Aquarium Stand With Secret Door for Sump




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, su...

Swim to your local pet store and you might spot a lot of aquarium stands to choose from. But try to find one that will fit a sump filtration system, even a 10 gallon one, and you are likely to come up dry. Go online, and you can find lots of DIY aquarium stands. But try to find a set of instructions that do not involve 2 by 4s, cinder blocks, railroad ties or other unsightly materials, and your choices are very limited. It stinks... like a dead fish!

So that's why my 14 year old son and I decided to swim someplace else and come up with a design of our own.

Since this design, we have built another one with an improved design that allows you to place it anywhere, cabinet lighting, a power cord manager, and other additional features. Here is a link to it: Make a Better Than New Aquarium Stand

Step 1: Tools and Materials


This is the first cabinet I've made, so I don't have a lot of wood shop tools. Many of the tools we did not have we just borrowed.

Electric Mitre Saw with Finishing Blade
Biscuit Joiner
Router and Table
Circular Saw
Table Saw with Finishing Blade
Drill Press
Drill and bits
Other typical tools (tape measure, pencil, brushes, etc.)

1x4 Pine (8 foot lengths)
1x3 Pine (8 foot lengths)
1x8 Pine (2 foot)
3/4" Plywood - full sheet
1/4" Plywood - half sheet
4 Cabinet Hinges (we used the hidden type)
4 Cabinet Handles
Waterproof Wood Glue
Primer and Paint

Step 2: The Secret

A 55 gallon aquarium, with water, weighs 625 pounds. That's a lot of weight! And my son and I knew that if the stand fell apart, our household would have at least two casualties. And the fish might die too. Not to mention, if mother shark didn't kill us, we would still have very big, expensive, smelly mess to clean up. So, we designed the stand with that downward load in mind.

The secret to carrying that heavy load is in how the top and bottom frames are constructed. To make these pieces, we used a router and table that I borrowed from a coworker. Using the router, we took out the corner of our 1x4" pine boards. Since 1x4's are actually only 3/4" wide, we only needed to take out 3/8" (one half of the width). For those who have never used a router, keep in mind you'll want to route the wood a small layer at a time. It should take 3 or 4 passes to take off 3/8" of wood.

Then, we used the brand new biscuit joiner I got as a gift and sandwiched the boards together. This creates "rabbit ears" for another 3/4" board to slide into (called a "rabbet joint"). A downward load on that joint isn't going to give. A strong twisting load might easily snap the rabbit ear, but you won't have a twisting load when the stand is fully assembled.

Step 3: Base and Cap

The base frame of the aquarium stand is exactly the same as the cap, you just flip the top one over.

To make the 45 degree angle cuts, you will need a mitre saw with a finishing blade installed. The regular blade that our powered mitre saw came with makes the edge look like a shark bit it off.

Before we got started with our first cut, we checked the mitre saw to make sure it was cutting true 90 degree cuts on the horizontal and vertical axis, and in the process learned how to adjust that.

After calibrating and practicing with the saw, we cut our 45 degree angles, leaving precisely the desired length. Doing this will give you a healthy degree of respect for people who make custom picture frames.

Keep on swimming... you have two of these to build.

Step 4: Join the Frames

Our new biscuit joiner got put to use. We looked up how to use the joiner on an 45 degree joint and practiced a few times. We put one biscuit in each of the corners, and again used waterproof wood glue and clamps to hold it together. The biscuits expand when they soak up the moisture from the wood glue, and in my opinion, hold very well when dry.

Step 5: Clamp Together

We made a simple jig to help hold the pieces together and square when clamping.

Step 6: Cut Plywood Panels and Floor

The side panels and back panels are made from 3/4 inch plywood. The floor is also 3/4" plywood, and it rests on the inside edge of the bottom frame.

Step 7: Look Mom, No Glue.... Yet

Cabinet makers have a few tricks up their sleeves to hide plywood edges. We used a piece of pine in the back corner, as shown in the first photo, and biscuit joined it to the back plywood panel.

Once you get to this point, you can start to see how everything is going to fit together before you glue it.

Step 8: The Front

For the front panel we used dowels to join the edges together. The biscuit joiner wouldn't do for this. The instructions on the dowel joiner tool were written by a seamonkey, but strangers on the Internet came to the rescue with a couple of great tutorials.

Glue the pieces together and clamp square.

Step 9: Cabinet Doors

We swam to the neighbor's house to use his table saw with a finishing blade to rip 1x3 pine to the desired width, and to create a 1/4" slot along the inside for the plywood panel to slide inside.

We used tongue and groove joints to hold the panel frames together. We glued everything in place, then routed the outside edge.

Be sure you do not take off too much when you route the outside edge - if you go too deep, the holes for the hidden hinges will come through the front.

Step 10: Glue, Sand, Prime and Paint

We glued the pieces in place.    He filled any cracks of flaws with wood filler, then sanded, wearing a dust mask to keep sawdust out of his gills. Then he painted it semi-gloss black with two coats.

Step 11: Hinge Installation

Follow the directions for the hinge you select for installation. We used hidden cabinet hinges.

We needed a drill press to drill the 1 1/4" counter bored holes for the hidden cabinet hinges because we were afraid of drilling the holes too deep and ruining the cabinet doors.

Since I don't own a drill press, we went to my Dad's house to do that.

Step 12: Secret Panel

The secret panel door will allow you access to the sump. For this, after measuring the desired location, we screwed a 1x8" black, painted board to two of the cabinet doors. This board must be cut about an inch shorter than the cabinet doors, and slightly less than your cabinet opening, to fit snugly in place.

We used cabinet magnets at the top to hold panel. It snaps on and off just like we had hoped.

Step 13: Swim

This was a fun project. In the process, my son and I learned a lot about cabinet making. Unlike anything you could buy at the store, you can actually fit a sump filtration system in it. The aquarium stand fits his needs and is something that would look good in his home someday, somewhere out there, in the big blue sea.



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    24 Discussions


    2 years ago

    You motivated me to get back into the saltwater and DIY hobby again!!! What was your stands length, width, height, and depth measurements so that i can make proper adjustments to my 72 gal aquarium and 40 sump? Again great work!


    3 years ago

    Wow this is one of the most well engineered and beautiful stands I have seen! Thanks for sharing and making it fun to read! Swim on!

    Wood Chuck

    3 years ago on Introduction

    Hi, I recently build a sturdy cabinet to house a large bird cage that would work quite well and be quite stylist. I made it like an old style dry sink with a crown molding around the top edge. If you are interested in some like that I can help you out. I have done complete kitchen sets as well but not as classy for any other room in your home. Have a look at the attached picture. I have plans available for several different pieces of furniture on my website. 3dwoodworkingplans dot com

    01 Bird Stand.png

    4 years ago on Introduction

    Just wanted to say good job. I built an aquarium stand with hidden sump door a couple of years ago (on instructables) and love it a lot. It really helps if you have to take the sump out. Hope it works out for you.


    4 years ago

    Thank you all for your comments! My son and I had a great time coming up with a plan and building it together.


    5 years ago on Introduction

    This is a beautiful piece! I just finished my first woodworking piece, a work bench. :o) I really had a blast working with wood and of course the power tools. I just wanted to say I was impressed with your work and not impressed with some people here that seem to have to spout their two cents on how it could be done "better." You did your research and made your choices for a reason, and people should keep their criticism to themselves. Keep up the great instructables!!!

    Wood Chuck

    5 years ago on Introduction

    Thank you for posting your ible.
    I design and make cabinets a part time job. Your cabinet looks excellent and very well constructed. Yes there may have been better ways to accomplish your goal, however the cabinet you and your son produced looks great, sturdy and is quite functional. Getting shop time with your kids or grandkids in my case is the most rewarding part of any build. It's not about the project it's about the journey. Bruce (


    5 years ago on Introduction

    Very nice stand - I would be proud to have that in my living room! Ive made a few aquarium stands from the 2x4 rough ones to more formal cabinet style ones as well. This construction is top notch.


    5 years ago on Introduction

    Your stand looks like the one I paid $200 for 20 years ago. Great job!


    5 years ago on Introduction

    Nice Job!!!!
    visually the top & bottom rails look heavy. I'm wondering is adding some trim could break up the flat faces and really finish this off nice. craftsman details really fit this design.
    What I would do is add a horizontal 1x2 around the top edge. add narrow crown molding below the 1x2. add 3/4" molding along the bottom edge of the top rail and the top edge of the bottom rail.
    do a google search on craftsman trim details to see what i mean. you've done such a nice job that i think a few finishing touch's would really dress it up nice.
    i understand the removable panel but is seems like having a center pair of doors could have worked better. what you do is simply attach the center bar to one of the doors so that it opens with it. pretty common cabinet detail.....if that makes sense.
    I don't know how the sump works but i also wonder if adding a pull out shelf in the center would make servicing easier? simply mount a plywood shelf panel on drawer slides.
    just thinking out loud. you really did do a nice job!

    1 reply

    Reply 5 years ago on Introduction

    (My first reply had a typo that was driving me crazy and I left out a point. Here it is again)

    You're awesome! Thanks for your feedback and for the compliments! The common cabinet detail you mention is something we definitely considered, but ruled out in our situation.

    The 55 gallon aquarium is 48 inches, the 10 Gallon aquarium used for the sump needs at least 21 inches to be able to be removed. 48-21=27. Divide that by two, and you have 13.5 inches of space on either side of the sump. That 13.5 inches of available space gets eaten up really quick when you start drawing it out and trying to get each of the cabinet doors to be exactly the same size and to appear evenly spaced when all doors are closed. Allowing clearances for hinges and doors would use more of an already scarce space.

    I don't want to overdramatize it by any means, there is probably is a workable solution that uses the common cabinet detail you mentioned other than what we chose. This is only to explain why we did what we did. Besides, when you are 14 years old, there's something awfully cool about having a "secret" removable panel that nobody expects from looking at the outside. It is the very first thing he shows all of his friends.


    5 years ago on Introduction

    Question: why use two 1x4's instead of a single 2x4? You could still route out a rabbet joint centered on the edge. Is there structural impact here or esthetics (better quality wood for the 1x4)?

    1 reply

    5 years ago on Step 11

    if you don't have a drill press, you can measure the depth on the drill bit and mark it with a small piece of masking tape for a drill stop.

    2 replies

    Reply 5 years ago on Introduction

    Good point. That method works very well so long as you have a little bit of room for error.

    We routed the edges of the cabinet doors, choosing a bit and depth, without ever thinking about how that might effect the recessed cabinet hinges on the other side of the door. Lesson learned ;) The result was that we had something in the neighborhood of a 1/32 of an inch margin of error... (counter bore the hole 1/32" of an inch off the intended center or 1/32" too deep, then we'd be coming out the other side). Drill press (and Dad) to the rescue!


    Reply 5 years ago on Introduction

    Said another way, if you don't take off so much when you route the front edges of the cabinet doors, then you could absolutely skip the drill press when drilling from the back side and use tape or something else as a drill stop.


    5 years ago

    looks great, but my guess is you over did it a bit. I might suggest a pocket hole instead of baskets (kreg makes the best one I know of) its a lot easier & faster than gluing I will be doing a stand soon as well

    1 reply

    Reply 5 years ago on Introduction

    Yep, you could use a pocket hole instead of biscuits every place we used a dowel joint. You could also skip the biscuit joiner entirely and use screws too. In my personal opinion, regardless of preferences on what joints to use here or there, I would not skip an opportunity to glue something together on an aquarium stand.

    andrea biffi

    5 years ago on Introduction

    Why didn't you design a central double door which opens toward centre in the usual way? :-|
    Anyway this is an awesome project, you're lucky to have a neighbor with a table saw... here you should travel maybe 40 Km to find such a "neighbor" ;-)