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A Beginner’s How to....

Disguise that blank painted or stuck on background

What looks duller than a bare aquarium with all the technical equipment visible? You've indeed guessed it right, nothing!

What can we do then to build our own decently aquascaped tank? We could make a small effort and paint the back (of course on the outside) of the aquarium light blue, making the tank more realistic! The disadvantage is that this makes the tank look like an ordinary commercial shop tank. Dark (grey-brown) paint is one step further in the good direction, but we still have a square/rectangular/bow fronted watertight container.

Aquarium backgrounds, the stick on type, whilst creating instant visual appeal, the illusion of more space in a smaller tank and hiding equipment behind the tank a filter or heater could still be visible.

A 3D background in your aquarium will basically serve two main purposes, the most obvious one being to make it a more decorative addition to your home, and to also hide any bulky equipment or air lines from view.

Aquarium backgrounds could also help make your fish feel more at ease, and could help to prevent algae build up by limiting the amount of sunlight that gets into the tank if you continue a background to or along a side.

Below are a few more details about the different types of backgrounds we can use.

Picture Backgrounds

Standard picture style aquarium background are produced by the roll and sold by the foot. They are attached to the outside of the back fish tank surface using sticky tape or other suitable adhesives. Virtually any aquatic scene imaginable is available as an aquarium background picture. Vibrant corals, lush aquatic plants and whimsical aquascape’s are all available from well stocked aquarium suppliers. They also hide equipment behind the tank but a filter or heater will still be visible inside the tank. These could be described as a quick and easy fix, especially for those who don’t have the inclination to invest much time on installing a background.

Resin Background

Fashioned from the same polyester material as resin aquarium ornaments, these aquarium backdrops are decorative and durable. Most are designed with realistic textures that mimic natural rock formations. Some rise above the aquarium's height to create an imitation rock wall. This style of background is placed inside the aquarium. The correct size must be purchased for the individual aquarium dimensions. If the resin background does not sit snugly against the back of the tank it can be attached using a thin bead of aquarium silicone, once again though the filter, heater or another pipe work may still be visible. The next step up is the moulded three dimensional aquarium backgrounds. These are usually made of Styrofoam, Plastic or Fibreglass. Backgrounds made for smaller tanks fall within the Styrofoam and Plastic category, while the larger saltwater aquariums may use Fibreglass backgrounds.

Both the Styrofoam and Plastic aquarium backgrounds are easily cut and shaped by the fish owner to fit to fit different sixed aquariums.

Fibreglass backgrounds are used in zoological exhibits and specialty aquariums. Fish owners who have very large saltwater tanks can purchase custom made Fibreglass aquarium backgrounds which will add realism to the underwater fantasy.

Slate Background

Slate aquarium backdrops are another do it yourself project with a natural looking outcome. The flat nature of slate pieces makes them perfect for adhering to the back of an aquarium. Arrange the entire background with the tank on its side before attaching the slate. Again aquarium silicone is the only silicone to use. Overlap the edges and use several layers of slate for the best background effect. This builds up a stepped look. By paying careful attention to pipe work, filter boxes etc these can be hidden. Please ensure the slate is cleaned and fit for use in an aquarium before using it.

Sand Background

Applying a sand finish to an aquarium can reproduce the look and feel of a sandstone wall. The only materials required are a quantity of aquarium sand and some aquarium safe silicone. Painting the back of the glass in a colour similar to the sand will reduce translucency for a more realistic effect. When applying the background there are two variations you can choose from. A smooth application of the silicone in a thin smear causes the finished background to resemble a cut sandstone block. More natural finishes are recreated by a less even coat. In both methods the silicone should not show any obvious strokes as these will be displayed in the finished background.

Choose a cooler day with minimal breeze to avoid the silicone forming skin before the sand is added. Practice before applying the finish to the actual aquarium. A straight edged ruler or spatula may be useful for achieving a smooth effect. Any number of objects including sea sponges or rags will help with a rougher surface.

Once the silicone layer is applied pour a generous layer of sand over it. In 12 to 24 hours the excess sand can be shaken off.

These mats can be made on sheets of polystyrene then carefully pealed off to re-use again. After a few days when the vinegar smell has dissipated the aquarium is safe to use.

Painted Background

Painted backgrounds are used when a solid coloured aquarium background is desired this is often painted onto the back exterior. Aquarium shops often use this method in their fish tanks with good results. A plain black aquarium background contrasts effectively with most fish and aquarium plants. Since the paint is applied to the exterior of the aquarium, toxicity is not a concern. Just choose a paint that will not dissolve in water or bead on the glass surface. Several layers may need to be applied to avoid any translucent patches in the background. Another method of creating this effect is by buying coloured card from a craft shop, by doing this you can change the colour of your background at will.

Home Made 3D Background.

So how to make your own

The first things you need to start this project are:


Imagination. Picture the project completed in your head.

More beer.

Patients. Take your time for quality results.

Still more beer.

Very little skill. Basic knowledge of hand tools and construction techniques (helpful and sharp knives don’t mix).

Open beer and take a long swig.


After obtaining the aquarium or deciding to create your own background in an old tank draw a picture of it, as if looking in from the top. Begin with where you would like to place any mechanicals, (filters, heaters, ect.). Keep it simple. This is only to get a general idea of how you would like it to look. And from experience the design will change (even if it’s the addition of another filter, pump, or replacement of an airline or water inlet/outlet).

Learn from nature

Look at a typical rock formation, stream bed, under cut river bank, tree roots (mangrove) or any other type of structure that appeals to you. Research, research and research some more. What type of fish will you be keeping? Is your thought out design really applicable to the area your fish would natively live?

Getting in some quality time on the internet to find out about the area where your fish would have lived is one of the most important things to do.

Once you have the ideas firmly fixed in mind its time to collect your materials. I’ve found if you ask/buy from your local builders merchants the one or two sheets of polystyrene needed (one 1 inch the other 2 inch) you can cheekily ask to look around for odds and sods from washing machine packaging etc. they will be free and come in very useful for adding to the background to make those stuck out structures (see shopping list later).


If you hurry too much, you will make mistakes. Although most can be remedied, some can become quite tragic. Concrete covers up a few mistakes and holes but then you are adding weight and drying time to your project. The weight might not be too bad to combat floatation but remember 1 liter of water weighs 1 kilogram then you have a background ranging from 1 meter to who knows (weighing god only knows), then weight from filled holes! Need I go on?


You don't need any fancy tools, or great knowledge of construction. Almost every thing you will need comes from the kitchen (knives, forks, toothpicks). Even that fancy blow torch your partner got you for Christmas comes in useful!

Extra items

These would include a wire brush, paint brushes, mixing containers and pint glasses (don’t become a yob).

Now comes the hard but most important part. You need to measure the exact internal measurements of the tank you’re making the background for then reduce this by approximately 6mm or ¼ inch to allow for the buildup of concrete and epoxy resin or other sealer that you’re going to use and the silicone to fix your pride and joy into position. Draw this on a bit of wood that’s about a 30cm/1 foot longer and wider than needed (work space), this is done to ensure you have a guideline and the final structure will fit into your tank. It is distressing having to cut/break parts off of that newly made background (and that comes from experience).

The next hard part is only for a select few….. Those lucky people who have a very large tank but with a cross brace, this means you need to make your background in two or three parts and join them once they are in the tank. You lucky people.

Now we come to the good part "Un bon croquis vaut mieux qu'un long discours," or an English translation "A picture is worth a thousand words.”

I am not the world’s best photographer, so sorry for any out of focus photographs. Where needed photos will be edited and arrows or pointers will be included.

Lastly these are my opinions only, there is better, easier and safer ways of doing things but this is how I did my backgrounds.

Ok here goes the shopping list (not in any particular order):-


Aquarium silicone

Kebab sticks/tooth picks


Brushes/mixing bowls

Blowtorch/Electric paint stripper

Assorted knives for carving

Plywood marked to the exact size of the back of your tank (plus that extra space)

Concrete colour (if needed/wanted)

Tape measure and marker


Wire brush

There will/may be other equipment that can be begged borrowed or ‘alf-inched (from the wife only please!)

Pictures to follow from now on!!

Board marked out to the exact dimensions of the tank. Notice please maybe not a foot all round to work on but a door!

The main background and one side positioned within the lines. Notice kebab stick holding it into place. I find this easier than silicone as there is no drying time, to wait for. Most times I burn out a lot of the Polystyrene to stop the background floating especially if it’s a large background.

The Second side fixed into place, once again just kebab sticks used. The excess can be cut off using a sharp pair of pliers then re-sharpened to use the other half. Note the background is still with-in the lines of the tank measurement.

Kebab stick

The bottom of the background is next fixed into place. I find a bottom useful as it both allows you to work on the background in a very stable manner and also gives some extra texture to the finished tank; the sand is automatically sloped backwards to make the display visually appealing.

Here is a better view of the bottom. Notice as the sides will be non-uniformed in shape the bottom is slightly narrower.

Structural members put into place with parts of kebab sticks. Don’t worry too much at this time if things look too regular in shape. Later you will be burning and cutting areas off to stop distinct vertical or horizontal lines.

Ah the Christmas present. I wonder if the wife has missed it yet.

When burning out the background take care. Notice the area where the ‘shelf’ joining the side melted too much, both exposing the kebab stick and giving me more work to fill with concrete!

Don’t worry here; the kebab stick will be removed once the first coats of concrete are applied.

The finished ‘burn out’, more work will be done as the concrete is applied including more/added lumps to improve the general appearance.

Here you can see the start of the waterways for the inlet/outlet pipe work to be placed into. All pipe work can stay inside the tank now, no wet carpets from return water leakages from those external filters! Smaller tanks using internal filters only need extra ‘depth’ at one side, then carefully placed holes to allow for intake/return water. A separate ‘rock’ could be made to cover the filter if you wanted.

Vent to the filter shown here; make sure the hole isn’t too big to push the pipe through. Make sure you allow enough pipe to show once the concrete is added. The plastic pipe can be removed to clean it when concreting but make sure it’s in place once sealing the background.

A better view of the background showing the length of pipe used to start with and the kebab sticks still holding everything in place; all to be removed or shortened at a later time.

Now for the messy part! I find a very wet concrete mixture ‘holds’ onto the polystyrene better then slightly thicker coats brushed on covers all the background very well with out covering up/over the general design you ‘had’ in your mind.

A close up showing the vent to the filter pipe, use a very wet brush to smooth out any areas you think might need it. Don’t worry about the towelled on look inside this area it changes later on!

The background has started to dry in places, extra texture has been added by burning small bits of polystyrene then coating in more brushed on concrete. The return pipe was added here, once again too long initially.

A little more concrete brushed on while the last layer was still damp and final brushstrokes either added or removed by stippling the brush to stop everything being smooth.

Background drying nicely now with all effects added. One or two areas need fixing especially around the pipes.

Here is the same shot from the other angle, note the bottom is not straight and the sides are all rounded.


As this display is smaller than it looks, an internal filter is being modified to fit the background and still be hidden. Return water will flow up and over the heater which will be fitted just below the return pipe. Notice sides were burnt out after coating the front with concrete.

Vent to filter

Background drying and bottom sealed with cement. Note before concreting the bottom check the background fits in your tank as it’s easier at this time to remove some of the polystyrene.

A close up of the area where the filter will be going.

Everything looks fine. Looks are deceiving. A lot of remedial work had to go on to get the filter to fit (wrong measurements).

Extra work carried out included rounding off return area and enlarging the filter area.

All finished at the front, waiting for the colouration to be applied once everything is dry. You need to hope it’s the Friday evening now ....... pub time!

A head on shot of the front of the background, not bad for all of five hours work (apart from drying time and beer opening time), don’t ask... I’m not cheap!

Colouration being applied, I use organic colouration of the variety I drink... very strong espresso.

This photo was taken indoors as the background has been beside the fire to dry it a little quicker. I noticed while working on the filter area the inside layers of concrete are not drying very quickly out in the garage.

A close up of the textured area beside the return pipe. Once the background is sealed the pipe work will have a layer of silicone put around them.

Colouration finished but work is still going on in the filter area. A re-think was necessary... do I go with a regular internal filter or a home made one with a power head.

All remedial work carried out in filter area now. All that’s left is the filter to be fitted once the pipes are cut to length. The heater is going in the left ‘hollow’ below the return pipe so warm water is carried throughout the tank.

Heater area

The whole display will now need about a week to dry properly then the varnishing or sealing stage can start.

Form now on it’s your choice of how to complete your project. There are a few different ways to add your background to your tank. You can seal it with something like a concrete pond sealer, epoxy resin, clear gel coat, or varnish. All these ‘sealers’ need to be confirmed that they are in fact fish safe as a lot will not be, as amongst other things they could contain copper or anti-mould chemicals.

Failing to seal your background will mean you need to condition it in a tank of water for about six weeks with daily water changes until the ph levels drop as they will sky rocket because of the lime in the concrete.

What ever way you finish your background ensure the coating has completely dried before fixing your background into your tank as water will affect the looks and surface of the newly covered background. If you measured and checked twice before completely finishing your background you can even get away with out fixing the background to the glass in your tank especially if the fit below the glass support bar is a close one. A security measure to stop the unstuck background moving is to fit hidden braces at the bottom of the tank between the background and the front of the tank as they will be covered by the substrata.

I have found that my guppy fry love the security behind the background and as long as you have the foresight to fit an extra pump or filter in the back there will not be areas of stagnant water and the warm water will be circulated around the tank via that extra pump.

I hope this has been helpful to anyone who wants a better look for their tank as once the tank is planted either with live or plastic plants, algae has taken hold on the background things look a lot more natural.

This is my home made background in my community tank after about three months. Note the use of plastic plants to provide shelter for guppy fry, once the fry are about half inch I remove the plastic plants but in the meantime my survival rate is higher than it was without them.