Probably one of the biggest influences on a lot of Wiccans has been Scott Cunningham’s Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. Scott talks a bit about the ritual tools and gives a suggested altar setup, facing North:
How does this work in practice?
It’s not terrible, but it’s not great - of particular confusion to me is the location of the central placement of the cauldron, although Scott does say that you can put the materials for whatever spell or ritual you’re doing there instead. Assuming you leave the cauldron out then you’ve got an acceptable setup, no obvious fire hazards aside from the Fire candle being in front of the censer, which could be tricky when you add more incense. It’s still better than putting it right at the southern edge, but it’s still not the greatest idea. I am particularly interested that the incense itself is so far away from the censer, but I feel that Scott views the incense itself has having an Airy quality - the censer is centrally placed so as to offer the smoke to both the God and the Goddess.
I am not a fan of putting the crystal ball on the altar for no discernable reason, and I am currently of the opinion that a crystal ball should be used for divination only and as such should be kept in the dark or dim light, but that’s just me. I do not really see the utility of the bell, and have never used one in ritual.
Now, I never actually laid hands on a copy of the Solitary Guide until I was well advanced in learning. No, the very first book on any sort of pagan witchcraft I ever read was D.J. Conway’s Celtic Magic, which is…..ah, not the best book. It’s a very low-quality book, but somehow I managed to develop critical thinking and become well-read. Conway gives the following setup, facing East:
Which gives this result:
So, a few things. First, god damn, why is the sword on the altar itself, and how big is your altar that you can easily do that? Are we looking at tiny swords here (what is this, a sword for ants?)? I do not like the arrangement of chalice, water dish, and salt dish at all, and as you can see this leaves little if any room for the athame and wand. Why is the censer towards the North? Why is the left side so much more crowded than the right? No, I do not like this altar setup at all, and would never use such a layout.
Silver RavenWolf gives an example setup in her book Solitary Witch that I have on my bookshelf for some reason, which suggests the following North-pointing arrangement:
With my tool set we get this result:
Generally okay, although I’m curious about there being only one deity statue. She clearly states that the two candles at the rear are illuminator candles with no special purpose, and I don’t know why the Fire candle is in this weird no-man’s-land in the southeast (why not just move it to the southeastern corner of the altar?) but aside from that it’s inoffensive and is notable in that it’s the first layout we see here with a space for the ritual book as well as the plate of cakes (well, Triscuits in this case, but that’s all I had in the kitchen).
I’m not sure what she suggests in her other works as I was unable to find decent PDFs to see her setup. I read Teen Witch once and I just don’t recall what she says on the subject of altars in that book.