Curing Driftwood for the Aquarium

If you wish to add a natural elements such as driftwood to your aquarium, you need to spend some time preparing the wood and considering how to best out its best aesthetic qualities.

Driftwood and other natural structures such as complimentary rocks and stones  may make up a large portion of your aquarium. Once you aquascaped driftwood into your aquarium and added some fish, adjustments become difficult and can cause significant stress. Sometimes a lack of forethought may end up in taking apart the entire aquarium and starting all over.  My motto is: Do it right the first time. With a bit of planning, you can have a beautifully aquascaped aquarium with minimal effort and no disturbance at all.

In preparation

Before placing the driftwood in your aquarium, draw a rough sketch of your aquarium and where you want to locate the driftwood. Consider how your aquarium will look with the driftwood positioned vertically as opposed to the conventional horizontal position. Read the article on Hardscaping, which you will find under the Aquascaping drop-down menu. It contains a lot of useful information about composition and prepanning you aquascape. There, as here I emphasise: Do not be is such a hurry to begin working in your aquarium. First construct your scape on a table,  using a cardboard cutouts to represent your aquarium tank floor and back wall. This is more hands-on than drawing your layout. It also allows you to experiment with different ideas and certainly helps you to better visualize your aquascape without the frustration and stress the same experiment would cost you if you worked directly in the tank. Additionally, it allows you to get everything together, tie or glue those pieces you want to become the main element, and securing weights at the bottom of those pieces that might float up — so that once you finalised your design, you are completely prepared.

Cleaning driftwood

Driftwood needs to be cleaned before placement. Use a clean brush to scrub the driftwood thoroughly to remove any dirt or debris. Do not use soap or any chemical cleansers. Any residue from these products could poison your aquarium. The cleaned driftwood will then need to be soaked to saturate and “cure.”

Curing driftwood

Though most driftwood will remain submerged underwater, some driftwood remains slightly buoyant until it is fully saturated and “waterlogged.” Soak the driftwood in a large bucket as long as possible, making sure the entire piece is completely underwater. A minimum period of 1 to 2 weeks is recommended to allow total saturation.

Soaking also allows excess tannins that can darken and discolour the water to leach out. The discoloration caused by the tannins will not harm your aquarium inhabitants, but it will lower the pH slightly over time. Some hobbyists take advantage of this feature and utilize the tannins to achieve soft water conditions preferred by many tropical fish.

Monitor the soaking driftwood regularly to see if the water needs to be changed. As the water darkens, empty all of the water and gently rinse the driftwood. Fill the bucket with clean dechlorinated or reverse osmosis (RO) water and continue soaking the driftwood. As you repeat this process, you will notice that the water will appear to cause les ‘tea-staining’. When you no longer notice any significant discolouration for several days in a row, the driftwood is ready for placement.

 Boiling driftwood

Boiling driftwood has several benefits. Just like steeping a tea bag in hot water, boiling driftwood in a large stockpot will encourage more tannins to leach out faster, thereby considerably shortening the curing process. More importantly, boiling sterilizes the driftwood, killing algal or fungal spores that can take hold once introduced into the aquarium with the driftwood. Boiling the driftwood for 1-2 hours will effectively sterilize the driftwood.

Placement

Once the driftwood has been properly prepared, it is ready for placement. It is  time to play with your design! The most convenient time to arrange your aquatic landscape is before you put any water into the aquarium, or after you have removed some water from your existing aquarium during a water change. Since you have experimented with your design outside of your tank, simply place the driftwood into your aquarium just as you designed, and fill, or top up.With a bit of patience and some planning, you can create a beautiful aquatic landscape the first time round, with minimal stress to you and your aquarium inhabitants.

Things to consider:

  • When purchasing driftwood, make sure it is safe for aquarium use. Driftwood sold for reptiles may look ideal for aquariums but it may contain chemicals harmful to fish.
  • Though tempting, avoid using wood or roots found outdoors, unless it comes from a clean, natural environment. Make sure that the wood is bone dry. Often times, a piece that has not dried or cured properly may can rot when placed in your aquarium.
  • Large pieces of driftwood, even thoroughly soaked, can still retain buoyancy. Therefore secure all large pieces of driftwood to rocks with monofilament (fishing line) to anchor them.
  • Plants such as Java Moss or Java Fern can be attached to driftwood to create an aged “natural look.” Loosely secure the plants with monofilament line. The fishing line can be removed once the plants have naturally attached and grown into the driftwood.
  • Even after the curing/soaking process, some driftwood may still release tannins and discolor the water. Use chemical filter media such as Purigen or activated carbon to clarify your water.
  • The “tea-stained” effect caused by driftwood simulates Amazonian “Black Water” biotopes where many brightly colored Tetras like Neons, Cardinals, Rummynoses, and Bleeding Hearts live. If your aquarium is a biotope and this is your preference, then only a short soak and scrub is necessary before adding the driftwood to your aquarium.