Reefscaping for the Beginner Hobbyist
If you are setting up a new reef tank, the question of how to recreate the look of a natural reef in your tank is likely top of mind. In this article, I am going to break down a simple methodology for how to create a realistic reefscape without buying expensive pre-made rockwork or ending up with a pile of live rocks just sitting in your sand bed. The key to a good reefscape is to break down your design into three main points of consideration:
- Shape and Design
- Desired Maintenance Level
- Habitat Requirements of Livestock
Gathering The Supplies
Supplies that you may want to have on hand to construct your reefscape are:
- Super glue (the dollar store has super glue for cheap)
- Baking soda (to act as an accelerant to speed the bonding of rocks with super glue)
- Mini Magnets and Silicone (if designing a reefscape to be used with coral frags)
- Rocks! (live rock or dry rock both work fine, but please wear gloves if working with live rock which may be home to unknown and potentially hazardous critters living inside)
Choosing the Shape and Design of Your Reefscape
Because we don’t spend every waking hour in the ocean environment as our reef tank inhabitants do, I think the easiest way to create a natural looking reefscape is to start by choosing a single photo to model your design from. Browse photos of coral reefs from all across the world by searching on Google Images or Instagram’s #reefscape and choose a picture that you think best matches the environment of any planned future tank inhabitants and a design aesthetic that you personally find appealing. Some great sample photos are below. Here are a few popular reefscape designs.
An arch design creates space for fish to swim in, around and through the rock placement. Great choice for large and long tanks. This is a classic reefscape design but may not look the most natural if the arches are too perfect and symmetrical.
The Center Stack
A stack of rocks in the middle of a tank allows fish to swim 360 degrees around a reefscape. Great choice for a cube tank. Be sure to leave room on the sides of the main rock piece for ease of cleaning. If you have snails, make sure they have enough room to navigate around the structure.
With this design, a large rock (75% of the reefscape) is offset by a smaller rock that is placed separately on the sand (the “25%”). If you are considering adding a “pest” coral like the green star polyps shown below, this design is great to keep coral from spreading onto other parts of your reefscape.
The Back Wall Stack
By far one of the most popular designs, stacking rocks along the back wall of the tank creates visual depth. This reefscape style is perhaps the most difficult to clean, however, tank inhabitants are able to make their own safe spaces in the caves and holes between the rocks and the back wall. Be sure that any rockwork does not weight too heavily against the back wall as that places additional pressure on the seals of the tank.
A ledge design creates a sharp point at which the reefscape ends and then drops off from. This design is visually very dramatic and works best for peninsula style tanks that afford the viewer at least three viewing panes of glass to truly observe the effect. This design can be difficult to create and often requires cementing rocks together to support the weight of the structure.
How to Build a Reefscape
- Measuring Correctly
Once you have gathered the necessary supplies listed above, begin by measuring your aquarium. Measure the dimensions of your tank up to the point that the water will reach. You likely do not want your reefscape extending beyond the water. Now subtract at least an inch, but preferably 2 – 3″ from each of those dimensions to arrive at your “workable space.” No piece of rock should extend beyond these dimensions for future ease of cleaning.
2. Start With Your Biggest Rock
Place your largest rock in the position that best suits your reefscape. Ideally, you should place the largest rock on the best of its sides that provides the most stability. Rock is heavy and you want your base rock to be as secure as possible. Many reef inhabitants will burrow under rock and sand and if this rock starts out as an unstable piece, you could eventually have your whole reefscape collapse. Think about what fish and invertebrates you plan to add to your tank. Make sure the size of these creatures matches with the holes, caves and tunnels your reefscape design will create.
3. Assemble Your Structure
Based on the design you have selected from above, compile your rock structure. Rocks do not need to be perfectly secure while assembling as we can add glue to provide extra security, however, make sure the overall structure will be able to stand on its on without falling over once glued together.
4. The Proper Way to Glue Your Reefscape Together
If your rock structure requires additional support, begin by sprinkling a layer of baking soda around the points at which each rock meets. Do not be afraid to use too much baking soda. Baking soda acts as a catalyst for super glue. Take your super glue and apply a generous amount the points where each rock meets. Now, sprinkle more baking soda on top as the glue dries. You will see that the super glue dries super quickly with the addition of baking soda. Hold your structure together for at least 5 minutes. Let sit overnight. Once dry, wash off the excess baking soda and check for any structural insecurities in your rock work. Apply more glue as necessary. Here’s a photo of some rockwork that is drying.
5. Add Magnetic Frag Plugs (For Coral)
Now, if you really want to step up your reefscape game, here’s a quick hack for you. Shop for small magnets at your local Home Depot or Lowe’s along with some aquarium grade silicone. Coat the magnets individually on each side with a layer of silicone to prevent them from deteriorating in saltwater. Next, identify areas on your reefscape where you plan to add coral. Use superglue to glue down magnets inside your rockwork where you plan to place coral. Next, superglue another magnet to the bottom of your frag plugs which contain the coral you are adding to your tank. The two magnets when combined will help hold your frag plugs in place in your reefscape! In the second photo below, you’ll see that these tiny magnets are perfectly sized for the bottom of frag plugs.
& Finally, Enjoy Your Reefscape!
Even if you aren’t 100% satisfied with the look of your reefscape off the bat, give your reef at least a few months to grow in. You may find yourself being pleasantly surprised at the way nature creates its own beauty when given the chance. The photos of the most beautiful reef tanks online are often 10+ years old and have grown into their own beauty! Nature isn’t in a rush. If you enjoyed this article, please follow us on Instagram @stockmytank and share with your fellow fish friends.