Jeanne Benedict offers these general tips for decorating tabletops:
* When choosing materials from a place like a hardware store, Benedict strongly suggests taking safety precautions. Materials should be safe to use near food, candles and around children and pets. When in doubt, ask whether the item requires special handling. Also, use the right tools. Cutting screen or chicken wire requires gloves, and wire should be cut with wire cutters, not scissors.
* If you're turning hardware into table decor, make it a good cheat. "You can use copper pipes and copper wire, but be careful whatever you make doesn't look like an art piece from the hardware store," Benedict explains. "For a table, you want to get more elegant."
* If time is short, Benedict, says, "think of things that are big time-savers that take as little maintenance as possible. If you don't have anything perishable on a table, you can set it up weeks in advance."
* Be aware of items that give off odors. Pine boughs, for example, smell wonderful, but when placed on a dinner table or buffet they can compete with the smells of the food. Ditto for scented candles and eucalyptus branches. "Eating is the marriage of the nose and the taste buds," says Benedict, and nothing should interfere with that.
* Don't make your table decor so tall that guests can't see or talk to one another. If you want something up high, decorate a chandelier or hang ornaments from the ceiling. (Make sure they're secure so nothing falls on the table.)
* If using candles, make sure they're not near flammable materials, and keep an eye on them throughout the evening. Be careful not to group too many candles together, or, Benedict warns, "you could end up having the towering inferno."
* Have a can of metallic spray paint on hand. Nuts, pine cones and branches can be quickly sprayed to add some glitz to your decor.
* Stock up on a few inexpensive glass bubble bowl vases. Benedict fills them with everything from copper mesh pan scrubbers to napkins, then inserts a small juice glass in the middle, fills it with water, and adds flowers or a floating candle.
* "If something doesn't work, it doesn't work," Benedict says. "But don't give up just because something doesn't work the first time. Do a little trial and error. Don't stress about it. People will applaud your creation, and you'll get a great conversation started."