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How to Find & Prepare Driftwood for Your Aquarium: 5 Crucial Steps

Brooke Billingsley

By Brooke Billingsley

aquarium driftwood While many of us love little aquarium tchotchkes as much as the next guy, for many people, gone are the days of filling aquariums with store-bought items. Creating a natural appearance and mimicking the natural environment for aquarium livestock have become increasingly popular in recent years. Some people do still purchase the items necessary to create these environments, but some people prefer to hunt in nature for items to fill their tank. One of the things that you’re likely to be able to find near your home is driftwood, but it’s important to know how to choose and prepare driftwood so you don’t unintentionally do harm to your tank. tropical fish 1 divider

What Is Driftwood?

Driftwood is technically any wood that has been in a body of water, and oftentimes, driftwood is found when it washes up on shores. You aren’t stuck just using driftwood that’s already been in a body of water, though. You can also prepare fresh wood for your tank yourself. Not all types of wood are suitable for adding to your tank, though. It’s important to know that wood added to your tank will release tannic acid, which can lower the pH level of your tank water. This is especially a risk for tanks with low buffering capacity, or a low KH level. Tannic acid can also create a tea-like color in the water, which many people find unsightly. Also, some wood is simply unsafe or unsuitable for aquariums.

Safe Types of Driftwood

Dried Driftwood
Image Credit: Spring22, Pixabay

In general, wood from hardwood trees is suitable for aquariums, with a few exceptions. Wood from softwood trees, like pine and cedar, should be avoided. These types of wood are typically high in sap and resin levels, which can leach into your tank and negatively impact your water quality. As a general rule, if your fingernail is able to dig into a piece of wood, then it’s softwood, while hardwood will be too hard for you to dig your fingernail into. In the aquatics trade, favorite driftwood types include Malaysian driftwood and Savanna root, thanks to their ability to sink without being weighed down or boiled. Manzanita wood is also a great option, thanks to its low levels of tannic acid. If you live in the middle of the United States, then you aren’t going to come across any of the exotic woods mentioned above out in nature. When searching for wood on your own, stick to hardwood pieces that you can absolutely identify. Adding an inappropriate type of wood to your tank can be extremely detrimental to the health of your tank livestock.

Wood to Avoid for Aquariums

  • Cedar
  • Cypress
  • Pine
  • Horse chestnut
  • Ivy
  • Spruce
  • Grapevine
  • Lilac
  • Yew
  • Walnut
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The 5 Steps to Prepare Driftwood for Your Aquarium

1. Thoroughly Examine

Check the wood over thoroughly before you even take it home. Inspect it carefully for any signs of parasites or pests, as well as fungi and anything else that appears concerning. You also need to ensure the wood has not been treated, painted, or otherwise coated. Wood treatment chemicals, paints, and other chemicals used on wood can be dangerous if added to your tank. Use extreme caution if considering the use of wood from construction sites or hardware stores.

Hand doing some aquarium cleaning and maintenance
Image Credit: BLUR LIFE 1975, Shutterstock

2. Scrub Clean

Using a clean scrub brush or toothbrush, scrub the wood thoroughly. While you obviously want to remove loose dirt and debris, you also want to remove things that are stuck on the wood that may loosen and get into your tank. Parasites, fungi, and bacteria can all find their way into your aquarium from driftwood. Ensure the brush you use has not been used for general cleaning with cleaning chemicals or soaps before. You should also only use water during this step and no other cleaning additives.

3. Soak

Most wood won’t immediately sink when added to water, so soaking is an essential part of the process that will allow you to seat your driftwood where you want it in your tank. Soaking will also give you an opportunity to watch the wood for any concerning changes or for the noticeable presence of anything loosening from the wood. An added bonus of soaking is that it will reduce the tannins that the wood releases when added to your tank. The soaking process will likely take at least a week, and for high-tannin woods, it can take months. While water is completely acceptable for soaking your driftwood, you can add a small amount of bleach—around 3 tablespoons per gallon of water—to help kill off any bacteria, parasites, or fungi. Change your soaking water daily, and if you do decide to do bleach soaks for a few days, make sure to thoroughly rinse and soak the wood in clean water multiple times afterward before adding it to your tank. Ensure the bucket you soak in has never contained soaps and cleaning chemicals.

Driftwood soaking in the beach
Image Credit: pixmcorner, Shutterstock

4. Re-Examine

Once the wood has soaked, check it over again for anything that needs your attention. You may notice additional areas that need scrubbing, or you may spot sharp edges that can be sanded down for the safety of your fish. This second examination will ensure that your piece of driftwood is safe to be added to your tank, so be very thorough.

5. Add the Wood

Once you’ve completed all of these steps, it’s time to add your driftwood to your tank. If you notice that the wood isn’t sinking like it should, you have two options. You can choose to soak the wood for a few more days and try again, or you can use rocks, plant weights, and tank décor to weigh the wood down until it no longer tries to float.

tropical fish jungle driftwood
Image Credit: you sheng, Shutterstock

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Alternate Option for Step 3

If soaking and waiting a few weeks to get the wood into your tank isn’t your thing, there is an alternative option available to you: skip the soaking and simply boil the wood. Obviously, this isn’t easy to do if the piece of wood you have is 4 feet long, but smaller driftwood pieces can be boiled on a stovetop. Thoroughly clean the pot you use beforehand, ensuring no soap residue is left behind. How long the wood needs to be boiled will be dependent on the size of the wood, the type of wood, and if the wood has already been waterlogged. An advantage of boiling over-soaking is that boiling will kill many pathogens that may not be killed by soaking. It’s still important to thoroughly check the wood, even if you’re boiling it, but this is a better way to sanitize the wood before adding it to your tank.

In Conclusion

There aren’t too many steps when it comes to adding found wood to your tank, but you should still be prepared for a multi-day or multi-week process. It’s important to prepare the wood correctly the first time around in order to maintain the health of your tank and its inhabitants. If you aren’t knowledgeable about trees and don’t feel confident identifying wood that you find, then you should find a local expert or stick to purchasing driftwood from reliable vendors.

Featured Image Credit: Anna Malygina, Shutterstock

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