Terrarium / vivarium waterproof rock work for frogs and amphibians

This instructable will guide you through the steps required to build a customized animal habitat, which will provide your exotic pets with a healthy and stimulating environment.

The final animal enclosure consists of a waterproof glass aquarium with a large planter, vertical climbing wall, and water feature at the back, plus a smaller planter at the front with a false floor suspended between the two planters, above a water reservoir containing a filter pump and heater.

It is not cheaper to do this project than to buy pre-made plastic and foam stuff from the pet store. It is better. I'm not going for cheapness - I'm going for quality of life for my animals. The fact is, pet stores don't sell stuff like this anyway.

The project outlined here is for amphibians, which require a high level of humidity, so the rock work is constructed entirely from hydraulic cement.  Hydraulic cement is also advantageous because it does not leach any compounds into the water or soil after it has cured, and it does not affect the pH, unlike other types of cement.  (Added note:  Don't ever depend on a statement like this for the safety of your animals or plants.  If you have a very sensitive animal or plant, you should test parameters like pH for yourself to make sure that the parameters begin safely and remain stable over time.)

For this project, I focused on providing a maximum amount of usable and stimulating terrain for the type of animals to be housed, specifically poison arrow frogs.  It is possible to create realistic-looking rocks with these materials, but in this project I am less concerned with appearances and more concerned with useful habitat.  I think you will agree that the final look is attractive, even without spending any time trying to make the rock work look "realistic".

Because I live in a very dry area, where the humidity is only 40% on a good day, I determined that a subfloor system, suspended over a large reservoir of water would be the best way to keep the humidity up and reduce the number of times I need to add water to the filtration system.  For the final setup, this tank ended up with a 3.4 gallon reservoir and a base humidity level of 74% even without misting.

Materials, tools, and time

Be forewarned: You will get dirty! It is impossible to work on a project like this one without making a mess. Don't try it on the kitchen table.

Very important: If you rinse hydraulic cement down the drain, it will harden in your pipes and ruin your plumbing. It will harden under water! Even small amounts of the powder will collect together and permanently block the drain. No plumber's snake or drain cleaner will ever remove it. You will have to remove the entire pipe and replace it. Throughout the project, I used disposable gloves and also removed as much of the material from my hands and arms as possible using paper towels, before I washed in the sink. Gloves will also protect your skin from the chemical reaction and abrasive qualities of the hydraulic cement.

Free time (see below)
Aquarium or terrarium enclosure (I used a 29 gallon aquarium.)
About 25 lbs of hydraulic cement (Pictured are two brands: Ace hardware and Quickrete.)
Waxed paper or saran wrap
Cellophane tape
Rubber gloves (lots of rubber gloves)
Small planters, easy to cut with scissors
Water pump with filter
Flexible tubing, compatible with your water pump

Heavy duty marker
Tub for mixing cement
Robust water container (It will get dirty.)
Razor blade for cleaning the glass

Time spent:
Day 1 - Begin the back planter - approximately three hours
Day 2 - Add interest and strength - about six hours
Day 3 - Finish the back planter - around five hours
Day 4 - Complete the front planter - at least six hours
Day 5 - Seal the planters - several hours
Day 6 - Complete the water feature - four hours
Day 7 - Complete the subfloor - around four hours
Day 8 - Test the water feature and planters - about an hour
Day 9 - Add plants, water, and light - about two hours
Day 14+ - Add animals - thirty minutes
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DIYDragon9 months ago

For some reason is never occurred to me to use wax paper and form the cement directly to the tank for the background pieces. I wanted to make a water basin to make it easier to clean the water in my crocodile skink cage. Nice dart frogs btw. I'm considering doing another vivarium build and getting some. :-)

I have been looking into building a Terrarium/Vivarium for a long time. I love the detailed instructions! I can not wait to get started. Thank you so much for all the information you provided!
dead hawk1 year ago
Thanks for the instructables, I'm very excited to finish a rock backround in my 10 gallon tank.
boabab953 years ago
that "bromeliad" is actually sansevieria, a snake plant...
boabab953 years ago
14 days?! i can make a large (40 gallon) in roughly 6 hours, it's not exactly hard :p

look good, although keep in mind, if building a vivarium for dart frogs, never mix types, and water features are a waste of matter what your boss at the zoo said :p
sorry, if my first sentence sounded mean, i just mean there are easier ways to achieve the same look...have you heard of the clay background method?
exit13mika3 years ago
This is amazing! I'm currently researching a water safe method to build a basking dock for my turtles and a cave for the feeder fish. I need materials that wont leach chemicals into the water and the finished product must be light and easy to clean. I'll be using your method with a combination of the "3-D Aquarium Background" instructable method. I plan on using 4ft tall live "Lucky Bamboo" plants as the background so the foliage can come out the top of the 55 gallon aquarium. Any suggestions? has the cement withheld the moisture? how are your frogs?
grout is fine, but it needs to be sealed with a non-toxic acrylic sealer...
Ghost Wolf4 years ago
WOW that's nice I want to make one now I read through this although! 5 stars all the way!!!
weiblen.c (author)  Ghost Wolf4 years ago
Thanks very much. It's a tricky project, but worth it when you're done. :)
you don't need to upkeep it very often right?
weiblen.c (author)  Ghost Wolf4 years ago
The rock work itself doesn't need upkeep except for keeping it clean if your animals poo on it.

In my climate, I need to mist daily and I refill the water reservoir every third day.

Depending on the animals that you put into the habitat, it might need upkeep twice per day or even more. The frogs that I will be housing will require attention at least twice per day. I will need to check thier temperature and humidity, look for activity and behavior, etc.

Plus, they are so tiny that they require food items that are not easily attainable from outside sources. I will need to keep a colony of springtails, a colony of constantly breeding crickets, and also fruit flies.  I will be feeding small amounts at least every other day, maybe more often.

So, in this case it will be quite a lot of work.
Wow that is a bit of work!
ChrysN4 years ago
What a great home for your pets! Do you have a picture of them in there?
weiblen.c (author)  ChrysN4 years ago
Thanks very much! It has only been put together for three days. I'm waiting until I get the temperature and humidity to stabilize and for the plants to establish themselves before putting in the frogs. I also need to get my colony of springtails (tiny insects for the frogs to browse on) established in the soil. Currently, I have them in a separate container. After all that, then I can put in the frogs. I'll post photos when I put them in. Probably in a couple of weeks. :)
Uncle Kudzu4 years ago
did you consider embedding any natural stone in the cement? would that be doable in a project like this? i'm not at all familiar with hydraulic cement, but the properties you describe caught my interest. i've made some aquarium features in past years with terra cotta pots, lava rocks and aquarium epoxy, but that epoxy was grievously expensive.
weiblen.c (author)  Uncle Kudzu4 years ago
Yes, you can definitely embed natural stone. You can also take a texture from natural stone, using latex or silicone molding material and use it to press the texture into the damp cement before it dries. Kudos on the terra cotta. It's another very useful and animal-safe material. You have my commiseration on the cost of aquarium epoxy. I've definitely been there.