I recently upgraded my youngest geckos, Morticia and Divine, to a new tank and realized their furnishings weren't making the most of the added vertical space. To give them more of a playground to explore, I expanded upon my previous up cycled Gecko Hut Ible and used Model Magic to embellish the structure. The end result is a two story custom hide inspired by the houses in The Flintstones. I've been working at Warner Brothers lately and thought the cartoony, round forms you get with Model Magic would work well with that art style.
As you build, be aware of your reptiles habits and capabilities. Do they like dark places to hide? Would they use a basking deck? Can they climb steep stairs? My design was built with leopard geckos in mind, so your attempt may differ from mine.
*Please note that the materials used in this Ible are suitable for desert reptiles only. Think young bearded dragons, or dry climate geckos. Excess moisture will likely deteriorate all your hard work, so this would not be appropriate for frogs, chameleons, or tropical geckos that require humidity throughout the tank.
Step 1: Up-cycled Frame
Go through your recycling and find a couple plastic containers of different sizes. Paring the larger yogurt tub with a shorter container would allow me to make a second story, thus using vertical tank space.
Using kitchen scissors, cut cave-like entryways out of your plastic containers. For the first level, this is an easy "C" shape that includes the edge of the tub.
On the second story, I wanted one door for entry and another that would lead out to a flat basking deck. Cutting an elongated "C"shape for the deck door removes the bottom rim and allows me to nest the containers together a little closer.
The other door does not need to touch the ground, in my case, because I plan to build stairs leading to it. Squeezing the container to fold it in half will help you start a cut that does not involve the container rim.
Step 2: Basking Deck
Scrap floor mat foam seemed like a great material for my deck and steps. Aside from being a durable, lightweight substance that also offered a good texture for claws to grip, the simple flat- against- round look fit right in with the Flintstones aesthetic.
Using kitchen scissors to cut the foam was not the easiest route, but it did yield a nice chunky, rocky form that I liked for this project.
Eyeballing the width of the deck, I then held up a piece to the second story entrance. I noted the width and then cut to size, so that the end of the deck would fit inside the container. Rounding the end on the deck piece ensures it will fit snugly into the inner curve of the container.
Once everything seemed to fit together nicely, I bonded the deck to the roof of the shorter container with a rim of hot glue.Use your hot glue sparingly.Since most reptile enclosures use a heating element of some kind, you don't want to create a piece that will melt and ooze over time.
Use a quick line of hot glue to bond the rounded deck edge to the inside of the large cup, and also bond the major contact points of the two containers. Making a bond near the bottom provides maximum stability, but I would advise against putting glue on the bottom/ rim itself, especially if you have an under the tank heating element.
Step 3: Foam Steps
To keep this tank furnishing looking organic, I started by cutting up the ends of the foam mat pieces into randomized chunks; large, small, rectangle, and irregular.
The goal is to build up from the ground level to that second story entry point. If your reptiles are climbers, the stairway can be a more dramatic angle. Since leopard geckos are not great climbers (and also not great problem solvers) I would need to make a gradual slope that ultimately ends up being more of a ramp.
Begin stacking foam pieces. Use a dot or two of hot glue to bond each layer to the last. Hot glue works very well for bonding foam, so you'll find the connection to be stronger than you expect and not easy to pull apart should you make a mistake.
I started my foam block pile right up against the tall container then extended out to the left to support a long ramp piece diagonally.
Cutting the corners off your foam step pieces can yield some interesting organic rock shapes. I found these handy for bridging gaps between major pieces without creating excess bulk.
When I got to the top I decided that there wasn't much of a place to stand at the top of the steps. Using hot glue dots to bond, I added a second deck flat off to the right, which provided that standing room plus another option for basking. The little alcove beneath may be a good place to put a bowl of mealworms for feeding time.
Step 4: Utilizing Leftovers
That second basking deck needed a support beam, and the "C" shape I cut out for the first doorway was just about the right height. I hacked off the top to create a flat surface and hot glued that to the underside of the foam deck. This created sort of a carport cave off to the side, which might be a nice place to put a small dish of worms for feeding.
I noticed that the second floor main entrance could also use a smoother transition, so I cut a piece from another door scrap to use there. Dispense a thin layer of hot glue to the underside of the plastic, then press into place.
Step 5: Model Magic Stonework
Priority number one when you get into the clay phase should be smoothing any sharp/ pokey edges of plastic. Geckos are not always careful with their movements, especially if they are busy feeding, so we want to eliminate all hazard potential from the structure.
Know that Model Magic is a little bouncy and will spring back from your pressing. It it unlikely that you'll get a seamless transition out of this stuff, so it is best to embrace the chunky, round edges of your application by allowing them to look like layers of rock or mud.
To make bumpers for doorways, roll a ball of Model Magic between your palms to make a snake. Use your index finger to press the "snake" onto the sharp edge. You can pinch the clay to flatten it in place and remove any excess length.
The fun part is the decorative stonework, creating a cobblestone-type texture over as much of your structure as you like. This provides visual interest and also gives your reptile places to grip while climbing.
Roll a piece of Model Magic in your hands to create a ball.
Flatten the ball between your thumb and forefinger.Shape as desired to create an asymmetrical, organic stone shape and then apply to the surface of your structure.
Repeat this process until you have the coverage you want.Use varied sizes of "stones" for the most pleasing look. Try working in groups of small, medium, and large so you never have two of the same thing immediately next to one another.
Consider running some stones down your walkway/ stairs. Giving these extra lumps to cling to gives more footing options to your reptile, like the projections on a rock climbing wall. I also opted to put some Model Magic at the bottom of the ramp for a smoother transition to the floor.
You may find that as a model magic dries a few stones may pop off the plastic. You can stick them back in place with a sparing application of Elmer's glue, which is safe for use in animal toys and habitats.
Step 6: Paint
Go outdoors, or to a workspace are with good ventilation. Be mindful of your surroundings and put down newspaper or a drop cloth to protect your work surface.
1-2 Coats Dark Primer. Using a dark primer offers several benefits. You'll be able to black out all the graphics on your plastic containers and achieve a consistent base tone. Priming with white would take at least 3 coats to blot out the deep blues and reds on the plastic. Also, as you prime the inside and underside of the containers you create a dark, cave-like environment for your reptile. Think of it like nice blackout curtains that help you get uninterrupted sleep by blocking light.
Allow at least 15-20 drying time between coats to ensure clean coverage.
This particular paint was also geared toward coverage on plastics and I highly recommend it.
2-3 Coats Stone Texture Spray Paint. I chose something earthy and sandy, but there are some great gray stone options too. The gritty texture delivers the natural stone look and also gives some extra traction for climbing. Be mindful of your spray distance and work in short bursts of application, 8-12 inches away from the project. As with any spray paint, spraying too close will result in pooling, which could be super ugly with all these texture grains in there.
Allow 20 minutes between coats for a full dry.
If you like, you can hand paint in some details with craft acrylics and simple brush.I used a dry brush application to scrub darker brown between my "stones" at random, creating an aged and earthy look. Black can give you some depth with faux shadows, or you could try green for faux moss.
Finish with 2-3 coats of NON TOXIC Clear Coat. This can be a brush on or spray, as long as it dries as a sealer. 2-3 coats should lock your stones in place and preserve your paint job against wear and tear. You do not want paint chips coming off during use as your reptile could ingest them by accident.
I know what you're thinking: Is this safe to use in my tank? I've done some research and found that many reptile hobbyists use foam and spray paints to make really great custom tank furnishings. Obviously, (at least I hope this is obvious) you need to **wait a minimum of 24 hrs before putting the hide in the tank**. You want all the paint fumes to dissipate and to be certain everything is fully dry.
If you followed the proper painting and sealing procedures you shouldn't get any paint chips or peeling, BUT should you see some appear after use, remove the piece immediately for repair. It is not worth risking your reptile accidentally ingesting non-food substances.
Step 7: Done!
Introduce you reptile residents to their new furnishings! Some simple Model Magic and recycled materials can make for limitless possibilities: caves, castles, retro cartoon inspired digs, and more.
Send the geckos a vote in the clay contest if you enjoy this Ible. I'm hoping maybe I can visit the WB archives someday and make a xerox of an old Flintstones background to apply to the back of the tank.
Reptiles are not always big fans of change to their environment.To reduce stress, leave some of their old tank furnishings in place for a few days while they get acquainted with the new hide. This gives them some options in case they're unsure about this big new thing. Fortunately my juvenile leopard geckos took to the structure right away, mostly just going up the ramp, sitting on the basking dock, then diving off the side. Oh well, they seem entertained and the cat seems jealous.
*For those curious about the sparse flooring in the photos: Paper towels are the bedding most gecko folks recommend because they are easy to swap out during a cleaning and they eliminate the chances of a gecko swallowing substrate. Sand, while it looks great and is still widely sold, is NOT a safe choice because lizards can accidentally ingest it when striking at food, potentially causing them to die from what is called "impaction". Hobbyists seem to have mixed feelings about bark chip bedding. I think it looks nice but allows feeder insects to hide too much. These photos were taken during a tank cleaning, right before a wipe down and fresh paper towels.