In the Beginning:

When I first started in the hobby, most everyone would start their hobby with a 10 gallon aquarium and learn the ropes before moving up to a large freshwater aquarium. After about 7 months I moved up to a 30 gallon aquarium and remember thinking I would never need a tank bigger than that. Now I would consider a tank that size to be good for quarantine only!  (Or as a “nano-reef”.) In the late 70’s the most reasonably priced large tanks were either a 55 or a 70 gallon tank. Set up with a Undergravel filter and a Magnum canister filter I could place a fairly heavy fish load, but my African cichlids would start to feel cramped by the lack of space. After adding a lot of decorative rocks to my 70 gallon I figured I only had about 50 gallons of actual water. With my larger fish continuously digging up the gravel and rearranging the plastic plants, my tanks looked different every day. It was next to impossible for my African cichlids to breed in the 70 gallon, with the exception of the Buffalo Heads that managed to spawn way back in the rocks. If I was going to keep my fish happy and healthy, I was going to need a bigger tank.

Dawn of a Revolution:

I mentioned in another blog that I moved to a new home to be able to set up more aquariums and larger self-made aquariums. To get ready for this, I built two 220 gallon tanks from plywood and plate-glass. This may sound like a disaster, but is actually pretty easy to do. A 220 gallon tank, 8′ x 2′ x 2′ is the largest tank you can make from two 4′ x 8′ sheets of plywood. I used 3/4″ exterior grade plywood with one finished side. (Others have used marine plywood, but it is significantly more expensive.) I split the plywood lengthwise down the middle to get 4 sheets 2′ x 8′. Three of these would be the front, bottom and back of the aquarium. The basic plan is to screw the front and back on top of the bottom piece. This would allow the bottom to be just the 2′ x 8′ board, no chance to stress the joint by the weight of the tank/water. It was nice to have one or more helpers when putting the wood sections together, since you more or less built the tank “up side down”. I used a bead of silicone between the wood sections and used 3 1/2″ wood screws into a predrilled pilot  hole. Having two drills made this much easier! I spaced the screws about 3″ apart. After the front and back were screwed to the bottom, I had to screw the end pieces on the “inside” of the three boards. This meant it needed to be 24″ w and 22 1/2″ tall. It also had to be cut so that the grain of the outer layer of the plywood ran horizontally. Now it was time to cut out the sections for the glass “windows”. I used two windows so I could use glass from a broken 55 gallon or just 1/4″ thick glass.  I have seen single panes, but you need to jump up to 1/2″ glass for a single pane. I was building more for economy than esthetics. I cut out the windows leaving a 3″ wide area of wood all around the glass pane, leaving a 6″w support right up the middle. Once the windows were cut, I painted the tanks with two part epoxy paint giving them two coats and then a third coat along all the seams and along the top edge. You want to do this in a well ventilated area to avoid noxious fumes from the epoxy paint. I next used a tube of silicone to make a bead seal along all the joints. I am not sure this really did anything but give me more peace of mind. I now placed the tank with its front side down and coated the window panes with large amounts of silicone and gently dropped  the glass pane onto the opening. Once the glass started to settle, I placed two 5 gallon buckets on the glass and slowly filled them with water to weigh down the glass to get a good seal.   After 2 days I would remove the buckets, place another bead of silicone along the joint of the glass to wood and let it seal for another 2 days. Now came the fun part, water testing it for leaks! Obviously I did this outdoors placing the tank on cinder blocks for support. After a week of testing with no leaks, I was ready to move the tanks into the new house. But…my housemate (the owner) decided to give the bedroom at the end of the hall to his girlfriend and I got one of the bedrooms along the hall for my tanks. This meant I would have to stand the tank on end to get it in the door to the bedroom. Well…you cannot stand an 8 foot long aquarium on end in a hallway with an 8 foot ceiling!! Now I had two large tanks I could not get in the room. It all worked out, I was able to sell the tanks to a friend and once I moved in I discovered I could not use the tap water in the house for my African Cichlids anyways. These wooden tanks work well in a basement or behind a wall, but most aquariums are now out in the open and part of the decor, so they need to be more attractive.

The New Age Arrives :

As the aquarium tanks moved into the main rooms, the manufacturers of aquarium supplies realized the demand for larger aquariums. Soon tanks like the 6′ x 2′ x 2′ 180 gallon were more commonplace. Overflows were added to make a “reef ready” saltwater aquarium easier to set up. Along with improvements in lighting, the aquarium care required to maintain larger tanks offered economies of scale and were almost easier to keep than smaller tanks. The major glass aquarium builders recently discovered the demand for aquariums with more surface area and released a series of Deep Super Systems that have a base 36″ from front to back, in lengths from 3 to 6 feet long. In order to get them to fit through the doors into the house (you don’t want to make the same mistake I made!!) the tanks are 24″ Tall. This extra floor space allows for more options with aquascaping and more room for the larger freshwater fish to maneuver. I am happy to say  that my days of avoiding wood splinters while building aquariums are long gone!

About The Author Don Roberts

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