Reef Tank Aquascapes: 16 Design Tips For Creating A Stunning Tank

How many times have you walked into a local fish store, someone’s home or perusing the forums and a beautiful reef tank has stopped you dead in your tracks? For me, it has been plenty.

To this day I come across a picture of an incredible reef tank that blows me away, and it is why I jumped from freshwater to saltwater.

But what is it that makes you wish you could have that aquarium in your home right now? The colors, the unique layout, the pristine look? All of the above I bet!

Using the Folloing Tips You Can Create Stunning Aquarium Aquascapes:

  • Planning
  • The Rule of Thirds
  • Depth
  • Focal Points
  • Variety Of Rock Pieces & Shapes
  • Caves & Overhangs
  • Contrast
  • Color Planning
  • Tank Background
  • A Vision of 2-3 Years

Let’s look at some tips to help you plan and create something that will stop your guests and make you talk about your aquarium for the rest of the evening!

Planning Is Key!

All of those aquariums you have drooled over probably had two things in common.

  • The owners had a vision of how they wanted their aquarium to look
  • They planned out how to achieve that

Most aquarists I know, myself included, are always planning their next aquarium, learning from the past and research they do to make their next box of water be EXACTLY what they want.

Usually, the hardest part is deciding what type of aquascape to go with! I must have ‘Decided’ on a favorite aquascape over a dozen times before I finally got my Dry Rock delivered and then figured out my layout.

My Dry Rock Aquascape – Day One

Here are 16 Tips that I found and used to help me create my perfect aquascape.

Note: I do not own the photos shown below. They are there to give reference to the aquascape. I’ve tried my hardest to find the original owner of every photo to give them the credit they so rightly deserve.

16 Tips To Get That Incredible Aquarium Aquascape

1. Inspiration – Google/Pinterest

This cannot be overestimated enough. Get looking around to find something that takes your breath away the moment you see it. If it’s not online, take a photo of it. Inspiration is key to finding the look you are after and if that look will fit in your home.

Gone are the days of just piling rocks into a wall against the back glass in an aquarium! By following these tips you can craft something that is not only unique but adds that extra level of WOW to your living room.

I have The Beginners Reef Pinterest Account and one of the Boards on there is all about Inspiring Aquarium Aquascapes. Whenever I find something new and unusual I add the photo to that board to give me ideas for a future build but to also help people like yourself.

You can find that Board By CLICKING HERE

Be sure to Follow Me on there and be informed when I find new aquascapes.

2. The Rule Of Thirds

The Rule Of Thirds is a design composition technique used by many artists, photographers, architects, and other professionals to create a balance to the eye and make the piece they are crafting more dynamic and interesting.

The technique is to split up the area in question into 9 equally sized squares with 4 intersecting points where the lines cross. The idea is to create your aquascape using these lines and plan to have or place something interesting at each of the intersecting points.

My Reef at 24 Months

I tried to keep the squares equal when planning my tank but I found it bunched all the rock together and left no swimming room for the Yellow Tang I ‘Had To Have’. I ended up slightly stretching my center squares to become rectangles to help create a balance between the rule of thirds and my aquarium shape.

My intersecting points all had a very specific purpose. The two lower points were to create caves for my shrimp to hang out in so I could see them, and the two upper points were the peaks of each rock pile with space for vibrant SPS corals to grow from.

The rule of thirds will work on any size or shape of an aquarium, it is just a matter of scale. If you have a nano reef, use small pieces of rock rubble and epoxy them together. If you have a large reef tank, use islands of varying sizes and shape to create unique focal points using the technique.

3. Create Depth

Crafting an aquascape with depth can be tricky in an aquarium due to the width of most aquariums. Cubes and ‘Deep-Dimension’ aquariums make this easier because you have the width to create valleys to lead the eye, but what about the rest of us?

The goal here is to trick the eye by using some clever rock placements to create the impression of depth.

Take this mountain photograph for example. We have depth because we have focal points in the foreground (Waterfall and stream), we have multiple layers of mountains sitting in one another helping to create the depth and finally, we have a valley to draw the eye into the distance. But how do we craft this into our aquarium?

Using the rule of thirds place your largest structures on the vertical lines but then use smaller rock pieces to build your mountain slopes inwards towards one another, crossing them if you can. Mountains create beauty because they are not just rounded boulders.

Another way is to use smaller rock rubble pieces to graft unique shapes with your rock such as overhangs, bridges, points, branches.

You may not be able to use the rule of third’s if you have a smaller tank but keeping the technique in mind will allow you to make something unique. Crazy4Acros managed to create depth very well in the way he built his rock formation.

4. Focal Points

The focal points are what really add the Wow Factor to any reef tank and they take some planning. They can be created using rock, or they can be from a specific type of coral you plan to put there in the future.

I had a mix of both in my planning stages. The two shrimp caves create a contrast of dark against the color of the surrounding corals and the rock peaks were saved for SPS.

Many aquarists chose to place a very unique coral at these points. Zoa and Ricordia gardens, large colorful corals like a bright red Gonipora, Bubble Tip Anemone, Montipora Capriconis colonies will all draw your attention with ease.

By placing them on the intersecting lines of the rule of thirds it will help to make your aquascape more interesting.

The Torch, the Gorgonia, and the SPS corals placed close to these intersecting points will create great focal points for this aquarium as they grow!

5. Solid Foundations

When creating a unique aquascape it needs to be solid, every piece of it! I made the mistake of not properly securing one piece of rock in my tank and it has driven me nuts for years! Even blobs of epoxy putty haven’t fixed it, but that’s because there is coral everywhere and I’m limited to places to secure it.

When creating your aquascape there are now some great aquascaping epoxy putty’s available to make your entire rockwork become one solid mass.

One of the most popular is Reef Cement from Nyos. Mix it in very small batches as it sets very quickly!
You can find it HERE at Marine Depot

If you need to get your structure to sit flat on the floor you can saw through the rock to give it a flat base with a regular hacksaw. If you want to make rubble or smaller pieces, then a hammer and chisel works wonders! Just be sure to wear gloves, goggles and a dust mask when working with any rock.

6. Allow For Flow & Swimmers

Flow is king for a coral reef aquarium and dead spots can lead to a build-up detritus, which then gives you Nitrate and Phosphate problems. Think about how your coral will grow when planning your aquascape. As it grows it will take up more space and prevent flow.

Your corals will need flow to stay healthy. Make sure your aquascape leaves room for additional powerheads/wavemakers in the years to come.

Mr Kang's Korean Reef
Mr Kang’s Korean Reef

What kind of fish do you plan on keeping?
Tangs need lots of room to swim, Anthia’s and Chromis like to hover above the reef. Plan your layout with the fish you intend to keep.

The more you can provide for your fish and corals, the more symbiotic and natural your aquarium will look.

The planning is all about trying to find the ultimate balance for all the tips in this article. It will take some thought and playing with the rock to find the best fit for your aquarium.

7. Overhangs For Shrimp

Many people never think about this, but yet, most marine aquarists all have at least one shrimp in their aquarium. In all my years keeping saltwater, where do you think the shrimp like to ‘Hang Out’?
In the shade on the back of the aquarium where you never see them!

Shrimp are a fantastic addition to every aquarium and I love to watch mine in action. Why not try and create the perfect place for them where you can view them constantly.

One of 2 ‘Shrimp Hangout Caves’ In My Reef

For each of my rock islands, I created the caves purposely for two shrimp and they love them. I have a Cleaner Shrimp in the left island and a Coral Banded Shrimp in the right island.

They just hang upside down and do their thing. My daughter loves the Cleaner Shrimp’s cave. She calls it ‘The Carwash’.

8. Rods, Pipes & Zip-Ties

Some of the most interesting aquascapes I have ever seen have all used some kind of ‘Backbone’ to provide the support and then held together with Tip-Ties and or some form of reef cement.

Dry Rock can easily be drilled with a regular masonry drill bit to allow acrylic rods to be inserted to help hold rock pieces together. The addition of securing with Zip-Ties and epoxying together will hold them solid forever.

Mr Kang’s Korean Reef shown a few photos above uses this technique. He started with a large, heavy piece of rock which he flattened the bottom with a hacksaw.

After drilling holes and inserting the rod, he could then drill each piece of smaller rock and slide it onto the rod like a Kebab. Fixing it all in place until he had the large rock finger upon which to mount his corals.

You can find all sizes of Acrylic Rod on HERE is a link to the most popular 3/8″ diameter rod. Just use a 1/2″ masonry drill bit for the hole.

9. Test On Cardboard/Floor

By far the easiest way to plan an aquascape is outside of the aquarium. I’m glad I did this because as I was crafting a layout, it collapsed. Had I done this in my aquarium I would have been buying a new tank!

Get a large piece of cardboard or a sheet of wood/MDF and draw out the INSIDE dimensions of your aquarium on it. Painters tape works well too. Just have the inside edges of the tape match the inside dimensions of your glass.

Next, leave a gap all the way around the edge of the aquarium to allow for flow and glass cleaning. 2-3 inches is good, but smaller is OK if its a nano tank.

Now its time to experiment using all the tips mentioned above. It’s a bit like the old Nintendo game of Tetris, finding a way to easily fit all the pieces together to craft the look you want.

Dry Rock Aquascape

Play around, get the hammer and chisel out to nip bits off or create smaller pieces. Each time you have a layout, take a photograph of it then try something new. I think I went through a dozen different layouts until I got it just right. I ended up going back to a photo to create my final layout.

Once you have the perfect layout, transfer it to your aquarium. Rock goes in first, then sand around the rock! ALWAYS.

DO NOT put egg crate under your rock to protect the glass! Its will prevent the sand sifting snails and critters from keeping your sand bad free of detritus. You will have nitrate problems in the future if you put egg crate in the sand!
The rock is fine directly on the glass.

10. Aquascaping With Live Rock

Most of the tips mentioned above are all done with Dry Rock due to there being no time limit due to die-off when outside of saltwater. Creating the aquascape with Live Rock can be done, but you just need to follow a few more tips.

  • Have a bin of saltwater at temperature ready to store your rock in until you are all set up with the cardboard/plywood layout
  • Ensure rock stays damp at all times when trying your layouts
  • When cutting or drilling liverock be extremely cautious of Palytoxin Poisoning – Always wear gloves, glasses, and mask
  • Be prepared for a small cycle due to die-off during all transport and aquascaping.

For more information on Palytoxin Poisoning, I highly recommend reading my short article HERE

11. Leave Space Above For Coral Growth

I have seen many tanks where this simple tip gets forgotten and in 3 years’ time, they have no light coming into their aquarium.

When I planned my aquascape, I knew I wanted to keep SPS on the tops of my rock islands and they were going to grow upwards more than outwards.

My Reef Aquarium
My Reef Aquarium

When no space is left the corals will begin to branch outwards as you trim the tops. The more they branch outwards, the more light they will block and begin to starve all the corals below them.

By leaving ample growing room you can keep SPS corals fragged and prevent them from blocking light from the corals below.

12. Shapes & Sizes Of Rock

Varying the shape and size of rock pieces within your aquascape are where you can create really interesting features or focal points. Small pieces sticking out or constructed into bridges or ledges can be really cool.

The more interesting you can create the underlying foundation of your coral skeleton the more it will pop once you begin to cover it in coral.

There are many different types of dry rock and live rock available from local stores or the online vendors that will enable you to find a combination to give you the perfect pieces to wow your house guests. A hammer and a chisel will also help create some rubble!

You can view a great selection of rock pieces HERE at Marine Depot.

13. Tools

Most of you will not require any tools to create your perfect aquascape but sometime you will just not be able to stack them and they will not naturally ‘Click Together’.
Here is a list of some basic tools that will help you get the layout just right:

  • Goggles
  • Facemask if drilling
  • Gloves – Rock can be sharp
  • Hammer
  • Chisel
  • Drill
  • Masonry Drill Bit
  • Nylon Zip-Ties (DO NOT buy the ones with the steel clip within them)
  • PVC Pipe for structure
  • Acrylic Rods for structure
  • Reef Cement

14. Color Wheel

Here is where we move from the layout of the rock structure to planning the color palette of the tank for years to come. This can be difficult to imagine for some people and is where the inspiration aquariums come into play.

Color is the main focus that will draw your eye around the tank. When the corals are placed correctly and allowed to grow out, the planning taken in the first steps of the aquarium will really shine!

When looking at some of your favorite aquariums try and see how they have their colors arranged. This will serve as a guide on what corals to put where and come up with a plan.

The best tool I found for creating fantastic visual elements in my aquarium is the artists color wheel:

The idea behind the color wheel is to select and place corals based on their opposing colors on the wheel. You want to try and place corals next to one another in the aquarium who have opposing colors.

Blue Mushrooms next to Orange Mushrooms
Pink Acans next to Green Acans
Blue Zoas next to Red Zoas

By doing this it will really allow the colors of each coral to really stand out and provide an eye-popping aquascape.

If you don’t know much about corals at the planning stage that’s fine. Just take a photo of your rock, print it out and then circle what colors you would like in what areas. This way, as your knowledge of corals increase, you can look for the coral of that color to fit that spot.

Remember Rome was not built in a day and it may take you over a year to find just the right corals to fill the gaps, but patience will pay off in dividends when you get it right and it all begins to grow out!

15. Contrast

To help create another level to the dramatics of your reef you can also use contrast. The opposing colors from the color wheel begin the contrast phase of the aquarium but size, movement and texture also play a crucial role.

By carefully selecting your corals based not only on their color but the way they move and the size they will become, you can create some great focal points. I knew I wanted some clams in my tank but I knew they were at least 2 years away while I waited for my tank to mature.

In the meantime, I purchased the beginner corals and placed them according to my plan, so by the time I was able to keep clams, they fit perfectly into the area and the contrasting corals made them really pop!

Try to keep corals that move in the water flow in different areas of the tank to help keep the eyes moving. Pulsing Xenia on one side, Hammers and Frogspawn on the other.
SPS at the top of the tank, Acans and Feather Dusters on the sand.

As your tank is cycling, this is the best time to research and plan not only your fish stocking list but your coral stocking and placement list!

Another way to add contrast is ‘Color vs Darkness’. I used my Shrimp Hang-Out Caves to create patches of darkness within my corals to help the color of the corals be more pronounced. They work really good, especially when the fluorescence of the actinic lights bring out the neon colors of the coral!

16. Black Background

By far the best way to make coral colors pop is to paint the outside back wall of your aquarium Black.

Having a black background really contrasts your coral colors and there is no better way to make them really stand out. The other thing you have to do with a black background is to keep it clean, just as often as the front glass.

My Reef at 24 Months

Keep green film algae and coralline algae off it and make sure you leave enough room when you layout your rock to be able to do this. This will also help with the flow as your corals grow and make it easy to hide powerheads down there to increase flow as the years go by!

Further Reading

To help your learning continue you may find the following articles helpful when setting up and during the early months of your new reef:


Hi, I'm Richard and I have been an avid aquarist for over 30 years with a passion for Saltwater Aquariums. I love to pass on my knowledge to help others get the same amount a pleasure out of this hobby as I do. View my About Me page to find out more about me & my mixed reef aquarium.

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