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Building an Acrylic Aquarium
by Brad Newton (aka FeatherfinFan)
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Building your own Acrylic tank is a rewarding, cost saving, and enjoyable project. If you have basic carpentry & power tool skills you should have no trouble building your own beautiful Acrylic tank.

The tools required are as follows:

  • A fixed base router (preferably one with at least 1.75 HP & Ĺ" collet)
  • A 2-flute, straight cut router bit (Ĺ" or larger diameter, and 1.25" cutting length or more is preferred) Ĺ" shank is also a plus, since these bits get very hot when cutting acrylic.
  • A fixed straight edge (at least 2" longer than your longest Acrylic piece)
  • 2-C Clamps
  • 2 PVC holding jigs (these will be detailed in the article)
  • Door panel or similar flat work surface
  • Syringe or solvent bottle (get a couple, they can fail at a bad time)
  • WeldOn 4 Solvent cement (get a pint, better to have too much than not enough)

Optional as per application:

  • A 2-flute straight cut router bit with flush cut bearing (for trimming down tank edges for a more finished look)
  • Holesaws (if drilling for plumbing is required)
  • Jigsaw & plastic jigsaw blades (for larger cutouts)
  • Circular saw with laminate blade (for cutting down stock)
  • Drill with bits (for smaller holes, or starting a path for a jigsaw run)

Before we begin...

This is a rather time consuming project as far as locating a plastic source, getting the seaming process down and assembling the tank. Plan on at least a weekend to practice with Acrylic edge routing and seaming, and more time if youíre not satisfied with the results.

The first thing to do when deciding to attempt this project is coming up with the desired tank size. This will determine the amount & thickness of material required.

Keep in mind, a taller tank will require thicker (and much more expensive) material, and keeping waste to a minimum is a major concern. Try and design your tank to accomodate full 4'x8' sheets. You should get a graph tablet and try and see how much tank you can get into two or three sheets. I can get a 190 gallon tank, including two overflow boxes out of 2 sheets, it just takes some planning. If time permits, I can give you measurements to maximize your sheets, just email.

Finding a plastic supplier can be a rather challenging event. Unfortunately, pricing can fluctuate dramatically from one source to another. You really need to call around, and a large city with several suppliers usually yields the best results. Be sure to have them include the cutting in their prices. Again, a well thought out plan will also keep the cuts to a minimum.

All Acrylic used for Aquariums should be Cell-Cast. Do not use Extruded for anything taller than 12" tanks

Basic thickness guidelines are as follows and only applies to tanks 8 feet or less in length:

Aquarium Height Sheet Thickness
1 to 12 inches 1/4 inch
12 - 18 inches 3/8 inch
18 - 24 inches 1/2 inch
24 - 30 inches 3/4 inch

These are just guidelines and have been used by most of the commercial tank builders, the Acrylic manufacturers recommend thicker sheet, but the above recommendations have been "field-tested" over time and have proved reliable. Obviously, if money isnít an issue get the next thickest size, it surely wonít hurt.

This article will only apply to square or rectangle tanks to keep things as simple as possible. The basic tank layout is as follows:

The side panels are sandwiched between the front and back panels and the four panels rest on the bottom piece. The top section is typically one piece resting on the four panels with cutouts for the lids. It can also consist of a center brace and perimeter bracing (although this is best left to more experienced builders).

When getting your cut sheet together to submit to your plastic shop, keep these things in mind:

  • All cuts made at the acrylic shop will remove aprox. 1/8" from the piece (the width of their saw blade), take this into account when getting your cutsheet together.
  • The front,back, and side panels will all be the same height. Keep in mind, the final height will include the top & bottom sheet thickness added to the height of the vertical panels.
  • The bottom and top panels should be 1/4" longer than the length of the front & back panels (to allow for seaming)
  • The bottom & top piece should be also be a 1/4" longer than the width.
  • The desired tank width minus 2 x the sheet thickness will give you the length for the side panels.
  • You MUST allow 1/16" extra on each side that will be edge routered. This will give you the desired final dimension after your edge prep.

The following edges need to be router prepped for seaming:

Sheet Action
   Top & Bottom    No router prep
   Front & Back    Router prep top & bottom edges only
   Sides    Router prep all 4 edges

To keep it simple, a tank 70" long, 18" high, and 15" wide would require the following:

  • 3/8" Acrylic Cell-Cast sheet
  • The front, back and side panels will all be 17.25" high + 1/8" (for router prep on both edges). This makes the final height 18", since you add 2 x the sheet thickness (2 x 3/8"=.75") for the top & bottom panels.
  • The bottom and top panels will be 70.25" long and 15.25" wide
  • The side panels will be 2 x 3/8" (.75") minus 15" = 14.25" + 1/8" (for router prep on remaining two edges)

Hopefully this makes sense. Once you lay it on paper and see the following pictures it should become clear.

When you order your plastic, let them know youíre building a fish tank and need the cuts to be very accurate. Like pieces should be within 1/16" of each other. Bring a tape measure with you to the shop and verify the cuts. Donít accept short cuts. If the piece is a bit long thatís OK; you can router it down later. All shops have a scrap bin. you MUST get scrap to practice with. They may charge for scrap but itís still money well spent. If itís free, get as much as theyíll let you take.

The key to successful tank building is seam preparation & solvent application. If you have wavy, uneven edges you wonít get a quality build. The best way for an occasional tank builder to achieve quality edges is with a reliable straight edge and a quality router. If you have access to a router table or more professional equipment, even better.

Let's get started.

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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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