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  #1  
Old 07-04-2004, 12:31 PM
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Default DIY Styrofoam/Cement Background

DIY Styrofoam/Cement Background


Materials:

1 - 8’ by 4’ sheet of 2.5 inch thick Styrofoam. Cost $10.
1 - Bag of Quik-Crete concrete powder. Cost $4. (No premixed concrete)
1 - 50 lbs. bag of Quik-Crete playground sand. Cost $3.50.
4 - Tubes of GE Silicone I. Cost $30.
1 - Rite Dye black color pigment mix. Cost $1.50.
1 - Can of gloss black enamel paint. Cost $3.00.
1 - Box of instant ocean salt mix. Cost $0. (Already had this item)


Miscellaneous Equipment:

These are a few items that I already had laying around the house so I did not incur any additional cost for this project. If you do not have them, plan to add a few bucks to your overall cost.

Dremel power tool, PH test kit, latex gloves, knife, razor blade, liquid soap, a new paint brush, towels, painters tape, and a plastic mixing bucket.

Total project cost:

$52.00


Steps:


Background Creation:

First thing is first. Draw out on a piece of paper, with a pencil, what you want your background to look like. Design opens spaces, overhangs, caves, and rocks so the fish can hide and breed. I went off of a few pictures that I liked and combined them into an overall scheme that was eye pleasing. After that, it's time to shape the background.

Before you start cutting, mark a section of your floor with tape that matches the dimensions of the back of your tank. Lay the Styrofoam out on the floor. This ensures that the background will fit perfectly into your tank.

Starting with the base layer of the background, cut the Styrofoam pieces out just like you drew them. This layer is only going to be 2.5 inches thick. You can use a tool as simple as a kitchen knife for this process. At this stage you are not working for perfection. Just make simple, rough shapes. You can improve them later.

After the first layer of the background is done, make sure it fits in your tank. Keep in mind this 2.5 inch base layer is used to “stack” more Styrofoam upon.

Now that the easy part is done, here comes the hard part. Creativity! Once your base layer is in place you need to decide which parts of it you want larger. In effect, these larger pieces will stick out into your tank, giving it depth.

To give the tank a three dimensional appearance, you need to create some rocks larger than others. For example, make some rocks 5” deep and others 7” or 8” deep. This is easily done by stacking more Styrofoam onto your background base. Each layer of Styrofoam you place on the base will add 2.5 inches in depth to the background. When you place one piece of Styrofoam on the top of the other, cut the new layer the same size of the first one. Once you have your desired depth you begin to sculpt it. Again, I used a knife and a dremel power tool. Most of the work was done with the knife. The dremel came in handy for smoothing out some of the Styrofoam to really give the background the appearance of having some nice round rocks.

To begin this process, remove the corners of the foam. Small details are not needed right now, focus on the rough forms of the rocks and overhangs you are making. I tried to round the corners of the foam because it gave it a more natural look. You can always leave the rock rough looking though.

One thing I would like to point out:

I wanted my tank to look as natural as possible. That meant no filters, heaters, power cords, etc. could be seen from looking at the tank. I wanted all of them to be hidden by the Styrofoam background. It is actually pretty easy to accomplish.

I have a wet/dry filter on my tank so I carved a hole into the top of the background, as I sculpted it, so a pre-filter box would fit down into it. I made it a very snug fit. Only the teeth of the pre-filter box stick out above the background.

If you use power filters or canister filters, it is still easy. Simply carve a “tunnel” from the top of the background down to the tank bottom. This is done on the base layer of your background. You need to leave a hole open at the end of the tunnel as your intake valve of the filter will rest in this tunnel. If you close it off at the bottom, you will have no water flow into the filter. Make the “tunnel” wide enough that you can put heaters or outflow tubes in there with the filter.

Since the holes are open near the bottom of the tank, you want to make sure that you can not see them when viewing the tank. Add Styrofoam on the base layer and sculpt it so there is an overhang, or lip, where the filter tunnels are placed. You’ll get the hang of it as you go. The goal here is that you will see nothing but the background and your fish.



After these steps have been completed and you are generally satisfied with the way your background is looking, it’s time to silicone everything together. Try to coat the entire bottom of each piece so no water can penetrate into the background. To make it easy on yourself, place the tank on its side and silicone the Styrofoam base to the glass. This prevents the background from slipping until the silicone can harden a bit. Next, take your free formed rocks and silicone them to the background. You might want to make sure that your filters fix nicely before you glue everything down.

Now is the time to put whatever finishing touches on your Styrofoam background you desire. Carve the foam into the final shapes you want, this should only be small detail work before you place the first concrete layer on the background. Don’t waste too much time on very fine details as they will be covered up by the concrete layers. A lesson I learned the hard way. That’s why I stress only making general shapes and forms.

Wait 24-48 hours for the silicone to dry. It really depends on how much you used to hole the background in place.


Concrete Preparation:

In total there will be three concrete layers placed upon the Styrofoam background.

The first layer consists of 1 part playground sand and 3 parts concrete powder. Add water to the mix until it reaches a nice, creamy consistency. I got this next tip from a person I know who works a lot on Styrofoam displays for places like Disney and Sea world. He said to add some liquid soap to the mix. Any brand will do. This, apparently, helps the mix become more consistent. I was skeptical but it seems to work and has not affected the fish in any way. Only add a few drops to the mix. Once you have reached your desired consistency, apply the cement to the background with a new paintbrush. No special technique was used here, just coat the entire background. Some of the cement will drip off of some of your rocks leaving them somewhat bare. Let this first layer dry about 24– 48 hours. If you can leave a mark on the concrete when you touch it, it is not dry. Better to just leave it alone.

The second concrete layer will consist of 2 parts concrete powder to 2 parts playground sand. Don’t bother to use any soap for the second layer. You want this mix to be pretty thick. Because of the thickness of the second layer, the paintbrush won’t work. Break out your plastic gloves and have at it. Just grab a handful of the cement mix and spread it out on the background. Do this until the entire background is covered. Again, let it dry for 24-48 hours.

For the third layer, mix 3 parts concrete powder to 1 part playground sand. You want this mix to be thick as well. You will need to break out your gloves again and coat the entire background with the cement. Let this layer dry for 24-48 hours.

Once everything is dry, your background should look very lifelike. If you have any of your concrete left over, you can always mix up a batch that matches the third layers steps and reshape some rocks. Take your time and get the background looking the way you want.

This next step is not necessary but I thought I would include it anyway. If you want, you can add some of the black color pigment. Mix some of the pigment powder with two cups of water. I suggest going light on the powder as you don’t want your rocks to look black. With a sponge or paint brush, pat the pigment onto the background. Just like when you paint, you want the sponge to be wet but not dripping. It really does give a nice textured effect as some parts are darker than others. The only problem with this is that once algae begin to grow on your background, you can’t tell that you used the dye anyway. I leave it up to you to decide if you want to add the dye or not.

If you followed the last step, wait 24-48 hours for everything to dry. Once dry, take a good look at the tank and make sure you like your results. If not, add more concrete/dye details until you are happy.

Now is where the black enamel paint comes in handy. Part of the Styrofoam background will be visible at each end of the tank. It is pretty ugly so an easy and cheap way to fix this is by using the enamel to cover it. Use some painters tape, placing it on the outline of your concrete background. With a razor, trim away the tape covering the Styrofoam side. You should only have tape on the side of the background that is open to the water. Cover the glass with some bags and spray the enamel on the tank. It will nicely cover up the foam background. Let it dry for 24 hours, then slowly peel away the tape and bags. Now you have a truly professional looking aquarium. All you can see are the fish.




Curing Process:

Once the background has been completed it is time to begin the curing process. Concrete is toxic to fish unless it has cured. This is not an exact science and everybody’s tanks will cure at different speeds. It depends on how much and how thick the concrete on your background is.

The first step is to mix up a bucket of water with some instant ocean salt mix (use any brand of salt you want). I used 10 gallons of salt but you can use more if you have it handy. The salt actually performs two important functions. First, it helps the concrete to cure faster. Second, if you used the dye on the background, it keeps it on the background and does not allow it to float around in the water. I do not pretend to understand why the salt does this but it does.

Next, fill up the tank up with your salt mix and then some water. It is important that you do it in that order. Wait about 72 hours and drain the tank halfway. Refill the tank with freshwater, no salt needed. Wait another 24 hours and drain the tank completely. Refill the tank with freshwater, again no salt needed. I waited another 24 hours and repeated this step. The trick is to get all of the chemicals that were in the concrete out of the tank. You should begin testing the PH level in your water at this time. It should be very high as concrete is extremely alkaline. I tested my water every other day for about 10 days before the PH level stabilized at 8.3. Once that happened, my tank was “cured.” Keep in mind that some tanks may cure faster or slower, that’s why you need to test it,

The next step is easy. Find some tester fish and toss them in the tank. If the appear to be breathing heavily or acting funny, your tank may not be fully cured. You can fix this by continuing with your water change regimen. Once you are satisfied that your tank has cured feel free to add your fish.

Keep in mind that your tank will still need to cycle just like a normal tank, so take it slow.

Final Step:

Enjoy your tank, background, and your fish!

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  #2  
Old 07-10-2004, 11:18 AM
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Apex....

You coming up to the NJ area anytime soon? I may want to bribe into helping me with one of these backgrounds.
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Old 07-10-2004, 11:39 AM
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It's easy man, just give it a shot. I think you will be suprised at how it turns out. I won't be in NJ but will be up in the DC area around October.
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Old 07-10-2004, 01:49 PM
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Awesome DIY article! Good job and thanks Apex! Mike
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Old 09-14-2005, 06:35 PM
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Awesome presentation man! Thanks a bunch for all that great info. You save me a lot of time for my future projects. Thanks again!
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Old 09-15-2005, 12:03 AM
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Nice work.
I had a 3d tank background a few years back baught from a place called
http://www.universalrocks.com.au
think thats right.
Looked great in the tank once i actually got it to fit in there after wrestling with it for a mere hour...id imagine the cement ones above would be harder again to fit especially all in one straight piece.

The problem I found with them....and this is just my personal thoughts is that i didnt want it stuck in there with glue incase i needed to remove it one day for whatever reason.
Because i didnt glue it in, fish managed tunnel under or go in the caves part & get stuck trying to go somewhere they couldn't.to rescue fish trapped was a pain. The water behind there has no flow & everything seems to end up behind it.
To take the background out was as much effort as getting it in.
looked great but the practicality of it all......well useless for my fish.

again just my opinion.
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Old 09-15-2005, 12:11 AM
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WOW this thread is old but really cool! Those tank photos are amazing, that background is SO realistic and gorgeous!!!

Sina that's a great point about a non-glued background.... like you I wouldn't want to commit to gluing something to the back of my tank. My fear of commitment again

I wonder if something like this would be useful to make a centerpiece cave structure for a large tank? You could take it out to clean it and weight it down.. just a thought. I've looked all over online for a place that sells quality synthetic rocks or rock formations, that would be fish friendly and affordable. Can't say I've been successful. Maybe I could make something using this method???? Has anyone tried this? I hate the look of pottery or PVC in my tanks, JMHO.
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Old 09-15-2005, 12:25 AM
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My fear of commitment again
you & i both...

i thought i saw a diy cave structure on another thread here....??maybe not.sleep deprived.
im with you on the pottery & pvc like it makes good caves n all but not atractive at all in my own opinion.... you spend good money on your fish & want a great looking tank to show them off in. esp mine which is next to my dining table.
seems most manuafctures make lotsa stuff for smaller fish but not the fronts.
I have big plastic moulded pipes in mine which the fish love & i really like the rustic look of but the fish are out growing them & the next size up where like 160$ for one set & id need like 2 or 3 sets.
I used to teach ceramics & was thinking how i could make a heap of lightweight hand created natural looking objects....rocks,wholey rock looking minus the weight.. tree branches, caves.......may be a money spinner idea there infact.

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Old 09-15-2005, 04:08 AM
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found it, thanks!
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Old 09-15-2005, 02:50 PM
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Hi Apex,



well done

Let`s have a look at another example

http://aquarieneinrichtung.net/seiten/beitrag_002.html

Enjoy your ditionary- so do I

(Not either sucessfull , but I try...)
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