Many fish owners like to create and occasionally change small and large aquarium backgrounds for their tanks. You can create a background for your aquarium in one of two basic ways: You can create the background and attach it to the outside of the tank, or you can place the background on the inside. Whichever way you choose, you'll need to do some measuring and make sure that over time, whatever you use for your background doesn't come undone or otherwise start to become unattractive.
Choose a theme
The first step in adding a background to an aquarium is deciding on your art. Is the tank primarily something your kids enjoy? Is it a focal piece in your home? Do you want it to be fun or artistic? Keep in mind that whatever you choose might be what you see moreso than the actual fish in the tank, so choose something that won't interfere with your view of the fish.
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Avoid choosing a cute piece of art or including a pun or other saying that might become stale after a while. Even if you're planning on installing your art or objects inside your tank, you can still test it by holding up a picture of your theme behind the tank to see how it might look and if it will stand the test of time.
Placement of large aquarium backgrounds
Decide whether you want your background inside the tank or outside. If you're simply adding an artistic or fun theme rather than objects your fish can swim through, you might want to place the art outside the tank looking in. If you want to add a ship, the ruins of a building, or faux plants all across the tank as a background, they will probably look better inside the tank.
If you are going to create your aquarium background inside the tank, you might need to drain and clean the tank. This means you'll have to learn how to disassemble your filter, transfer and store the fish without harming them, and properly clean the tank without introducing toxic chemicals to the water when you refill the tank. In some cases, you might simply be able to lower the objects against the back glass of your tank.
Obtain your materials
Measure your tank to make sure you know how much material you're going to need for your background. Once you've decided what your vision will be and where you're going to put your background, obtain your materials. Get more than you need. You can always store the extra materials, but if you don't have enough to fill the space you're decorating, you'll have to go out and get more.
Make sure any materials you're going to place on the inside will be safe and nontoxic and won't degrade after they've been underwater for a while. You can buy vinyl and static-cling materials made for aquariums. Ask the pet store what options it sells and if it has any tips for application.
If you're using a backing that you're going to affix to the outside of the back of the tank, make sure it won't peel away from the tank if there's condensation. You can also install a piece of waterproof art inside the tank, affixing it with waterproof tape.
Applying exterior materials
If you're going to be affixing some type of material to the exterior of the aquarium, cut the material an inch or so bigger than you need on each side unless it comes in a roll that you can cut as you apply the material. You can always trim excess material you don't need, but it might be difficult or unattractive to try to cover bare spots. Before you start, clean the exterior glass to remove any stains or spots that will block your exterior material.
As you begin to place an exterior background material against the glass, start in one corner and begin gently pressing the material against the glass to avoid creating bubbles. You can use a small, straight-edge object to smooth the paper, such as a putty knife or drywall finishing tool. If you are using contact paper made for this purpose, don't take all the backing off at once. Peel off the backing as you start applying the material so you don't accidentally stick part of it to the glass and have to pull it off. Follow any instructions that come with the contact paper and look for online instructions or a video.
If you're taping material to the glass manually, follow the same procedure of starting in one corner and pressing the material into place, applying the tape as you go. If you're painting or drawing your background onto the glass, clean the glass thoroughly and let it dry. Consider creating a stencil you can place on the inside of the tank (after it's emptied and dried) that you can follow as you paint your design.
Applying interior materials
If you have drained and cleaned your tank, begin applying your individual items to the back of the tank after you have leveled any gravel or stone that will be in the tank. Remember that when you fill the tank with water, the objects might float, move, or fall over. Depending on the base that comes with the art or faux plants, you might be able to bury them under the stones.
After you've arranged the objects, step back, turn on the tank lights, and see how your display will look as you and others see it from different areas of the room. Turn off the lights in the room to see how the background looks. Start filling your tank with water slowly, stopping one-third of the way. See if the objects remain firmly in place.
Fill the tank halfway and check to see if the objects are starting to float. Fill the tank three-quarters of the way to check the results and then finish filling the tank. If you're applying one piece of material to the back glass of the tank, follow the directions, which will be similar to the directions for using an exterior press-on material.