Reef Tanks on a Budget (Part 4): Aquascaping

Reef Tanks on a Budget (Part 4): Aquascaping

In the 4th installment of this multipart series, Reef Tanks on a Budget (Part 4): Aquascaping, we will go over aquascaping options for your reef tank.

Editor’s Note: If you haven’t already, please give Part 1, 2, and 3 a read first:


The aquascaping of rock is one of the most crucial parts of a successful reef tank. Aesthetics aside, the rock structure needs to have plenty of space for coral placement and provide enough space for proper water flow. Typically sold by the pound, the more rock required, the more expensive the project becomes.

Types of Rock:

  • Dry Rock: Formally live rock that has been cleaned and dried. It is mostly lifeless at the start; however, it becomes “live” with beneficial bacteria after curing.
  • Man-Made Dry Rock: Made by combining crushed aragonite, sand, and Portland cement. Some manufacturers paint their rock purple to look like coralline algae.
  • Man-Made Live Rock: Man-made rock that is cured before the sale, allowing it to be placed directly into an aquarium.
  • Uncured Live Rock: Live rock that still has dying plants and animals on it.
  • Cured Live Rock: Cycled in saltwater and covered in beneficial bacteria. 

In addition to the type of rock, size and shape can also impact costs.

Rock Shapes:

  • Base/Foundation Rock: Generally, in the shape of a chunk. It is used on nearly every aquascape and is the base of most aquascapes. Though it is possible to build an aquascape using only this type of rock, it is difficult to create large aquascapes using this rock alone. Base rock is generally the most inexpensive.
  • Shelf Rock: Shelf rock is flat on the top creating prime locations for coral placement and is generally moderately priced.
  • Branch Rock: Branch rock looks like tree branches or fingers coming out of a base or a trunk. Used to add decorative dimensions to your aquascape and is typically one of the expensive types of rock.
  • Other Rock: Other unique shapes include arch, tunnel and cave. These unique shapes are generally some of the most expensive types of rock.

Budget Recommendation: Dry rock is usually the most cost-effective option. And since it is dry, it is usually the safest option as it is the least likely to contain unwanted pests. As a general rule of thumb, plan to use 1 to 1-½ lbs of rock for every gallon of tank water.

Glues and Adhesives

In addition to the rocks, a glue, adhesive, or putty is used to secure the rock structure in place. This way it does not topple over. More basic rock formations can simply be stacked. As the rock structure becomes more complex, using glue or adhesive becomes more necessary.

Types of Glues and Adhesives:

  • Epoxy Stick: A stick of pliable putty designed to fit in gaps and grooves. After curing, it is strong like cement.
  • Bonding Adhesive: An adhesive, like super glue, that spreads into small gaps.
  • Mortar: A hydraulic cement that hardens as it dry and is nearly impossible to break. Strong enough to hold almost any structure formed.
  • Acrylic Rod: A hard, non-brittle plastic rod used to hold two or more pieces of rock. Generally impossible to separate without first removing the rod.

Budget Recommendation: An epoxy stick or bonding adhesive is excellent for the basic stacking on rocks in small to medium-sized tanks. For larger tanks and more elaborate rock structures, a mortar is probably the best option. Acrylic rods are inexpensive and are helpful for larger aquascapes.

Aquascaping is an exciting time for a reef tank. Seeing your reef tank’s foundation come together will be one of the last steps before filling your tank with water. Making sure to carefully plan all the ledges and areas needed for proper water flow and coral placement will help to ensure a beautiful coral reef.

Have a question? Need supplies for your aquarium? Give us a shout here or visit our store locator to check our products today. Happy Reefing!

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