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How To Make A Realistic 3D Background For Your Aquarium Or Reptile Tank

Updated on October 27, 2012
90 gallon snake tank with 3D background
90 gallon snake tank with 3D background | Source

In this article I would like to teach you how to make a more realistic 3D backdrop for your fish or reptiles home. With a quick trip to the local hardware store or lumberyard and a few hours work, you can have a stone background with real caves built right in, for you and your pets to enjoy.

When I initially did this project it was for African Cichlids (rock fish). I had kept this beautiful breed of fish for many years and was just sick of the fake looking backdrops offered at pet stores, so with a little research and a lot of deep thought I came up with this.

This project has certainly proven it's durability as I have now had it installed for over 3 years without the slightest problem. The first 2 years it was used for my African Cichlids but after I moved to my new home the aquarium was turned into a Ball Python tank, for a little less maintenance. I'm very happy to say that Kane the python has enjoyed it every bit as much as the cichlids did in the past.


Starting the project

To start this project, you will of course, first want to get your materials. I would recommend going to nearly any lumberyard or hardware store to purchase these products. I will give you a list of the tools and supplies necessary for this project, once you have these items you're ready to get started.

Kane  enjoying his realistic environment.
Kane enjoying his realistic environment. | Source
Owens Corning rigid foam
Owens Corning rigid foam | Source
DESERT  Master Seal Water based sealer Walmart version of Epoxy garage floor paint works equally well.
DESERT Master Seal Water based sealer Walmart version of Epoxy garage floor paint works equally well. | Source

Tools And Building Materials

  • 1 sheet of 3/4 inch or 1 inch rigid insulating foam board

  • 1 bag of Sakrete concrete mix

  • brown concrete dye (optional)

  • various pieces of 2 inch PVC pipe (22.5 and 45 degree angle joints work great)

  • 2-3 tubes of clear 100% silicone caulk

  • environmentally safe gray garage floor paint (optional with African Cichlids)

  • Good Stuff expanding foam

  • razor knife

  • tape measure

  • masons trowel or icing spatula (or any similar tool that is capable of spreading the concrete)

  • caulking gun

  • 5 gallon mixing bucket or wheelbarrow

  • old cardboard to cover floor of work area

  • paint brush

What type of pet do you keep in your aquarium or tank?

See results
various pvc pieces you may be interested in using.
various pvc pieces you may be interested in using. | Source
Sakrete brand concrete
Sakrete brand concrete | Source

The first thing you will want to do is thoroughly clean the back of the aquarium with dish soap and water, then allow it to completely dry. You will need to take measurements of the back of your aquarium from inside of the tank, from side to side and bottom to top.

Next you will be using the razor knife to cut the rigid foam to the same dimensions as the back of your tank, using your previous measurements. In my project I used a 90 gallon tank that has a divider in the top. If this is the case with your tank as well, you will need to cut your foam again to install in 2-3 separate pieces.

Attaching the foundation

Now liberally apply the silicone to the inside, back of the aquarium. make sure to get all corners and edges, so water can't seep behind the foam once applied. Firmly press the rigid foam onto the silicone covered aquarium now, making sure it's going to stay tightly in place while drying.

OK, now you have your foundation done, the next step is to give it some 3D effects. Place some of the PVC elbows on the foam in different spots with at least one or the openings on each facing outward toward the inside of the tank. Attach them with silicone.

Adding the tunnels and texture

Now using the expanding foam cover the PVC pipes in natural lump a curve shapes, being sure not to completely cover the PVC openings, these will be your caves when complete. You can use the expanding foam in other places on the background also, the more hilly it is the more natural the appearance will be when the project is finished. Allow it to setup before moving on to the next step.

Working with sakrete

The next step will involve the Sakrete, be sure to wear a dust mask and gloves, while working in a well ventilated area, to mix the concrete (Do not mix all of it at once, do it in small batches). You will want to have a slightly soupy mix for this project.

Lay out some cardboard in your work area to prevent your concrete from making a mess, and to protect the aquarium. Laying the tank on its back, you can now start applying the Sacrete to the foam background with your trowel, spatula or similar tool. Be sure to completely cover the background with the concrete, but try not to fill in your PVC openings. Now let it setup overnight.

Touching up your design

You now have your first coat of Sacrete on, so take a look at it. Is it the 3D look you were going for? If not now is the time to make changes by adding more expanding foam, and once that dries add another thin coat of Sacrete.

Try not to go to crazy with the expanding foam, you only want it to come out a few inch's or so, you have to save room for its future residents after all. Give your project another day to setup before moving on to the next step.

Source

Time for paint and/or epoxy

Alright your background is built,caves are installed, the Sacrete is on and it's all setup. Its time to apply the paint. Now with all of these supplies it is best to buy an Eco friendly version if possible, but with the paint it is a necessity as it will be the layer exposed to your pet.

You will want something that's able to hold up while being permanently submerged in water, and I found epoxy garage floor paint does an excellent job, and is also environmentally friendly. The downside is it's a little expensive.

Now as a side-note, if your plan is to house African Cichlids you don't necessarily need to paint the concrete. They are a very hard water fish and the Sakrete will actually help you to keep the water at its proper levels.

Assuming you have decided to use the epoxy paint, you will first want to mix it following the supplied instructions. Carefully apply a nice full coat to the concrete, being sure to thoroughly cover all of the concrete.

Adding dye (optional)

While waiting for the first coat to dry, you can mix a small amount of the brown concrete dye and some of the epoxy paint together to add a shading effect to your project, the epoxy and die will not mix comepletely but that's what makes the end result look more natural. Just use light brush strokes in random areas to give it a more natural stone and aged look.

I should also mention that after this project spends a few weeks under water with the fish, it truly takes on a life of its own, with the algae and water changing the colors to even more natural shades.

Finished results

So with that, you now have a natural looking background for your aquarium that your fish or reptiles will truly feel at home with, and a center piece that your friends will be envious of. If you have any questions feel free to ask in the comments section below, and I will be sure to get back to you and answer the best that I can. Have fun, be creative but most of all keep your pets best interest in mind.

DS Duby


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    • LetitiaFT profile image

      LetitiaFT 5 years ago from Paris via California

      This is great. I used to have aquariums as a kid, and have been wanting to get another one, particularly to keep cichlids (great fish!), but I can't stand the horrible decorations they come with. You've come up with a very chic solution! This hub is a keeper.

    • DS Duby profile image
      Author

      DS Duby 5 years ago from United States, Illinois

      Thank you very much, I have to say my African Cichlids loved it they each were able to find their own perfect area in the tank. Good luck with your project.

    • profile image

      iamaudraleigh 5 years ago

      What is your snakes name?

      Interesting hub with great details on how to construct a 3D Background! Very cool! I do not know a lot about snakes...scary. Yours looks happy in the picture!

      Voted up!

    • DS Duby profile image
      Author

      DS Duby 5 years ago from United States, Illinois

      His name is Kane and he is very friendly. Ball pythons are the most people friendly snakes around. Thanks for the comment and view.

    • ripplemaker profile image

      Michelle Simtoco 5 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      Wow amazing. My brother just decided to give his fishes away as he is too busy nowadays to take care of it. Maybe if he sees this backdrop, he might change his mind. LOL

      Congratulations on your Hubnuggets nomination. Check this out and be sure to read and vote: http://koffeeklatchgals.hubpages.com/hub/Word-Sala...

    • ChristyWrites profile image

      Christy Birmingham 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Cool idea for a hub!

    • DS Duby profile image
      Author

      DS Duby 5 years ago from United States, Illinois

      Thank you very much ChristyWrites it's deeply appreciated!

    • DS Duby profile image
      Author

      DS Duby 5 years ago from United States, Illinois

      Tank you Ripplemaker you are very kind.

    • Redberry Sky profile image

      Redberry Sky 5 years ago

      Stunning idea for aquariums - you're right, it looks miles better than the mass-produced plastic backgrounds.

    • DS Duby profile image
      Author

      DS Duby 5 years ago from United States, Illinois

      Thank you Redberry Sky, it takes a little work but it's well worth the effort. I've seen similar backgrounds selling on the internet for around 250 dollars for a 55 gallon tank and they're just painted foam. This is much longer lasting and a lot cheaper.

    • profile image

      Sueswan 5 years ago

      Hi DS

      Awesome job. Kane is a lucky snake.

      Voted up and away

    • DS Duby profile image
      Author

      DS Duby 5 years ago from United States, Illinois

      Thank you, Sueswan for reading and commenting. He does seem rather happy as far as snakes go.

    • CloudExplorer profile image

      Mike Pugh 5 years ago from New York City

      Very useful hub for those who have fish as pets for sure, and if I find the need of this sort of info, I will be sure to refer back to this hub, because its an easy way to learn how to hook up an aquarium's background in 3d appeal.

      Nicely written Scott, voted up and out, and good luck on yet another juicy hubnugget award.

    • DS Duby profile image
      Author

      DS Duby 5 years ago from United States, Illinois

      Thanks Mike, it's much appreciated.

    • profile image

      raymond C 4 years ago

      IS THIS BACKGROUND SAFE IN SALTWATER TANKS?

    • DS Duby profile image
      Author

      DS Duby 4 years ago from United States, Illinois

      I believe it would be safe for salt water tanks but you probably will want to skip the epoxy paint, keep an eye on the hardness of your water as well if it gets to high you can always use a softener but you should be fine. Good luck with the project if you decide to do it and feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

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