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8 DIY Turtle Tanks You Can Build Today (With Pictures)

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By Nicole Cosgrove

red eared turtle in aquarium

Planning on adopting an aquatic turtle? Then you need to get everything ready before the shelled bud arrives. In the wilderness, aquatic turtles spend most of their time in the water. So, make sure you’ve got a large enough tank set up and ready to go. Or, better yet, why not build one instead of buying it? Now, even if you get a commercial tank, you’ll still have to put in a lot of work.

That includes adding a filter, providing adequate lighting, and decorating the turtle’s new home. And we have the perfect DIY plans for that! Our experts hand-picked eight low-effort, high-reward projects that you can build manually without breaking much of a sweat. And you won’t need any expensive tools or a carpeting background, either. Just be patient and follow the instructions!

The 8 DIY Turtle Tanks You Can Build Today

1. Low-Effort, Quick-To-Build Plastic Tank by MR DECOR

DIY Low-Effort, Quick-To-Build Plastic Tank
Image Credit: MR DECOR, YouTube
Materials Needed: Plastic container, plastic bottle, PVC pipes (filter), dowels, popsicle/craft sticks, rocks, decorations
Tools Needed: Utility knife, glue gun, heat gun, pencil, work gloves
Difficulty Level: Easy

This low-effort, quick-to-build plastic tank DIY plan is as simple as they come. To bring it to life, you’ll need a cheap PVC container and a plastic bottle. Start by carving out a piece of plastic that will serve as our makeshift bridge. Mark it with a pencil and only then cut it out with a standard-issue utility gun. Now grab a bunch of craft sticks and glue them to that plastic sheet with a gun. Next, carefully place the PVC filter pipes into the aquarium.

Cut two more plastic pieces, glue them to the pipes, and then attach the bridge to these “platforms”. Alright, we’re almost there! All that’s left to do is build a fence with some dowels and glue any décor elements you might have around to the bridge. Finishing up, don’t forget to add some substrate and put a couple of large rocks and plants in the tank.

2. Thirty-Gallon Tank with Wood and Rocks by Rachel O’Leary

DIY Thirty-Gallon Tank with Wood and Rocks
Image Credit: Rachel O’Leary, YouTube
Materials: Aquarium (30-gallon), filter, LED light, UVB, pool sand, soil, river wood, rocks, plants, leaves, coconut coir, snails
Tools Needed: Spray paint, silicone gun, work gloves, measuring tape (optional)
Difficulty Level: Easy

If you’re the proud owner of a tiny and adorable turtle, this 30-gallon tank with wood and rocks will be the perfect new home for it. While it might take you a while to set everything up, this is a very straightforward, easy-to-complete DIY project. As the name suggests, we’ll need a 30-gallon tank for it. First, clean the tank and spray-paint it to get started. With that out of the way, glue a river wood or two to the bottom with a silicone gun.

Some pool sand, rocks, and leaves/twigs will quickly bring life into the aquarium. Also, consider putting plants into coconut coir pots (filled with soil) for even more diversity. This way, the turtle will have lots of nooks and crannies to explore. And for a tank this small, a regular filter and standard basking/UVB lights should be enough.

3. Plastic Bin Aquarium for Tiny Turtles by HOUSE BILLINGS

Plastic Bin Aquarium for Tiny Turtles
Image Credit: HOUSE BILLINGS, YouTube
Materials Needed: Plastic bin (food-safe), internal filter, heater, a bag of rocks, stone, tile piece, décor elements, UVB (optional)
Tools Needed: Water hose (to clean the rocks)
Difficulty Level: Easy

Looking for a simple, user-friendly plan to complete over the weekend? This plastic bin aquarium for tiny turtles is a great option for trying your hand at a DIY project that doesn’t require any tools whatsoever. It will be much easier to clean the rocks with a water hose, though: yes, they’ll need thorough rinsing before you can put the rocks in the tank.

Use a food-safe plastic bin for the container and a big stone with a tile to create a climbing spot and a cave for the little guy. Throw in a turtle-safe heater and an internal filter, and you’re all set! A UVB light might not be necessary for a strictly-aquatic turtle (especially if it’s still a baby), but we’d still encourage you to add one to be safe.

4. Cheap, Painted Styrofoam Aquarium by PEGAWAINE KREATIF

Cheap, Painted Styrofoam Aquarium
Image Credit: PEGAWAINE KREATIF, YouTube
Materials Needed: Styrofoam box, glass, cement + water, sticks, tiny rocks, color paints, water pump, mist maker
Tools Needed: Utility knife, ruler/measuring tape, silicone sealant, wire cutter, brush
Difficulty Level: Moderate

The one thing that makes this cheap, painted Styrofoam aquarium stand out is the shape: it looks like a beautiful castle. When working on the tank, measure everything with a ruler and only then cut the foam with a utility knife. So, how do you attach the individual pieces? Try putting some sticks through the foam and cutting them with a wire cutter. Okay, now it’s time to mix some cement with water and cover the tank with it.

Next, add some rocks for aesthetics. The glass sheets should be fairly easy to stick to the tank with silicone sealant. If you want, go ahead and use color paints to bring more life into the Styrofoam, but this is only optional. In any case, don’t forget about the water pump and mist maker (it will only cost $10–15).

5. Glass Turtle Tank with Decorations by Dans Hobby

Glass Turtle Tank with Decorations
Image Credit: Dans Hobby, YouTube
Materials Needed: Fish tank + lid, water pump, filter box, plastic bridge, plants, stone, hooks
Tools Needed: A bucket (for adding water), glue gun (optional)
Difficulty Level: Easy

Fish tanks are affordable, reliable, and long-lasting. That’s what makes them the go-to choice for a glass turtle tank with decorations. The water pump and filter box won’t cost much, either (around $10 for the whole thing). For décor, we have a lovely plastic bridge. Attach it to the tank using a pair of steel hooks. Want to make the turtle’s home a bit more intriguing?

Then why not place some plants, stones, and décor elements in the tank? You don’t need to follow strict rules here: just go with whatever works. In this case, less is more: don’t clutter up the aquarium and give the turtles room for maneuvers. Also, when pouring water into the tank, see that it doesn’t cover the bridge fully, as it will serve as the basking area for the shelled bud.

6. Large Turtle Tank with Paludarium by Parker’s _Swamp

DIY Large Turtle Tank with Paludarium
Image Credit: Parker’s _Swamp, YouTube
Materials Needed: Breeder tank (40-gallon), sheet glass, egg crate, foam, tape, stones, driftwood, sand, mat (coco fiber), substrate, plants, cork bark, floss + sponge, lights, bubbler
Tools Needed: All-purpose silicone + gun, wipes, insulating foam sealant, utility knife, rubber gloves, brush, vacuum cleaner
Difficulty Level: Moderate/Hard

This large turtle tank with paludarium has two separate sections: the land area features live plants, and your pets will enjoy busking in that part of the tank. Begin by getting your hands on a 40-gallon glass breeder and separate the paludarium with two sheets of glass. All-purpose silicone will help with that. Now add a bunch of egg crates and foam and place some décor elements (driftwood and stones) on top.

Next, grab a can of insulating foam sealant and add it generously to the rock, wood, and foam formation. Make sure there are enough rocks in there; otherwise, the whole thing will collapse! Carve the foam out with a utility knife, fill it up with silicone, and cover it with a generous amount of sand. To cover the background, stick a coco fiber mat to the tank. Fill the paludarium with substrate, some plants, and sponges, and the tank is ready!

7. Baby Turtle Tank with a Tiny Home by Aquarium Info

DIY Baby Turtle Tank with a Tiny Home
Image Credit: Aquarium Info, YouTube
Materials Needed: Fish tank, white sand, rocks, seiryu stones, plants, driftwood, substrate, bamboo, thread, hooks + suction cups, water filter, heater, UVA/UVB lights
Tools Needed: Rake, measuring tape, marker, handsaw, cordless drill + bits, scissors, protective gloves
Difficulty Level: Easy/Moderate

The smallest turtles need extra care, and you will be able to provide that with a baby turtle tank with a tiny home. The essential elements are very much the same as in the previous projects: you’ll need a fish tank plus some hardscape materials. Carefully put the sand, rocks, stones, and wood in place, and only then add the plants. Also, to keep the shelled pets healthy, ensure the tank has a properly installed heater, filter, and lights (UVB and UVA).

To build the floating dock, cut bamboo sticks with a handsaw, make holes in them with a drill, and put a thread through. Attach the dock to the tank with hooks and suction cups. The tiny house is optional, of course, but you can get it for cheap at a local store and it will definitely grab the turtle’s attention.

8. Foam Box DIY Tank with a Basking Area by MR DECOR

DIY Foam Box DIY Tank with a Basking Area
Image Credit: MR DECOR, YouTube
Materials Needed: Tank, Styrofoam, candle glue, 3D color acrylic, substrate, gravel, large stones, plants, lights, overflow filter, heater
Tools Needed: Utility knife, glue/silicone gun, paintbrush, a pair of rubber gloves
Difficulty Level: Easy/Moderate

Here, we have a foam box DIY tank with a basking area, another DIY project that’s based around Styrofoam. For the background, pick a large enough sheet and cover it with 3D color Acrylic paint. To make it “pop”, glue tiny pieces of foam to it. The rock-like structure is also built from Styrofoam. Glue it to the aquarium with a silicone or glue gun and complement the artificial rocks with some real stone, gravel, and substrate.

As always, plants are very welcome in a turtle tank. The same is true for the overflow filter and tiny heater.

aquarium plant divider

Size Matters: How Big Should a Turtle Tank Be?

There’s a tried-and-true formula for figuring out the perfect size for the tank. Here’s how it works: measure the turtle’s shell length and multiply it by 5–10. That’s how many gallons of water the tank should be able to hold. Or you can calculate this a bit differently and build/buy a tank that covers about ten gallons per inch of the reptile’s shell length. Sounds a bit too complicated? Then just remember that for a 3–4-inch turtle, 30 gallons is the bare minimum.

For a 5–8-inch turtle, in turn, only a 50–60-gallon tank will be enough. Anything smaller than that will make the sea creature a bit constrained. But what if you decide to add another turtle to the tank? In that case, the aquarium will need to be one square foot larger. The more aquatic creatures you add to the “mix”, the larger the tank is going to have to be. As for the filter, it should be twice as powerful. Say, if it’s a 40-gallon tank, opt for an 80-gallon filter.

man cleaning aquarium using magnetic fish tank cleaner
Image Credit: hedgehog94, Shutterstock

Can A Domestic Turtle Survive On Land?

If it’s a terrestrial species, then yes, it will happily spend most of the time exploring the land and only occasionally hopping into the water. However, if it’s an aquatic breed, it won’t last long without quick and easy access to a tank, aquarium, or pond. Every single shelled bud is different, of course. The climate and the living conditions have an impact as well. But, for the most part, turtles that rock round shells and have legs are categorized as land creatures.

In contrast, turtles with relatively flatter shells and fish-like flippers for navigating the underwater world are aquatic reptiles. In any case, adopting an exotic pet such as a turtle is a very important step. So, before you do that, consult with a veterinarian to learn exactly how much time your turtle is likely to spend in and out of water. They’ll also help you come up with the right diet for the pet.

Why Is Aquarium Gravel Not Recommended?

Aquarium rocks are very tiny, and sometimes, turtles mistake them for wood. However, their GI tracts have a hard time “handling” the gravel. More importantly, the rocks get stuck in their throats and the turtles choke on them and die. Therefore, make sure the rocks that you put at the bottom of the aquarium/tank are large enough. To play it safe, go with stones that are half the size of a turtle. Sand is also a great option (just don’t forget to rinse it first).

Gravel in aquarium
Image Credit: Pavaphon Supanantananont, Shutterstock

Tank vs Aquarium: What’s the Difference?

These terms are often used interchangeably. And, for the most part, tanks and aquariums are the same thing. With that, aquariums are usually a bit bigger and come packed with more extras. Also, we frequently use this word to describe entire buildings or rooms that hold fish/other sea creatures for display. Tanks, in turn, tend to be smaller and cost less. But essentially, both tanks and aquariums are vessels that serve as a home for aquatic creatures.


Pet turtles rely on us for food, protection, and, of course, shelter. And, while aquatic turtles do like to chill on the beach/land to bask in the sun and dry up, they still belong to the water. That’s why a tank/aquarium is so important. It needs to be spacious, safe, and diverse for your reptile companion to explore and feel at home. Also, once you put the tank together, you won’t have to do much after that.

And the best thing about the DIY plans from our list—they can be done in the backyard with a basic set of skills and instruments. So, pick a project from our list, get the tools and materials ready, and fire away!

Featured Image Credit: Mark Leung, Shutterstock

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