Get Sh*t Done: How to Set A Table

Table settings made easy!

Wedding planning tends to bring up things you never thought you’d have to have an opinion about—things like table settings. Because, people? There are options. Lots of them. If you really don’t care, most caterers have a preferred setup, and you are perfectly welcome to just tell them to do whatever they think is best. However, if you (or your family/friends team) are in charge of setting the tables, well… you have to make a decision about both what goes on the table and how it’s being arranged on there.

The good news is that there’s a lot you can do with basic rental ware and linens—yes, if you want to pay to upgrade there are about ten thousand pretty (and often expensive) options out there, but you can absolutely to stick with basics and still be in great shape. The vast, vast majority of rental companies charge the same for any color of linen and, most rental companies charge the same price (or very close) for either poly or cotton. Choose cotton. They’re heavier, lie better, and more absorbent than poly (important when it comes to napkins.) That said, if you’re getting your linens from the venue, it’s likely they only own one color, so anything else will be an upcharge because they’ll be renting themselves.

To illustrate just how many options you have with rentals, APW Advertising Manager Emily and I went to the Hartmann Studios rental warehouse a few weeks ago (rental warehouses: unexpectedly magical places) and put some sample tables together to show you how small changes like linen color and style of napkin fold and placement can totally change the look of your tables for absolutely no extra money. Let’s get started.

This is the most classic, basic table setting out there. It works well if you’re doing a pre-plated salad for guests when they sit, and if you want multiple glasses (shown: water, wine, champagne.) The napkin fold is the easiest out there, but when you’re setting over a hundred places, it’s good to have a standard system. Step by step:

Start with the napkin flat, seam side up. Fold in half, fold in half again. Rotate, fold in half the opposite direction. Place next to plate, forks on top.

Now, same napkin fold, with a less formal placement, which also will make the color of your napkin more front and center on your tables:

Simple variation: don’t need multiple plates, forks, or glasses? This looks great with just a place card on top. Note that we’re using the same white and green centerpiece, but have switched up the tablecloth and napkin color.

You can also (oh hey!) have more than one color of napkin:

And, my personal favorite, an option with one less step that’s a little more unusual: the long napkin fold. Exactly the same as above, just don’t make the final fold, and then hang the edge over the end of the table. Bam—color!

Now, maybe you want menus, because they’re cute, you like paper things, and hey—you spent a long time developing your menu with your caterer. You could use the menu fold, which is called such for a reason. It’s the most complicated of the napkin folds (and has many, many variations of its own), but we have a lazy trick for you!

Start with the napkin seam side DOWN. Fold in half, then fold only the top half in half again. Smooth. Flip the entire thing over. Fold in half, then in half again. Flip over so that the seam is down. Slip the menu in. Bam! Put that sucker on the plate. If you don’t have menus but like this look, you can also just slip the silverware in there:

If you’re doing favors (which you totally do not have to do!), I’m a fan of putting them on the plate and making them part of the table decor. Double duty is always a good thing.

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  • MirandaVanZ

    We are doing a buffet, would it be ok if we had the menu folded napkins with cutlery in them at each place setting and then had the plates in stacks on one end of the buffet. I imagine people going all over the buffet if there is no clear start point and it taking twice as long for everyone to get food.

    It would cost us $80 to rent cloth napkins. We have manged to not have to rent anything yet through some major crowed sourcing and are on a very tight budget, would we be horrible people if we just used paper napkins?


      I don’t think so. I went to a wedding where they had pre-wrapped all of the utensils in paper napkins, restaurant-style, and they were just set in the center instead of the plate. The water glass was there, but that was it. And it looked fine. They also had a buffet, with the plates at the end of the food tables.

      If you really want a plate to anchor the setting, you could use chargers. The plate goes on it so you could do the chargers with the utensils and the water glass for each setting and people would still have plates at the end of the buffet to guide them. I think it’s better to have the plates at the end of the buffet table, personally, but that’s just my opinion. I’m sure there are plenty of others regarding that.

      • MirandaVanZ

        “I don’t think so. I went to a wedding where they had pre-wrapped all of the utensils in paper napkins, restaurant-style, and they were just set in the center instead of the plate. The water glass was there, but that was it. And it looked fine. They also had a buffet, with the plates at the end of the food tables. ”

        That is good to know, I was worried the utensils would look way to casual in the paper napkins and kind of lame just sitting there alone, like we just ran around chucking utensils on the tables and didn’t give a crap.

        • We tied our silverware bundles with ribbon. We used fabric napkins because we had a bunch that we crowd-sourced and found some other cheapy ones. We put the bundles on the tables with the table number, centerpiece and a water pitcher, and it was fine. We didn’t even have water glasses at the tables because our favors (and holders of the escort cards) were pint glasses which got used for all manner of drinks. It worked out really well!
          We did a buffet and had the plates stacked at the end of the buffet.

    • Bonnie

      We made the cloth napkins for our wedding. We bought fabric in bulk. It was definitely a little more expensive than paper napkins but we really wanted cloth and weren’t willing to pay $2 each to rent themW we’re planning on either giving sets of napkins to our family/friends after the wedding or selling them on recycle your wedding/craigslist etc. We picked a pattern that is popular at weddings now so we knew that would increase our chances of being able to sell them.


        We did this, too! We’re actually sharing them- my sister is getting married a couple months before we are. We paid for the napkins (bought the fabric and paid a lady from Craigslist to hem them) since we have a slightly larger budget, and she’s going to make sure there are 150 clean, non-stained napkins for our reception.

    • Karen

      We are doing the same thing but only rented real silverware, table cloths, cloth napkins and glasses for water. everything else I bought at they have awesome plastic plates that looks very real, they also have real cloth napkins for cheap. Hope that helps.

    • meg

      Of course you wouldn’t. We’ll try to do a logistical tutorial on disposable plates/cups/utensils, and what the pretty and compostable ones are too (for bonus points).

      • MirandaVanZ

        Excellent, looking forward to it! :)

      • Ariel

        Yes, please!!!

    • Paper napkins are a great option. I’m pretty sure they are eco friendly, since they will compost unlike any plastic stuff. Also, I think there are different qualities of paper napkins you can get. Get the nice, heavier ones. The cost will still be way less than cloth napkins.

      If you’re set on cloth napkins, check out craigslist. I got 150 yellow napkins for $100 on there. I’m pretty sure I can sell them for about what I paid for them. (Or you could pass them on to the next person, when you help them crowd source their wedding). Just an idea.

    • Stalking Sarah

      Yes. You would be horrible, terrible people. I, as a hypothetical wedding guest, would be COMPLETELY distracted. I would be unable to think about your beautiful, thoughtful, and emotional ceremony. I would be unable to engage with the other charming, funny, and wonderful guests at the table. I would not dance. I would not eat — not even a piece of cake. Nay, I would sit and stare at that paper napkin until the wedding ended. Then I would quietly gather up my things and leave, all the while preparing to call the police and let them know of your horribleness.

      Seriously, what’s the worst that can happen – people might judge you? Frankly, it could happen, but they’re unlikely to say it to you, because only a true asshat would ever do that. So if you never know that it happened, then did it really happen? I vote no.

    • We are having a buffet too, and are using paper everything! I got little “utensil bags” for super cheap off of etsy and we stuffed them with a napkin, fork and knife. I tied a little bow of bakers twine around it to make it look nice and that’s it! We’re still deciding whether to put them on the tables or put them all in a basket at the end of the buffet for people to grab. Either way, it was so inexpensive and they look super cute. I’m really happy with the decision. We didn’t have to rent anything so major score. :)

      • MirandaVanZ

        That sounds pretty.


    I am in love with this series. I am copying images, making notes, and emailing myself so much with this that I had to make a whole new folder.

    I also love that this site not only tackles the big, bad, overarching life-changing stuff but the nuts and bolts of the actual day.

    This is why I’m here. All the things.

  • Caroline

    Wait a minute, how on earth do you get the napkins folded an everything set up if you’re doing it all yourself? It never occurred to me (hah) that in addition to setting up tables with centerpeices and stuff, we also have to set each place setting. How long does it take? (We’re having about 60 people).
    Would it be horrible to have napkins and silverware on the buffet instead? Part of our plan involves asking some friends to set up a few tables where the ceremony chairs were between the ceremony and the reception, as we’re having an at home wedding in a relatively smallish space.
    Yikes! Thanks for reminding me about this element I totally forgot.

    • Lauren

      I think it probably makes more sense to have the plates at the buffet and have the napkins and silverware at the table. That way, no one is running all around because they lost a spoon, dropped a knife, forgot a fork, or didn’t see the napkins, thus jamming the buffet line. It is unlikely that they would forget a plate at the buffet, however, since that’s the vehicle by which food would be transported.

      We ended up doing what I just described (although we did not set up ourselves) and it worked out fine. The settings were still lovely (we pre-set with bread plates, bread, and water) and everyone understood the intended order – go, sit down, eat some bread, serve the grandmas, then buffet commences – without any hullabaloo or awkward milling about.

      • Would it make sense to have the plates at the start of the buffet line, but the napkins and utensils at a separate table, beyond the food? That way people can grab what they need when they think they need it, but extra napkins and utensils don’t crowd the food line?

        (We aren’t specifically seating people, so setting the individual tables seems to make less sense. Also, most of what we are serving is finger food, so while some people like to eat pizza with a fork, not a lot of people would just ditch any utensils we set out, which seems wasteful.)

        • Lauren

          I think that makes sense for the type of food you’re serving. As LikelyLaura says below, it’s not going to matter once people mess it up, and I guarantee no one is going to think it’s in bad taste or anything. I simply wanted all of my stuff set out and separate because I am very crowd-averse and I hate the traffic jam that buffets inevitably cause. Adding multiple things to carry, like a plate full of food PLUS silverware PLUS napkin and OH must find a place to sit drives me bonkers. Your milage may vary considerably, particularly with a smallish group.

          • Oh yes, good point about carrying things. That is always a pain.

    • LikelyLaura

      Honestly, if you’re doing this all yourself at home, I’d just put everything on the buffet. Yes, the napkins and silverware on the table might make a prettier first impression, but only for that 5 minutes before everyone sits down and messes it up anyway. I would not consider the two pictures you might get of a set table worth that stress.

      • Copper

        Or you can put the silverware on the tables, but all together in a jar or something so that it’s super simple to put out?

        • Caroline

          Brilliant. That’s a good idea. Glasses are going at the bar/drinks area, so then it just is napkins.

    • I’ve been to plenty of non-wedding events where you had to pickup your silverware at the end of the buffet. Even when you forget your silverware and have to run back up and grab it, it doesn’t slow down the buffet at all. Most of the times this has happened at large conferences where buffets served hundreds of people. I doubt it will be an issue for a 60-person wedding. I would recommend doing napkin silverware bundles (also could be done ahead of time) for ease of carrying.

    • meg

      This post didn’t mean to imply that you HAD to set the table like this, just that this is how it’s done. We had buffet service and didn’t have pre-set places. Doing it that way is a very common alternative.

      • Caroline

        I know I don’t have to, but I had been picturing pre-set places in my head, without figuring out how they happened. So now I have to get over that and picture tables without pre-set places, and silverware at the buffet, I think.

  • Leila

    So we did a variation on these. Our caterer had HUGE dinner plates that were frankly the size of chargers and the appetizer plates were like a slightly (very slightly) shrunken dinner plate. So we had the “charger” down all night with a square shaped napkin on top. We then had an appetizer plate and then a rolled napkin on top. The plates were white, the napkins were gray, and the napkins had a very simple pink bow tied around them. This gave an extremely elegant look. BUT it used twice the napkins and the charger plates of course needed to be rewashed afterwards. So not the most environmentally friendly option, but an still a very nice option.

    And for where to get the napkins: We ordered 150 gray napkins for $60 from Amazon. If we had rented them it would have been $250 for 150 napkins.

    • Ann

      I bought 4ftx12ft table cloths from Amazon in a lovely lavender color for $9/each. They were polyester, but still looked quite nice. I donated them to a charity that had lavender in their logo–I asked if they could use them for special events (such as fundraising dinners), and they were happy to have them. Definitely cheaper than renting.

      • Leila

        I retrospect, I would approach it how you did Ann. Colored Tablecloths would be much easier than colored napkins possibly the same price or cheaper

  • Copper

    When you do a food truck wedding, do they typically provide everything? Or do I still need place settings?

    • I’m guessing this depends on the food truck. I would ask. Also, sometimes caterers (food truck or otherwise) may WAY overcharge you for simple disposable stuff. It might not be worth worrying about, but it would probably good to know beforehand.

    • We’re having a food truck wedding and it was in our contract that they provide paper plates, bowls, and utensils. We’re very eco-conscious so we bought all our own paper products (at the dollar store!) myself since we wanted them to be compostable. I would check with your truck because they might and that may save you a ton of money!

      Also, even though we have the truck, we’re still setting up the food buffet style to avoid people having to line up outside. So we’re putting plates at one end, and having bundles of utensils/napkins and extra napkins in baskets at the other. I was worried at first that our tables would look bare with just white table cloths and some flowers in the center, but at this point (with the wedding being less than a month away) I don’t care anymore! ;)

  • I noticed you didn’t include spoons in any of these setups. I’m realizing there is nothing on my menu that would required a spoon. Do I not need to include it?

    • Stalking Sarah

      My hunch is that there is no need to include it if it won’t be used.

    • Emmy

      So I’m not a table-setting expert, but Miss Manners says to only set the table with the utensils that will be used. Otherwise, you’ll have to wash things that weren’t used.

      • meg

        Exactly. Though with weddings, practical wins anyway.

        • Sorry, meant to exactly your post, Meg, not report it! Damn iPhone. :)

  • Alyssa

    We’ve been stalking thrift stores in the area for the past six months and have accumulated almost 100 napkins for under .50 each, most less than .25 cents. They don’t all exactly match, but they’re in the color scheme and we’re going for “shabby chic” although I readily admit it might be on the shabby side. We’ve done the same for tablecloths, getting most for under $2 each. At the end I figure I’ll keep what I like and then either re-thrift them or sell them as a lot.

  • I love how many different ways there are to fold a napkin and each serves a different purpose.

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