How to Make a Terrarium

Tropical Rain Forest Terrarium

There are a lot of ways to house pet reptiles and one way is to build your own terrarium. I never knew that a terrarium was something you could build yourself. Interested, I decided to research how to make a terrarium for a pet reptile, and here’s what I found.

So how do you make a terrarium? Before making a terrarium, think carefully about your reptile and what it needs. Consider the size of the terrarium, the material of it, where it will go, and what you will fill it with. You need to make sure that the terrarium resembles your reptile’s natural habitat as much as possible. 

Making a terrarium is a serious process that will require a significant amount of preparation and forethought. If you are going to build a terrarium for your pet, do it correctly. A shoddy home will lead to a difficult life for your reptile. 

Learning the Habitat Needs for Your Reptile

The first step in making your terrarium is to consider carefully the needs of your reptile, and how exactly you will be accommodating them. The needs of each reptile are extremely unique and should be taken very seriously. Consider the behavior of your pet reptile.

Does it need water? What kind of light will it need? How long will your reptile grow? How old is your reptile? What does your reptile eat? Will the terrarium be kept inside or outside? How often will you need to clean the terrarium? Talk to a veterinarian or reptile expert to best consider all of the options that will help your reptile thrive.

It is important to remember that your reptile needs to be comfortable. Help it settle into its new home by making the terrarium resemble your reptile’s natural habitat as much as you can. For example, certain reptiles may need a certain-shaped cage so that it feels welcome and happy.

It is also good to think about your reptile’s food. Some reptiles eat crickets and other bugs. It may be a good idea to make a terrarium that doesn’t let your reptile’s supper escape into your house.

Gathering Your Materials

Gathering your materials is the next important step you need to complete. The material of the cage often depends on what kind of reptile will be taking up residence there shortly. It will also depend very much on your budget.

The most common materials are mesh, screen, plastic, wood, acrylic, or glass boxes. It will be important for you to consider how often you will need to clean the habitat because some materials are much easier to clean than others. For example, it may be easier to keep plastic cleaner than wood, and plastic would last longer.

Unless you have experience working with acrylic and glass, buy pre-cut panels. The panels can be attached together or you can attach the panels to a wood or plastic frame. Plastic cages are more expensive, last longer, and hold heat better than glass cages.

Melamine, high-pressure particle board with a decorative laminate coating, looks good, holds up well, and is easy to clean, but it’s heavy. Other options include a good grade of plywood or pre-cut shelving boards. Walls can be made of wood, glass, transparent thermoplastic, or coated wire mesh.

Consider building a reptile cage out of existing items, such as an aquarium, old chest of drawers, entertainment center or a refrigerator with the door removed. Whatever it is that you use, be sure to choose a material that keeps heat well, and your reptile will not be able to heat itself.

Make sure your terriarium is big enough not to squish your reptile.

Size is absolutely one of the most vital keys to building a livable habitat for your reptile. Your reptile should be able to move around, hide, eat, bask, and do whatever else its little cold-blooded heart desires, all within its home.

Aside from giving your pet room to thrive, you must also consider leaving enough room for the other objects that may be necessary there, such as a heating element, the correct light fixture, flooring, water bowl, and vegetation.

Small reptiles, such as geckos and garter snakes, will need cages that are 2 to 6 square feet in size. Small reptiles that scamper about quite a bit will need more space, likely anywhere from 8 to 32 square inches of space. Medium-sized reptiles, such as pythons, will likely require a cage that measures up to anywhere from 6 to 8 square feet of space.

Large reptiles such as tortoises, iguanas, and constrictors will need a terrarium about the size of a closet. It is best to consult a veterinarian about the individual space requirements for your pet.

Snakes need air ventilation just like humans.

Your pet reptile needs to breathe. It’s a creature, with lungs, that needs to get oxygen to its brain. So, to keep your reptile alive, it is vital that you create a terrarium that allows airflow at all times.

Some popular options for ventilation include holes, mesh, and pegboard. Be sure to place the ventilation where it will never be covered. While it is of utmost importance to allow your snake to breathe, it is also very important to let it have air without escaping.

Reptiles can be extremely crafty and will find a way to thoroughly explore the deepest corners of your home. Holes should either be too small for the reptile to crawl through, or covered with wire mesh, hardware cloth, or black window screen.

Never use mesh for ventilation if you have a snake.  Pegboard is an excellent option if your reptile likes to rub its nose against things. If you are worried about your reptile’s nails somehow injuring the cage, you can use quarter-inch plastic coated hardware cloth.

Sketch a Design and Plan for Your Terrarium

If you are like me then you are a visual thinker, and it may be an excellent idea to sketch the design of the terrarium you plan on constructing before you begin to put it all together. A sketch is a good way to keep track of what goes where, at what angle something fits, and what material is used for what.

This will help you decide what exactly it is you need to buy and help you develop a game plan for putting the cage together. Be sure to measure the space where you plan on putting the cage, so you are certain that it will fit. Also, note what tools you will need to get the actual construction done.

You will need a saw, a chisel, and a drill. You will also need to gather the screws, hinges, glue, and adhesive you may need. Note what pieces you will put together first, and contemplate whether you will use pre-cut pieces or if you will cut your own. 

Time to Put the Terrarium Together

Now it is time to actually start the hammering and the drilling, the cutting, and the gluing. It is best to work outdoors for this part. 

It is important to attach the sides to the bottom, then attaching the top. Be sure to sand or cut if your pieces do not fit together. Do not leave any gaps. These will lead to a mess and a frantic search for your reptile if he escapes. 

Make sure to leave room for the ventilation. Make sure that the cage has no gaps or holes, as your reptile will escape and embark on a grand adventure exploring each of your kitchen cupboards if given the chance. Also be sure to consider the door.

Doors should always open sideways or down. If you have to hold the door up with one hand, cleaning the cage or caring for your reptile will be more difficult. Put the door in a place that allows you to reach all areas of the cage easily. A badly placed or sized door may make it more difficult for you to care for your reptile. Do not place hinges on top of the door.

Make sure that all of the hinges, screws, lids, and doors are sturdy. You do not want your reptile to escape from the cage, possibly exposing itself to the wonders of cereal and canned foods.

Finishing the Outside

It is now important to make sure everything is suitable for housing your reptile. Thoroughly examine the inside of the tank, watching for splinters, cracks, loose wire, and exposed screws. Anything sharp can tear your reptile’s skin, possibly exposing it to infection and making it very sick. Cover or sand down any areas that could feasibly harm your reptile. 

It is also important to make sure the inside of the terrarium is sealed completely. Reptiles can be extremely messy. Make sure that no water, excrement, or substrate can leak out. You can seal the edges with non-toxic silicone sealant and a durable plastic sheeting.

If you would like to paint or decorate the wood, it is important to stain bare wood and apply a topcoat to it for protection. Be sure to apply these in a well-ventilated area, and give it enough time to dry and air completely. Fumes from these chemicals can make you and your reptile extremely ill.

Reusing Materials 

It may be possible, cheaper, and more effective to use a container that you already own. The container, of course, must fit the needs of your specific pet. But modifying a tupperware container or an old fish tank may be significantly more prudent. 

Plastic Tubs 

Plastic tubs can be an excellent choice for a home for your reptile. If you plan on using a plastic tub, there are a few things you should keep in mind.

  • Make sure the plastic tub is big enough for your reptile. If its home is too small, your reptile will be unhappy no matter what material the walls are made of.
  • Make sure the tub is completely and entirely clean. If the tank is dirty, your snake can get seriously ill.
  • It is important to be sure you can heat the plastic. Your reptile will need an outside heating source to stay warm. If your plastic tub cannot withstand being heated, it will melt. This is extremely dangerous because the melted plastic can burn your reptile, and the plastic may give off chemicals as it melts.  
  • Have a thermostat or temperature gun to indicate the temperature inside the tank. This is incredibly important, as your snake can be harmed if it is too cold or too hot. 

Ten Gallon Tanks

It is possible to make an incredibly cheap terrarium using ten-gallon tanks bought at the store. You will need two, and some hardware similar to what you would need if you were building from scratch. 

Begin by taking the front off of both of the tanks. Do this carefully with a sharp knife, leaving you with the three sides of the rectangle. Next, you will need to use the knife to strip off the aquarium sealant that was holding the front in place. Hold the knife away from you and push down, keeping the blade close to the glass. You will need a tube of aquarium sealant. 

You will need to purchase a piece of acrylic that is 1/8″ in thickness. This will be used to hold a little bit of water at the bottom for humidity. You will also need four hinges, two handles, and any lock or latch that you would prefer. 

It is now time to adhere the two tanks together. Using tape on the outside to hold the sides together, put the sealant on the inside of the two tanks. Make sure there are no gaps, and make sure to work in a well ventilated area. Let the sealant dry for 24 hours. After it is dry, carve off the extra sealant, leaving it smooth. 

Now attach the acrylic bottom using the sealant. After it has dried completely, attach the two sheets that you cut off in the beginning. These are the doors. Use two hinges for each door. Then place the handles and lock. 

To finish, clean the inside of your tank thoroughly. Make sure there are no sharp edges that will injure your reptile. Also be sure that the extra sealant has been shaved off, leaving a smooth edge without any gaps. If you are not careful, you will create a leaky terrarium. And few things are as obnoxious as a leaky terrarium. 

Once your tank is completely glued, dried, shaved, and cleaned, feel free to add the necessary furnishings for your reptile and introduce your pet to its new home. 

What Not to Use 

Always be sure that you are using appropriate materials to build your terrarium. Never use a cardboard box as a structure. Use the appropriate wood or heat-safe plastic. 

Always use appropriate heating elements. Failing to do so may harm your reptile. 

Never use chemicals that are harmful to your reptile, to either decorate the tank or clean it. Always allow your tank to dry completely after cleaning it. 

Always make sure you are using the appropriate furnishings inside your terrarium. Selecting the wrong plants, substrate, and hiding spots can lead to a very sick pet. 

Adding Your Specific Substrate

The substrate is the stuff that you put in the bottom of the reptile’s cage. Flooring choices include:

  • Sand (fine beach sand, playground sand, silica sand)
  • Gravel/stones (lava rock, pea gravel, polished stones)
  • Wood and paper products (bark, mulch, butcher paper, newspaper, paper towels, shavings)
  • Soils and mosses (sphagnum moss, potting soil, Spanish moss)
  • Litter (cat litter, clay litter, alfalfa pellets).

The type of substrate you use will depend on the needs of your reptile. When in doubt, seek professional advice from a reptile specialist. Some substrates (for example, sand) can readily cause gut impactions if lizards eat some when feeding off insects.

Always make sure you check what kind of substrates your reptile can use!

Wood is best for arboreal species of reptiles, such as lizards, that do not spend a lot of time on the ground. Paper towels and newspapers can be shredded and placed on the bottom of the cage. These materials are inexpensive and are easy to clean up, but they do not help with odor control.

Coconut fiber is good for reptiles that need a high humidity environment and helps control odor. It is also good for reptiles that like to burrow and hide. Moss is good for high humidity reptiles and is good for reptiles that like to burrow as well.

Sand works for desert species reptiles; however, it can be harmful if large amounts are ingested. Never use soil, grass, bark or other substrates from the park or your yard. They may contain organisms and bacteria that may be harmful to your reptile.

Adding Heat

All reptiles need an external heat source because they cannot control their own body temperature and many of them come from warm climates. If your reptile spends most of his time on branches or in the upper portion of the cage, he will need basking heat. If your reptile spends most of his time on the ground, you will need ground heat. All cages need a thermometer as well. The ideal temperature is between 68 to 89.6 ºF.

Ceramic heaters, basking lamps, and basking lights can be used to provide basking heat. Basking lights are used to create a desert environment. Basking lamps have time limits (14 hours in the summer and 8 hours during the winter) and must be monitored. Heat mats and pads, hot rocks, and heat cable and ropes provide ground heat. Heat mats and pads provide constant heat.

Hot rocks are best for nocturnal reptiles but may malfunction from time to time. Choose your hot rocks, mats, and pads carefully. Some mats get too hot and the reptile could burn his belly lying on it. Heat cables and ropes are flexible and can be wrapped around different objects. Heat cables and ropes get very hot. You will need to use a rheostat to monitor the temperature.

Do not place a basking light above a heating pad. This can cause the temperature of the heat pad to reach unsafe levels and can hurt your reptile.

You can also add ultraviolet (UV) light.

Most reptiles need full spectrum lights that provide either UVA or UVB light. Proper lighting will keep your reptile healthy and happy and provide adequate levels of Vitamin D3 and calcium. The specific light you use will depend on the type of reptile you have.

Lights should be placed 12 to 18 inches from where the reptile will lie. Lights that provide 4% to 10% of radiation as UVB are the best, depending on the animal. You will most likely need at least two UV bulbs.

It is best to switch your lights on and off — including the UV — to mimic day length in the habitat in which your reptile lives in the wild. Lights should be replaced every six months, regardless of whether they appear to be functioning. This is because the UV levels emitted drop off markedly after six months.

 Incandescent lights will add heat to a cage. While you can use this type of light as a heat source, take care that it doesn’t make the cage too hot. Install lights outside the cage if possible. If you choose to install a bulb inside the cage, build a shield around it so the reptile doesn’t come into contact with it.

Don’t be afraid to add some furnishings to your terrarium.

I mentioned before that it is important to have the terrarium look as close to the reptile’s natural habitat as possible. Put in tree branches for species that like to climb and flat rocks for those who enjoy basking under a heat lamp. Give your reptile places to hide, ideally one hide at the warm end and one hide at the cool end of the cage. Purchase the furnishings from a pet store or trusted online retailer. 

Never use wood or rocks that were found in the wild. These materials can often carry bacteria that will make your reptile extremely sick, and perhaps even kill it. It is usually best to stick to plastic plants instead of living ones, as they are less likely to carry bacteria, and are easier to clean.

Keep in mind how much water your reptile may need. Some reptiles require bowls large enough to soak themselves in, while others need a drip-water bottle to drink from. Do not dehydrate your reptile, as you will kill it. It’s a living thing that needs water, same as you or me. 

How to Safely Introduce Your Reptile into Its New Home 

It is now time to introduce your reptile to its new home. Once done, it is important that you closely observe your pet, and make sure that it is acting comfortable. If your reptile is exhibiting behavior that is odd or is constantly trying to escape, it is feeling stressed. You may need to make adjustments to the cage or build a new one altogether.

If you have a snake, it is especially important to let it settle into its home before attempting to handle it. If you try to pick up your snake too early after it has been introduced to its habitat, it will frighten and confuse it, thus leading to more stress. It is best to leave your snake to get used to the terrarium for a few days, at least. 

Related Questions 

Do I have to finish my wood for a terrarium? It is best to finish the wood that you plan to use for your terrarium. If you don’t, the wood will rot faster, thus requiring you to replace it or build a new one. 

How much water should I keep in my reptile’s cage? It is best to consult a veterinarian or reptile expert about the hydration needs of your specific reptile. Some reptiles need bowls, others just need drip bottles to drink from.

Which is better for terrariums: plastic or wood? Both plastic and wood options have excellent properties that allow them to house your reptile and make it feel at home. However, plastic is typically used more often. This is because it is durable, heat-retaining, and easy to clean. 

Kate Bronsell

I'm originally from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. I'm a classicly trained musician in guitar, piano, and voice. I enjoy writing poetry and creative nonfiction. One of my favorite cartoons is Tom and Jerry.

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