I’ve officially kicked off the renovation project of my home office/vivarium workshop. After taking some time to really think about the feel I was going for, I decided to go with a rustic/industrial style for this room. Since the main focus of my workshop is the tanks, I figured it’d be best to start with the aquarium rack. Today’s tutorial will be based on how I converted my existing aquarium stand into a rustic vivarium rack with adjustable shelves. This setup will house many types of vivariums like the kind we discuss here on the site.
What Are Vivarium Racks?
Vivarium racks are basically structures that aquariums or terrariums are put on for display. They are commonly seen at pet shops where fish, amphibians, and reptiles are sold. Poking around the internet for inspiration on this build, I noticed most seemed to stick with the basic 2 x 4 aquarium stands. Even though they were good, it wasn’t what I was going for.
It was really hard for me to part ways with my current wire storage frame setup. They are thin, reliable, and super convenient with the adjustable shelves. I figured I would start with that and modify the design to something for fitting with the new room theme.
DIY Vivarium Rack
Before we start, something worth mentioning is that this build will require a slightly more advanced craftsman than some of my other tutorials. You will need power tools like saws and drills with multiple size bits to make this design work. With that said, this DIY vivarium rack is still a very doable project when done safely. I will do my best to be as detailed as possible. If you still have any questions about anything I may have missed, feel free to reach out to me.
This vivarium rack guide is tailored to show you how I built my specific stand. All of the specs will give you a rack that stands just over 5 feet tall and just under 6 feet wide. The depth of this entire unit is about 14 inches long. With 3 individual columns, I end up with 12 shelves that can hold a wide variety of tanks about 20 inches wide and 10 inches long. The heights of each tank is totally adjustable. This same build can be done with as little as one column and scale across as many columns as one could fit on a wall.
- x3 Pressure Treated Lumber (2in x 12in x 8ft)
- Wood Stain
- x4 Steel Organizer Wire Rack (3-Shelf)
- Sand Paper (320 grit)
- Hole Saw Kit
- Saws – Circular Saw, Jig Saw
- Paint Roller Kit
- Bolt Cutters
- Level Tool
- Power Drill Set
- Plier Set
Preparing The Lumber
The first thing we will need to do once all the materials and tools are collected is to cut the lumber into individual shelves. Using the circular saw, I cut 12 pieces of wood 24 inches long. Each one should measure 24in x 12in x 2in. It’s ok if these measurements aren’t exact. Lumber bought from hardware stores is rarely ever exact. Mine for instance ended up around 24in x 11.1in x 1.75in… **Face Palms**
Once we have our shelves cut out, we will need to cut holes into the front for the poles to wedge through. I took one of the racks from the steel organizer and traced around the location I plan on setting the lumber in. Using the closest hole saw in size, I drilled the holes out and checked the alignment with the steel rack. It should fit snug so we could hammer the steel rack into it later.
After all 12 shelves are cut and drilled out, its time to sand. Sand the shelves to preference. I rounded off sharp corners and tried to get the surface as flat as possible where the tanks are going to rest on.
If all of the shelves feel smooth enough to apply stain… Well, you’re ready for some color. I lined all of the boards up and rolled stain on all at once. I applied stain to the top and bottom equally. It took about 3 coats to get the color I wanted. you could stain the sides of each lumber as well now. I decided to wait until I had the shelves completely assembled so that I could apply it with more detail.
Modifying the Wire racks
After the shelves have dried, they are ready to be installed. Here is where things got calculated for me. We will need to cut the current steel racks in a way that will allow them to easily merge with the new wood panels. Start by cutting all of the steel racks in half like the image below. I used the jigsaw for this but a good set of bolt cutters will work as well.
Separate the now half-cut racks into 2 piles. One set for the front sockets we drilled out earlier on the lumber and another set for the rear. We will need to cut the sleeves off the first set of racks. You will want to leave about half a centimeter of wire on each sleeve you cut. This will help the sleeves wedge better into the wood when we go to hammer it in.
With the second set of racks, remove the wire grill going across the top. I used the pliers to easily twist off the wires. Be careful not to damage the wires running along the bottom of the rack. We will use those to hammer the rear rack into the back of the wood shelves later. It’s of if wires leave a groove along the supporting wires. This actually helps the frame lock to place better.
Once the bottom wires are removed, we will also need to cut and remove the bottom half of the side railings as well. Use the image below for reference on how the rear frame should look once all of this is completed.
Building the new shelves
Now that the wood is cut and the wireframes are modified, we can start to assemble the shelves for our DIY vivarium rack. Pat yourself on the back if you made it this far. All the hard labor stuff is completed… Well, we gotta drill and hammer a bit more. But I promise the hand hurting part is behind us. So far, we should have all the needed pieces to put the custom shelf back together.
Like I mentioned earlier, we will need to hammer in the sleeves for the front holes. Make sure they are going in the right direction… Meaning you know which side of the lumber will be the top and which will be the bottom. I found that flipping the lumber over on its top and hammering the sleeves in from the bottom worked the best. This allows the wedge to create the force from the bottom, better supporting the shelf’s weight when we add the tanks.
For the rear frame, we will need to pre-drill holes into the back of the lumber panel. The best way to get the most accurate fit would be to line up the steel mesh to the back of the wood and mark it. I used a drill bit that matched the size of the wire grill and drilled it all the way down until the bit couldn’t go any further. Afterward, I hammered in the back mesh until I had about 2 inches still hanging out.
Assembling The Vivarium Rack
Now for the fun part, plugging it all together. At this point, we can put the shelves back together with the way the steel rack was intended. Use the plastic caps to wedge the pole into the sleeves. I use the level tool to hammer out any sleeves that might not have gone down far enough to even out the shelf. At this point, the rest should be pretty self-explanatory. Simply stack the shelves as needed.
I personally like to have at least 5 inches of room above the aquariums. This allows me room to do regular maintenance. For the terrariums, I like to bring the shelves in a little closer leaving about 2 inches of space above the tank. These tanks are light enough to remove and I can still fit a spray gun between the openings for watering. The paludariums and ripariums all have open fronts so I adjusted those shelves with about an inch of space between the top of the tank and the next shelf.
Adding Lights To The Vivarium Rack
For the icing on the cake, I went with 6000k Flush Mount Disk LED Downlights for the lighting setup. They are thin, very bright, dimmable. One per shelf pretty much did the job for most of the tanks. You can easily fit up to 2 per shelf though if you need more brightness. I found that 2 of these lights were too strong for some of my plants and caused algae issues.
I am absolutely crushed over how awesome this DIY vivarium rack project turned out to be. I am constantly changing my mind about things so it’s nice being able to readjust shelves as I go. I’ve found that the extra 2 inches of the steel frame that stick out the back of the wood are perfect for running plumbing as well as tucking and tying away wires. This design perfectly represents the industrial/rustic style I was aiming for.