What Wood to Want

Posted by Aquatropic Staff on October 10, 2023

What Wood to Want thumbnail image

For those of you who are interested in having wood as an element of your aquarium display, we strongly suggest that you buy it from a reputable local fish store. The internet abounds with horror stories from (generally novice) aquarium keepers who decided to toss whatever they found around the yard into their tank with disastrous results. The wood in your local fish store will not have had pesticides or fungicides sprayed on it or fed to it. It will already be cleaned and sandblasted to remove unwanted material and bark. It is guaranteed to be pathogen free. And for those of you who like wood that is less dense, frequently you can buy wood that come attached to slate already and it is not only stable, but it sinks!

Usually, in North American aquarium stores, what you'll find for aquarium wood is a variety of generic hardwood, and / or hardwood roots. These are generally obtained from reputable sources, have been sandblasted to clean them of bark and other unwanted material. Some have even been baked to kill any potential pathogens and are ready for your aquarium. These hardwoods won't leach anything into the aquarium, are neutral in pH and very attractive. Most of the varieties of wood we sell to our partners fits within this category. Hardwood lasts the longest and is the cleanest wood to put into your tank. Check out some selections on our website here: https://www.qualitymarine.com/ecoscape/wood-series/

The next most common wood you'll see is Bogwood; which is exactly what it sounds like. Wood that has been recovered from a bog. It can be just about any species of wood, and this is the shortest path to making soft woods or conifers safe for your aquarium. The wood has been soaking for so long, that anything that could have hurt your aquarium is long gone. This wood generally sinks well and has also been prepped for aquarium use by the supplier. Sandblasted, sometimes baked or boiled and ready for your tank. Bogwood will leach out tannins in varying degrees, and this will stain your aquarium water a tea color, and usually drop the pH a bit. There are many displays where this is appropriate and even desirable, like blackwater Amazon tanks. If this isn't your goal, avoid Bogwood. If you like the Bogwood look, but want a more neutral wood that will stain the water less and have less effect on your pH, look at Ecoscape's Trunk Wood series: https://www.qualitymarine.com/ecoscape/trunk-wood-0960620/

Also, common here is Redmoor wood, often called Spider wood or Cuckoo Wood. Occasionally, Azalea roots also get erroneously sold as Redmoor wood. It is very beautiful, and generally more expensive than many other types of wood available. It will leach some color into your aquarium, but not as much as bogwood and will have very little effect on your pH. It does not like to sink and may need to be attached to rocks and / soaked for a very long time in order to get it to stay in place. For those of you who like this look, we suggest you check out Ecoscape's Flooded Forest series: https://www.qualitymarine.com/ecoscape/flooded-forest-0960610/

Certain hardwoods are available from curiosity shops because of their unique shapes. Retired grape vines are gorgeous, and frequently available, but degrade quickly when submerged, generally have a lifelong history of pesticide / fungicide use and should be avoided. Root balls are also sometimes found in landscaping stores and curio shops, and we suggest not utilizing these either as they have often been lacquered or oiled to enhance their appearance and durability.

In the end, some of you will be undeterred and want to go collecting your own wood. If done carefully, this can offer you some very interesting choices for aquascaping your aquariums. If it goes badly, don't say we didn't warn you!

Any type of wood, given a chemical-free life and enough time to age will be safe in an aquarium. However, for some types of wood, this can take years. Avoid conifers (pine trees) of all sorts. When aged well, they don't last long, and they take a long time to age well. They tend to be very porous and hard to sink. Some species like hemlock (not what Socrates took, that is a totally unrelated herb) cedar and yew can actually be toxic for your aquarium if added too young, (if you add them young, they will last a very long time indeed, but your fish might not.) Have you ever opened a cedar box and it still smells like cedar? These three species take an especially long time to off gas effectively, sometimes over decades (there is a reason we use them for fence posts). There are other good choices for aquarium wood, avoid these.

If you're going to take the time and the risk of collecting your own wood for your aquarium, we suggest that you always use hardwood, things like oak, ash, maple, cherry and apple make great choices. The roots from these trees often offer beautiful shapes that fit well aesthetically in aquatic environments. Root wood of these species is also very dense, and easier to sink. When collecting (anything really) always get permission from the tree owner or talk to an arborist who trims trees for a living and see if they have some scraps for you. Getting wood from an arborist has the added benefit of knowing exactly what species of wood you are getting, and perhaps even where it came from.

Collecting from live trees can be beneficial, as having the bark and leaves on it make identification possible for inexperienced people. Cutting branches from live trees should be done carefully and at seasonally appropriate times to avoid hurting the trees. Collecting wood live means you will need to dry the wood out before it goes into your tank. This process is easy but takes weeks to months depending on how big of a piece of wood you have. If you try to snap the wood, and it is still pliable, it isn't ready. Bring home a few pieces of wood, that are a similar diameter, and you'll have some extras to break during testing. Another good sign is how easy the bark is to remove, if it peels away fairly easily, the wood is probably dry enough to start soaking.

Collect in rural spaces and find out the history of what you are collecting. Orchards have a lot of trees, and they get pruned regularly, however, they are also frequently sprayed with fungicides and pesticides to prevent crop losses. These are not things you want in your aquarium. If you can't be sure about the history of the branch you've chosen for your aquarium, don't bring it home.

When it comes to actually putting this stuff in your tank, cleaning and removing bark, lichen and anything else from the wood is imperative. Obviously, if you've bought your wood from your local fish store, this has already been done for you. If you've collected your wood, you'll find this process easier once the wood has dried out. Once its dry, keep smelling it. If it still smells strongly, especially of pine pitch or terpenes, it isn't ready.

Next, you're going to want to soak this wood. Find a container big enough to hold your wood and fill it with enough water to completely cover it. Now you'll need to weight it down, which can be done with just about anything heavy. Rocks are favorite. Even if your wood sinks (and most of the time it won't), soaking it is a good idea. Check back in a week, remove the weight and see if it floats. If not, it's ready, if it bobs up like an apple, then put the weight back on it and repeat until it stays down.

We suggest you soak any wood you are going to put in your aquarium, even the stuff you buy. Those soaks won't take as long, a day or two is fine, more won't matter, but is unnecessary. You can also glue the wood to the rocks you want to have in the display, and they will sink quite well. We suggest super glue gel for this, though any aquarium safe glue will work. Ecoscape offers their wood root line pre-glued to slate for your convenience (another reason to just buy the stuff), and you can check them out here: https://www.qualitymarine.com/ecoscape/wood-root-with-slate-rock-0960580/

There is an easy way to get safe stuff into your tank, and it starts with your Local Fish Store, and the trusted products they sell for your aquarium. We strongly suggest you utilize this resource as much as you can. Head over to your LFS, tell them that Aquatropic sent you, and that you're looking for Ecoscape wood (and rocks!) If after all this, you still have your heart set on foraging your own aquarium wood, please do so respectfully and carefully and be patient!