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An aquascape is a structure made of reef rocks inside your saltwater aquarium, the act of aquascaping is simply the process of creating an aquascape. For an aquascape to be successful it must be aesthetically appealing and provide sufficient habitat for the organisms inside your tank. The rock itself not only serves as a home and hunting ground for various fish, crabs, snails, and even corals but also serves as the substrate for beneficial bacteria to colonize.  This beneficial bacteria is what maintains the stability in an aquarium and ultimately, the rock that makes up an aquascape is vital to the aquarium's long-term success.  

How to Build an Aquascape

While you can actually buy custom and prefabricated aquascape structures for pretty much any size aquarium, the process of designing and building an aquascape by hand is considered a fun part of the process for most new hobbyists. There are a number of ways you can go about building an aquascape from simply stacking the rocks to using special kits that come with structural supports and shaped rocks.

In recent years the idea of breaking up larger rocks into smaller pieces and then gluing them together (HNSA Aquascape) using layers of super glue and epoxy has become quite popular because it allows you to create something far more interesting looking (compared to stacking it) and winds up being more functional for your tanks inhabitants. If you can imagine a pile of rocks versus an intricate structure of arches, caves, and branches, the more intricate structures simply provide more habitat.

1) Visualize The Finished Product

Look at the tank and use your mind's eye to picture how you want the scape to look inside your tank. Of course, this may evolve throughout the project but you can get a basic mental image. Will it be tall or short?  Will you have some islands or create a peninsula?  Do you want a giant arch or will you create long branches?

2) Choose Your Rock

Using dry rock means you can take the time to build your aquascape and glue it together using adhesives. If you choose to use live rock, you are pretty much forced to stack the rock in a hurry because it cannot stay out of water for much longer than an hour without losing the bacterial colonies. 

With that in mind, most hobbyists are choosing dry rock these days for the sake of being able to create a more functional and aesthetically appealing aquascape. As it pertains to dry rock, there are essentially two camps. 

  1. Basic mined limestone rock (Marco Rock) comes in organic chunks that can easily be broken down into various-sized rocks as needed. This rock is white and very sterile looking inside a new tank but is also the most affordable.
  2. Colored rocks (Caribsea LifeRock, RealReef, Aquaforest, etc.) are manufactured to have that purple and pink appearance of reef rock that is covered in coralline algae.  Most hobbyists would agree this colored rock looks much better right out of the gate but expect to pay a premium or at least slightly more expensive than mined rock. That said, these manufactured rocks can also be shaped or formed into various structures likes caves, arches, shelves, branches, etc. which can be a big help when building out your dream aquascape. 

Some of the kits and shaped rocks make the process of building an aquascape much easier. You can most certainly use a mixture of different rock types as well. Just remember that larger pieces of rock can be more difficult to work with and will likely require that you break them apart. Medium to small size rocks (relative to your tank size) is often the best choice when building a rock structure yourself. 

3) Set Up a Workspace

You will want a large table covered in cardboard and a towel to lay on a concrete floor if you plan to break the rocks using a hammer. The cardboard can be cut to size to match the dimensions of your tank or just draw lines using marker/masking tape on the cardboard so you know your aquascape will fit within the dimensions of your tank. Remember a freshly glued-up aquascape should dry for a minimum of 24 - 48 hours before being moved and place into your aquarium. 

  • Cardboard
  • Towel
  • Epoxy
  • Extra Thick Superglue
  • Hammer & Chisel
  • Gloves & Goggles

4) Organize Rocks

Once you have the cardboard cut or marked to your tank's dimensions, layout all the rocks and organize them by size. Its good to have all the rocks within reach while you are stacking and trying to find the right fit. Break up any larger rocks using the hammer and chisel as needed to get the variety of sizes you want.  Keep a few larger "base rocks" to serve as a foundation for your aquascape; these are the rocks on the very bottom. 

5) Choose Base Rock & "Superhero" Rocks

Base rock or foundation rock is the rock on the very bottom of your aquascape that rests on your sand or bottom panel of the aquarium. You can buy foundation rock that is cut with a single flat surface but any rock will technically work. It's best to use something wide as that will make it easier to maintain stability when stacking rocks. Think back to your visualization as this base rock is where it all starts. 

As coined by Matthew, the "superhero" rock is just a rock that speaks to you and is naturally very interesting in shape. It may be an arched rock or some kind of 3-prong rock, maybe a cave-shaped rock; whatever it is, this is the rock that you know for sure you want to be featured in the aquarium. A "superhero" rock is not mandatory but often happens when you are hunting through piles of rock. 

6) Create the Aquascape

Now it's time to start stacking things together and create your aquascape. Do not use any adhesives yet, simply stack rocks to get the basic shape you desire. Take your time, it can be frustrating, and sometimes it's a good idea to build multiple structures and then sleep on them before gluing everything together and finalizing it.  

  • The aquascape has to fit inside your tank
  • Allow at least 2" on all sides between the glass and rocks; makes it WAY easier to clean the glass.
  • Be confident you like the aquascape
  • Provide plenty of surface area for corals
  • Visualize what your corals will look like once they grow out
  • Create places for fish to hide
  • Look at the scape from all angles

7) Secure the Aquascape

After finding the structure you like, it's time to finalize everything with some glue and move it into your tank. 

In a smaller tank, you don't have to glue all of the rocks together but it's a good idea to secure at least some rocks, especially the smaller rocks on top that can easily get knocked over. Of course, more intricate structures will require more adhesives. For larger structures, glue them in parts. In other words, create individual smaller structures by gluing just a couple of rocks together. Those individual structures can then be easily stacked together inside your display to create a larger structure.

Always let the adhesive dry for 24-48 hours before moving it. Always support the structure from the bottom when moving it. 

  1. Use extra thick super glue on the rock surfaces where they touch.
  2. Hold rocks together with your hands
  3. Cover the joint using epoxy to form a more secure bond around the outside of where you glued it.  
  4. Use cups or books to support the rocks while the adhesives dry if necessary.
  5. Let it dry for 24-48 hours before moving it into your tank

If the epoxy seams are ugly and stick out like a soar thumb, cover the dried epoxy with a thin layer of super glue then sprinkle sand over it or attach pieces of rubble rock. That will disguise the seams and once the tank matures, everything will blend together regardless.