How-To Make a Natural Vivarium Background
Making a unique and realistic vivarium background is easier and more rewarding than most people think. With the proper materials, a little bit of time, some patience, and a touch of creativity, anyone can design and construct their very own one-of-a-kind vivarium background that will set their incredible display apart from any other!
The guide you are about to follow is not only simple and easy to apply; it is also a lot of fun to do! This project is something you can get your kids involved with too! (With your help and supervision of course)
The background is made out of 5 essential materials: Driftwood, Cork Bark, Black Expanding Foam, Black Aquarium Silicon, and natural Reptile Mulch Bedding.
Materials used for this 10g enclosure background:
- Reptile Treasures Wood Small (x2) #23631
- ZooMed Cork Wood Background 18” x 12“ #25065
- Tetra Waterfall Foam Sealant #14894
- Black Aquarium Silicon #38300
- Zilla Douglas Fir & Sphagnum Mulch #10990
- Zilla Coconut Fiber Block #8408
CAUTION: Before starting - we recommend the use of protective wear as some of the materials you will be working with may kick-up or break off. Building a custom vivarium background should always be done under adult supervision.
Choose your enclosure and prepare materials
The very first step is to pick the enclosure you would like to work with. Any glass or acrylic enclosure will work well. Enclosures that are made entirely of screen will not work for this sort of project. Gather your materials and enclosure, and find a place in your home that is easy to work in. (Always place down newspaper or some sort of protective material when working on surfaces like tables, counters, floors that you do not want to get dirty).
Laying out the driftwood
Step 2 is when things start to get fun! Once you have found an enclosure and a place to work, you need to figure out how you want to place the driftwood in the vivarium. Since this is a background, we will likely be working on the back wall, although sometimes working on the sides of the vivarium helps give depth and dimension to the look of the enclosure. Place the enclosure so that the back panel is face-up and flat against the surface you are working on. Take your time and find a way to arrange the wood that pleases you.
Securing the driftwood
Grab your silicon, because now is the time to make sure that driftwood stays put for when you are ready to turn that enclosure back upright! Securing the driftwood with silicon helps to keep the weight of the wood off of the foam. Although the foam is able to support the driftwood in most cases, using silicon is a safer way to go about it, and will ensure that no accidents happen! First, remove the wood from the enclosure and remember where you originally placed it. Next, take the wood (one at a time) and liberally apply silicon to the surfaces of the wood that will touch the glass. Next, carefully put the wood back into the vivarium and firmly press it into place so that the silicon spreads out underneath the wood to create a good seal. You can place a heavy object on the wood to keep it in place if you would like, although this is not necessary. Give the silicon 24hrs to dry before continuing on the next step.
Applying the expanding foam
Another fun step! Once the silicon is dry, you can get out your can of Tetra Waterfall Foam Sealant to start making your textured background. The trick is to surround the wood with a layer of foam. You do not want to apply too much at once, as the foam will expand and cover the wood. Starting in the corners, gently squeeze the trigger on the spray can until foam slowly starts to come out. Move at a good pace, around the wood ensuring that your foam is going between the wood and the glass. If all your wood is on the same panel of the vivarium, you can continue this step until all the wood pieces are surrounded.
Give the foam at least 12 hrs of drying time before you try to move the enclosure. The foam will harden on the outside within minutes, but the wet interior will need the full 12 hrs to cure properly. Moving it too soon can cause the foam to shift or let go of the glass in areas. After the 12hrs, you can stand up the enclosure to see how your creation looks. It might already look pretty good, and it is only going to get better!
Laying out & securing the cork bark
With the background already taking shape, it is time to add some more natural textures and colors to the background. Corkbark works extremely well for adding that natural touch, and ZooMed Cork Bark Background is very easy to work with. You can either break the bark up into pieces by hand, or cut it to the shape of the back glass you would like to cover. Breaking it up by hand leaves some room for more foam, and it makes the background more interesting in the long run, as well as helps secure the cork bark to the enclosure. After you have broken or cut the pieces to shapes you like, start arranging them in the enclosure so that they are pleasing to the eye. Do not worry if there are cracks and spaces between them, as they will be filled in with foam. Once you have them all arranged, pick them up one by one and apply some silicon to the back of the bark and press them back into place on the back of the vivarium. Give the silicon 24hrs to dry before continuing on the next step.
Applying the rest of the expanding foam
After the silicon has dried and the cork bark is secure, carefully apply spray foam to all the nooks and crannies between the cork bark. Again, make sure to apply a thin layer as the foam will expand, if you put too much it will encase the bark and you will have a lot of cutting to do later on! Once you have finished applying the foam between the cork bark, go ahead and fill any other spots or holes where you can still see glass on the background. Give the foam at least 24 hrs of drying time before you move on to the next step (carving).
Cork & foam on the sides of the enclosure
Once the cork bark and foam are secure and dry, if you would like, you can repeat steps 5 & 6 to the sides of the enclosure to add depth to the vivarium. I like to use a couple good sized pieces of cork bark on the sides of the enclosure to give a more secluded look. Make sure to turn the enclosure so that whatever panel you are working on is laying flat!
Carving & shaping the expanding foam
This step is one of my favorites, but also the one step where you need to be extra careful since you will be working with a sharp razor blade. During this step you will get to see your natural background start to take shape; carving away excess foam and making shelves, nooks, and crevasses adds your own personal touch to the landscape and helps pull it all together. Take your time during this step, the foam carves easily and minimal blade pressure is required. Move the blade back and forth in sawing motion while guiding it to shape the foam in a pleasing way; there is no need to rush! The more time you spend, the better it will turn out. I prefer to use a thin utility knife that bends easily so that it takes less effort to guide it through the foam. Also, do not be afraid to remove a lot of foam as it will make the next step easier, and make more room in the enclosure. You should have a good pile of foam bits in the enclosure when you are done carving the foam (see the last photo).
Choosing and preparing medium to cover the foam
Now that you have finished building the structure that makes up your vivarium background, it is time to add those finishing touches that really gives it the natural look and feel. Let’s face it, the foam may look cool, but it really does need to be covered up with something a little more ‘earthy’. You could use nearly any natural medium you would like to cover up the background including, gravel, sand, stone chips and wood chips etc. but my personal favorite is a mixture of Fir & Sphagnum peat substrate and coconut fiber. That mixture gives both texture, and a nice earthy surface that epiphytic plants like bromeliads can securely affix to, it also aids in holding moisture in the enclosure.
Once you have chosen what materials you will use to cover the foam in the enclosure, you need to prepare them. In order for the medium to stick properly (with the use of aquarium silicon) it must be bone dry. Moisture being held in the medium will cause it to fall off as the silicon cures. Make sure to let your medium sit out in the open air until it is completely dried out. When working with coconut fiber blocks, it can take up to 3 days for them to dry out completely after expanding them in water. Always do your best to squeeze out as much water as you can after you are done expanding them.
Silicon the medium to the foam
Easily the messiest step of all, and likely the one kids will enjoy most. Now comes the time to silicon the substrate to the foam to add that natural touch; I like to use black silicon as it hides better amongst the dark substrate. You will need the better part of a 10oz tube of aquarium safe silicon to cover the foam in a 10 gallon enclosure. You can start wherever you like, but I prefer to start with large pieces of foam I can cover quickly and then move to the smaller nooks and crannies afterwards.
Cut the tip of the silicon tube on a 45 degree angle so that it is easy to apply the silicon to the foam, and cover a small area of foam with a good layer (around ¼”) of silicon. While working quickly, take a handful of substrate mix and press it firmly into the silicon. Do not be shy with the substrate, use much more than you think you will need for that spot, otherwise the silicon will spew out and onto your hands! The idea is for the silicon to hold substrate in itself, and not just on the surface. Blow or gently dust off the next area you will work on, and repeat. Continue to do this until all the surfaces are covered. There will be a lot of loose substrate in the vivarium if you have done this correctly; that substrate can be removed by hand or vacuumed. Make sure you give a minimum of 48hrs for all the silicon to dry before shaking off loose substrate to make sure you have full coverage; if there are still some bare areas, apply some silicon and substrate. Once you have completely covered the foam, give the silicon 5 days to cure before moving on to the next step.
Cleaning up and preparing for use
At last your natural vivarium background is completed! After all that hard work, it is now time to get everything cleaned up and ready for use. First start by removing all the excess substrate in the vivarium by hand; you can save this substrate for use in the vivarium if you chose a mix that is appropriate for the pet(s) you will be keeping. There will likely be loose substrate on the foam, as well as stray silicon on the glass. Gently blow off, or vacuum the background and bottom of the enclosure of all remaining substrate. Lastly to remove excess silicon from glass vivariums, very carefully scrape it off using a flat razor blade. If you have an acrylic enclosure, DO NOT use a razor blade! Rather, smudge it off with your finger with a moderate amount of pressure; the silicon should let go and ‘roll’ off the acrylic surface.
All done! Now what?
Now that your background is complete and the enclosure is ready for use, it is time to set up your vivarium. We have a great walk through on how to set up your vivarium which can be found by following this link: How-To set up a Vivarium. The walk through will aid you in the process of setting up the proper vivarium floor including the ever so important drainage layer. We sincerely hope you enjoyed this How-To and have been successful in creating your own naturalistic vivarium background! Please feel free to comment with links and photos of your own vivariums.