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DIY Styrofoam/Drylok Aquarium Shale Wall Background

66289 Views 142 Replies 11 Participants Last post by  Deeda
Hi Everyone.

I've been working on a background for about a year and a half, and should be ready to install it in my tank soon. This background will be for a 75 gallon US Native stream/river tank, and I wanted to try and build a biotope that you might find in one of our local rivers, all of which have shale formations along the river bank. I also wanted to create something that I haven't seen before, so my intent was to have the faux slate stratification at a downward angle. Since much of my research came from this forum, and many of your paved the way for guys like me, I figured that it was time to give something back and show you not only what you've taught me, but what I figured out on my own as well, and we can finish this project together.

The background was carved out of styrofoam boards, then each glued at a 45 degree angle or so when they were done carving. I measured as I built it up. the gap behind the foam board and base were filled with spray foam and river rocks (to reduce buoyancy). I used Gorilla Glue to bond the styrofoam boards together and also used plastic popsicle sticks to help stabilize and bond them. On the left side, there is a PVC pipe that goes down into the background with an intake that I made for the intake tube of my canister filter. There is a removable section of carved foam covering it that allows me access to clean and clear the intake of debris. The part that sticks out of the left side hides the intake.

The pics and video below show what the background looks like today. In the subsequent posts, I'll show how I constructed it. Hope you all enjoy it and thank you for all of the posts of your backgrounds that helped me!

View from the left side:

View from the right side:


The paint is the second coat of Drylok, tinted to resemble the base rock color of our river cliffs. The first coat was just Drylok gray. I will be stippling lighter shades of this color a few times to make the rock less monotone and more realistic, and then finish with light color highlights. Construction steps to follow in the next posts. It may take me a few days to get this thread going to the point we are today. But, I'll start with my first steps.
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Coming along very cool looking.
Any updates chasmodes?
Thank you Steve.

Kipnlilo, not much to report lately, sorry about that. The only thing that I've done is to begin cutting my plaster cloth strips to sizes that I think will work. It's been on my mind every day though. I was on vacation for a week, then sick for ten days. I'm just getting over it now and getting my energy back. I'll definitely get to work on it this weekend though, maybe sooner.
Glad you're getting over the sickness. I hate being sick for one day, let alone ten.
Thank you. I turned the corner the other day, feeling better every day now. Yesterday was the first day that I had enough energy to start catching up on my chores around the house. I'm ready to work on the tank again, but probably tomorrow night, definitely on Friday. The funny thing is that I've been having dreams about working on these's becoming an obsession. When I was cutting the strips, I realized that I might not have enough of the plaster cloth, so I think I'm going to stop by the hobby store tonight on the way home from work to pick up some. Hopefully, they have it in stock. If they don't, I might have to get creative with some glue and burlap perhaps.
I made substantial progress on the faux sycamore roots for my 75g FW stream tank this weekend. I put about two hours of work on it Friday afternoon, and another couple hours on Saturday morning. I applied plaster cloth to give the structure some more form, and to provide something for the grout to adhere to other than just smooth PVC pipe. I struggled mentally with how this might work and when first working with the plaster cloth, I found it not as easy to work with as I had hoped. However, once I figured out the best way to get it done, I made the best out of the situation that I could, and it worked out well, I think. What was the problem? Basically, the wet plaster cloth losed rigidity fast, as expected, but likes to stick to itself sometimes better than what you're applying it to. Also, it is difficult to work with in tight spots, in this case, between roots. And finally, gravity works against you if you try and work under the structure. To solve the last problem, I simply worked on the front/top first, and then flipped it over to work on the back/bottom of the structure. After that, I flipped it back over, and put the finishing touches on.

In this pic, my first attempt at application, you can see what I'm working with, as I place the wet plaster cloth onto the structure. Basically, you drag a strip of the cloth across a pan of water, and then apply it to your structure. Then, use your fingers to spread the plaster around a little bit. This becomes the base for the next strip, as you have to overlay the next strip in some way over part of the first one. As I said earlier, it sticks best to itself.

After I was done with it, I took a few photos off the work bench. This first one is a front view:

Front, sort of off to the right:

Right side view:

After that, I fitted it into the tank. The first pic is what it looks like today, the second pic is what it looked like prior to the application of the plaster cloth:

I'm fairly happy with it, but, a few things bug me. The hole in the "knot" that I tried to create became much smaller than I had hoped. I may have to drill or cut it out, the reapply some plaster again, or maybe skip the plaster and just coat it with grout. The small root coming down out of the middle looks like ET's hand, asking the viewer if he could "phone home". I think that I can live with that. There are a couple other flaws that I don't like, but will have to live with, that maybe nobody but me would worry about.

The next steps: apply grout and final form, to supply the structure with some weight and durability, and to hide any of the pipe look and get rid of straight lines. After I'm happy with that, then I'll paint it with Drylok mixed with cement dye to give me the colors and realism that I want, as close as I possibly can. This should also seal in the grout and plaster and prevent water from seeping in, preventing pH spikes from happening and also from plaster getting into the tank. I will apply several layers of Drylok.
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Sorry, the "before" pic link didn't work, so here it is:
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Well done! Once you start coloring this bad boy up, ET's hand will go away. Lol! It looks fantastic! I'm glad you are showing future fish keepers the time and talent this takes. It's an illness, but a good one!
While I do agree that the knot hole will need to be reopened, I think overall the roots look great! I concur with Kipnlilo, the tinted paint will go a long way to completing the realism. Very nice!
Thank you Kipnlilo and skwerl! I think that the grout will also help to get rid of the pipe look. I'm planning on a thicker mix for some spots, and a thinner one for others. The good thing is that roots underwater in the wild build up algae and collect silt, so I don't need that much detail for the most part, because the same thing should happen in my tank. The powerhead that these roots hide is pretty strong, so it may be enough to prevent some algae from taking hold. Therefore, I'll try and do a realist paint job.
PS - I love that split root on the right side. It looks awesome!
Thank you Skwerl. That's my favorite part too. ET's finger bugs me, LOL.
Finally made more progress. I wasn't happy with the hole and knot. The plaster application made the hole too small, so, I decided to enlarge it by gluing rope onto the structure, then adding a little spray foam to even it out. I also applied some foam to add a little bulk on a couple of the roots.

Gluing the rope on to make the hole.

Foam for bulk.

Carved and sanded.

Placed in the tank.
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The next day, I applied brown grout to the root structure. This adds bulk and durability. I'm going to give this until next weekend to cure properly, then I will paint it with Drylok tinted with cement dye to seal everything in. The Drylok will allow me to use it in the tank and not have to worry about pH issues from the grout. Once I'm done with that, it will be time to set up the tank and get it running. I will collect gravel and rocks, then cycle the tank. After the tank is cycled, I will collect and stock my tank with native darters, shiners, and minnows.

I used regular grout, with no mold inhibitors. To apply the grout, I mixed the grout with a concrete bonding adhesive/fortifier to about the thickness of a milk shake and applied it with a paint brush.

I had to coat it to cover all of the white plaster to seal it in. The roots, for realism, were designed to intertwine and, well, look like roots. Getting to some of the spots wasn't easy. There were a few times that I had to use my finger to spread the grout to some hard to reach spots.

Here's what it looks like today. It's starting to look like real roots now.

Next week, I'll paint it with Drylok to really seal it in.
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Here's a video update that I did also:
Thank you drfish!
Unfortunately, not all the images in your recent posts show up ... :-?
wryan said:
Unfortunately, not all the images in your recent posts show up ... :-?
That's weird. Everything looks good on my end. I looked using my PC and also my phone. Anyone else having a problem? Maybe photobucket was down for a bit? Looks OK now.
Looks fine to me, I see all your pics and the project looks great!
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