A custom aquarium canopy can dress up the top of your aquarium and hide the lighting fixtures and other mechanicals. You can spend several hundred dollars on a commercial canopy, but why would you? For just a few dollars you can have the personal satisfaction by building your own canopy, customizing it however you want.
Whether you buy one or make it yourself, an aquarium canopy is essentially just a box-like structure with an open bottom that fits atop your aquarium to hold lighting and other mechanicals while giving your aquarium a neat, finished look. Commercial canopies are sometimes sold together with a matching decorative pedestal or base, but if you are using a dresser or some other piece of furniture as the base for your aquarium, there may be an advantage to making your own canopy so you can create it to your liking.
Our DIY canopy is just about the simplest one you can make. While most DIY canopies are built with a framework of 2 x 2s or other lumber, our canopy even does away with the framework. In our design, the front, back, and sides are simple plywood panels that are joined at the corners with screwed butt joints, with each inside corner reinforced with a pair of simple angle brackets. All parts for this canopy are readily available at any home center.
A plywood top fits over the canopy box, hinged at the back so you can open and close it for feeding and aquarium maintenance. Light fixtures can be attached to the underside of the top; changing bulbs is simply a matter of opening the canopy top to access them.
While this design is very simple to build, it is critical that you get the sizing exactly right. The canopy basically rests atop the glass walls of the aquarium, so the overall sizing will need to be perfect. For this reason, the measurement and layout stage is one of the most crucial steps.
Any type of 5/8-inch or 3/4-inch-thick plywood can be used to build your canopy, as well as T-111 siding panels. A-C grade plywood with a finished face of birch, maple, or oak makes a good surface for either staining or painting. With the basic canopy box completed, you can also dress up the edges and corners with decorative moldings to your liking. Our project will conclude with 1 x 4 lumber molding along the top and bottom. This trim will add ornamentation, and, because it overlaps the glass at the bottom, it will also make the canopy more stable as it sits atop the aquarium.
Equipment / Tools
- Tape measure
- Framing square
- Power saw (circular saw, table saw, or jigsaw)
- Power drill with driver bits and twist bits
- Miter saw (optional)
- Hammer and nail set
- Bar clamps
- 2-inch wood screws
- 3/4-inch or 5/8-inch plywood (quantity will depend on the size of the aquarium
- 2-inch angle brackets (8) with screws
- 3-inch brass butt hinges or butterfly hinges (2)
- 1-by-4 boards for trim (quantity depends on the size of the canopy)
- Wood glue
- 1 1/4-inch brads
- Paint or wood finish (as desired)
Take Measurements and Plan the Parts
To begin, precisely measure the length and width of your aquarium, and make a sketch to determine how the plywood sides, front, and back will fit together. This project depends on the canopy box resting directly on the glass sides of the aquarium, so the outside dimensions of the canopy must be exactly the same as the outside dimensions of your aquarium.
As seen in this diagram, our design calls for the front and back panels to exactly match the length of the aquarium, with the side panels sandwiched between the front and back. This means that the side panels will be slightly shorter than the width of the aquarium, by an amount equal to the thickness of both the front and back panels. For example, if you are using 5/8-inch thick plywood, the side panels will be 10/8 inches, or 1 1/4 inches, shorter than the front-to-back width of the aquarium. When joined together, the pieces will create a box the exact dimensions of the aquarium.
The height of the canopy can be whatever you choose it to be, but it's a good idea to keep it scale with the height of the aquarium. A canopy that is roughly 1/4 of the height of the aquarium provides a good proportion, but this can be adjusted, depending on what kind of lighting and other mechanicals must fit underneath.
Plan the Lid
Our design calls for a simple hinged lid that fits exactly over the canopy box. You can make this lid from the same plywood used for the rest of the canopy. A pair of butt hinges or butterfly hinges along the back edge of the lid will be attached to the back panel of the canopy and make it possible to open and close the lid. You can also attach a brass handle to the front of the lid to make it easier to open.
Now is the time to plan how any lighting fixtures will be mounted to the underside of the lid. Sketch where these lighting fixtures will be attached. The size of the lighting fixtures, along with the height of the water in your aquarium, may impact how high your canopy needs to be. If necessary, make any adjustments to the overall dimensions of the canopy, and note them on your sketches. LED lighting is lighter and thinner than fluorescent tube lighting. LED lights may be better if attaching the lighting to the underside of the lid.
Cut Parts and Begin Assembly
Building the canopy will involve first cutting and attaching the front, back, and sides, then adding the top, and finally completing the trim and finishing or painting the project.
Cut and Assemble the Front, Sides, and Back
- Using a framing square and pencil, layout the front, back, and side panels onto a sheet of plywood, following the dimensions on your sketches.
- Cut out the pieces, using a table saw, circular saw, or jigsaw. A table saw will give the straightest cuts, but a circular saw is also a good choice. If you use a circular saw or jigsaw, take care to cut precisely on the marked lines; using a straightedge guide can help.
- Position the front, back, and side panels together in an upright position on a flat work surface, so the sides are sandwiched between the front and back pieces at the ends. Use bar clamps to hold the pieces together. Make sure all ends are flush.
- Attach the front and back panels to the sides by drilling pilot holes, then driving a pair of two-inch wood screws through the front and back panels and into the edge grain of the side panels. Drilling pilot holes is essential to keep the plywood from splitting.
- Reinforce each inside corner of the canopy with a pair of angle brackets, attached with the screws included with the brackets.
- Test-fit the canopy box on the aquarium, making sure that it is supported by the glass on all sides.
Cut and Attach the Lid
- With the canopy box still resting on the aquarium, take careful length and width measurements to verify the dimensions of the lid.
- Cut the lid to size using a table saw, circular saw, or jigsaw.
- Test fit the lid on the canopy box, making sure it fits the outline of the box exactly.
- Place the canopy box and lid on your work surface, then position the hinges along the back edge, so that one leaf of the hinge rests flat on the surface of the lid, the other leaf along the back panel. Attach each hinge with the provided screws.
- Attach a handle to the front of the lid, set back about two inches from the front edge.
- Carefully set the canopy back on the aquarium and make sure the lid operates smoothly.
Adding Trim Moldings
A key final step is to add whatever trim you want. You can customize this in many different ways, but it is important that the bottom trim on the canopy be installed so that it overhangs slightly to lip over the edges of the aquarium. This will provide a measure of stability and prevent the canopy from being jostled off the aquarium.
One very simple means of trimming your canopy is to cut and fit simple 1 x 4 pieces to serve as a crown around the top of the canopy and an apron along the bottom. These pieces can be fitted around the canopy with simple butt joints, with the front and back pieces overlapping the sides. Or, if you are a bit more skilled, you can miter the ends of each trim piece at 45 degrees, so that the corners of the trim meet in perfect miters.
Attach the trim pieces to the canopy box with 1 1/4 inch brads and wood glue, so that the bottom apron extends down below the canopy edge by about 1 inch, and the top crown extends upward enough to cover up the edge of the lid panel.
Your canopy will now present a nice, finished look when viewed from the front, but viewed from the side, the edge grain of the plywood will still be visible. This will not make much difference if you plan to paint your canopy. If you are staining the canopy, though, you can hide these exposed with pieces of corner molding attached along the vertical edges of the canopy box, fitting them between the top crown and bottom apron moldings.
Finishing the Canopy
How you finish your canopy is really up to you, although painting is a good finish for most plywood structures. Whether you choose to paint or stain-and-varnish, make sure to finish the inside surfaces of the canopy, as well. This will help seal the wood and prevent humidity from gradually softening the wood.
Notes on Lighting
After finishing, you can attach whatever lighting you want to the bottom of the lid on your canopy. Any canopy will confine heat over the tank, so make sure to use low-temperature light fixtures, such as fluorescents or LEDs. There is any number of vents and fans you can mount into the sides of your canopy, as needed, to control heat and humidity. In some cases, simple ventilation holes drilled in the sides of the canopy may be all you need.