Since we were inviting 130 or so people to the wedding, we collected enough dishes for roughly that many folks. That meant 130 dinner plates, 200 or so small plates for dessert and appetizers (we figured not everyone would take their own plate), 130 dinner forks, dessert forks, and knives, some spoons for sugar & coffee stirring, 100 or so coffee cups, and around 250 glasses for water and wine. Crazy!
Collecting the Dishes
First, while we originally wanted just china, after realizing the limitations of that, we expanded our search to dishes that primarily included white, brown, green, and yellow in their patterns. We wanted things that looked vintage, so we mostly avoided things that looked like they'd been created in the last few years.
Second, we rarely bought something that cost more than it would have cost to rent that dish. So that generally meant buying things on sale. Luckily our local thrift stores have frequent sales and color tag 50% of sales daily, so we were able to do this without too much problem. If you are just doing this for aesthetic reasons, you could probably pick up your dishes much faster than if you are also doing it to help your budget. We did sell most of our dishes after the wedding so we made up some of the money that way as well.
Third, we tried to get some of the dishes on Freecycle (for free). That meant driving around town picking things up. Again, if you aren't concerned about cost, you could eliminate this and save time.
Before the wedding, we had to wash all of the dishes. This took two full days. At home, we soaked all of the dishes in big tubs on our lawn. Neighbors thought we were insane hosing off dishes on our lawn, but we found that the sooner we got the price tag stickers off the dishes, the easier it was and our kitchen was too small to unload that many dishes.
Of course you can't really get dishes clean on the lawn, so after a quick rinse and removing the sticker, we would box them up. We drove all the boxes up to my parent's house (where the wedding was held) and a few weeks before the wedding we spent almost a full day running them all through their dish washer before separating them into boxes for each table. You can see pictures of the boxes piled high on the post I wrote about it.
One of the challenges of using mismatched dishes is how to actually use them at the wedding. While I've seen people use one pattern at each table, we decided to mix it up more than that. But we found that it looked not as good (to us) to use both china and stoneware on one table. So we stuck with mismatched china on certain tables and mismatched stoneware on others.
I actually handpicked the specific dishes for each table based on who would be sitting there. Again, crazy.
One of the hardest parts of doing your own dishes is that you actually have to do your own dishes after the wedding. We could have hired someone to do it, but we decided to take matters into our own hands. So on Sunday, after most people had left, we spent the afternoon rinsing off all the dishes, throwing out the broken ones, and sorting them into piles (garage sale, keep, give to friends). Honestly, we didn't wash them that well. We basically rinsed in soapy water, hosed off (yup, the hose again), and dried them in the sun.
We actually use the dishes from our wedding as our house dishes now (and we have some of our favorites of the china saved for dinner parties). It's kind of a nice, daily reminder of the wedding.
And one final note...If we had to do it over we'd rent the silverware. There are 20 knives at every thrift store for every 1 fork. And thrift store silverware isn't cheap and is often kind of gross. Also, some thrift stores package the silverware so you are forced to buy a big bag of knives to get three or four forks. Annoying!