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Line ‘em up! Spoons, forks, and knives may take a secondary role to dinnerware and glassware when it comes to tableware, but that doesn’t mean flatware can’t add vital pizzaz to a dinner or brunch table. Between spoons, forks, knives, and an army of add-ons like oyster forks and cheese knives, flatware is one of the most extensive designware categories there is. Which makes shopping for vintage and newly-made flatware all the more of a time-consuming affair. Whether you’re just beginning your flatware collection, or you’re looking for a special piece to add atmosphere to a wedding or party, there’s no shortage of things to consider: material, style, the number of pieces you need. To help make flatware shopping a bit easier to manage, we’re setting the table (so to speak) with all the essential flatware pieces you need to know!

What is Flatware?

Flatware, also known as “silverware,” is a basic term used to identify eating utensils. Flatware sets generally consist of forks, spoons, and knives. Newly-made flatware sets are most often sold in single sets of five. These sets of five usually include two sizes of forks (including a table fork and a salad fork), two sizes of spoons (a table spoon and a coffee spoon or tea spoon), and a butter knife. Because it’s required that you buy several single flatware sets to create a flatware set big enough for a family, most vintage flatware sets consist of twenty pieces or more.

Oftentimes, the term “flatware” is used to categorize utensils that are not exclusively used for eating, such as serving utensils. These utensils can include cake servers, fish servers, carving sets, ladles, and more.

What is Flatware Made Of?

The most common construction material for newly-made flatware sets is stainless steel, while the most common material for vintage flatware sets is sterling silver or silverplate. Stainless steel is currently the favored medium for newly-made silverware sets because of its cost-effectiveness and durability. So long as you don’t let your stainless steel flatware soak in the sink or expose your stainless utensils repeatedly to acidic foods like vinegar, salt, or mustard, they'll likely last for years. While many sets are constructed 100% of stainless steel, others incorporate additional materials, usually in the handles. Enamel, resin, and acrylic are materials that are frequently incorporated into newly-made designs. If you’re not sure you want to commit to mixed-material silverware, but you desire a bit of flair, look for stainless steel designs with hammered or incised handles. For instance, stainless steel silverware with handles molded to look like bamboo are common finds.

While sterling silver flatware (which for the record, consists of at least 92.5% silver by weight) is every bit as durable as stainless steel, it is a bit more of an investment and does require a bit more upkeep. Sterling silver flatware requires polishing on occasion, and it’s not recommended that serrated sterling knives take a spin in the dishwasher (those serrated edges can become corroded). Likewise, it's recommended you pull the whole set out before the drying cycle starts. Because sterling silver utensils are such an investment any way you slice it (or dice it), you may want to consider sets by legendary makers like Gorham and Reed & Barton which are destined to span the years. Just like stainless steel sets, some sterling silver sets include additional construction materials. Sterling utensils with mother-of-pearl handles are among the most common mixed-media flatware sets that you’re likely to find on the vintage market.

What Specialty Flatware Do I Need?

When shopping for vintage flatware, you’re bound to come across a number of specialty items, such as cheese spreaders, oyster or seafood forks, .dessert forks, and carving sets. To help you decide what additional accouterments you need, we're highlighting some of the most common flatware ad-ons.

Cheese spreaders look like miniature, blunt butter knives. They usually have a rounded head and handle. Vintage cheese spreaders are primarily used with grazing-board style entertaining. Cheese knives can be placed sporadically around a cheese board to assist guests with smearing soft cheeses like goat, blue, and brie on crackers and slices of baguette. Dishing up a honey-drizzled baked wheel of brie? Accessorize with an entire set of vintage cheese spreaders!

Oyster forks are small, pick-like forks designed to spear an oyster on the half shell. Oyster forks vary in design. Many are shaped simply like miniature forks, while others are designed to look more like pitchforks or spears. Some have semi-circle tines, while others have flame-shaped ones. Despite differences in style, virtually all oyster forks possess two or three tines. Rarely will they ever showcase four tines like a regular fork.

Dessert forks, or cake forks, could be confused with oyster forks, as they also appear to be mini forks, but dessert forks generally have more tines than oyster forks. You may also come across sets of dessert or pastry forks that have a right or left tine that is much wider than the other tines. This enlarged tine is used to assist in cutting through pastries, similar to how you might with a knife.

Another item you're like to fun across are carving sets. A carving set usually comes equipped with a carving fork, which is a large two or three-pronged fork that resembles and pitchfork, and a carving knife, which is an oversized straight-edge knife. Some carving sets will also come equipped with a sharpener outfitted in the same decorative pattern as the carving knife and fork. For serving cakes and pies, there are also cake serving sets available. A cake or pie serving set usually consists of two to three pieces: a pie or cake server, a serving fork (typically a more spoon-like fork with rounded tines), and a spreader knife. A fish serving set is similar to a cake or pie serving set, but these flatware sets are generally made up of a paddle-like fork, almost similar in shape to a spatula, and a blunt knife with a large, flame-shaped tip.