This is going to be different for people. It is really how you want to have your alter.
An altar is an elevated place or structure, as a mound or platform, at which religious rites are performed or on which offerings are made to gods, ancestors, etc.
There is much debate as to what an altar should be made out of and even its shape. Some people feel that an altar should be circular and not contain any nails in its creation. The reason for this being that the circular shape is reflective of the magick circle and the cycle of life and the omitting of nails and the like is due to their belief that the metal interferes with the energies within the circle. On the flip side though, there are people that feel that having nails in its construction doesn't affect anything. Some of these people have rectangular, oblong, square, and even diamond and star shaped altars. There are people who use tree stumps and even their coffee table in their living room.
What you choose to use, how it's made, and what it is made of is up to you. You are going to hear from many people saying things like "Do what feels right." or "Trust your instincts." or something of the like. I know this isn't always the answer you want to hear but there is good reason for all of us saying it. We say these things to you because we cannot tell you what is right for you. You have to march to the beat of your own drum and learn to trust and believe in yourself. If you are unable to dedicate a single piece of furniture for the sole purpose of an altar due to either space, prying eyes, or functionality; it is recommended that you be sure to bless the altar before each use. There is one thing that most of us can agree on in regards to altars and all tools and that is that it should be made out of natural ingredients as much as possible. After all, this is a religion of nature.
It is customary to have the altar facing North as this direction symbolizes stability and focus. There is however people that choose to face the other directions. There are also times when a witch will change the direction the altar faces dependent upon the working being performed. An example of such an occasion would be during a funerary ritual in which the altar would face West which is the direction of death and rebirth. Another example would be for a "wiccaning" or the blessing of a newborn child. In this case the direction of the altar would commonly be East because this direction represents new beginnings.
Altars are commonly decorated to represent the occasion of its use. For the lunar rituals, known as Esbats, the standard altar set up is normally used. On occasions like the holy days, known as Sabbats, the altar is seasonally decorated. Decorating your altar is not mandatory but it does help to put you in the mood. Everyone loves decorations. Ale Goblet This cup is used strictly to hold ale, wine, juice, or water for drinking and should not become confused with the Chalice. There are no requirements for what this vessel should look like. Some people like ornate goblets while others are ok with a simple cup.
At the end of a ritual or spell it is customary to pay tribute to the gods for what they have given to us. This is done in what is known as the "Cakes and Ale" portion of a ritual. This Goblet is raised up high in tribute of the Gods. A portion of its contents are spilled out for the Gods either onto the ground or into a libation dish. Sometimes a witch may reserve a portion of the contents to pour outside after the ritual. In a group setting, this goblet is passed around clockwise within the circle. The person handing you the cup will often say "May you never thirst!". This is a traditional blessing that is given and you are obliged to pass the blessing on as you pass the cup. If you are solitary it is appropriate for you to say "May I never thirst!" The contents of this cup are always blessed before offering or consumption. Altar Oil Altar Oil which is sometimes known as anointing oil is a blessed oil that is used for consecrating yourself before ritual as well as consecrating ritual tools.
Altar Candle The Altar Candle is sometimes called the "working candle". This candle represents the element of Fire on your altar and is used to light all the other candles you will use in your rituals or spells as well as for circle and tool consecration. It also helps in illuminating your working area so you can read from you Book of Shadows. It is normally a white candle because white symbolizes purity. This is not to be confused with a "quarter" candle. Quarter candles will be discussed in another lesson.
An altar cloth is in essence a table cloth. Some people use them while others don't. They are usually decorated with symbols or images that add to your sense of magick or spirituality. They do not have to have images on them. Some people use plain cloths and some people use different cloths depending on the season or sabbat which is approaching. There is no rule as to what they should look like.
Bowl of Salt The bowl of salt symbolizes the element of Earth and is used in circle and tool consecration. The salt is added to water to create blessed or "holy" water. Many people keep their salt in a variety of containers. It doesn't need to be a bowl but it is a practical option.
Book of Shadows The Book of Shadows is the workbook of the witch. In it is recorded: Rituals guidelines, Invocations, Spells, Runes, Rules of a particular Coven or Tradition, Symbols, Poems, Chants, and anything else of use to the witch during ritual.
Traditionally the Book of Shadows was always hand written by the individual. A common custom for new initiates into a Coven, is to hand copy his teacher�s Book of Shadows exactly as it appeared, then later to add his own material as he progressed in the craft. To make your own Book of Shadows, you can use any form of blank book, but perhaps the best type to use are those of a loose-leave nature in a 3 ring binder, thus allowing pages to be shuffled around when preparing for rituals. Some Books of Shadows are made from recycled paper, bound up in natural tree bark covers, and are available in some art shops and bookstores. The reasoning for its position on the altar is obviously because it is right in front of you so you can read it. The Book of Shadows is not really mandatory but most people do not have rituals committed to memory.