A Fairly Successful Attempt at a Fake Rock Build

I did a recent post mentioning that I’ve been working on a fake rock background for a lizard I’ll be getting and, as I’ve finally finished it, I thought I’d share the whole process with you guys. I know this is a bit of an odd post for this blog but when I was looking around on how to do this it was blog posts like these that I tended to use as a reference so this may end up a bit pic heavy but hopefully not too boring. I promise that the next few posts will be back to regular topics, this has just taken up a fair amount of time and energy and I actually quite like how it looks. Plus it was surprisingly easy to actually do.

Before I get started I should say this is the first one I’ve attempted, I’ve definitely learned things along the way and I know what I’d do differently if I ever did this again. I have mainly got information from the internet, especially the Lizard Landscapes website and YouTube channel. I used polystyrene, no more nails glue, standard tile grout, acrylic paint and some craft epoxy resin for mine so there are some differences but the idea is the same. If you’re still interested keep reading!

I started off with one of the hides I had planned, mainly because it was going to be built around an old plastic drawer so I thought it’d be easier, turns out I was wrong! Anyway, I cut all the polystyrene with a knife to start with, another thing I wouldn’t do again as there’s so much mess. Afterwards I used a saw and I’d definitely recommend looking into hot wire for this especially for less uniform sort of shapes. I went for a slate look because I thought it’d be easy, plus I have a lot of black acrylic paint and I just like the look of slate in general. I basically cut out a load of triangles that tapered off to a point and arranged them so it didn’t look too uniform. They sort of look like a stacked pile of slates or seams of slate, not sure how well it came across but for a first attempt I think it’s ok.

I did end up cutting down the edges as it looked slightly too Flintstoney for me and it definitely improved it, to me anyway. Also this first one was mainly stuck together with epoxy glue as it’s what I had and I was impatient to start, a contact glue like no more nails is definitely easier.

After this it’s time for the grout! Basically start off thin, like a runny glue kind of consistency, and get thicker as the layers go on. The top layer I tried to add texture by putting it in thick and running a knife along. Turns out it’s easier to just make it thick and use a very stiff brush and you actually get a better slate layers effect, so much easier too!

Then time to measure and cut the other pieces to fit around the two hides I’d made. The second was made with simply piling up the same kind of shapes of grout and sticking them together, a lot easier than attaching the round a drawer but the drawer does mean I have a humid hide if I ever need one. I had measured the back panel but wanted to be sure it’d fit before actually grouting it. This bit was tricky as polystyrene is so fragile but we managed to get it in. The background is actually two pieces, a big back piece that goes along the top and then the piece between the two hides. I made it so it can be removed if necessary for cleaning or if I have a particularly destructive skink.

Then more grout!

The grout was definitely the longest part of the whole thing, taking a day between each layer, and I should probably say if you’re like me you’ll need way more grout than you expect.

The painting part was actually quite fun. I forgot to take photos between each layer but basically I mixed black, white and a bit of yellow, as it was too blue, and watered it down with water, probably 30% paint and 70% water for the base coat so it goes into every little crack. Then I added black for the shadows as well as using some sponges and getting them lightly damp with white paint that was very diluted (around 10% paint in the mix) and drying it to dry brush the white on. Then the sponges again with some greens for the moss and some odd brown and yellowish marks, I was coping a piece of slate I had to make it look more realistic.

There’s a stage in here I forgot to photograph which was simply checking that the wall fit back in there which did take a lot of sanding and filing down extra edges to squeeze it back in but it was definitely easier doing it at this point than if I’d had to try and get it done after the resin.

The stage I was most worried about was definitely the resin. I hadn’t really seen much on people using it but I wasn’t sure what to use to seal it so this was suggested on a Blue Tongue Skink message board I’ve been reading a lot lately. You can use Mod Podge, like a glue, but that may not stand up to sharper claws, yacht varnish seems popular but the one we had says about eight weeks curing and I didn’t have that time plus the smell put me off.

Crafting epoxy resin seemed like it might work and it’d make the whole structure stronger too. I used a brand called Resin4Decor and I definitely recommend it if you’re in Europe. It was easy to mix, spread evenly and I’m very happy with the finish. It is definitely messy and make sure you have something that does matter underneath whatever you’re coating it with as it’s not necessarily designed for an uneven surface and runs off the edges and can end up sticking the whole thing to the surface underneath. We had an old window blind that we’ve used for painting before and there are now pieces of the surface of that permanently attached to the back of this fake wall. I also found that, even thought it felt dry enough to turn it over after eight hours it wasn’t, which left the hole in the top surface of the one hide. If you’re quick enough, within 24 hours, I managed to get a second coat that could cover any gaps and missed bits but apparently if you wait too long it can just create a second layer and peel off the bottom one.

Anyway, after letting it set and making sure it was all covered this is the final fake rock wall. I will be adding a branch along the back to get to the left hide and I need to work out the temperatures for the thermostat but I am happy with how it looks set that I finally got to try this after seeing so many amazing versions on reptile forums. Mine isn’t the best but I like it.

As it’s a heavy wall it is attached in three places with screws to the vivarium back itself. Though it’s such a tight fit I don’t know if I could remove it anyway, we did try, I wanted the extra grip in there just in case skinky decides to go climbing!

I guess some tips I’ve learnt when doing it:

  • You’ll need more grout than you expect
  • You’ll probably need less epoxy resin than it says for your surface area if you choose to use it, I have an extra bottle I’ll probably use for crafty things in the future
  • Hot wire is probably the best way to cut polystyrene, if not then good saws work better than knives
  • You will get polystyrene balls everywhere no matter how careful you are, they’ll be popping up for ages
  • Measure lots of times (not just twice) before cutting, my holes in the wall for the vents at the back are fine on the left but gradually get more off the further right you look!
  • Don’t be scared to try off shapes and using off cuts, it’s not meant to be perfect, unless you go for something fancier like a building rather than natural rocks

I hope this post hasn’t been too long, I almost did it as two but it felt a bit weird cutting it off in the middle, and that it’s interesting or helpful to someone. It’s been fun to do and if I had more vivarium to decorate in the future I’d definitely be doing it again!

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