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Homemade Aquarium Canopy
Can a Klutz build a Canopy?

by Doug Valverde <75051.160/>
Date: 21 Feb 96 (actually 11/94)

This weekend I built two canopy hoods. One for a 120 gallon planted tank with 4 X 48" VHO bulbs (440 watt), and one for a planted 45 gallon planted tank with 6 24" standard flouresent bulbs (120 watt). Total time, excluding shopping and varnish/painting, about 4 hours each.

Okay, but you think this is too tough for you. Well let me give you my qualifications for building a canopy. I don't have any qualifications. I do not work with wood. Have never in my life built a cabinet or anything else with wood. Absolutely hate painting and staining. And aside from a full time job, I am looking for a small company to buy, am a staff member on FISHNET, Executive Director for the American Aquarist Society, married and have a kid who demands and gets a lot of time. So if it takes to long I buy it or do without.

BUT I also don't have 500 bucks laying around to buy an aquarium canopy hood. And I have a wife who doesn't like the word no and she wants a canopy. So I had no choice but to build my own.

Now if you will join me, for the next few minutes I'll take you on a tour of what I did to build a low cost canopy hood. I'm just going to tell you what I did, and even what I used and the costs as of today (11/20/94). I am sure there are better ways and smarter ways, but the finished product turned out very nice and it was pretty easy.

The only tools I used (and this is about my entire tool inventory anyway) are a philips and a flat head screwdriver. A small saw. A drill and several different bits. A pencil. And a plane (this part can be avoided if you are smarter then I was). And the most important part, a ruler.

Okay, now you're ready to begin. First, get a pencil and paper. Then very carefully measure the length of the trim that goes around your tank, both front and side. Be careful. This step seems easy, but if you mess up here nothing will work. On the first canopy I started to build I screwed up when I wrote the measurements down with the result I had to toss two pieces of wood and make an additional trip to Home Depot. When you live 30 minutes away from the nearest Home Depot it is a costly, from a time standpoint, mistake.

For the purposes of this canopy I used poplar. All dimensions listed below are based on this wood. Should you use a different type you may have to make adjustments.

Okay first take the measurement from the front of the tank. To this add 1 3/4 inches. Now why would you want to do that. It's simple. A 1 X 6 piece of lumber is not 1 X 6, it is really 3/4 X 5 1/2. Now why is it advertised as 1 X 6? Beats me, but I have yet to find a piece of wood that is the size it is supposed to be. So the thickness of two pieces of wood is 1 1/2 inch, and we want to allow 1/4 inch for a little free space to allow for swelling and small errors in measurement. On my tank the front of one was 36 1/2 inches. That combined with 1 3/4 gave me a total length of 38 1/4 inches. Next take the length of the trim on the side of the tank and add 1/4 inch to it. Here mine was 18 1/2 inches which gave me a total of 18 3/4 inches. Now you have the lengths of both the front/back pieces and both sides. Hey you are almost done now.

Okay, now you'll need the top piece/s. I did this two different ways. On one hood I used two sets of hinges, so I can open part of the top to feed fish and change water, and I can open up the second part so I can get to the entire interior of the tank if need be, without taking off the canopy. On the second hood I just used one set of hinges so I can feed and do water changes, but the entire top does not open up. Of the two the latter is the easiest and in most cases more then sufficient for access.

The length and width of the top is easy. You've already got it. The length of the top is exactly the same as the length of the trim of your aquarium, as is the width. But now is the hard part. You have to carry your ruler when you go to get the wood as you need to figure out what combination of wood gives you the width you want with two or more pieces. For example on my smaller tank it was a breeze. Two pieces, a 1 X 6, and a 1 X 12 added up to exactly the width of my top. (remember this was really 3/4 X 5 1/2 and 3/4 X 11 1/8) On the larger I had to use two 1 X 6, one 1 X 3, and one 1 X 12 to get what I needed. You can also use plywood if you prefer and simply get it cut to the exact dimensions you need, but I preferred a solid piece of wood, both for appearance and to avoid swelling.

Okay, admit it, it ain't too tough so far.

Now that you have carefully written down all of the dimensions you need it is time for a trip to Home Depot (or similar type place). They will politely cut all of the wood for you. Now they may or may not charge you for all of the cuts, but if they do it is only a quarter per cut after two cuts. They didn't charge me at all when I went to get the lumber for the smaller tank and it cost me a big two bucks for the larger one. Be nice to the person at Home Depot and explain what you are doing and ask them to make the cuts as accurately as they can.

For the sides of the canopy use 1 X 6 poplar (there are other woods, but this one is fine grained, takes stain well, is reasonably light, is straighter then most woods, and is soft and easy to cut and drill. As I said you have to figure out the combinations of pieces you need for the top, that's a variable that depends on the width of your tank. Once you have figured out what you need for the top, get it cut to the appropriate lengths as well. (Don't forget they can cut the wood down it's length as well, so you can get them to cut a pieces that is too wide down.) Now go pick up enough 1 X 3 inch poplar to go around the insides of the canopy twice. For a tank 36 X 18 for example, that would be 18 feet. This is what will support your hood and keep the canopy from sliding down over your tank. If you want you can get this cut to fit as well. I didn't only as it is extremely easy to do yourself and you will probably make additional cuts to go around pumps, hoses, filters, or whatever.

Alright, you are really getting there. All you have to do now is pick up the rest of the stuff you will need and start putting the puzzle together. Here's what all you need:

  1. A small keyhole saw.
  2. A phillips and a flathead screwdriver.
  3. An electric drill (you can do without, but don't!)
  4. A small drill bit 3/32 inch.
  5. A phillips screw driver bit for an electric drill.
  6. A bit for countersinking screws 3/8 inch
  7. A large wood boring bit (I used 1 1/4 inches) This one is optional but may prove useful if you wish to run hoses and or heater cords through the canopy)
  8. A plane (maybe, I did on both hoods because the wood was a tad oversized.)
  9. A pencil.
  10. A ruler.
  11. Hinges. I used one per foot of hood length. Make sure these are stainless if you are going to use this over a marine/reef tank. Brass will work fine for freshwater.
  12. Screws 1 1/4 inch #8 stainless if marine, zinc coated if for fresh. Get at least a box of 50.
  13. A knob that you like from the cabinet department.
  14. Hi-gloss white paint. (I used enamel, but you can use whatever you wish provided it is designed for exterior use in areas that will receive a lot of moisture.) This will be used to coat the inside to increase the reflectance of the surface. Should you be running less the desired light you might even consider covering the inside with foil or even mirrors.
  15. Paint or stain and varnish, or whatever you want to cover the outside with. I used stain and varnish, but I like the wood look. You can use just about anything you want here. You can paint it, cover it with formica (I don't know how to do this), cover it with wallpaper, or whatever you want to do.
  16. 150 grit sandpaper (If varnishing 150 grit, then resand wood with 240 grit, after first coat of varnish switch to 400 grit which you use in between coats, then 600 grit to polish your final coat. You should use at least 4 coats total for a durable finish.
  17. A paint brush or two.

That's about it for the supply list.

Now take all this stuff home and get you a good working area you can spread out a little. I used the garage floor because that is the only place my wife would let me. Personally I thought the carpet in front of the TV would be fine, but she just didn't see it my way.

First get your sandpaper and knock of any rough edges from the cuts. If you used poplar you won't have to do much more sanding as the wood is nice in smooth. But you will want to lightly sand the finished piece.

Take the front and back side strips. Decide which side you want on the outside and lay the down with the outside side facing you. Get the small drill bit and drill three holes in each end about a third of an inch from the edge, one in the middle and one equally spaced above and below the middle hole. Use the countersink tool to notch the wood so a wood screw will sink down below the surface of the wood. (This is optional but makes for a nicer looking finished product.) You may prefer to leave the back open, or you may wish to cut openings for your pumps filters or whatever. I preferred to cut notches for equipment as it made for a stronger hood and I felt more comfortable with it that way. But if you wish to leave it open then you will need just a couple of pieces say 6 inches long to fasten to the sides and to fasten the 1 X 3 wood to.

Now with the outside of the front piece facing you and predrilled for screws get the shorter end pieces and place them inside the front piece at a 90 degree angle (or if you prefer square to the front piece), using a screwdriver or the recommended power screwdriver bolt the two pieces together. Then the same for the next side and duplicate the process for the back. You will now have an open box. If you want to check your measurements before you go farther now is a good time. Take the open box and simply fit it over your tank and make sure it will slip over the trim. If you have done your measurements correctly you are in great shape. If not oh well, you blew a little bit of wood. No terrible loss, just remeasure and be more careful. But as I already warned you to be careful I am sure you are still okay at this point.

Now the bottom of the box will become the top. The height of boards is not exact. It is unnoticeable at the bottom of the canopy, but if the top is not smooth it will not look professional. By holding the pieces on the concrete as you screwed them together the bottom should be nice and smoothly fitted together, so hence it is now the top.

Your trim is probably 1 1/2 inches tall. Assuming this is the case we are in good shape and can go from here. If it is less then 1 1/2 inches we are still okay. If it is more you will have to adjust accordingly. Take your top pieces and lay them inside the box. If they need to be trimmed to fit inside take care of that now. They should fit inside with some play from side to side and some play from front to back. Wood will swell so you do not want a skin tight fit. With the box pressed down firmly, and the top pieces laying inside the box, measure the 1 X 3 so you can cut the two sides and the front. Drill a few holes in the 1 X 3 and then pressing them down on the top carefully screw them in place so the run the length of the box but to where the top fits flush inside the box. If you just use canister filters and only need a few holes drilled for tubing you can go ahead and bolt in a back piece as well. Else wait on this part for a moment. Next take pieces of equal size and screw them directly on top of the first 1 X 3 pieces against the sides of the hood. This will give you a 1 1/2 inch lip on the bottom and a 3/4 inch lip on top. It will also hold your top up and the entire assembly will rest on the trim of your tank once it is but in place.

Hey you are almost done. Now you have the only real hard part, and it is not that tough. Before you go any farther you need to consider what type of equipment openings you need. Look at your tank as is with all filters in place. Take a measuring tape and carefully measure where these pieces are. How tall they are above the trim, how far from the sides and so on. You then need to go to the hood and using a keyhole saw carefully cut notches so when the hood it will slip over all equipment. It's not as difficult as it sounds, and as in most cases this will be to the back of the tank you don't even have to do that neat of a job as no one will see it. I used a keyhole drill to drill holes in the wood for my heater cords to run through, and notched it for all other equipment. Now this is the part that is a pain. No easy way to tell you how to do this as it just depends entirely on your equipment and setup.

Once you have your hood notched, drilled or whatever, place it on the tank again. Make sure everything fits and the canopy drops smoothly over the tank trim. If you need to fix anything, do it now while it is easy.

Okay I see you have finished that part. Now all you have left to do is complete the top and then sand and paint. The top is a breeze. Assuming you already trimmed it to fit and all is ready simply lay the back piece down. Using your drill drill several holes down the back and sides of the back top piece. Grab the countersink thing and countersink you some holes again. Again these holes should be roughly 1/3 of an inch from the edge, where when you put the screws in they will go into the 1 X 3 trim you have on the inside of the canopy. (This is assuming you are going to go with the easier one hinged opening. Else you would simply bolt your hinges on to the back edge of the top and the edge of the box.) Only one more piece now. Lay the front piece in where it has equal play on each side. Lay your hinges down evenly spaced and screw them down. Don't put on the handle yet.

Okay, you are really all but done now. The rest is all cosmetic. Get wood putty if you wish and fill in all external screw holes. Let it dry and sand it off flush with the wood. Lightly sand the entire surface of the canopy both inside and out. Lay the canopy with the top down and using either a high gloss enamel paint, or foil or whatever you wish to line the inside with, and paint and let dry the inside. If you use white you will probably have to do two or maybe even three coats to get good coverage. Remember no one will ever see the inside, except the fish and they don't seem to care, so don't try and be a perfectionist here. It just is not worth it.

The next step is putting in your lights and if desired fans or control units or whatever. You are own your own here as the choices are so variable.

Once that is finished you can tackle the outside. Again, you can do whatever you wish. I stained and varnished with a waterproof varnish, but you could use tile, paint, wall paper, get lazy and leave it bare wood, cover it with cloth, or whatever you wish. When you have finished the outside attach your handle and toss it on the tank.

It may sound hard, but it is really pretty easy. Wood is not too expensive and if you make a mistake it is probably fixable. There are a ton of variable involved, but think a little before you do something and you should be fine.

Best of all, if you are careful you will have a hood that looks every bit as nice as premade or professional canopies and at one fifth of the price. To build a hood for a 120 gallon tank cost me almost exactly $100.00 excluding the lights and fixtures. The one for a 45 gallon tank cost me about $120 including the light fixtures, but excluding the lightbulbs themselves. In both cases I can easily add sufficient lights for my purposes. When you figure the cost of custom hood to which you still have to add lighting you are probably going to be looking at the $500.00 range. The choice is yours.
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This page was last updated 29 October 1998