Introduction to Adding Natural Decor to an Aquarium

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Adding Natural Decor to an Aquarium


So you’ve finally decided to switch to a more natural looking décor or maybe just adding to your existing aquascape. Here is an article that will help you through the process of preparing “natural” things for your tank. Whether it be sand, driftwood, or rocks it all has to be prepared before being indroduced to the aquascape.


First off let’s start with sand.

Adding sand to an aquarium can make the tank more natural looking. In the natural environment of a fish, reptile, and/or invertebrates there is not brightly colored gravel to appease the inhabitants. Although the bright colors may please the tank owner it is believed that the inhabitants of an aquarium will be much happier in a space that looks more like home.

Let’s look at the different types of sand

Natural Play Sand

Natural play sand is a very common sand used in aquascapes, it is an affordable way to have the natural look without breaking the bank. Natural play sand contains clay and needs to be rinsed very thoroughly.

Sand Used for Blasting/ Silica Sand

Commonly sold at hardware supply stores, it is another common sand used in tanks because of the affordability. This sand contains Iron Slag and is not always recommended for “diggers” as it can contain sharp edges. This sand may alter the chemistry in the tank so it’s best to keep a close eye on the levels.


Coral is a lighter rough sand used for tanks to stabilize the PH and keep the water alkaline. It also can improve the buffer capacity.


Aragonite can be an expensive sand but it can come in many different colors and grain size which makes it popular in todays aquariums. This sand can keep the water alkaline just as coral does.

Photo submitted by Kee

Tahitian Moon Sand

This is a black sand that can be expensive as well but looks very beautiful in an aquarium and can bring out the colors of the fish.

Photo submitted by Convict2161

Pool Filter Sand

Pool filter sand is another cheaper alternative to capturing that natural look , pool filter sand is also white sand. It is sold at stores where pool supplies are available.

Photo submitted by Hondatek


Preparing Sand for an Aquarium

There are a few different ways that people use to ready the sand for use in an aquarium but it seems like the most popular way is to take these steps:

Get a five gallon bucket and a garden hose. Fill the bucket about halfway full (about 2 gallons) and fill the bucket full with water.

 Once full, dump out as much of the “dirt film” out of the bucket then fill it back up again. Churn the sand to release excess dirt, dust, etc. and pour the water again.

 Repeat the process until the water runs clear and do this with the remaining sand. Sands such as play sand have elements of clay in the sand so take care in making sure all of the access dirt is cleaned off. There are no cutting corners when it comes to rinsing sand.

After all of that you are ready to put the sand in the aquarium. You can either remove all of the fish in the aquarium at the time of the switch or leave the fish. Whichever you decide always make sure to shut down any filters in the tank as there will be a lot of particles floating that can damage a filter.

Place a little at a time in the aquarium to try and prevent sand from overly clouding the tank.

Once the gravel is out and the sand is in wait for at least an hour till the sand settles before turning on any filters.

Cloudiness and floating particles are normal for the first day after the switch, keep an eye on your water levels afterwards as well to make sure the tank doesn’t go into a mini cycle.



 Driftwood is one of the easiest ways to capture that “natural” look. It can be bought from stores or even found in streams/creeks. Be aware that in some areas it can be illegal to take wood from certain bodies of water. That wood may provide a use to the area such as a dwelling for inhabitants. Always check any laws or regulations before harvesting things from the outdoors. It is also not recommended to use driftwood from bodies of water that may contain salt because it can cause the salinity levels to rise in the tank causing harm to fish that may not be tolerant of salt.

Driftwood can come in many shapes and sizes but there are a few types of wood that are not recommended for aquarium use. Woods such as:

Red Cedar



Soft woods

Any type of wood containing sap

Any wood that may contain varnish

Bamboo- This is not a wood, it is a grass and there are reports of fish being poisoned by fresh cut bamboo.

This can release toxins in the tank which can in turn harm the inhabitants.


Types of driftwood that are considered to be safe for aquarium use are:


Mopane (type of bogwood)


Mangrove Roots

Grapevine -although this is on the safe list it is recommended that the plant needs to be dried and weathered for a year after the initial cut




Cypress East

Preparing driftwood can be done a few different ways. Wood can be boiled, soaked, and baked. For smaller pieces it is best to boil the wood for a few hours, some even boil it up to eight hours.

Take the driftwood and clean it as best as possible, this can be accomplished by scrubbing, hosing it down, or even power washing the wood. It is best to try and get off any soft pieces that might lead to rotting later on in the tank. After the washing is completed, you will need to determine the method of preparation by judging the size and shape of the wood. If it is small enough it is best to boil the wood in a large pot for a few hours each day. Depending on the type of wood it is will determine the amount of time needed for boiling. Use your best judgment on this, when the water appears to have a more “tea” like appearance other than a dark brown it’s close to being ready. You can either stick the wood in the tank now or wait until it sinks. For larger pieces, place the wood in a large container (In my opinion a storage tub works best for this) and completely cover the wood with hot water. Each day, tannins will begin to leech from the wood making the water brown. Dump the water each day and replace with clean hot water, repeat this process until the water is no longer a brownish color and runs clear.

There is a way to prep and sterilize the wood in the dishwasher but be aware that allot of newer models have an automatic rinsing agent to could cause chemicals being soaked into the wood with an ending result of it leeching toxins into the tank.

Making a piece sink can be a process in itself. Some pieces may take days, weeks, or even months for the wood to become completely waterlogged and sink. If you have a piece that is being completely stubborn and won’t stay under, screw the wood to a piece of slate and bury the slate under the substrate so it is not visible.

Photo submitted by Maxwellag



There are many species of fish/reptiles that have a rocky habitat and also this habitat may serve a purpose such as breeding and dwellings. Not all rocks can go in certain tanks however; rocks such as limestone could alter the chemistry in the tank. Here is a list of rocks that could be considered safe for aquarium use:

Granite: Safe but may be heavy


Lava Rock: Contains chelated iron which is used to fertilize plants. Do NOT boil this rock as it can contain air pockets which could result in the stone exploding.



Petrified Wood: Use acid test before introducing into the aquarium


Rocks to avoid:

Limestone: Unless you are wanting to raise the GH of your water

Sandstone:  can contain possible metals

The next seven stones should be avoided due to the fact that it can contain Manganese and unchelated iron









Preparing the Stone

Before you just take a stone and throw it into the tank it should be tested to determine if the rock will alter the chemistry in the tank. The vinegar test is the best way to determine this.

Pour vinegar over the rock and watch closely to see if it starts to bubble. If so it might not be best to use this rock for the aquarium unless you want the chemistry to be altered.

Rocks such as limestone can contain CaCO3 which can cause the PH in the water to rise. CaCO3 is an alkali compound which acts as a neutralizer to the acid (vinegar), when an acid is poured on the rock the calcium carbonate neutralizes the acid therefore making it bubble.

Without fully knowing what type of rock it is, boiling can be a risky process. So let’s just look at a safer way to clean the rock.

Scrub the rock clean with hot water (no soaps) I always keep a clean toothbrush around just in case, the toothbrushes bristles are perfect to use to get in the little cracks of the rock. After the rock is clean, place it in a tub/bucket and pour boiling water over the rock and let it sit for about an hour to make sure all of the excess bacteria die off.

After all of that, place the rock in the tank and enjoy!


This article is all in my personal view and experience, there are many different ways to preparing natural décor for an aquarium. No matter what ways you decide to prepare the décor always make sure that anything entering the aquarium is clean and safe from toxins. Always remember to have fun when changing your aquascape and you are only limited to what you can imagine.


Research for this article was done from personal experience, Google searches, and other wonderful users from the Aquarium Advice Forum. And thank you to eveyone that submitted a photo to make this article possible.

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