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How to design an aquarium

Brief Description

This page is a short guide on designing fish tanks, however you should also visit our list of biotopes which points at different biotopes - and where you can get inspiration for your design. Simply click the following link: list of biotopes and also continue reading. If you'd like to ask or share experiences, there is a form at the bottom of this page for this purpose!


These days, everyone who has an aquarium has seen the vast range of ornaments, fake plants and novelty toys that can be placed into the aquarium. There is no need to detail these, as you see the every time you enter the local fish stores. I want to look at the choices we have for alternative decorations here, letting your mind create the end result.

It is quick and easy to run to the store, buy a few trinkets and put them into the tank just to give some effect, but that’s not what we want or strive for. Yes, it’s great for kids with their first tank and a couple of goldfish, but most of us have aquariums for pleasure and they need to be in keeping with our homes. You take time to plan your home, the furnishings and décor, why not do the same with the aquarium?

When planning any aquarium, you need to be able to see the end result before you start. This involves imagination and thought. You need to decide what you want in the end, 12 months down the road, not look for a quick-fix. There is a place for ornaments from the store in here, but there is also much more room for your flair and creativity.

I always start by planning a theme for the tank. The first consideration is how big the aquarium is! A small tank will be overpowered easily whereas a large tank can easily look bare. Do I want heavily planted, lots of open water, rocky aqua-scape, woodland aqua-scape, sandy, green or gravel bottom? Will it have a conventional canopy or maybe a water feature above the tank? Do I need to build hiding places, caves, shelters or such? Is it going to be conformist or contemporary, subdued or bright and what sort of fish are going to live there? All these points matter when you first plan your design and see the end result in your mind.

This process will shape everything to follow, from the type of lighting and filter, to the substrate and plants. Nothing will fit together properly until you have the plan worked out. You can spend months working on this one project, spend a lot of money along the way and end up with a disappointment or a stunning display.

Design of the aquarium, example no. 1 Design of the aquarium, example no. 2 Design of the aquarium, example no. 3

Don’t be afraid to experiment and you don’t have to spend a lot of money on the design either. That ceramic ornament that has sat on your shelf for years gathering dust may be just the thing you need as a focal point. If its ceramic, it’s fish safe, but if its painted, be careful. If you live close to a wood, take a look next time you walk through and see if there is an interesting piece of fallen branch that could be used. You will need to treat it before you can use it, but its just a matter of boiling it in water for a while, to remove the tannins. If you live near to a river, river stones are excellent additions to aquariums, with their polished edges and lovely colours.

Bottles are another interesting addition. Glass beer bottles, with the labels removed, can look great when half buried in a sandy bottom, and can be a good hiding place for small fish too. If you want a sand substrate, you can buy it from the LFS at a high price, or go to your local builders yard and pick up some clean sand for a fraction of the cost. Aquarium gravel is expensive too, but driveway gravel is just as good, as long as you get the fine grade. Plants can be bought on the internet very cheaply and are often much better quality than the store versions. Some of the things you need will have to be bought from the stores, but much can be substituted with cheaper versions.

When you have finished you will have a unique arrangement of your own design, which you have created and will take a lot of pleasure from. It is worth all the time and effort to get that level of satisfaction!

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