The smartest thing I ever could have possibly done was to put a sheet of glass on the dresser I use as my altar.
This was not a consciously made decision on my part, but rather a bit of kismet. When I moved into my room at the co-op, I inherited a beat-up old dark brown dresser that was missing a couple knobs. My dad painted it the same cream color as all the trim in my room, and I replaced the knobs, but after he left I realized the flat paint we used to paint the dresser would reveal every little smudge and would be impossible to keep clean. So I measured the top, ran off to True Value, and had them cut me a piece of cheap glass. And I mean cheap: it’s about as thin as can be, and I didn’t have them round out the edges.
But oh. my. gods. does that glass make keeping the altar area clean. Dust and ash glide off with a quick sweep and any random candle wax is beyond easy to remove with a retractable glass scraper, which is essentially a razor blade in a safety case and handle. If I want to use an altar cloth, I just place the glass over the cloth and can proceed without fear.
I can’t tell you how many disasters were averted thanks to the glass. Wine stains, food stains, burn marks, wax drippings–all things of the past! Better yet, it increases ritual safety. Once in a ritual last year I knocked over a taper candle. It obviously couldn’t burn the glass, but it did scorch a small area of the dresser that wasn’t covered by the glass. If I would have had a cloth on top of the altar surface, I would have had a full blown fire on my hands in no time. The glass is also pretty versatile: if I really, really want to, I can drizzle wax onto the glass itself for a magical working, making all sorts of magical sigils and patterns. Heck, I can even paint the glass. Thanks to the glass scraper, it’s actually easier to remove than wax.
You can have glass cut to fit any flat surface, probably for under $100 for most pieces (my cheap piece was about $12). Glass stores will do this for you, but some hardware stores like Lowe’s will do it as well. Round or curved cuts will cost more, as will thicker glass and edge finishing. Consult with your glass pro if this sounds appealing to you and choose a thicker piece of glass and an edge finishing: It is much easier to snap and shatter a thin piece of glass, and unfinished edges will scratch you at some point in time–probably when you’re dancing around trying to raise energy.