouchily (or not at all because they instead leave in a drunken huff ). Okay, rant over :).

      • Mistakes I would be wise enough not to make again:
        Delegating/recruiting people to help with breaking down after. I just assumed my bridesmaids and parents would help head it all up, but that didn’t happen exactly as I had assumed. So….I would have had a detailed list and recruited people to do each task. People did help a little then left, and my new husband were the last ones to leave and were striking stuff on our own. Not at all what I had imagined……..

        In fact, knowing what I know now, I might have just paid the people we paid to help with stocking food a bit (we self-catered a dessert reception), to just stay all the way through. I would have totally been worth it. (Though our wedding wrapped up after 3 am, so I might have felt bad about keeping people there…? (Which is also probably why I had less help that expected….my side of people left earlier because most of them had flights home the next day.)

        Anyhow, good luck! :)

    • Me too….me too….

  • Manya

    This is really a great post. At my sister’s wedding, which was a DIT backyard shindig (afternoon champagne tea under a tent in our back yard–lovely), she had thought through set up somewhat, but NONE OF US had thought about breaking it down! My sis drove away with her husband and me, mom, dad and Aunt Barb looked at each other and almost wept because we were all so exhausted from setting up and having the day and we had this collective realization that we had to break it down! We spent HOURS breaking it all down…. the house was a complete wreck! We dug deep and finally collapsed around the kitchen table where we inhaled 4 dominoes pizzas and a ton of champagne (I had never seen my mom drunk before…) and then all passed out on the couches in full makeup and jeans. Lesson learned: Think about Break Down! Make a plan with the people who will break it down!

    At our own wedding set up took a lot longer than breakdown, and we had an interesting division of labor. I ran (and enjoyed) most all of the pack up and set up. But I was useless the day after–too emotional and floaty. All I wanted to do was kiss my husband a zillion times. But my husband, true to form, was a total anchor and he just executed take-off like it was a military operation. He was a WORK HORSE the day after–created a staging area, loaded cars, paid all the bills, did a thorough final check that we hadn’t forgotten anything and had extra cash on hand to get help and tip the helpers. I had felt as if I carried more of the planning/creative burden, but MAN did he come through in the end with the stuff that was deeply necessary–he was awesome. It was actually a classic metaphor for our marriage: I handle creativity, content, and set up, he keeps the wheels on and the bus moving steadily down the road.

    • AshleyMeredith

      Manya, I feel for you. I hope I didn’t do that to my family. I have the impression that everything happened in a reasonably organized and distributed fashion, but I have almost no memory of actually organizing it.

      Still, “afternoon champagne tea under a tent in our back yard”. That DOES sound lovely. I’m almost jealous, and based on that description it’s not all that different than what we did.

      • meg

        I mean, I think there is this idea that we’re “doing it to our family” when they have to set up and take down a wedding. It’s a pain in the ass, but it’s also how weddings have been done since FOREVER (I know, I wrote a book about it and researched this). So most women in your family (at least) will know the drill, and probably not begrudge you. Someone helped out at their wedding, after all.

        I’ve torn down more weddings than I can even count. SO TIRING. So totally fine, also.

        • Amy March

          I’m not sold on this, which perhaps reflects that I’ve never attending a family wedding where the fam helped with breakdown. I know when my mom and aunties (and gaggle of great-aunties, 14 still living!) attend weddings together they expect to throw a shower and take home a centerpiece, but would be shocked to be asked to do more than that. Which obviously varies heavily by social circle, but I tend to come down on the side of if the only plan you can afford to deal with wedding breakdown is asking your family or guests to help, you haven’t budgeted appropriately.

          • meg

            If that’s your culture, be wise to that, for sure. However, this is SO far outside my frame of reference, I can’t even file it away. The idea that you can’t do things for wedding that you can’t afford to pay professionals to do is SUCH a modern idea, it’s basically a blip on the radar screen of weddings. It’s just historically how things have always been done, even if you did have money.

            BUT. If that’s not how your family does it, be wise, for sure.

          • Amy March

            I think for us it’s less on the “you must have pro’s do this for you” and more on the “just don’t do it at all” side. I don’t mean to paint a picture of grand galas with oodles of staff, more like my parents wedding, 12 people in a restaurant because that’s how they could afford to celebrate, or my grandparents, just the two of them in a registrar’s office. I can see writing it out how this might seem sad to someone who comes from a more many hands make light work community, but I’ve always seen it more as even simple weddings are lovely when they lead to long and happy marriages.

          • Tess Wilson

            I’ve had the same sort of experiences, Amy March! I’ve attended plenty of family & friend weddings, but it never occurred to me to stay and help do the break-down. I would be more than happy to help, but if that responsibility wasn’t arranged beforehand, I leave when I’m tired/tipsy/on the last shuttle!

            Also, it’s probably just my sleepy nature, but having to do complex logistical tasks after dancing and drinking for 6 hours sounds HELLISH. Can I come back & help in the morning?

        • Copper

          I’m with Meg on this one. Hiring people to do everything is filed under “for rich people” in my family’s mind. Not only do all the aunts expect to help, I suspect that if I hired this sort of stuff out, I would wind up with judgement about how wasteful I am with money. ***

          ***and this is not me heaping judgement on those of you who do hire this stuff out—personally I actually think that if you can afford it, paying for peace of mind can be awesome. It’s just an acknowledgment that the expectations can go both ways, depending on the habits and traditions of your families.

          • Amy

            Oh, yeah, hiring someone to do this sort of stuff is not something my family has ever done either. It’s certainly not because we don’t know how to budget. We’re just happy to roll up our sleeves and pitch in so that the couple can spend their money on other things.

        • Manya

          YES! It was totally fine! We didn’t have any resentment about it, we just couldn’t believe we hadn’t thought about it at all! We had this giant collective ‘DOH!!! We were happy to do it, and my sis had done so much prep, but I wish I had budgeted my energy a bit more wisely ;).

        • Manya

          Yes! It was totally our job, and we knew it was, and we totally wanted to do it. Somehow we had just had a giant collective brain fart and kind of forgot about it until it was upon us! That said, getting drunk on champagne with Aunt Barb and my mom was seriously fun. I feel pretty guilty in hindsight that I didn’t support my sister more in the lead up. But there was no reason at all for her to feel guilty… NONE.

  • megep

    We had friends and family both set up and tear down our wedding, and it was easy as pie. This was the source of much stress during planning (and naysaying by my otherwise wonderfully supportive mom) and here is my only advice:

    1) Draw diagrams. On actual paper. Give them to people who are responsible (or whoever volunteers) and let it go. It will probably look fine.

    2) If something you want set up is so complicated to set up/build that you can’t explain it to others in less than 3 minutes, it is probably not worth it.

    3)At the end of the night, nothing got people moving faster to help clean up than seeing me & my husband carrying a few vases to a car. Once they saw us “working” at our own wedding, they sprang into action. The place was cleaned up (linens bagged, tables folded against a wall, chairs stacked, extra booze & kegs in a car, flowers distributed) in about 15 minutes. So, guilt trips work. :)

    Our wedding looked nothing like the wedding I had envisioned in my head, but it felt perfect. It felt so full of love and community and generosity that even the plainest and most simple of decorations just glowed.

    • meg


    • Amber

      I love this! Thanks for the advice. :-)

  • Amy March

    Also factor in how able people may be to help at the end of the night. I know I’m often super happy to volunteer for any wedding elf activity except breaking down a wedding, because I’ll be a) ready to get my heels and spanx off, b) ready to let a cute groomsman take care of the rest of the personal-clothing-“breakdown” and c) tipsy, and loving your open bar, and your bartender, and the really awesome pattern on the carpet . . .

    • LMN

      Amy March–your comment totally made me giggle. It was a lot harder to brainstorm people to ask for help with break-down than with set-up, because I found myself thinking, “Who will still have energy by then and won’t be too tipsy to safely pack glassware?” It’s a delicate question, but I think we found the right folks, so now I have two entirely different set-up and break-down crews (except for my day-of coordinator, who will be in charge of both). I’m hoping this means that no one will end up too exhausted at the end of the night (except maybe the coordinator, but that’s her job and she’s excited about it!).

    • meg

      Though interestingly, I pretty much always help with tear-down (even if I’m not asked, and even if I do nothing else). I’m very “Well, the couple is gone, time to take off my heels and see what needs to get DONE. We can get trashed after.” In my experience, every wedding is a mix on the tear-down front. So find one or two people like me, who are tear-down-barefoot-while-tipsy-types, and have them lead the charge. Everyone is good at different things, embrace that.

  • Great article! If it all seems way too overwhelming, you can always hire a wedding planner and then it’s her job to organize, and delegate all of the jobs/tear down/set up/haul away etc. that have to be done. Most planners will do alot of it for you too! Or they have resources they can call on to get the job done.
    The catering staff is usually very helpful with organizing , packing up, and helping you haul items to the cars.
    Or do you know some responsible high school kids who are ready to earn say a little extra money?
    Another reason for buying large clear plastic tubs that are labeled with everything you need from cake cutting table asseccories, to centerpiece items to bar menus. This way everything can go right back into their original tubs to be transported home.
    Another idea is to rent most of your items needed from the venue, that way it’s their problem to set up the items and tear them down and put them away, not yours!
    I feel after the wedding none of these details should be the concern of the newly married couple. If you can plan ahead and delegate, delegate, delegate, all will be taken care of with no worries on the newlyweds part :D

  • The thought of breaking down a wedding was so stressful for my partner that finding a place to take care of this for us weighed heavily in our choice of venue. This place will box up all of our (minimal) decorations and we just have to swing by and pick up the box the next morning. (Other benefits: stained glass windows! amazing food! ceremony & reception at same place!) Paraphrasing Meg from the book: sometimes it’s worth paying for something so you don’t have to think about it anymore.

  • Another important note for breaking down: when does everything need to be cleaned up by? This was a super important question that I had for all the cabin/grounds areas that we scoped out when we were still deciding. Because most of our people were staying overnight, I didn’t want to have to take friends/family away from the party to do a major teardown that night. We were prepared to pay some extra for the luxury of leaving things out until Sunday morning, but in the end the place that we went with didn’t charge us, so long as we were finished before the noon checkout time they give all the cabins.

    How this worked with vendors went like this: the caterers cleaned up after cake, leaving only the kegs/alchohol/drinks that we provided as self serve. I arranged to bring them their tablecloths in the morning so they wouldn’t have to move around all the decorations while folks were still out. Then Sunday morning a pack of us returned and cleaned the place out in about an hour or so before going to have breakfast.

    • Yesss. Everyone has to be absolutely out of my venue (a state park) by 10 pm, no exceptions, which means the place logistically has to be cleared out by . . . 9? The logistics of this are kind of driving me batty. Luckily, we have the venue for Fri-Sun, so we don’t actually have to have it cleaned up Saturday night, but I’m sure all the rentals have to be packed up and returned, right? I’ve never rented stuff before so I don’t know how that works!

      • Check with your rental place. It depends on what their service covers and if they charge extra for set up/teardown.

        For the chairs we rented for the ceremony, they came and set them up that morning and then came and folded them up, packed up, and left while we were having dinner. Since we gave them the check for everything when they arrived, they didn’t need anyone to be waiting with/near the chairs when they came back (though I think our planner made sure they got off alright). Now, this is probably slightly more than rental places usually do, but they were a local company that was very familiar with our venue area. So that helped I think.

      • meg

        We had to tear down in an hour, and we did it (we did not include me). So! Those of you that need to, don’t worry, just organize.

  • Thank you SO MUCH for all of this!

    Here are some things I’m taking into account, having been a bridesmaid or family member at a few DIT weddings:

    – Make a list of breakdown tasks and TYPE THEM OUT AND PRINT THEM. Why? Because while your friends and family can take direction well, particularly with set up, at the end of the evening they are definitely tired and probably drunk. At my friend’s wedding, several people who were supposed to help break down effed off to places unknown, and the rest of us were just tipsy enough to have no idea what the hell we were doing. Making a typed out list of everything that needs doing and where to put the stuff is key.

    – If you can take a photo of how the table/setup of something should look, do. I helped set up at a wedding once where the bride gave us a photo of what the tables were supposed to look like, and then put all the decor in clear rubbermaid bins. It was super easy to get the table to look like she wanted it. Your friends do not want to screw up on this, so help them out.

    – Make friends with people who drive trucks and vans.

    • That last one is just good advice for life in general.

    • Corrie

      Also, boats. Add that to the list of ‘things you don’t want to own yourself, but everyone should know someone who owns one.’

      Completely irrelevant to wedding planning, but good for life in general.

    • K down under

      “Your friends do not want to screw up on this, so help them out.” This.

  • rowany

    how close to the actual wedding do you ask helpers? Since I’ve heard over and over again that “people may surprise you” by how much or how little they’re willing to help, and I’d rather not be surprised on the day itself.

    • megep

      We asked people to help set up about two weeks before, mainly because that is when our venue told us that (surprise!) we couldn’t get in the night before to set up as promised. They actually had a lot of fun–apparently they made chair covering into a contest and at some point several of my friends’ dads were wearing chair covers. :)
      The clean up portion was mentioned to several cousins in the days leading up to the wedding, and luckily a friend who has worked several weddings as a waiter took charge of it without being asked. In my experience, I’ve helped set up/tear down several weddings, and I was never formally asked–I just saw that it needed doing and pitched in, as did many of our guests when the time came.

      Good luck! It will all work out.

    • I’d say 4-6 weeks before, if possible. I say this because that’s close enough to the wedding for people to be getting excited about it, but enough time for you to (calmly) find a backup plan if it turns out no one wants to help. Also, depending on who you are asking to help, it’s enough time for them to change their travel arrangements or their plans for the time before/after your wedding in order to spend more time helping out!

  • Kelsey

    Elizabeth (and APW) really, thank you so much for this series. I feel so much more prepared for the actual logistics of our wedding than I ever would have otherwise. All of your articles have been saved for my use as a bride and as a wedding stage manager. Thank you!!

  • Kelly

    Such a great post! I wish I’d been able to read it about 3 weeks ago…right before my wedding. :) Man, I thought I was totally organized, and I was…with a lot of the main details and big important stuff (caterers, DJ, photogs, throw-away centerpieces, etc). But when it came down to EXACTLY which boxes were going in EXACTLY which cars, who was setting up EXACTLY which decorations, and who was bringing EXACTLY which boxes back to the hotel after…some of that wasn’t as specific as my micro-managing self would have liked in hindsight.

    My biggest piece of advice is that you simply can’t micro-manage every single little minute detail. SO…pick the top things you definitely want done right (even if it’s 20-30 “things”), and make sure the whole process is planned for those things/items. For example, I didn’t specifically state that I would have my grandmother’s hankerchief during the ceremony, and that it could possibly be left in the bridal cottage for the reception…so that is now missing since I never went back to the bridal cottage the rest of the night. And none of the extra donuts from our massive donut “cake” made it to the brunch the next day like I’d planned in my head. And none of my Sharpie pens for the guest book got returned (OK fine, I can buy new ones…but dammit I LOVE those pens!) :) But other really important items, like my DIY paper-flower bouquets/bouts and hubby’s cufflinks, miraculously made it home without specific planning on my part.

    I also remember at a friend’s wedding her cake topper never made it back to the hotel, and was apparently thrown out after the party. Some things – like the cake topper and my antique hankie – just can’t be replaced from a special moment in time like a wedding, so be sure to make others aware of the items that are important to you, make sure they’re competent people, and then trust in your planning and your people!

  • Heather D

    So nice to see this post. I have been stressing over some logistics for a while. I plan to have my wedding in a pavilion in a public park.

    I am very worried about the time after setup until the time til we arrive from the ceremony. Does anyone have experience with this? The only think I can think of is putting the more difficult decorations like Christmas lights in, hope for the best, and then have my sister (a bridesmaid) and her man rush to decorate the tables and such after the ceremony and stall everyone else.

  • Love logistical nightmares…this was pretty cool to read up on.

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