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

Step 1: Day 1 - Begin the Back Planter

I began with the large planter and rock work of the back wall, because it was the largest and most complex of the pieces to be constructed.

Lay the aquarium or terrarium on its side to make it easier to work with.

Because the final design will be incredibly heavy, you need to make sure the rock work is removable one piece at a time.  While working with the cement, always tape a lining of waxed paper or saran wrap firmly in place, so it doesn't move around or fall down a lot and drive you crazy.  This lining will be removed after the piece is completed and will ensure that the cement doesn't bind itself into your terrarium permanently.  It may seem like a hassle, but if you don't use a lining, the cement WILL stick to the glass.

For specific instructions on mixing the cement, look at this instructable: https://www.instructables.com/id/How-to-mix-hydraulic-cement-for-sculpting/

Mix the hydraulic cement a little at a time and build up what will be the back wall until it is the shape you want.  Smooth new cement into the existing pieces to prevent gaps and leakage.  Add new cement while the prior pieces are hardened enough to keep their shape, but still damp.  This is important for strength and to prevent leaking later on.

I was able to make the back wall very thin for this planter, because I later added horizontal ledges and ramps, which added to the structural strength.  The fewer ledges and ramps you are planning to add, the thicker you should make the back wall. 

Build up the bottom of the planter, making sure to seal the bend very well.  Make the bottom as robust as possible.

Cut the small plastic or peat planters and place them where you like them, then cement them in, again working in small amounts of cement.  Leave at least one drainage hole unobstructed at the bottom of the small planters.

This step of building up the basic shape of the back wall and cementing in the planters took approximately three hours for me.
<p>I just used hydraulic cement to make a water feature for my salamander vivarium. <br><br>A few weeks ago I found a spotted salamander in the wild a few miles from where I live. I collected a carpet of live moss and put together a native 20gal tank. <br><br>My only concern is the lime in the cement. The pH of water put into the cement dish is unusually high (around 8.5 or so). It's been several days and I have tried everything to neutralize the caustic cement. I repeatedly freeze and then wash the dish with very hot water... even adding vinegar - but to no avail. <br><br>I would feel a little more comfortable waiting until the pH stabilizes around 7.5 before putting it in my vivarium but I haven't the slightest clue how long that could take... weeks maybe?<br><br>Salamanders and frogs have very sensitive skin and I don't imagine they enjoy the causticity. Also, such a high pH would cause nutrient 'lock-out,' stunting their growth and possibly burning their roots. <br><br>When working with hydraulic cement it is advised to use gloves and eye protection because the cement will severely dry-out your skin and irritate mucus membranes. <br><br>My hands still feel dry and scratchy... <br><br>Anyway, I was wondering what your thoughts are about the pH. I'm starting to get impatient because this water dish looks so cool and my salamander would like the added swimming pool, no doubt... but I don't want to chance hurting the little guy. <br><br>About the only thing I can do is keep washing it and wait...<br> <br>If I would have known this was gonna be the case, I would have just mixed up some 'hypertufa'... it's about half the weight, more porous and overall better-looking than ordinary cement or hydroplug. </p>
<p>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. :-)</p>
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!
Thanks for the instructables, I'm very excited to finish a rock backround in my 10 gallon tank.
that &quot;bromeliad&quot; is actually sansevieria, a snake plant...
14 days?! i can make a large (40 gallon) in roughly 6 hours, it's not exactly hard :p<br><br>look good, although keep in mind, if building a vivarium for dart frogs, never mix types, and water features are a waste of space...no 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?
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 &quot;3-D Aquarium Background&quot; instructable method. I plan on using 4ft tall live &quot;Lucky Bamboo&quot; 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...
WOW that's nice I want to make one now I read through this although! 5 stars all the way!!!
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?
The rock work itself doesn't need upkeep except for keeping it clean if your animals poo on it.<br> <br> In my climate, I need to mist daily and I refill the water reservoir every third day.<br> <br> 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.<br> <br> 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.&nbsp; I will be feeding small amounts at least every other day, maybe more often.<br> <br> So, in this case it will be quite a lot of work.<br>
Wow that is a bit of work!
What a great home for your pets! Do you have a picture of them in there?
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. :)
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.
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.

About This Instructable




Bio: I am a former zookeeper. One thing you may not know, zookeepers often have to make their own specialized tools, enclosures and supplies. It's ... More »
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