Introduction: Building Narnia: an Automated China Cabinet Vivarium Conversion
I am constantly building vivariums for various animals in our cozy Brooklyn apartment, and I had been staring at this china cabinet for years. My husband had inherited it from a family member who passed, with all of the china still in it, and we weren't using it for anything. Finally, I got the go ahead to convert it into a terrarium!
The cabinet has three compartments so I would be building three separate enclosures within the cabinet. This was a heck of an undertaking, and I had three things to do before I could begin: Research and decide on animals, clear out that china, and gather supplies.
GE Silicone I caulk: 5 clear, 1 black
Great Stuff Gaps & Cracks: 6 cans
Gorilla Wood Glue: 1 bottle
Varathene water-based polyurethane: 1 quart
Flex Seal clear liquid: 1 quart
Flex Paste black: 6 lbs
Box of disposable gloves: 2 boxes of 100
#6 1 inch wood screws: about 100
1.5" wide pine strips: about 10 ft
Aluminum screen: 1 roll
Dry substrate: 100 qts
Sand-blasted grapevine: as much as is appropriate for space
Mopani wood: as much as is appropriate for space
4" & 6" plastic plant pots: enough to get some good height with vining plants
Plants appropriate for inhabitants: tall, short, vining, etc
Glass - I was able to use the glass shelves, which were the perfect size
White plastic ceiling crate
Garden barrier fabric
LOTS of zip ties - I like 4"
Several paint brushes
Plastic putty knives (the super cheap ones)
Jigsaw & extra blades
Drill & various drill bits (drilling & driving)
ELECTRONICS/AUTOMATION for each enclosure:
Double dome light fixtures
Small LED strips (I used cheap ones made for aquariums, this is for plant growth)
Misting system - I use MistKing and can't recommend much else
5 gallon bucket and lid
9/16 and 5/8 spade drill bits
Surge protector with long cord
LIGHT STAND / CORD CONTROL:
1 1/4" PVC pipe - 5 ft
1" PVC pipe - 5 fit
Various PVC fittings
Spray paint rated for plastic
Step 1: Choosing Inhabitants
Before you can really start building, you need to know what you're building for. I've worked a lot with crested geckos and other New Caledonian species but I really wanted to try something different. I had three compartments of various sizes, but they were all taller than they were long- this meant the animals should be arboreal. The middle compartment is much wider than the outer two, so that told me the size of the animals. Most arboreal animals are tropical or subtropical, so that really narrowed it down for me. I finally decided on White's tree frogs on the right, giant day gecko on the left, and a prehensile-tailed skink in that big middle compartment. I'll link care sheets to each animal.
Prehensile-tailed skink - there is not a ton of consistent information on these guys, but this is relatively elaborate
Step 2: Cutting Holes & Sealing the Wood
NOTE: I strongly recommend safety goggles and a mask for both components - the sawdust and fumes are harmful and WILL make you sick.
I decided that I should cut the holes at the top for the purpose of ventilation before applying chemicals to seal the wood. To cut holes, I first drilled a hole so I could get the jigsaw blade in - I did this at all four corners. I then used a jigsaw to cut. These were not the straightest lines but I wasn't (and still am not) too worried about it.
The cabinet also had light fixtures in it that I needed to rip out. They were T5 fixtures which would have been helpful if the were not 30+ years old and falling apart. Every cabinet will be different, but this took a lot of unscrewing, prying, yelling, pulling, and screaming.
Once that was done, I applied three layers of Varathene. It is very important that this is water-based, as the oil-based will not be safe when fully cured.
Once the Varathene was dry, I went an extra step and put on two coats of Flex Seal. This stuff is liquid silicone, so you're basically painting a rubber barrier between the wood and whatever humidity will be in the enclosure.
The last step here was to seal any joints where the wood met more wood, or where there was glass or holes. I used silicone caulk for this. I applied a straight bead down every corner, then used a gloved finger to smooth it out. I repeated this until I was satisfied that the enclosures were completely sealed.
Step 3: Hardscaping
The next step was to create kind of a tray or barrier to hold substrate in. Luckily, the cabinet had thick glass shelves that spanned the width and depth of each section perfectly. I used silicone to secure a piece of glass flat on the bottom of each enclosure, and then one standing up just behind the door trim. I went over the standing piece a couple of times, allowing it to cure between coats, just to be certain that it was super secure.
Next, I took some plastic plant pots and secured them into the enclosures wherever I thought some vining plants would be nice. Prehensile-tailed skinks eat pothos as their main food source in the wild, so I placed pots to accommodate lots of pothos in the center space. I used wood screws to hold them in place.
I then took my wood and placed it, using twine to hold that in place.
The fun part: Great Stuff is a polyurethane expanding foam. It comes out FAST and is extremely sticky. Wear gloves for this and test it out on paper towels - SLOWLY.
Make sure to get the straw behind everything to make sure it sticks and doesn't create precarious spaces for your animals to get stuck in. Also, this stuff is heavy, so just use a little at a time, you can go back once you see how much it expands. A bunch of mine fell off as I was working and I had to go back.
Wait a few hours, at least, for the Great Stuff to dry.
Then, you get to carve it! Great Stuff expands a lot and is a little unpredictable. I use a razor blade scraper to get the size and shapes I want. You can cut the twine and remove any unwanted screws now, too. The foam is weight-bearing and will hold your hardscape in place.
Once everything is where and how you want it, you'll want to make sure it looks natural. I used Flex Paste (paste silicone) and a plastic putty knife to cover the Great Stuff. Eventually I gave up on the putty knife and just used a gloved hand This is messy, but that's okay! Nature is also messy, and we're trying to replicate nature. To this in small sections, starting at the bottom.
Once one component is covered, pat some dry substrate onto the the Flex Paste. You'll want to press firmly so that it really gets into the paste so it's permanent when it cures. Do this on each foam component.
Once the paste cures, I use a clean, soft-ish paint brush to gently brush the loose substrate to uncover the texture created by the foam.
Step 4: Screening the Top
This was the part I was most unsure about. I tried a couple of different ways to do this but the easiest and most effective is as follows, though I was still cracking the wood.
Cut a piece of screen larger than the hole.
Cut pieces of wood to size to be able to frame the hole, overlapping mostly on the top wood.
Place the screen over the hole, and screw first piece of wood through the screen into the top wood.
Repeat for all sides, ensuring that the screen isn't super loose.
Silicone the edges to make sure it is secure, especially where wood is cracked.
Trim any excess screen.
*I also used a piece of trim over the wood in the front so it wasn't quite such a mess.
Step 5: Heat and Lighting Automation
Three enclosures require quite a few electronics to keep temps and UVB correct for each species. First, I secured a pretty industrial surge protector to the top of the enclosure to provide a central power source.
For each enclosure, I use a dual smart plug for the LED and UVB lights so that these can be timed. I also use a simple on/off thermostat and heating element (I like deep heat projectors).
Cords are going to be an issue, as is keeping fixtures off the screen, so I'm still working out a stand made out of PVC that can elevate the fixtures and contain the cords.
Step 6: Humidity Automation
I opted to use a MistKing for this build and I am so glad that I did. You will need to get your own reservoir for this. The most common is a 5 gallon bucket but any hard plastic container can be used to fit your space so long as a hole can be drilled in it.
First, I cut a space in the shelf in the lower portion of the cabinet to fit the bucket. I drilled two holes in the back of the cabinet: one for the tubing, and another for the wiring. I screwed the pump unit onto the wood next to the bucket, and hooked everything up. MistKing has a ton of tutorials, so I won't get redundant here with those.
To attach nozzles, I cut pieces of 1/4" thick 1 1/5" wide pine and bored a 5/8:" hole in the middle. I attached this to a front corner of the screens of each enclosure, ensuing that the hole was not obstructed by any other structures. I screwed these pieces into place, then cut a hole in the screen that lined up with the 5/8" hole. I then pushed the nozzle up through the screen, into the hole in the wood, and secured it with its nut.
I then attached all the tubing and was good to go!
I will note that when I first turned the mister on, it leaked like hell. This was because the tubing was not pushed in all the way, and this is a very common problem. Pushing the tubing further will fix the problem.
Step 7: Bioactivity!
This is where it gets fun!
I used a LOT of substrate for this build because I wanted to use plants that matched the height of the enclosure. USE SAFETY GLASSES AND A MASK HERE - I was sneezing and tearing dirt for days!!
I dumped the bags of substrate into the enclosures, then added water to get it to a texture consistent with that which you'd fine in a forest. The substrate should stay formed when pressed but should not drip water.
Once the substrate was in, I added my springtails and isopods. These guys are the bread and butter of bioactivity and often referred to as the cleanup crew. Basically, they eat poop and other rotting materials (plants and uneaten food) in the enclosure, minimizing any cleanup a human would normally do. They help to create a really active and successful ecosystem. You can just dump the cultures right in if you're buying them new, or take portions of larger cultures already established independently. For most of my builds, I only use tropical springtails and dwarf white isopods, but I added a few powder orange isopods to the big enclosure too. I also added some of these guys to my elevated pots.
Last but not least - Plants!!! Really make sure than you research your plants. Many everyday houseplants will thrive in tropical vivariums - pothos, spiderplants, snake plants, etc - but some are really harmful to your animals. the ASPCA has a good list of toxic plants but it is geared towards mammals. Some reptiles have funky immunity to certain things (prehensile-tailed skinks eat pothos, which is mildly toxic to most animals) and others have funky sensitivities.
Also, source your plants from somewhere trustworthy, and wash the roots the best that you can no matter where they come from. Home Depot uses pretty harsh pesticides, but I have excellent luck at Lowe's and local plant nurseries - though they all can still harbor pests no matter the source.
Step 8: Enjoy Narnia!!
It's a good idea to let your enclosures cycle for a month or so to make sure that everything is settled and there aren't any harmful hithchikers (predatory slugs - I just had to tear out a dart frog enclosure because of these stupid things!)
When introducing your animals, do it on their time. Offer food but don't sweat it if they don't eat right away - they're adjusting to their new space. They'll come around and be super happy in their new homes!!!!
First Prize in the
Reclaimed Materials Contest