Our first blog on Do-It-Yourself aquarium decoration ideas seemed to get so many creative juices flowing that we’re back with some more ideas, tips and examples. In the first blog, we covered some general ideas for how to look at different objects as possible aquarium decorations. This time, we’re going to get more specific based on some of the most common questions from your fellow hobbyists. I created a few different looks after raiding my kitchen cabinets for inspiration using a 2-gallon glass aquarium and a 1-gallon glass bowl but you can adapt the same ideas to aquariums of any size.
Hershey Bears Betta Bowl
I’m personally a huge hockey fan and have done an NHL Philadelphia Flyers-themed betta in the past using gravel and a plant in their colors. For this one, I kept it pretty simple and used a glass pint glass I had for our local AHL team and my personal favorite, the Hershey Bears, as well as some plant substrate in different shades of brown. Since the logo on the glass is pretty solid, I left the glass empty except for some substrate in the bottom. The glass is sitting on the bottom of the bowl itself and I added the substrate around it to keep it in place.
If I was setting up this bowl permanently for a fish (which I might actually do because I rather liked the way it turned out), I would use a smaller glass like a shot glass or a taller bowl since the top of the pint glass is very close to the water level. This is something to consider if you use this type of design since as the water evaporates, the betta could become trapped in the glass or might not be able to swim over it. You can also fill the glass, but we’ll get to that in another example.
Coffee Mug and Clipart
While browsing through my cabinets, I also came across this mug that I picked up at a craft store for a couple dollars awhile back. I’m a fan of the silhouette trend and style and have quite a few of them around my home. For an aquarium based on this mug, I found a similar silhouette clipart image online and printed it onto paper that I could cut out to the size of my aquarium. If this was going to be a more permanent aquarium, I would have laminated this background so it would last longer or painted it on instead (more on that later). The colored gravel came from an old display tank at our store but I think any color that matched the room it was going into would look good with the simple black-and-white silhouettes. There are lots of websites online that have silhouette designs in everything from elegant chandeliers and damasks to Disney princesses or other cartoon characters.
Since coffee mugs are made to be used with hot drinks, most of them can be used in an aquarium like this. As a general rule of thumb, if the mug (or plate or bowl) is dishwasher safe, it is probably safe for the aquarium. I would avoid using any mugs, plates or bowls that aren’t dishwasher safe since this usually means they have a less-durable decorative finish and might not be able to withstand being constantly submerged in your aquarium either. As always, be sure to test anything you are thinking about using in the aquarium and check it regularly to make sure the design or glaze isn’t changing or becoming delicate over time in the aquarium.
That Fish Tank
I think that this DIY approach is perfect for businesses. While not all businesses have room or budget for a big, elaborate aquarium, many companies do have mugs or glasses with their logo and they are easy to have custom-made relatively inexpensively. This approach makes a smaller aquarium for a desk, office or waiting room easy and memorable. For this design, I used a pint glass with one of our company logos frosted onto the front. Since the design wasn’t colored, I used our company colors of blue, orange and white elsewhere in the tank. The substrate was a plain white gravel and I used a small orange plant as well. For the background, I printed and cut out the smiling fish from our main logo and mounted it on a blue cardstock background. Like with the previous tank, I would laminate this if it was more permanent or use a coordinating vinyl or adhesive aquarium background. Since the design on the glass was plain, I also decided to fill the glass with another colored gravel, blue in this case, instead of leaving it empty like the Hershey Bears bowl. Unfortunately, in this case, the logo got a bit lost instead of highlighted but I kept it here just to show you the possibilities; any glass, vase or bottle can be filled in a similar way in an aquarium to add some color and texture.
Paints and Enamels
By far, the most frequent questions we received were about one topic…Paint. Paint can effective if used properly but can also badly pollute the water if used improperly so I couldn’t write another entry without talking about it again. In our aquariums and systems, we often paint the backgrounds directly onto our aquariums. All of the tanks in the freshwater section of our retail store are painted. Most of the tanks were painted with a latex-based paint. This paint is permanent and water-resistant but can be scrapped off of the glass with a razor blade. It is easy to apply with a brush or roller before the tank is set up but has to be given time to dry before setting it up in its final position. It is a good idea to use masking tape or other shields to protect the areas you don’t want painted (like the other sides, frame and inside of the tank).
Several of our tanks were repainted specifically to display the fluorescent GloFish line. Instead of one plain color, we created stencils of tetras and danios and spray-painted the fish onto the back of the plain aquariums with fluorescent spray paint (some even with multiple colors). After the fish dried, the entire back of the tank was spray-painted with black enamel spray paint. Again, this was all done before the tanks were set up and the frames were taped to block it from the paint, but the results are striking. This can be done with any background. For example, if you wanted a permanent background with a design like the chandelier or company logos from above, you can use a stencil to paint it onto the aquarium then finish off the background with your plain color. You can even use the same stencils you may use on your walls to coordinate the aquarium with the room.
We also use the fluorescent paints and enamel spray paint for the numbered frag plugs in our saltwater coral sections. For these, the clear acrylic plugs are spray painted with the enamel spraypaint and the tops of the pieces are painted with enamel model paint or nail polish to add letters or numbers. Once cured, this paint is durable and safe. Many brands like Rust-oleum and Krylon also make enamel clear-coats that you can use as a protective coating on other pieces. This may not make everything aquarium-safe however; always use caution and test your pieces before putting them in your aquarium and over time after adding them to make sure they are still withstanding the water and wear.
Other Tips and Ideas
In the first blog in this series, we got a lot of questions from our readers about what they can use for their aquariums and thought we’d give you a couple examples of what we’ve used in our store. If you’ve ever been in our retail store, you may have seen some rather interesting residents in a couple tanks. We’ve had a large Halo “Master Chief” action figure in one of our display tanks, a G.I.Joe fighting off Nassarius Snails in our saltwater rows and a tiny AquaMan that moves from tank to tank. Currently, AquaMan is living in a betta bowl on the Fish Room Information Desk. Figurines like these are usually safe for aquariums but try to avoid any with sticker-like decals or any metal parts. Plastic, glass, ceramic, and hard rubber are all usually safe. Check the toy store, party supply stores and craft stores as well and you may be able to find some really unique additions like party favors, vases, beads and many other pieces to make your tank or bowl one-of-a-kind….and don’t forget to show us your finished projects!
Those are some very cute and creative aquarium design ideas.
do I have to use sealant on a similar ny rangers shot glass I have hopes of putting into a themed tank? it has a logo like your which I assume is panted on (the bears)
Hi Nicole, The Flyers fan in me wants to say otherwise, but if it is printed on the glass like my Bears glass, you should be fine to use it without sealing it. 🙂 Is it dishwasher safe? As a general rule of thumb for dishware and glassware, if it is dishawasher safe, it should be fine to use in your tank. If it isn’t, it probably has a more decorative finish or delicate logo that I wouldn’t trust underwater. You can check it to see if the logo scratches off at all once its been in the water for awhile, but I think it should be fine.
hi, I have been trying to do a marvel themed tank but there are very limited aquarium decorations for sale. I have many brand new action figures purchased for my kids and for me of course. Would I be able to simply place these inside my new tank? These figures are your average plastic action figures from target? Thank you in advance
Hi Jonathan, Action figures are usually safe as long as they dont have any metal pieces (check the joints). We’ve had an AquaMan that has been moving around to different tanks in our Fish Room for years. Keep in mind that any vinyl/painted decals may come off and stickers certainly will so choose the figures carefully. Plastic pieces like Legos are usually safe too.
I want to put a picture in my tank what I need
How can I put pic in tank.
Hello TYE and Anonymous, Others have asked similar questions on other parts of this series. You could try sealing a photo in a plastic frame with silicone or laminating an image but in my experience, water will eventually seep in or cause condensation inside the frame. I would recommend using a photo as a background rather than in the tank itself. Depending on the size of the tank and how you want to use the image, you can create a background to fit the entire tank and laminate it for durability or create a cling or decal for the front or back of the tank; there are a number of websites and companies where you can create your own custom image decals.
Hi, your ideas are interesting. We recently bought our first fish tank – its a betta starter kitt – about 2 litres. I know its small but its uses less space and is easy to clean. My question is are there any really small toys available to decorate the tank without taking away much space from the betta – we would want the betta to move around easily. Is it possible to create one? And are action figures realy safe?
Hello Chirag, That tank size is very small so you are going to be limited on what you can use. There are small aquarium decorations and plants for bettas that may fit in that size or you can look for small plastic, glass or ceramic ornaments. Even Legos are safe as long as they don’t have any stickers on them. I would recommend reading through all three parts of this blog series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) for some ideas and recommendations on safe materials. We do have action figures in a couple aquariums at our store and they have mostly all held up pretty well; just be sure that the figure you choose doesn’t have any metal parts (like in the joints) or any other materials like stickers or adhesives that will eventually degrade in the water.
My bedroom is black and gold and I have a 150 gallon tank with a black stand. I wanted a gold center piece in the water. I wanted to know what kind of paint can I use, do I need anything to cure it or use any type of sealant. If so, which brands do I need to look for?
Hello Tony, Gold can be difficult. We’ve used metallic gold enamel paint on pieces in our saltwater tanks here and have found that the metallic color doesn’t hold up well under water and under lights. That said, the enamel paints mentioned under “Paints and Enamels” in this blog and under Part three of this series, “More Decoration DIY: Materials and Aquarium Suitability”, are general safe once fully cured, depending on the environment (lighting, pH, etc.).
Hi! I have a freshwater turtle who is getting a larger tank. However, her basking platform is too low. Would I be able to use premade concrete blocks to raise it? They’ve been outside for some time, so I would assume any leeching that would happen has happened already, and they will be properly sanitized before being introduced, but is there anything else I should be concerned with?
Hi Mariah, I would still soak the cement blocks in water (not your tank) for at least a week or two and monitor the water quality to make sure it doesn’t affect the pH, hardness or other parameters in any way that may impact the turtles. Coming from the fish and aquarium world myself, I’m not too familiar with turtle care and how that would affect them but you can contact our reptile room staff at 717-299-5691 if you would like to discuss with them how the concrete may effect the turtles. Also, keep in mind any material like that that has been outside has a chance of being exposed to and absorbing chemicals like pesticides, fertilizers, cleaners or others…use caution.
Hi! I have a vintage aquarium castle that I’d like to use in my tank. It’s one of those small ceramic ones and it doesn’t seem chipped though the glaze has some crazing. Is it still safe for my tank? I’m thinking about putting it on top of a rock that is already in my tank and am wondering what the best method is for keeping it in place. If it’s safe of course. Thanks!
Hi Heather, Difficult to say. The crazing means that water might seep into those little cracks and may affect the durability of the glaze. I would keep a careful eye on it and make sure the glaze isn’t breaking off of or being softened by the water over time. A few coats of a clear enamel spray may help too. As far as attaching it, what is the rock made out of that you would like to attach it to? Is it natural rock or something artificial like polyresin? For natural rock, aquarium silicon or epoxy may be your best bet. If it is artificial, you could use silicone or epoxy as well or even a cyanoacrylate glue like Krazy Glue or a simple hot glue gun. For most of these, it would be best if you could go that gluing out of the tank and water to dry off both pieces before gluing and allow the adhesive to cure fully afterwards.
I’m excited to be setting up a new aquarium for our turtles in the near future. I came across this setup almost accidentally and I was thinking that with the right support, this could be a beautiful setup.
I am concerned about the paints that would be on the pots and how even food-safe options have the potential to change the pH. Right now, we are just thinking small terra cotta pots on the bottom with plants, no gravel, basking area and some driftwood. Do you have any sources for types of paints or glazes that could not be used in aquariums?
Hello Maya, Food-safe glazes and materials are generally safe. Any decorative glazes may not be able to withstand aquarium conditions. In general, if it is durable enough to be “dishwasher safe”, it will probably be durable enough for an aquarium. When in doubt, you can soak the piece in question in water with the same or more extreme conditions (particularly temperature and pH) as the aquarium and monitor the effects to the water chemistry and piece durability during that time. You can read Part 1 and Part 3 of this blog series for more ideas on decoration DIY and suitability. It would be impossible for me to provide you with a list of suitable and unsuitable glazes and paints; when in doubt, test it or contact the manufacturer.
I want to sculpt a few things for my aquarium. I’ve seen many comments about making molds and using resin. I also saw what you wrote about using Sculpty…sounds iffy and don’t want to risk with my fish. Is there another product you can suggest that can be molded or sculpted from a block that is safe for fresh water. I also wouldvlije to know what you think about using gold/silver enamel paint/polish? Thank you for your time.
Hi Cindy, Resins are usually safe, as well as some pottery like ceramic once fired. You can try checking with local pottery and art studios to see if they can help you with that. The same general rule applies that we discussed in this blog…if its dishwasher-safe, it is probably aquarium safe. Silicone is also typically safe once cured…there are some companies like Smooth-On that create ornaments and custom pieces using silicone and resins in molds and sell the materials to make pieces like this that may be able to help you there. They also have a link on their website for professional moldmakers across the US and Canada that might be able to help you with some direction there. We have tried some work with gold, silver and neon enamels here in saltwater tanks but have found that the colors and special finishes don’t hold up too well under those aquarium conditions. It doesn’t appear to be harmful but just seems to lose its color and luster over time. Your results may vary however, depending on the conditions of your tank.
I have 2 nice large pirate ships in my tank. They are resin and made for fish tanks. One of the ships is hollow underneath, but has no hiding places at the bottom for my fish to enter. Is it possible and safe for me to drill some holes in it for my fish to gain access?
Thank you for your help.
Hi Angel, Drilling holes in a polyresin aquarium ornament should be fine. You may want to sand down any edges to make sure they are smooth and safe but the material itself should be fine.