Do you even need a special reading surface? The answer is no. I have heard that bone readers of old often drew a circle on the ground with a stick and threw the bones there. Most of us are not this rustic though, so a nice surface on which to cast is something deserving of thought and consideration.
I have seen many different types of reading surfaces. One reader I know and have taken classes with has a huge flat basket that she casts into. Another has an attractive skull rug that he casts onto.* Animal hides are popular reading surfaces – especially rabbit, goat, sheep, and cowhides, both with and without fur. Cloth is always an option, and many cloths made for tarot decks or casting runes would work just as well for casting the bones. Just be careful of the size as a bone throw may take up considerably more space than a tarot spread. Get one with enough size to grow as your set grows if you are a beginner. You can, of course, make your own cloth, keeping it a simple blank slate or decorating it to break it down into areas with meanings either marked for all to see or unmarked and known to you and you alone.
When I first started reading, I bought a piece of black sail cloth and painted a crossroads on it in white. I still had tarot on the brain, and I read on it like a modified Celtic Cross spread. The left was the past, and the right was the future. The top was the conscious mind, and the bottom was the unconscious mind. This worked for quite well until I started working with a teacher and was encouraged to try different things. You can try this method yourself. It made the transition from tarot easier for me and provided good information. It is by no means a “beginner” style. It is a style that is just as useful as any other style of cloth.
You could also use a variation of this type of cloth by breaking it down into quarters for the directions or the seasons. The same thing can be achieved with a plain cloth using visualization to see the quadrants. Your system does not have to be marked onto the cloth to be effective.
I have also had a reading with a reader who used a cloth divided into 12 sections for the signs and houses of the zodiac.** She incorporated her knowledge of astrology into her readings. You can make your own as she did, or you can buy a decorative cloth decorated with an astrological wheel.
Some readers mark their cloths so that they have separate areas for different things such as blessings and warnings, yes/no/maybe, etc. You could buy one of these cloths, or you could make something similar by dividing the cloth into areas that you find pertinent.
Up until very recently, I have been using a piece of black cowhide without fur, approximately 23” x 29” for my readings. It has no markings, and I use no mental markings. It is like a blank canvas waiting for paint. I lay that over a piece of quilted wax cloth to provide extra cushioning for my shells. The black background is easy on my eyes as it provides good contrast for most of my pieces. I am currently using a large goat hide with a mandala carved into it. One of my students found it, and it is perfect for readings.
In the past, I have also worked with a smaller goat hide, but I quickly outgrew its size. I have also worked with straw mats and a sheep skin with fur. They all worked fine during the time I used them. My main criteria are that the piece be attractive, roomy enough for all my pieces, and not distracting.
When I used that first goat skin as my mat, it had a natural dark line down the center. The hide was brown with one white spot. I interpreted pieces that landed in the white spot as being of special significance to the reading. I have also had a couple of straw or bamboo mats. One I purchased from the dollar store. They often have bamboo mats of a size to be used for place mats, but this one was significantly larger. It was a lucky find. I have also bought a straw mat designed for beach use from one of the tourist stores along the shore. These mats typically cost under $5.00 and are about 6 feet long by 2–3 feet wide. I cut it down and sewed a cloth edge on it so that the cut side did not unravel and to cover the plain cloth on the other sides. These natural material mats all worked well, were inexpensive to obtain, were easy to decorate, and fit my aesthetic of preferring natural materials.
Look online at casting and spread cloths. You will most likely find something you like or at least get enough ideas to craft something personal for yourself. Just leave room for growth if you are just starting out. Your starter set will usually not stay small for long.
**Priestess Miriam at the New Orleans Voodoo Temple.
Reader Shaun Laveau also uses a cloth with the wheel of the zodiac.
Additional cloths that can be used for bone reading.