I’ve been wanting to write up a few older projects for a while now. The only draw back is a lack of pictures during the process…all I have are the completed shots. Hopefully its still useful or interesting. A few years ago I was commissioned to design and build a fully integrated aquarium system. The requirements were for a fresh water system that could easily be converted to salt water without changing any equipment. The tank needed to be at least 100 gallons. No aquarium equipment could be visible. The stand needed to fit the existing decor (brick floor, warm wood colors, nothing contemporary) and the system needed to arrive ready to run, just add water and fish! I’ve included costs for those of you who stumbled in here looking for ideas on setting up your new aquarium. My labor charges are not included.
The scale is difficult to gauge in this picture. The piece is 6′ 6″ long, 2′ 4″ deep and 6′ tall. Needless to say it will take up some room in a house!
- 1-135 gallon aquarium from the great people at GlassCages (~$550 delivered)
- 2 -Rena Filstar XP3 canister filters (~$125 each)
- 2-ETH 300 watt inline heaters (~$55 each)
- 2 -Ice Cap 660 VHO ballasts (~$180 each)
- 3-10,000K 72″ 160 watt VHO Lamps (~$40 each)
- 1-Actinic Blue 72″ 160 watt VHO Lamp (~$40)
- 1- 72″x12″ Reflector (~$40)
- 8-End Caps for T12 high temp bulbs German 3 piece waterproof (~$5 each)
- ~65 board feet of rough cut African mahogany ($4.75 per board foot)
- 1-4’x8′ sheet of 1/2″ mahogany plywood ($60)
- ~24′ of mahogany crown molding ($3.35 per foot)
- 1-4’x8′ sheet of 1/4″ mahogany plywood ($30)
- 1-4’x8′ sheet of 3/4″ pre-finished maple plywood ($65)
- 12-8′ select or #1 grade 2×4’s ($2.50)
- Assorted wiring/electrical components (~$75)
- Hinges/Hardware ($25)
- Finishing Supplies ($50)
- High-end Table Saw
- Jointer (at least a 6″)
- Surface Planer (12″ or greater)
- Band Saw
- Router/Shaper Table
- Shaper Hold Down Jig
- Rail/Stile Bit Set
- Raised Panel Bit
- Edge Molding Bit (2″ High)
- 1/4″ Cove Bit
- Plate Jointer
- Spindle Sander
- Duel Bevel Compound Miter Saw
- Random Orbit Sander
- Finishing Nailer
- Air Compressor
- Pocket Screw Jig
- Loads of Clamps
The tricky part of this project was the integration of 5 distinct systems into one piece of furniture.
- A support system that could hold up a 220 lb aquarium, 1,100 lbs of water, a 75 lb canopy (with other decor items on top), and 450 lbs of rock for a total of almost 1,900 lbs.
- An electrical system that could deliver power to the pumps, heaters, and lighting as well as control the lights via a timer or override switch.
- A plumbing system that could deliver water to and from the filters and the heaters
- A decorative wrapper system that would encase all the above systems and make it look like a piece of solid mahogany furniture.
- Fully integrated canopy/lighting system
Step one was to do the load calculations and ensure that the whole thing would not come to a very loud and very wet end. I keep a white board in the shop for tasks like this.
Aquarium Load Calculations
I began by taking high quality white pine 2×4’s and running them through the jointer, planer, and table saw to create 1.25″ x 3″ stock. I then built a frame with this stock using pocket screw joinery.
The front uprights were doubled up in thickness to create the column look. Below you can see the frame assembly from inside one of the cabinets
Frame with Pocket Screws
To the top of the frame and to the inside right and left bottom frame I attached a shelf made of 3/4″ pre-finished maple plywood. This plywood comes from the factory with a heat applied poly coating that is virtually indestructible…perfect for conditions involving water. Minus the back of the cabinet which provides my lateral stability this structure makes up the support system that will bear the 1,900 lb load.
Decorative Wrapper System
Next, I needed to disguise the frame with a mahogany wrapper. First, I attached some 1/2″ mahogany plywood panels to the outside ends as well as the inside of the inner frame. The bottom inner frame panel was milled with two dado’s to receive the upright panels. The inner upright frame panels were milled with a dado to receive the center shelf later. Next, I wrapped the upper portions of the frame with a 4″ wide 3/4″ thick band of mahogany. This would later become the support for the crown molding to attach to. For the last bit of plywood work I slid a 1/2″ thick piece of mahogany plywood into the center shelf dado’s and finished it with a small milled piece of solid stock to treat the edge.
The main visual element of the design is the four fluted columns (they are not load bearing). To build these I glued up a three sided column (front and two sides) with biscuit joinery. Using a jig to ensure accuracy I routed 3 flutes and a corner detail into each column and then fitted them over the existing frame.
Column Fitting over Shelf
I also created a fake rear column on each side using a single piece of stock.
Next, I attached the top shelf which hides the bottom edge of the aquarium. I treated the edge of this shelf with the same half flute detail that I used on the center shelf, lower cabinet frames, and lower edge of the top wrapper. This simple detail repeating throughout the piece gives unity to the design and ties in to the full flutes on the columns.
Top Shelf Edge Detail
Next, I milled out the base board from solid mahogany stock 2.5″ wide using the shaper. Then I wrapped the bottom edge and columns with the baseboard.
The last piece of molding detail was to install the crown molding below the top shelf and around the tops of the columns.
The final steps for the design portion of the system was to mill out a pair of raised panel doors.
Rail and Stile
When I installed the doors I made sure to line up the face of the door on the mid-line of the last flute…this allowed the reflection of the half flute in the door face finish to create the illusion of a full flute.
Now that the base was complete it was time to wire the system. The unit features a single line to plug in. This line feeds a multiple sets of outlets in each cabinet.
The white set of outlets on each side powers the filter and heater and any other accessories that require power at all times. The gray plug is controlled by a hidden switch and powers the lighting system. Rather then hard wire the lighting system I utilized this pass through plug design to allow for a timer to be installed on the lighting system at some point in the future.
Now for the water handling system. The canister filters are installed on each side and the output and return lines are passed through the back panel and up to the canopy behind the aquarium background. The output line also runs through an inline heater on each side to avoid having heaters in the tank. You can also see the lighting ballast in this picture.
Inside Cabinet View
The canopy system needed to house the lights, route the plumbing, allow for access to clean the tank, provide an easy way to feed the fish, hide the top edge of the tank, and match the design of the rest of the tank. I built it using a 1/2″ thick plywood for the top rear section and solid 3/4″ stock for the rest. I kept the crown molding and half cove detail intact.
The front and forward 6″ of the top fold completely up to allow for periodic tank maintenance and also revel the 640 watt 24′ long VHO lighting system.
The bulbs are mounted in German 3 piece water proof high temperature T12 sockets and backed by a polished aluminum reflector. The lights are 8″ above the tank to allow for some heat dissipation. You could mount them closer to increase the light level as well as shrink your canopy but you would need fans and this client wanted the system to be as quiet as possible.
On the right hand side I also installed a fish feeder door to allow limited access to the canopy compartment without opening the face.
Fish Feeding Door
Here is the final product
With All Access Doors Open
This project had a materials cost of about $2,400 and a labor cost of around 100 hours. This was a very enjoyable build with lots of unique challenges and design features. Hopefully I’ll get around to doing a few more of these past project write ups.
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