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DIY - Aquarium Background
by Satin Macy

It started off with the Tropheus. I ogled these fish at the LFS and fell in love. Such animation and color, I had to have some. I bought 6 my first time out and placed them in my 25g Eclipse…. then I found out that they would need something much bigger. So this is where it all came together.

The main goal I was trying to achieve was to have a very low maintenance tank. This is why I considered trying a DIY background. Also, much inspiration came from the beautiful tanks I have seen out here on the Cichlid-Forum that have DIY backgrounds. I figured "What the heck, I have to try it."

I read both of the DIY Background directions from Mike and Paul. I used tips from both to start on my DIY background. The one thing I wanted to try was building rock formations and caves… all would be permanent in my background. From what I could tell, building rock formations and caves had not been tried using foam and concrete. I thought I could get it to work… so here is how I did it!

I found a used 55g tank with stand, lights, filters, and the works. I cleaned the inside of the tank using antibacterial cleanser and water. I also used a blade to scrape off old deposits.

Off to the store I went…. local craft store. I purchased ˝" thick styrofoam for the back of the tank and various shapes of foam to build my rock formations. Styrofoam cones and balls, along with 2 can of Great Stuff and 2 tubes GE Silicon I. 1 bag of Quickqrete Quickwall, black, blonde, and brown cement pigment. I think I had everything I needed to get started.

I placed the ˝" thick foam in the back of my tank using the silicon, making sure to seal all the seams. I also put foam backing on one side of the tank because this side would be against the wall. Once the backing was in place, I started to place the foam cones on the bottom of the tank using silicon. I took the foam balls and cut them in half and placed them in various positions on the back of the tank. Then the Great Stuff comes into play. I went nuts with this stuff! I sprayed big mounds of it in the bottom of the tank and dotted it along the back of the tank to give it some depth and character.

The photo below shows the first stages of the background. For the caves, I used a knife and spoon to dig into the Great Stuff, I did this in several places, creating about 5 caves. I also put on the first coat of cement. I used the brown pigment and it was way too dark so I put on a second thin coat of lighter pigment. The darker pigment bled through in some places causing an interesting effect. I also placed some plants in various places to get a feel for how it would turn out.


Now I was ready for my final coat of cement. This was going to be harder than originally intended. Since I dug the caves out, I had to figure out how I was going to get the cement in there to thoroughly coat it so no foam was exposed. The other problem was that I used my bare hands to smooth on the cement, after the second day of exposing my skin to this, it really took a toll on me. Please use gloves to spare yourself this pain.

The final coat of cement I used the black pigment in varying degrees to create shadows. As the cement was placed, I mixed a smaller batch of cement and added the blonde pigment to make high lights for the rock formations. I used a sponge brush and a paint brush to achieve this. I also put some small piles of the dry pigment on a paper plate to dab my brush in for extra effect, color, and texture.


I used black pigment for inside of the caves. I had to do this about 2 to 3 times to make sure that the inside of the caves was coated. I also had to pile the cement on the cones to build them up so they did not look like cones. Anywhere the cement protruded, I used the blonde pigment to highlight. For caves and valleys, I used black and gray pigments to make them appear even more recessed. I also made some very small holes along the bottom of the background for plants. Once the background was dry, I took 3 to 4 large plastic plants and pulled the apart. I placed small bunches here and there and used silicon to secure them in place.


I let the cement and silicon dry for at least 3 days before starting the curing process. I bought a 40lb bag of water softener and used half in the tank. I let this water run in the tank for 3 days and used a single powerhead to circulate the water.

Drained the water from the tank and put clean fresh water in the tank to flush out the water softeners. I repeated this process 2 times.

My tank was ready to go!!! I had decided on an AC 500… I really like how versatile they are. For my second filter I was not sure. But after careful consideration, I decided to go with the HOT Magnum Pro 30 filter. With the HOT, I had my biological filtration, and with the AC, my mechanical filtration. I also use the ACs for carbon when needed. They are easy to access for when the need arises. I wanted additional water movement so I added an AC 301 powerhead in the corner. I used one Whisper heater on the side of the tank next to the wall. It was all about done except for the substrate. I first used black Tahitian Moon, this proved to be too dark for the tank and I knew I had to lighten it up a bit, so I mixed in some PFS. This looked much better but I am not totally satisfied with it. I think I used a total of 7 lbs of substrate. Since I built out the background so much, there was not much bare tank bottom.


To date, there are 13 Red Moliros and 2 Duboisi which are all doing fine and are all healthy. I woke up one morning and turned on the lights to find them hiding out in the caves. I really felt that the time and effort I spent in making the caves paid off. I am now seeing the first signs of algae growth too, so hopefully when the green stuff kicks in, it will look awesome.

Cleaning this tank is a breeze. There are no rocks to move, no plants to move, very little substrate to sift through. I do about a 25% water change weekly and clean the inside of the glass. I spend maybe a total of 20 minutes cleaning this tank. This is exactly what I wanted, low maintenance aesthetically appealing tank.


Disclaimer: By building this DIY project you agree not to hold the author or the owners of this Web site responsible for any injury or bodily harm you may cause to yourself or others. Always wear safety glasses when working with tools and keep chemicals and power tools away from children. Read and understand all safety instructions pertaining to equipment prior to use.           

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