Introduction: How to Make a Fake Tree Branch for Your Reptile
Large climbing reptiles require a suitable habitat. Nothing is more disturbing than seeing large pythons, boas, or iguanas in tiny barren tanks with inappropriate things to hang or climb on. These reptiles need naturalistic environments that mimic their natural rainforest habitat. The trouble is that you can't just find large tree limbs in the pet store and anything you pick up outside is not always reptile-safe even if you are able to have it treated and disinfected. Plus, large pieces of suitable driftwood cost a lot of money! Here is an inexpensive method to create natural looking, tree-like branches that are more like the large vines or moss-covered limbs that tropical reptiles love.
Buying the supplies for your branch will require a trip to the local big box stores or even your local hardware store, but if you have different kinds of reptiles, you most likely may have some of this stuff already, plus scrap PVC pipe can be gotten from plumber friends and the infrared stripper lamp borrowed from painter friends. The benefit is that once the supplies are in hand, you are now equipped to make several branches for any size habitat.
The branch I made was for my small-ish stunted iguana, who does not have very good use of his back legs. The branch needed to be big enough for a comfortable basking branch and allow a good grip since he is a weak climber.
A word of caution about bending the PVC pipe. The use of a heat lamp, such as is used to strip paint, is desired over the open flame of an acetylene torch. A hand torch will work but be aware that burning PVC fumes can, well, kill you— so use the heat lamp and obey all safety precautions.
Step 1: Step 1: Preparation
Gather your materials:
5 feet of 2" PVC pipe
Concrete bonding adhesive
small bucket or container
Roll of landscaping burlap
Terrarium moss reptile bedding
Coconut husk reptile bedding
Infrared paint stripping heat lamp
Other materials you'll need include a tarp or plastic drop cloth when brushing on adhesive, heavy work gloves for handling hot PVC, latex gloves when working with the adhesive, and a wide container for mixing the moss and husks.
Prepare your materials:
• Cut the burlap into eight strips about 3 feet long and 6 inches wide.
• Break up equal amounts of the coconut husks and moss and crumble together in a wide shallow bin or container. You will have to shred the moss into small bits.
• Clear out an area and lay down your drop cloth.
Step 2: Step 2: Treeify the Branch
Heat the PVC just enough to bend to the desired shape with the infrared heat lamp. I did this outdoors because I was unsure how much fumes there would be. Wedge the pipe on an angle against the ground and something high enough so that you're not stooped over too far. I used my patio chair since it had spaces in the back to stick the pipe through and hold it in place.
Hold the heat lamp right up to the spot you want to bend. Turn the pipe a quarter turn or so every minute. The pipe will become soft enough to bend in about 3 minutes. Put some pressure on the lower part of the pipe with your foot as it heats. You will feel when the pipe is soft enough as it will start to give. Careful not to melt the pipe! You just want to soften it enough to bend. Move the lamp away and push on the pipe with your foot to the desired angle and hold it there for about 2 minutes to let the pipe cool and harden in position. How much of a bend or what kind of shape you want will be determined by what your needs are. I made two good bends that twisted and put a curve in the middle potion of the pipe to give it all a nice natural feel. As you put more bends into the pipe, it will twist and give you a natural contour.
Step 3: Step 3: Mummify the Branch
Use the brush and paint on the adhesive and let dry for a minute or two until it becomes tacky. Wrap turns of burlap down the length of the pipe. Wear latex gloves and squeeze down the burlap to get a tight wrap. When you've covered the length of pipe, paint on more paste and make turns of burlap in the other direction to give the whole thing two layers of burlap. Squeeze the burlap down to stick to the pipe and let dry overnight. I let a bit overhang the ends and I also stuffed burlap into the open ends of the pipe. The burlap will provide a good grip for a climbing lizard as well as a good base for sticking on the moss.
Step 4: Junglefy the Branch
Lay down a plastic drop cloth or some garbage bags beneath your branch. Work on one side of the branch at a time. Brush or pour on good coating of adhesive over the top side of the burlap and press on clumps of the moss/coconut husk mix with your gloved hands. I did this in stages over several days. I wanted the adhesive to dry fully before working on the next side plus, I was laying on the layers of moss pretty thick.
When dry, shake off the excess, turn the branch over and repeat until you have good coverage over all sides of the entire length of the branch. The burlap base provides a natural texture so it is OK if your coverage is not thick and some of the burlap peeks through. Make sure you shake or gently pull off as much loose material as you can. If you don't, your reptile will and either eat it or make a big mess. (My iguana is likely to try and eat it anyway, but it won't hurt him and hopefully he'll realize quickly it doesn't taste very good! He's also likely to create a big mess anyway, but hey…)
Step 5: Ready to Go!
Like it was swiped out from under a sloth in the rainforest! The branch is now ready to be mounted inside your enclosure and provide happy playtime for your reptile.
The overall time waiting between letting layers dry was long, but each session layering on adhesive and moss was quick. And yes, it was messy, but the effect of realism is both attractive and functional!