The altar surface itself is one of the most overlooked parts of the pagan or magician's altar, and yet one of the most important. Sure, you can cover almost anything with an altar cloth (and I'll be talking about those next week) but if your altar is too small, too awkward, or badly made, it'll bother you every time you try to work or pray. Better to invest in a good piece of furniture if you have the money and the space, and start with a solid foundation that you enjoy looking at.
If you have a vehicle, or a friend with a vehicle, your options are much wider here than they might be otherwise. If you've got good public transport and a solid luggage cart, however, nightstands, end-tables and other medium-range furniture may be an option for you. Pay attention to the sidewalks on the route between your favorite thrift store and your home, and plan accordingly.
If you live in a city, options like Freecycle, Craigslist and the ol' reliable side of the road can turn up beautiful, solid furniture for zero dollars. It can take longer, but if you have no money to spare, it's an option that will still turn up good furniture in your budget. Don't be afraid to ask the deities you're planning to honor for help, either.
Assuming you have fifteen or twenty dollars to spend and a vehicle to get it home in, a much wider variety of options open up to you. Before you go to the thrift store, however, take stock of where that altar is going to go. Do you have room for a full piece of furniture, or are you looking for a tabletop piece? If you have no space at all, maybe you're in search of something you can hang on the wall. Either way, you'll be much happier if you go in knowing what you need. Go ahead and get out the tape measure if you've got a very specific space to fill. Nobody wants to come home with something they're in love with and find out it's off by an inch.
When you're looking at a piece in the store, make sure you check it thoroughly. Does it wobble? Are the drawers or hinges solid? If it has stains, can they be cleaned easily? Don't be afraid to look beyond your initial idea of furniture as well - shelf units are generally found among the tchotchkes, for example, and are great when you don't have much space. Outdoor furniture may be kept separately in the store, but can make for excellent small altar tables. Coffee tables, end tables, small kitchen tables, desks, nightstands, bookshelves, dressers, sewing machine tables... virtually any piece of furniture that's flat can be repurposed for an altar. Keep an open eye and you'll soon have more altars than you know what to do with.
Once you've got your table, desk, cabinet, or shelf, the next step is to put things on it. Stay tuned for more Secondhand Pagan posts!