Introduction: Make a Better Than New Aquarium Stand

About: At home, you can find me with my wife and three boys, maybe practicing violin, guitar or piano, in the garage doing some woodworking, bicycling, at the computer, learning small electronics, video editing, surf…

After 15 years of much-appreciated service in holding up 750 pounds of a combination of glass, rock, electrical equipment, water and the variety of fish and aquatic plants that give me peace, it was time to accept the resignation of my old, particle board aquarium stand.

And rather than go to the store to hire a new one, this time I would make my own. This Instructable will show you what I'm hopeful you will see is unique about it and how I built it. You could use a stand like this one for fish, reptiles, hamsters or whatever other pets you might normally keep in an aquarium. And whether you make a stand like this or not, I'm hopeful you will also see some helpful ideas on what you might incorporate into your cabinet.

Step 1: Meet My Old Aquarium Stand

Rather than take punches at my old stand, which has seen better days, I'd rather use it to point out something to fish owners and the DIY stand builder.

The designer of my old aquarium stand knew exactly what he or she was doing. Although made of inexpensive, 1/2" MDF coated in a high gloss melamine, it still holds over 750 pounds. Contrary to the paranoia implied in many DIY aquarium designs, you do not need to build your tank stand out of landscape timbers, fence posts, or even 2x4"s and 3/4" plywood, IF you distribute the load and take into consideration the direction of force on the stand when deciding how the joints will come together.

Step 2: Meet the Stands Sold at a Typical Pet Store

It's not their fault. With so many different tank sizes sold at a typical pet store, it would be difficult to offer aquarium stands in any color other than black (or occasionally faux wood). The particle board is durable enough and affordable, but it does not finish out as well on corners. There is also a wide-spread practice by manufacturers of not finishing the back of the stand because the designer probably expects you to always place the stand against the wall.

But doctor's offices and Chinese restaurants put theirs out in the middle of the floor? What if I want to have my tank away from the wall? Do I need a medical degree or a good recipe for kung pao chicken to have that? As the click baiter says: "the answer may surprise you."

Step 3: Try to Make Something Original and Better

Okay, I'll just come straight out and admit it: I'm a sucker for a good contest on Instructables. If you have not tried posting one or entering a contest, you should. It's fun to share.

I am entering this Instructable into the "Animal Innovations" contest. Merriam-Websters defines "innovation" as "the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices or methods." In the next few pages, I hope to point out you what makes the design of this aquarium cabinet and the methods used to create it unique. After that, there are step-by-step instructions on how it is built. I'm hopeful that well beyond this contest, there are ideas you can take from it and apply it to your own design, whether your tank is big or small.

This photo and the next one are screenshots from the design I did using Google SketchUp.

Step 4: Innovation to DIY "Stand Engineering"

My teenage son and I have built many things together. Before building his stand, we spent some time thinking about balancing the structural needs of an aquarium stand versus the aesthetic appearance, and came up with this solution.

The idea is to use two rectangular frames, one as the base and one at the top, with a channel routed into them. All of the vertical pieces supporting the weight of the stand slide neatly into this channel. If you study every layer, from top to bottom, the weight of the aquarium is really just sitting on a stack of boards. There are no sheering forces involved, and the fatal side-to-side collapse is also avoided.

Although this method takes more time than more common DIY stand construction methods, it uses the wood efficiently, looks more professional in my opinion and saves space on the inside of the stand.

I have attached "as designed" Sketchup files which may assist you in building a stand. These are not "as built" (meaning I did not go back and modify the plans to match any changes I made as I built the stand). I would suggest you use these to get a concept in mind, together with the photos.

Step 5: Innovation to "Stand Versatility"

My wife and I get bored with how the house is decorated and like to rearrange our furniture for a low-cost makeover. But the old stand, with the ugly backside, has to stay against the wall.

So in designing this new stand, I figured there were three possible configurations. Rather than chose one, I wanted something that would do all three:

1) with the back against the wall (and the cords and tubes going through an opening in the back);
2) with one of the two short sides against the wall, so that it sticks out like a bar (with the cords and tubes going through an opening in the side);
3) completely out in the middle of the room (with no cords or tubes showing, provided I have a "drilled" tank and a power outlet)

But there were no plans - anywhere - for this. So the solution was to come up with a design that involves the use of two "secret" removable panels which would fit into the aesthetics of the cabinet.

Step 6: Innovations to "Stand Function"

I tried to take everything that I did not like about my old, store-bought stand and to do something about it. The first four of these ideas could be used as an improvement to a store-bought stand or one you already have:

1. Lighting: The inside of an aquarium stand can be dark. Better lighting is really helpful for finding the essentials you have stored away for aquatic life health. This design features a continuous strip of LED lights around the top edge. Also, I picked a lighter paint color so the light would be reflected.

2. Automatic Light Switch: The lights come on automatically when you open the cabinet door, just like your refrigerator.

3. Power Cord Manager. The power strips are located close to the door where they can be seen and reached easily. Also, none of the outlets could sit in water should a leak occur. There are two hand twist knobs for removing this assembly from the cabinet. Extra cord length can be hidden behind the power cord manager.

4. A dowel: This is something simple to hang wet nets on.

5. A flat threshold: This very subtle stand design is a huge improvement over the annoying lip that fish keepers catch on when taking heavy, wet, spill-able things in and out of the cabinet.

Step 7: Innovations to "Stand Appearance."

Your tank stand doesn't have to look anything like one you could go out and buy.

For inspiration, I poked around the web, looking especially at kitchen islands for ideas. But my infatuation with the beautiful craftsman quality cabinetry skills out there ended with getting some ideas for "the appearance," not construction. The required strength of the cabinet should always be considered before trying to build one the same way manufacturers build kitchen cabinets.

I snapped the first photo of table when I was inspired by its stain/paint combination. You can see similarities between it and the stand in the second photo.

Step 8: Materials and Tools.

Okay, let's switch gears and explain how I built it.

I built a stand for a rectangular, 75 gallon aquarium, you may be building one smaller or larger than that, and it could be rectangular, square or bow-front. So, I will keep this list very general, and you can calculate what you need:


*. Plywood (for the floor of the cabinet only)

*. Select pine boards (for everything else)

*. Waterproof wood glue (all joints are glued, not nailed or screwed)

*. Paint

*. Wood conditioner

*. Stain

*. Polyurethane

*. Strip of cool white, waterproof LED lights.

*. Power supply for same

*. Clips for hiding power supply cord

*. Micro Switch for Cabinet Door

*. Quick connects for wires

*. Screws for mounting switch

*. European hinges - flush mount

*. Cabinet door knob.

*. Wood dowel


*. Wood planer & digital caliper (pictured). This was my first project using my the used planer I bought from a retired coworker. I give the planer the MVP for this project.

*. Table Saw (pictured)

*. Finishing sander

*. Biscuit jointer

*. Mitre Saw

*. Cordless drill

*. Lots of clamps

*. Sandpaper, sanding blocks.

*. Measuring tapes, metal rulers, square, etc.

*. Supplies for painting and staining.

*. Wire crimping tool.


*. I made a jig to cut the angles for the legs on the table saw (pictured)

*. I made a circle cutting jig for the router (pictured)

*. I danced an Irish jig, because dancing in front of your children is fun.

Step 9: The Frames

Start with cutting the materials for the two frames from 3/4" pine, then route one edge as shown. The two pieces are then biscuit joined and glued together so that you leave a 3/4" slot that is 3/4" deep from the lowest point.

I used a circle cutting jig to create the large arcs in the outside layer of the bottom frame before gluing. Using Excel and my fading memory of high school geometry ("yes, it does serve a purpose," I remind my kids), I created an arc calculator that told me the diameter of the circle needed to create the desired arc if I know the height and width of the arc.

To achieve a flat threshold, on the bottom frame only, I cut 3/4" off of the inside edge. This allows the 3/4" plywood floor to rest evenly with the outside edge, essential for a flat threshold.

Step 10: The Floor and Corners

The plywood floor should be cut to match the inside perimeter of the 3/4" slot. My floor was cut little too small, so I later covered the gap with glue and trim.

I fit the 3/4" thick corner pieces first, biscuit joining them together. At this point, you can glue the corner pieces to the base only. Put the top on to hold everything still while the glue on the bottom dries, but don't glue the top on yet.

You can use shims if needed to hold the vertical boards compressed against the outside edge of the frame slot.

Step 11: Fit Everything Else.

Next, you can start fitting all of the remaining pieces, including those which would become the removable panels. Most of the verticals are 1/2" thick, with 1/4" trim, so the combined depth is 3/4" thick and matches the corners. Keeping the measurements and cuts precise, and some patience, pays off here.

Step 12: Glue the Bottom First

You have to glue the bottom pieces into the slot first, and carefully so that the cap will fit after everything is dry. There simply is not enough time to glue the top and the bottom simultaneously.

So to ensure that everything stays still and in exact alignment to the top frame, I used some angle iron pieces and clamped them to the firmly glued corners, then I clamped the vertical slats to the angle iron as I went around so they were in perfect alignment.

Step 13: Add the Cap

Using a file, I slightly rounded the edges of the boards so they were easier to fit into the top slot. Then I tested to make sure the top would fit without glue, then removed it and put it back on after gluing.

To avoid making a mess, I glued the whole thing upside down - i.e with the top on the floor. You can add the 1/4" thick, 3/4" wide vertical accent trim now to hide the seams.

Step 14: The Legs

The angled accents on the corners of the tank, which I will call "legs," are made of two pieces, mirror images of each other. Making these pieces, and the jig used to make them, was a project in-and-of itself. Laying out the details of this could quickly swallow up this Instructable, so I made a separate one to cover just making the tapered legs.

Here is a quick overview:

I made a jig that I could put a 2x4 in and run through the table saw, flip it over and run it through again. This cuts the 2x4 into a wedge. After all eight are done, then each of those is ran through the table saw again against the fence with the blade set at a 45 degree angle. Now, the two wedges fit neatly together along the 45's. After that, I made a slight modification to the jig, returned each board to the jig and used a router to cut out the square notches necessary for the legs to fit flush around against the base frame. Pictured is a stack of these wedges and two of them side-by-side, so you can see them from an inside view, including the effect of the notches.

The wedges are attached to the stand with glue, one side at a time, and were held in place with weights.

Step 15: Make Corbels

I didn't even know what a corbel was until after I made one and someone told me. It turns out "those fancy decorative, curvy thingies that go under the edge of a cabinet" didn't have a nice ring to it.

To make each corbel, I used my circle cutting jig and a router, then cut that arced piece in half, then glued the two halves side by side together, then sanded them against a table mounted belt sander.

Afterwards I found that it was fun to impersonate Christopher Walken and say "I need more corbel," even if I was pronouncing it wrong.

Step 16: The Top

The top of the stand is made with four pieces of 3/4" pine with 45 degree angles at each end, like a picture frame. I biscuit joined the corners first. After that dried, I glued the whole thing to the cabinet. I used the tank, partially filled with water, as a weight.

After that dried, I routed the edges. I used two different bits, a decorative edge on the top, and a square edge on the bottom. The bottom edge would make a nice spot to transition from paint to stain. Also, at this point you might notice the whole tank design uses only concave curves and straight lines. I think that visually helps tie the whole thing together.

I flipped the cabinet upside down again when gluing the corbels. You might try leaning small weights against them to hold them in place.

Step 17: Make a Cabinet Door

At this point you can make a cabinet door: a four board frame with slots for the center panel. You can hang the door with european hinges designed for a flush mounted door. You could also add the knob at this point..

Step 18: The Shelf and Trim

I added a fixed shelf and also outlined the bottom in trim. My preference was to have a single shelf.

Step 19: Power Supply Manager

I built the power supply manager out of two pieces of pine. Of course, you place the mounting screws to match your power supplies and other equipment. My thinking was that it would be nice to make it easily removable so I can rework how the cords are arranged, etc. Also, this makes the power supply manager replaceable if the equipment changes.

Here's a tip if you keep fish: use TWO power supply strips, none just one. In one of them, put all of the things which have to be unplugged when you do water changes (i.e. the pump, power heads, heater). Leave everything else (i.e. tank light, cabinet light) plugged into the other strip. When you do a water change, now you can just flip the breaker switch on the one power supply. Now you will never forget to unplug something before a water change, or plug it back in when you are finished.

Step 20: Removable Panel Latches.

My son got a new laser cutter at school. When I could not find the perfect part to keep the panels in place, he cut me these out of acrylic. Awesome!

The bottom edge of the panels is angled and fits into a slot. To remove them, turn the acrylic latch to the side and pull on the dowel. They lean inward, then lift out.

Step 21: Stain

I tested multiple stains on a scrap of pine and decided on a wood conditioner, followed by an oil-based stain called "gunstock." It was barely warm enough in the garage to apply this.

Step 22: Paint

I considered using spray paint, but after some tests on a scrap piece I actually liked the brush marks better than the spray. I used a latex paint made for furniture. This worked out for the best: I was simultaneously smoking a turkey for Thanksgiving and painting on the same day in the same area. The vapors from latex paint are noncombustable.
After the paint dried, it got bitterly cold so after clearing it with my wife, I took the painting operation inside and clear-coated with a non-flammable, water-based VOC polyurethane.

Step 23: Lighting

I added a small wooden block to mount the microswitch. I ran a strip of waterproof, "cool white" LED lights just below the top inside the cabinet. The strips of light come in rolls and have a self-adhesive back. The microswitch goes between the 12V power supply and the LEDs, and interrupts just the positive wire. The ground wire completely bypasses the switch and should be connected directly from the power-supply to the LED strip.

The lights click on automatically when the door is opened, and click off when it is shut.

Step 24: Setup Your Tank and Enjoy!

I hope you saw several original ideas here for aquarium stands, whether you use yours for fish, reptiles, hamsters or whatever small pet normally kept in an aquarium. When you think its time to hire a new stand, don't employ one from the store. Recruit from within yourself and you'll have one that's better than new!

Now I'm hungry. Anyone know how to make kung pao chicken?

Animal Innovations Contest

Second Prize in the
Animal Innovations Contest