1 November 2020

[Crafts] Waterfall Terrarium

The biggest yet! This was where I wanted to get my hands on just about everything new as possible. It was a build I wanted to get ambitious on with the imagined landscape massively scaled down.

I wasn't making much progress visualizing the idea on paper, so I pulled out the foamcore to draft the composition. It was to have the following features:

1) Creating 3 elevation levels: the impression of a 60-100ft Waterfall (in scale), a section of runoff, and an implied larger body of water.
2) Obscured water source. Don't want to see a pool of water be the origin source of the running water.
3) Waterfall height sufficient enough to pave way for a tall rock wall.
4) Base of waterfall should have some sort of flat ground suggesting a path that could take you to the foot of the falls.
5) Bottom layer of water being routed to the back should be concealed. We don't want to see the structure's foundation wall and screen mesh.
6) Route the water from the top to the left and right sides to keep the moss moist.
7) Create a water cave with a small entrance we can peer into.
8) Route water from the top to the roof of the cave and create a trickling effect to animate this cave.
9) Adequate amount of side wall between the lowest water level and the base of the waterfall to create a cliffwall impression of sorts.
10) The waterfall is be slightly obscured by one side of the rock cliff so it isn't directly in your face.
11) Overhanging rock, a tunnel-like impression that hangs above the path to the waterfall base.

Some initial thoughts that have me challenged is how I would secure the overhanging rock almost entirely with silicone against the side glass. This seemed impossible when I picked up the rocks for the first time. The tank itself was put together by cutting a second-hand 20-gallon tank in half.

With the draft foam out of the way, it's time to build the infrastructure. Based on what I've seen from Asu, one of the more popular terrarium builders on YouTube and Instagram, he builds the plumbing infrastructure first before laying down any of the things we can only see in the final product. He typically creates a gated section to separate what is essentially a front stage and a backstage. Where the waterfall continually fills the main body of water, there must be a way to route the water back to the pump to repeat the circulation. There should also be a means to prevent hardscape, gravel and dirt from reaching the pump. The mesh serves this purpose. The walls are made from corruplast, basically cardboard in plastic form. "For Sale" and election signs are typically made of this material if you've never heard of it. It's rigid, relatively easy to cut, and won't decay from being wet.

I haven't had a full realization of how the fall's water source would take shape at the time. I just said "screw it", and made a box contianer for now to get things going. I figured something like this would allow the water to pool up before running down the river towards the falls, as having the tube shoot the water straight down the river's length wouldn't create a natural sense of free flowing water. Of course this will need to be concealed by rock later, so the extra lip on the left I figured would be helpful in holding up any rocks I put there. This box was glued to the glass with general silicone. A lot of terrarium builders highly recommend against silicone that have mold inhibitors such as kitchen/bathroom-purpose silicone, because that could be a health hazard to any animals you house in here. I'm not planning on any of the such, but I still managed to find general purpose silicone from Walmart.

The gate for the submersible pump. I ran the smallest size I had access to. It wasn't until later I realized that pump wasn't strong enough to pump water up the tank, and I ended up having to grabbing a more powerful one.

Closeup of what that mesh wall looks like.

One of my visions was to see water trickling on still water in the cave. Of course we wouldn't be able to see where the water was coming from, but to be able to peer into the tiny opening of the cave and see activity would be a discreet and super cool detail. So I'm running two tubes with several slits.

Here I am priding myself for thinking modularity. This piece serves as the floor for the waterfall and cave. Thie piece is separate from the the main mesh, while resting its weight on the existing walls to distribute load. Why it was to be modular was in the event need to access this back compartment which I will be loading with lava rock.

Taking full advantage of of the corrugated nature of the material, I've devised scrap bits from earlier cuts to create a beam which the two drip tubes can be hang from.

A section of the top floor with the drip tubes mounted.

Installed the support rods to route the drip tubes roughly below the starting box.

Needing to create another platform which will suspend the right side of the structure, I'll be making use ofthe existing walls again to mount the piece to.

Here's the underside of that platform. Has attached pieces on the side so that it can stand on the walls without slipping off on either side. And of course, added triangles for corner bracing. Basic structural reinforcement.

This is how it looks in place. Will need to find a way to support that trinagular end for any load that rests on it.

Main floor is done.... but it was from here I realize I won't be able to make something fully modular while also being leak proof and rigid. I had to abandon the idea of modularity, and so knowing I won't be taking these bottom floor apart any longer, I've taken this opportunity to start loading the backstage with lava rock before I won't be able to later.

Honestly not sure why I found loading up the bottom floor with lava rock so satisfying.

Keeping in mind I didn't want to glue small bits and pieces of rock to create what could end up looking like a very man-made rock wall, I've recessed the walls more than I originally went with in the drafted version to allow room for bigger rocks to be put in place.I would just have to play with the room I have left afterwards, and hope for the best.

Not wanting the step section to be a sudden drop, I hacked together some panels that cotninually sloped more and more to fit it within whatever space I had left. The drop is sharper than I originally planned, but clearly the idea didn't line up the dimensions I'm playing with.

That's the gist of it. The pltofrm on the right was just a basic sheet, again to allow room for the rock to be composed more naturally rather than fitting in with however way the corruplast will dictate.

Copying what Asu has done many times, we're covering access to the pump by placing a plant in this space. I've put together a small box with a routed corner to allow the power cable to fit through.

A mesh has been installed for drainage.

Here's how that space looks. It's tighter than I'd like it to be.

The plastic sheet were glued against the glass so the box has something to sit on without falling all the way through.

We're good to start adding in rocks.

This has been more challenging than I thought. I'm very much at the mercy at how the rocks are shaped before AND after breaking into smaller pieces. I'm working with a combination of manten and dark pagoda. Honestly felt like they threw in some other rocks with the manten, but I've made do with what I got.

Since the cave wall was never going to be lit, I figure I wouldn't expend the prettier rocks I had to assemble this portion. I used, what the original owner claimed to be aquarium substrate, to piece the cave walls together. The wall would be taking up the back left corner of the tank. Silicone I've learned can be a bit tricky to work with here. If you don't support it long enough, the settling silicone won't be able to hold up the rock on its own. I would later plan on covering up the glas on the outside so light doesn't leak in, giving away all the mystery.

Forming the back boundaries of the waterfall base. The idea I had in mind was to avoid using the corruplast to define the borders. This would allow me to use the rocks to define the pool's shape, and that I could later plug in the gaps with smaller gravel for something much more organic. Boy did that not turn out as good as I hoped.

Can't remember why, but I felt it was a good time to now cover up any traces of white with the cheapo coarse black sand. Somehow I felt using a spray adhesive would've been easier to work with, but spreading silicone and sprinkling this crap sand was not a pleasant experience. It's like it didn't want to stick half the time. And how the heck was I going to cover up the sides of the corruplast with all those holes making life that much more difficult?

Working with whatever rocks I have that can fit in the front pool, while being able to stack its way up to support that triangular end that I mentioned earlier.

As the waterfall base's pool boundaries are defined by putting rock on top, the above-water level on this platform would absolutely have to be raised. Here I'm playing with whatever rock I can put here to interpret as land, as seen in the next photo.

I think I can get away with filling in the gaps with soil so I can then place some moss on that, like patches of grass. but I think I scratched out this rock later.

Skipping ahead, here's some progress made. Jumped all over the place as I pick out rocks, I find they fit perfect in some specific location and turn my attentino to that instead. Like many scapers say, doing the hard scape does in fact take the longest. Soem other noteworthy point is what I resolved to do onthe right side to suspend the overhanging rocks. Instead of relying solely on the plastic side wall standing basically on its own, I've inject that open space behind it with expanding foam, as this will stiffen up the surface. This should make the process of gluing rocks to this wall much less sketchy.

I realize the rocks I'm choosing for the bottom third of the tank have to do two things: cover up visibility of the white mesh wall; somehow fill the in-between spaces so that you can't see just a plain ol glass floor with a white wall behind everything. So I'm starting with the right-corner since I had already allocated some larger rocks just beside it. This should create a dark passage, which I'm hoping instills mystery.

Covering up whatever wall could be seen from the front view.

With the big rock in place, now it looks natural.

Pulling the camera back a bit revealing the rock being used.

Rough layout of the bottom. I really wished I could just used some super wide piece of a single stone to look most natural, but like everything else, I'm limited to what I got in the mail.

Hard scape is done. Looks super cool with the top-down lighting. Can't wait to get some plants in here.

This top area will utilize the deep section for plants that need to root downward for optimal growth. May be able to squeeze some moss shavings between the rock cracks for more organic growth.

The right-side has a channel where water can soak a strip of hygrolon that I will sit patches of moss over. Thought this was a briliant idea I've seen SerpaDesign make use of.

Moving downstairs, I've glued small rocks in such a way to allow room to put in adequate soil for whatever plants I stick in there.

That overhangging rock idea couldn't work out fully as I wanted. I wanted to use as rock that naturally had layering to avoid creating that man-made rock wall look I mentioned either. Unfortunately this mean I had to settle on chunky rocks stacked on top, using up more space that I originally envisioned, but this look isn't bad either. I can still retain that path, and the stack of pagoda comes off rather natural.

Laying down the filter floss now.

Had a tough time deciding whether to leave this open top or to close it up. On the one hand, I don't want to box in any plants that grow taller than the top edge of the glass, but if I could retain a steady humidity level, that would benefit the moss tremendously. Ultimately, I decided on doing so only because the waterfall splashes go just about everywhere. That's fantastic for the moss down there, but not for the coffee table.

The top-corner box will contain this fern..... boston fern I think??? Likes humidity and indirect lighting. Kind of works out with that aquarium lamp as it doesn't blast the plants directly.

Planted some sheet moss... at least I think that's what it is. Didn't pack it entirely to give it room to spread.

Stuffed some baby tears in the top left corner. Perhaps these will grow and drape over the edge.

What the top floor looks like.

Like the lower floors, I didn't fill in this area entirely to allow the moss to grow on its own.

Perhaps I didn't need to put any moss in this area. Only slightly worried the moss aren't getting enough lighting, but fortunately, the water routed to the moss upstairs sprung an unexpected leak, allowing water to drip down to this area. Watering won't be an issue. Let's hope it's not too wet for the moss.

A different angle of the baby tears. I hear they're easy to grow and don't require full sun, so I'm sure this should grow and spread over time.

I regret not testing the waters, pun fully intended. The speed of which the water traveled meant it rolled its way up the side wall on the right, and it didn't result in a natural looking fall. Had to put a rock in place to change the flow enough that the waterfall. Let's see this in motion now:

This project wasn't without its problems. Though this is the 3rd terrarium I've built to date, there were many features that were a first for me. If you've managed to read all the way to the bottom of this photo-heavy post, here are some things you really ought to keep in mind if you want to try something this amibitious. In no particular order:

1) When building the mesh to fence off the water pump, make sure the height of the mesh/wall is tall enough to accommodate taller water levels, and not just to accommodate the minimum water level to fully submerse the pump. If you choose to (or are force to) change your mind on the desired water level, you have sufficient room to play with that. I made this one so short that providing an adeuqate amount of water to submerse the pump meant the water level would exceed the height of the wall, rendering the purposes of the filtration useless.

2) Your design should factor in some way to allow you to remove the pump for maintenance purposes. Suppose your pump clogs or fails altogether. You need to be able to pull that out somehow. Although I did leave a square section to do so, I didn't allow a comfortable amount of space. Reinstalling the tube onto the pump while my skinny arm can barely fit in that square opening at the top makes this a miserable chore.

3) Clean all your gravel first before use, even if they're going to be glued to floors and walls. When the water sits, you can see a film of sorts, and the water smells funny too. I imagine you can't do much about the rocks, but I did use coloured coarse sand from the department store. I can't vouch for how clean that stuff is to use for aquatic animals (hence why I didn't add any. I'm looking at you, salamander man).

4) Use tubing wide enough to clear the sand you're using. The two tubes I ran to make drip sections for the cave got clogged halfway into the tube, and this all happened during the time I was gluing sand to the top section. Granted I did plug up the tube's entrance, it was inevitable I'd get some in there when you sprinkle loose sand onto the surface.

5) Test your waterfall for leaks by only laying down the relevant objects first. If going the ambitious route of letting the rocks shape the flow itself rather making foamcore canals (like Asu), make sure everything flows as expected before putting in the rest of the rocks and soil.

On an end note, I do have the other have of this aquarium tank I can make another bigger build, but which I'll hold off on using until I've another idea I've fleshed out on paper. I'm currently tempted by the idea of an open-top in combination of a mist maker to double as a room humidifer. That will come at a later time. I've a collection of sealed jars to explore more conventional builds with.