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Custom Aquarium Background
Written by Kristen Danker
Imagine it. The perfect aquarium full of healthy aquatic plants in an eye catching layout. Yes, we have all dreamed of such a tank. Recently, I found myself staring into an empty large aquarium that would be the 'tank of my dreams'. Now, if only I could take that picture in my mind and put it into reality.
When researching possible aquascaping ideas and layouts, I decided to try something different. I wanted to create a custom, textured background with a terraced design. You might be thinking, Why have backgrounds when the plants will be covering it as they grow in? Well, I decided to take on this project for several reasons.
First off, my tank is tall and I knew I needed to add an element of terracing to use the height of the tank to its fullest. Light has a hard time penetrating the water in deep tanks, so many tall planted aquariums are limited to using large leaf plants that can fill up the aquarium quickly. By terracing steps or layers inside your planted aquarium you can help raise your plants off the substrate, closer to the light and into a more interesting aquascape.
My other reason for starting this project was simple: it looked like something fun to do. I have an 'itchy backside' as we say here in Singapore (no, my butt didn't literally itch, this is a local phrase meaning taking on unnecessary effort). Building a custom background and terracing steps was a perfect opportunity to relieve this itch.
So, I looked up different tutorials for building a background. Many tutorials were for backgrounds and caves used in Cichlid aquariums. Despite this fact, I thought it would be very fun to make one for a planted tank. I will share with you my learning points, so that when you decide to embark on this youll know exactly what to do and what to avoid.
To start off, here's my tank with my DogFish.
Learning Point 1: Styrofoam is available all the time except when you want it.
I hunted high and low for Styrofoam. From cooler boxes to unwanted vegetable foam boxes from the local market, I looked everywhere to collect what I needed. Local craft stores didnt have exactly what I needed, but dont rule them out. I ended up getting my foam board used in this project from such a store. Any Styrofoam will do, but I find that packing Styrofoam from television sets and what not are more densely pressed than the Styrofoam boards you can buy at the local crafts stores. In the end, the dense Styrofoam means less flying fragments of Styrofoam, better ability to get those fine details when carving, and less hassle dabbing cement into little nooks.
Learning Point 2: Styrofoam carving is therapeutic but messy.
For carving the Styrofoam, I used my mother's paring knife. She wasn't too pleased, but since I'd already used it, no amount of complaining would de-Styrofoam the knife so it is now, therefore mine. It's a messy job, with foam bits flying everywhere and sticking to your skin, but it's also strangely therapeutic. There's something peaceful about cutting things up after a long day. Just make sure there's a vacuum nearby to clean up the mess.
For carving the Styrofoam, I used my mother's paring knife. She wasn't too pleased, but since I'd already used it, no amount of complaining would de-Styrofoam the knife so it is now, therefore mine. It's a messy job, with foam bits flying everywhere and sticking to your skin, but it's also strangely therapeutic. There's something peaceful about cutting things up after a long day. Just make sure there's a vacuum nearby to clean up the mes
You want to try to carve your foam to make it look as much like rock as possible. Remember, the idea with carving the Styrofoam for your background and terrace pieces is so that they look very natural and clean. I found using light grain sandpaper for the finishing touches would help smooth down the rough areas left over.
Learning Point 3: There's no need to use heat on the foam.
In other tutorials, I read that you needed to heat the Styrofoam with a hairdryer. The practice of using heat from something like a hairdryer would help flatten down curvy areas of the Styrofoam. I found this isn't necessary. It made the foam appear like it was covered in warts like a disease - which I found repulsive. In fact, I disliked the heated piece I created using this method so much that I didnt even use it in the final design.
Learning Point 4: Sand down Great Stuff Foam if you happen to use it.
For those unfamiliar with the foam product Great Stuff Foam by the Dow Chemical Company, it is commonly used to provide extra insulation in homes. You can find it at your local hardware and craft stores. I used this to give my background some semblance of texture of rocks and to add three-dimensionality to the final piece. However, if you are using this product be forewarned things can get messy and sticky real fast. I still have a bit stuck to my nail that I haven't bothered to buff off yet. It also expands when it dries, forming a kind of yellow tube. You can sand these down and shape them into jagged edges for your rock formation.
Learning Point 5: Mixing cement with the right consistency for various coats.
I've never mixed cement in my life, and it's a mystery to me until my dad showed me how. Add enough water to your cement powder mixture so that its a think but still a slightly runny consistency. When you are satisfied with the shape of your Styrofoam piece, paint on a thin layer of cement. To get into every nook you've carved, your mix needs to be on the watery side. Use a paint brush to dab the cement into the extra fine spaces.
I painted on two thin layers, which I had no trouble drying. My third layer was the one which I sculpted the structure with cement. To fill in the gaps and make the structure look rocky, you need a thicker mix of cement. When using your brush, make sure you stipple or roughly paint on the cement onto the structure to make it have a natural texture. It will look unnatural if you paint the cement on smoothly.
Learning Point 6: Don't dry thick layers of cement too fast.
You need to dry the cement slowly now or it'll crack. I had to put on a fourth layer because I'd left the background in the open air and cracks developed. I closed the cracks with more cement and took the opportunity to add more detail. I repainted over with a thin layer and then proceeded to dry the cement.
Many background tutorials recommend spraying the cement with water, while other guides will advise wrapping the top of your tank with Glad wrap to slow down the drying process. I did a combination of everything, where I sprayed mine down, put a wet rag under the structure, and wrapped the whole thing in Glad wrap. I let the structure dry for over 48 hours to let it get as hard as a rock.
Learning Point 7: Make sure to silicone the bottom of your background.
Adding silicone to the bottom of your background will help prevent the final structure from floating up. Unfortunately, I failed to do this step. In my defense, the stench of the silicone was so nauseating I wanted to get this step over with quickly so I forgot to silicone the bottom. As a result, the background fits nicely inside the tank, but when I fill it with water, parts of the background will float up a little. The weight of the gravel will reduce any stress on the background stuck to the tank.
After a long two weeks, the background was done at last. It was actually really enjoyable doing this, but sometimes downright frustrating. I know I made a few mistakes along the way, but in the end the final product is perfect in my eyes. Over time, I hope to have a nice cover of green algae tinting the structure in a shade of green. Right now, the cement is buffering my water to pH10, so I need to change the water every three days to cure the cement completely. If any of you decide to do a custom background, you won't regret it! At least now I know I have a truly unique tank and my work looks more realistic than any overpriced mass-produced background that can be found at a local fish store. On top of that, the final planted aquarium aquascape will look unique and different from the standard tall stems and large plants.