How to Build an Acrylic Aquarium – The Simple Way

An alternative to glass aquariums is an acrylic aquarium. Acrylic is lighter and tougher than glass while also allowing for more customized shapes. In our previous aquarium build article, we talked about constructing a glass aquarium. Today, we are focusing on how to build an acrylic aquarium.

So, let’s get started.

Preparation

Material

There are some forms of acrylic in the market. We recommend using cell cast acrylic as your base material. This acrylic form is robust and lasts longer.

Tools required

No DIY project is possible without the essential set of tools.

You will need the following items for building your acrylic aquarium:

  • Measuring tape, for measuring the acrylic sheets.
  • Acrylic cement with a syringe, for joining the panel ends.
  • Silicone sealant, for additional protection to edge seals.
  • Washable marker, for marking position and orientation of acrylic panels.
  • Acrylic Cutter, for cutting out the acrylic panels.
  • Duct tape, for holding the structure in place during the build.
  • Emery cloth or silicone carbide sandpaper, for smoothening the panel edges.
  • Pins (size-17 ball head pins), to make uniform space between panel edges for the acrylic cement.
  • Clamps and braces, for support during construction.

Blueprint and aquarium plan

Before you begin, you need to have an appropriate aquarium blueprint.

Two factors dictate the overall structure of the aquarium:

  • Size
  • Shape

Size

The aquarium size would depend on the available room space and the pool of fishes you want to host. You could go for a small scale (10 to 15-gallon), mid-size (20 to 25-gallon) or large (higher than 35 gallons) tank.

Shape

Keep track of the desired volume of the tank, and you are free to shape your aquarium the way you want. Acrylic allows for some beautiful aquarium shapes. Maybe you could build an L-shaped tank or trapezoidal structure.

Planning the tank structure

You will need to sharpen your geometry skills to design your aquarium build. As a beginner, refrain from incorporating curves in your aquarium design. Stick to flat shapes for the time being.

For any aquarium structure you have in mind, start with the basic shape. Track the number and type of panel shapes in the structure. For example, an L-shaped tank will have one L-shaped and six rectangular panels.

Calculate the volume of the shape. Remember, the volume calculated for the tank would be its internal volume.

For obtaining the actual dimensions of the panels, you will have to add the sheet thickness with the calculated size of a particular panel to compensate for the area of the panels required for forming joints.

Also, remember to factor the sheet thickness to assess the suitability of the acrylic sheet for the project. Here’s a calculator on help you select the acrylic sheet with perfect thickness for your build.

Our starter guide on glass aquarium has the step-by-step process for building a cuboidal aquarium with an open top.

The Build Process

Measuring and cutting the pieces

Once done with figuring out the dimensions of each face, using scale and marker, trace the shapes over the acrylic sheet. After tracing, cut the shapes with the help of an acrylic cutter. Remember, acrylic is harder than glass so take care while cutting.

If you are uncomfortable working with acrylic or fear of messing up, you could ask the local hardware store to cut out the pieces for you. While in the shop, ask if they could also route the edges to form a straight and smooth edge. Alternatively, you could use carbide sandpaper to even out the edges.

Arranging the panels

Position the aquarium panels in the way they are going to be joined. We recommend that you label and mark the orientation (upside with an arrow) of the pieces after cutting to make your task of assembling easier.

Always start from the bottom panel. Lay the bottom panel on the flat surface. Then, arrange the rest of the panels around it in proper orientation to avoid misfits. Double check every layout before proceeding to join the panels.

Joining the pieces and curing

  • Once you are sure that the panels are in right orientation and position, stick long (6 inches) pieces of duct tape on the bottom face of the bottom panel, with about 3 inches of the sticky side protruding from the sides facing upwards. Maintain a gap of about 8 inches between the tapes.
  • Place the pin along the edges maintain an even gap between each of them for the cement.
  • Start with one of the panels (preferably the largest) and position it upright along the edges of the base panel. The pins should slightly separate the edges of the panel, leaving space for the cement.
  • Stick the protruding duct tape ends to the upright panel while holding the panel in place.

Repeat these steps with other panels till you form the required shape while being held by duct tapes and some support pieces (clamps and braces).

Pouring cement into the edges

With the help of syringe, pour the acrylic cement into the joints. Do note that the cement penetrates downwards. Hence, when using it, only apply to the joined edges that are parallel to the ground. Apply consistently ensuring the cement fills all the gaps correctly. Also, pull out the pins slowly as you pour the cement. You have only got 30-60 seconds after pouring the cement to pull the pins out.

Let the cement cure for four hours. Refer to the manufacturer’s instructions for appropriate curing times. Meanwhile, do not disturb the structure.

After four hours, flip the structure and work on other joined edges. Make sure you are working only on the edges parallel to the ground. Again, let the cement cure for four hours.

Repeat the process until you have completed joining all the panels.

Finishing the edges with sealant

Once done with the curing, apply aquarium-safe silicone sealant on the joints for additional safety against leaks. Run your thumb over the sealant to smoothen it. Let the sealant cure for some time.

Inspection for leaks

After curing, inspect the tank for leaks. Here’s a simple way to do it.

  1. Place some newspaper on a dry floor.
  2. Place the tank over the newspaper. Ensure that the paper is big enough to stick out from the edges of the aquarium.
  3. Fill the tank with water. Try not to drip any water on the newspaper.
  4. Leave the tank undisturbed for 24 hours.
  5. Check if the newspaper is wet, which would signify leaks or gaps in the tank.

Notes:

  • Use only cell cast acrylic sheets for the build.
  • Do not remove the protective paper on the acrylic sheet during the build.
  • Buy or borrow the required tools before starting your DIY build.
  • Plan the aquarium attentively. Do not forget to include the sheet thickness in calculating the panel dimensions. Also, factor the sheet thickness concerning the overall size of the aquarium.
  • Get your acrylic pieces cut at the shop to save you time and energy.
  • Position the acrylic panels at proper place and orientation before proceeding to join them.
  • Use pins or any similar object to leave some space between the panel edges for the cement.
  • Let the acrylic cement and sealant cure properly without disturbing the structure.

Building a custom aquarium is not that hard. With a little bit of knowledge and being careful with the measurements and tools, you can create an aquarium that is suitable for both freshwater and saltwater fishes.

We hope you learned something from this short guide on how to build an acrylic aquarium.

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