How Do Butterfly Leaf Tables Work?

Derek Dowell

The butterfly leaf table was an American innovation on the original drop leaf table design popular in Europe since the 1600s. Where the drop leaf table had a stationary center and outer edges that dropped down, the butterfly leaf allowed the user to rotate a center section out of sight beneath the table to create a smaller piece of furniture. The size of the removable piece is normally 18 inches, which might not seem like much of a space saver until you see it in action. In a small dining room, every bit of saved space counts.


Butterfly leaf tables extend the functionality of a dining room table.

A butterfly leaf table can take almost any overall shape, but the most common are rectangular or circular. To access the center section, pull out on the edges of the table. A rail mechanism beneath the table top allows each side to expand, creating an expansion slot of sorts. Some tables are designed for the leaf to rotate beneath the table when not in use. Others incorporate a center piece of two boards attached with brackets that folds inward like a set of butterfly wings. Either way, the result is the same: a simple way to expand table size.


The obvious benefit of a butterfly leaf table is that it can be reduced in size to fit a small dining room, but then expanded to handle extra guests when the need arises. The self-contained design where the leaf is stored in the table itself is quite simple. Since this type of table only works with wood, butterfly leaf furniture often adds a warm, distinguished feel to the room. Your material choices run the gamut from solid oak to other hardwoods or even composites with hardwood veneers like cherry.


When it comes to type, there are a variety of butterfly leaf tables to choose from. Single pedestal or four legs are classic, always popular choices. More recent decades have seen the increasing popularity of counter-height tables. Apparently, the world has decided there isn't a particular need to make it more difficult to get in and out of chairs stuck beneath a low-slung table when it's just as easy to build a tall one.


Since everyone has particular ideas about furniture, you should spend enough "get acquainted" time with your potential new piece of furniture at the store before you buy it, to ensure that it is the one you want. Sit in the chairs. Hide the leaf and bring it back a few times. A good dining room table is not a cheap investment. It's destined to be a prominent feature in your house. Make sure that it's something you're proud of and can live with.