Aquarium Driftwood: Types, Finding & Preparing

A large part of the appeal of keeping an aquarium is that it offers the ability to create visually appealing and comfortable environments for your fish.

Driftwood is an ever-popular addition to any aquarium, it can look fantastic, and it will create a natural looking habitat for your fish, shrimp or snails.

Perhaps the biggest challenge with driftwood is that it can be difficult to find the ideal piece for your aquarium, and pieces that are available online or instore can be pricey.

However, if you’ve taken a wander along a river or along the beach, you’ve probably seen plenty of driftwood lying around. Perhaps you’ve wondered to yourself if it’s safe to use in your aquarium.

You’ll be pleased to hear that you can use driftwood you’ve found. However, it’s not as simple as picking it up of the beach and dropping it into your tank in the evening. Driftwood you’ve scavenged needs to be thoroughly cleaned and prepared before it’s OK to safely use it in your tank.

Or if you want to save yourself the hassle, you can always buy it 🙂

What is Driftwood?

The definition of driftwood is pretty broad, but you can basically call any piece of wood that has been in the water and then washed up on shore driftwood.

When we’re out looking for driftwood, we want to look for the weather-beaten stuff that looks like its floated around the world more than once. The weirder looking and more character filled the better, at least in my opinion.

We want the older stuff because it requires much less preparation compared to fresh wood. Wood will naturally leech tannins into the water over time, but if the wood has already had a good soak, the fewer tannins are likely to leech away into your aquarium.

Why Use Driftwood In An Aquarium?

The reasons for using driftwood go beyond the aesthetic. It actually has a fair amount of ‘health’ benefits associated with it, so all the more reason to get some.

Besides looking cool, driftwood can provide an environment for your fish and other aquatic pets to hide out.

An aquarium with a single ornament or some artificial plants is a stressful place for fish to live. Many species like to hide away for at least part of the day. Driftwood can provide that shelter and safe environment to create happy fish.

As your aquarium begins to mature, it’ll naturally begin to host algae which is a great source of food for snails, shrimp and some species of fish (a little bit of algae can be good).

Driftwood will also begin to harbor bacteria which will help break down the waste produced by your fish and other pets. These bacteria help to produce a stable tank and will combat nitrate and phosphate spikes.

As we’ve already mentioned, wood naturally contains tannins. These tannins will leech into your water over time and help lower the PH levels as well as soften your water. If you already live in a soft water area, this benefit will be negligent, but those of us who live in hard water areas will approach every bit of help we can get.

We actually recommend adding driftwood to your aquarium in our how to soften hard water article.

What’s The Best Driftwood to Use In An Aquarium?

If you’re planning to find your own driftwood, or even if you’re planning to buy driftwood, it’s important to understand the types that are safe to use in an aquarium.

Generally speaking, hardwoods are what we’re looking for. Softwoods tend to contain large amounts of resin and will fall apart faster. You probably don’t want resin dissolving into your tank water.

If you’re not sure what the difference between hardwood and softwood is, softwoods are normally pine trees and other sorts of evergreens. If it grows quickly, its probably a softwood.

Hardwoods tend to have broad leaves, slow growing and will lose their leaves in the winter.

This is all fine and good, but driftwood will rarely have leaves or bark left on it, so how can you identify hard driftwood? As the name suggests, hardwood is hard, so if you can make fingernails marks in the wood, then chances are its softwood. If your struggle to make any sort of mark, then congratulations, you’ve probably found some hardwood.

Types of Driftwood

Aquarium owners can be a fussy bunch and will seek certain types of driftwood for use in their aquariums. There are a few types that are particularly prized, but you’re unlikely to find most of these when walking along the beach:

Malaysian Driftwood

Malaysian driftwood originates from Malaysia and the rest of southeast Asia.

It naturally a darker color and its branches form distinct linear shapes. Malaysian woods contains a large number of tannins, which means it’s going to have an effect on the PH levels of your tank water and will help soften hard water.

Additionally, the tannin content can cause the water to turn a slightly brown color. This is not harmful to fish, in fact, many species prefer to live in tea-colored water as it more closely matches their natural environment. For example, tetras thrive in tannin-rich water.

One of the biggest advantages of Malaysian driftwood is that it’ll sink in an aquarium, there’s no need to weigh it down and it’s much easier to get it into the position you’re looking for.

Mopani Wood

Mopani wood, which may also be called African driftwood, is in many ways similar to Malaysian driftwood. While it doesn’t contain as many tannins as Malaysian driftwood, it will lower the PH and soften the water. It can also darken the water.

If you’d rather not experience this in your tank, you can choose to build Mopani wood for a while before adding it your tank. This goes for all driftwood that you want to reduce the tannins for.

Mopani wood looks great, with gnarly branches and light colorization (which will darken once submerged). Like Malaysian driftwood, it’s a natural sinker so no need to anchor it.

Coconut Husks

While not really driftwood, coconut husks are frequently sold in fish shops and online. I would suggest looking for husks that have had the fiber removed, as fibers tend to fall apart after a while.

Coconuts are normally sold in halves, so you can use them as little hideouts. You might be surprised at how many fish will use a coconut half if given the chance.

They might not look amazing, but they are a great shelter and will have little to no effect on the PH levels of your tank.

American Driftwood

American driftwood is more of a generic term that covers a few species of hardwood. It’s pretty cheap and tends to be quite light in appearance.

The biggest issue I have with it is that it floats, so it’ll normally come weighted down. This may or may not be an issue for you, depending on how you want to position the wood.

Planted Driftwood

Planted driftwood can be any type of driftwood. It’s called planted because it’ll have plants attached to it.

There are quite a number of plant varieties that will naturally adhere to driftwood, and fish shops have made the process much easier by selling plants preattached.

You’ll often find Ferns, Mosses and Anubis plants as common pairings. These plants are hardy and will survive in a variety of water and light conditions.

Found Driftwood

While all of the varieties listed above are great, you’re unlikely to find them randomly on the beach, unless you happen to live in the areas they originate from.

However, you can find the following types on many shores, but they are all UNSAFE for use an aquarium:

  • Yew
  • Walnut
  • Spruce
  • Pine
  • Ivy
  • Lilac
  • Horse Chestnut
  • Grape Vine
  • Cypress
  • Cedar

The woods in the unsafe list are mostly poisonous or are likely to fall apart in your aquarium.

Can You Use Driftwood in Saltwater and Freshwater Aquariums?

Freshwater aquariums are the perfect environment for driftwood, but often saltwater is a poor choice.

As we’ve already covered, tannins will leach from the wood into your aquarium and lower the PH and soften the water. This can often be a good thing for freshwater aquariums and rarely causes any issues. However, this is not the case for saltwater aquariums.

Saltwater aquariums tend to struggle to keep PH levels high enough, so, adding something that is known to lower PH is probably a bad idea and is likely to make the situation even worse.

However, if you never struggle with the PH in your marine tank, then adding some driftwood is unlikely to have much of an impact. If you’re new to marine tanks, then its probably best avoided.

With regards to what type of driftwood can you use with a saltwater or freshwater aquarium, there’s generally not one type that can be used in one environment and not the other.

Our caveat to this is if you’ve scavenged your own driftwood. Driftwood that you’ve found at high tide on the beach is likely to have a high salt content, so will need to be thoroughly soaked and prepared before adding it to a freshwater tank. The salt content is less of a concern in a marine tank.

Can You Use Found Driftwood In An Aquarium?

We’ve already briefly covered this, but the simple answer is yes, you can use found driftwood in your fish tank. You’ll just need to spend some time preparing it before you do so.

As the old adage goes, if you fail to prepare, prepare to fail. If you don’t prepare any found driftwood correctly, then you risk introducing parasites, bacteria, fungus, and other unwanted hitchhikers. Anyone of these could kill off your tanks inhabitants.

All found driftwood needs to be thoroughly cleaned and sterilized, which is something we’ll cover in depth further into this article.

If you’re uncomfortable with the cleaning process, or if you’re not sure what sort of wood you have, then its probably best avoided.

Most pet stores and a variety of online retailers sell driftwood, so it’s probably better to buy something which is safe rather than risks your tank.

What Issues Can Driftwood Introduce Into An Aquarium?

Like most things you add to your tank, issues can occur, and driftwood is no exception.

If you take a look around fish owner forums, you’ll probably come across people that swear that they’ll never add driftwood to their aquariums.

Aquariums contain miniature ecosystems, and it doesn’t take much to disrupt the carefully cultivated balance. The introduction of chemicals, pollutants or undesirable organisms can be enough to completely disrupt your tanks cycle.

There are a few issues that could occur if you happen to add a piece of contaminated or unsuitable driftwood to your aquarium.

Unwanted Bacteria

Undesirable bacteria is probably one of the biggest concerns for found driftwood. Wood naturally contains antibacterial agents, but a piece of wood that has floated through rivers and oceans will pick up something along the way.

While it’s true we want bacteria in our tank, we also want to control the type of bacteria and how quickly it’ll multiply in the tank. Not all bacteria is good and we’ll have no idea about what sort is on our driftwood, so assume its bad.

You might get away with adding driftwood directly to your tank, but then again you might not, and you could lose your entire tank. Do you really want to take that gamble?

Unwanted Guests

One of the best things about driftwood is that it’s interesting to look at, often contain all sorts of nooks and crannies. But it’s these nooks and crannies that make it perfect for all sorts of critters to make it there home.

Any piece you pick up of the beach is guaranteed to having things living on it, even if you can’t see them at first glance.

Anything you pick up directly from the water probably has a whole colony of interesting aquatic creatures making it a home. You probably don’t want these in your tank, they might be small now, but who knows what they’ll grow up to be.

Pollutants

Any wood that’s been used commercially will be treated in some way, regardless if it was used for furniture, pallets or roofing. I would advise leaving anything that looks like its been used before well alone.

You want to look for wood that’s natural in appearance.

As well as intentionally treated wood, be wary of wood that comes from water that could be polluted. Look for dead aquatic life, fish, plants or birds. If you see anything like this, leave the driftwood alone.

Tannins

All wood contains tannins. Most fish species will quite happily live in a tank with tannins, and some will even thrive, it may be something you want to understand before you introduce it into your tank.

Tannins will lower the PH levels in your tank and reduce the hardness, they will also turn your water brown, like a cup of tea. This is quite normal and natural, but it might be something you want to avoid.

As driftwood in most cases has been submerged in water for a decent period of time, the majority of tannins will already be dispersed. If you’d like to ensure nearly all the tannins are leached out, you’ll need to cure the driftwood in water for a length of time until it begins to run clear.

Where to Find Driftwood for An Aquarium

Driftwood can be found next to most bodies of water, so there are quite a few options available to us. Check out rivers banks, lake shores and on the beach.

Beach or Seashore

If you live near the ocean then you can find plenty of driftwood by walking along the seashore. Whether its rocky, sandy beaches or somewhere in between, you can find plenty within a few minutes walk.

Just make sure you remain safe when you’re retrieving any samples. Cliffs and rocks can be dangerous!

Lakes and Reservoirs

Lakes can be a great source of driftwood with a couple of caveats.

Before you begin grabbing bits of wood you find on the shores of the lake, check what trees are growing around you. As we outlined above, there are several varieties of trees that you want to avoid putting in your tank.

If you find that the lake is only surrounded softwoods (pine, conifers etc), then any wood you find in the lake is probably going to softwood as well, so not good for your tank.

Rivers & Streams

You’re probably never far away from some sort of stream or river.

When the water levels are especially low, for example during the summer months, then you should be able to find some great pieces of driftwood.

Shores are also worth checking, but depending on the terrain it can be tricky.

Shops or Online

Finding a piece of driftwood in your local fish shop is probably the easiest way to find something for your tank, you’ll also save yourself the hassle of preparing it.

Local stores offer an advantage over online shops because you can check out the pieces in person. You’ll also get to support a local business!

An online store can offer a vast range of type, sizes, and shapes. We found a ton of on Amazon which you can check out here.

How To Prepare Driftwood For An Aquarium

By this point, you’ll have hopefully secured yourself a couple of pieces of driftwood and you’re keen to prepare them for your aquarium.

Truth be told, its a fairly simple process, and shouldn’t take you long to complete.

Cleaning

The first step should be to soak the driftwood for at least 24 hours before beginning the cleaning process. This will make removing any leftover bark much easier.

Once soaked, use a vegetable brush to thoroughly all dirt and grime from the wood.

Don’t use any cleaning materials. Soaps and other cleaning materials are made to linger and stick to things, so you don’t want to accidentally poison your fish with soap.

At this point, you should be able to easily remove any leftover bark and clean the freshly exposed wood.

If you want to, you can also cut the wood into more manageable pieces or sand break of any bits you don’t want.

Cleaning will only remove the superficial grime, but we want to make sure we’ve removed everything harmful we can’t see as well.

Sterilizing Driftwood For Your Aquarium

Sterilizing your aquarium driftwood will ensure you’re not introducing any nasties into your tank. I highly recommend carrying out this step, failing to do so can lead to a whole host of unpleasant issues!

There’s a couple of ways you can sterilize driftwood, with each method offering advantages over the other.

Boiling

Boiling your driftwood is probably the best way to ensure you’ve killed off any unwanted guests. The biggest issue is finding a large enough pot to accommodate the wood. Even a relatively small piece of driftwood can be so oddly shaped that submerging the whole thing in a pot can be impossible.

If you’re successful in finding a large enough pot, then you’re going to want to boil the driftwood for at least a couple of hours. Be warned, the fresher the wood, the more its likely to smell. It won’t necessarily be an unpleasant smell, but it will produce an odor.

If you struggle to find a large enough pot, then you can either chop your wood into smaller pieces or consider one of our other options.

Bleach Solution

Soaking driftwood in a weak bleach solution should kill almost everything.

You’ll want to use the cheapest runniest bleach you can find and use 1 part bleach to 9 parts of water. The cheaper bleach is less sticky than the fancy stuff but will still do a great job at sterilization.

Soak your wood for at least 24 hours in the bleach solution. Thankfully finding a big enough container should be much easier, rubbermaids work well.

Once soaked, leave the wood under running water, such as a showerhead, for at least 10 minutes. Soak the wood again in completely clean water for 24 hours, changing it completely every 4 hours.

Hydrogen Peroxide

Sterilizing items with hydrogen peroxide is a favorite of many aquarium owners. I’ve personally never used it, but I know it won’t kill snails and other invasive species.

I would suggest using a neat solution of hydrogen peroxide 3% to soak the wood for at least an hour and then rinse thoroughly.

How To Cure Driftwood

We’re getting near the end of our article and curing is one of the last steps to take.

Curing largely involves removing as much of the tannins from the wood as possible so as to prevent rapid PH drops or changing the color of the water too much.

If you’re looking to increase the tannin content of your tank, then you can probably skip this step.

Curing will also help waterlog the wood, which means you won’t need to weigh it down. Just bear in mind that some types of wood will never sink, regardless of how long they are cured.

Unfortunately, curing is a long slow process, but you don’t need to do much.

Simply plop your wood in some water for a couple of weeks and leave it.

I would recommend using a dark-colored Rubbermaid with a lid. This will allow you to fill the Rubbermaid up to the top, submerge your wood and put the lid on to stop is floating to the top. The dark color will help prevent algae growth.

Every few days replace the water with fresh water. After some time you should see the water become less dark with each water change. This is a sign that the tannin levels are reducing in the wood.

Once the color is the level you’re happy with, then its time to place the wood in your aquarium.

Aquarium Driftwood Things To Consider

If you’re still unsure about adding driftwood to your aquarium, then please let us know in the comments below if you have any questions. Alternatively, we’ve included the answers to some common questions below.

* Make sure you plan out your aquarium and add your driftwood before adding all your fish. Moving things around with your fish inside can cause them stress.
* Ensure you’ve removed all moss, bark and green material from the driftwood.
* Clean the driftwood thoroughly before adding to your tank.
* Cure the wood until the desired level of tannin discolorization is acquired.
* Don’t use softwood or poisonous wood.
* Observe the area around where you found your driftwood. Look out for signs of pollution.
* Never use cleaning chemicals to clean the wood.

Final Thoughts

Setting up your tank for the first time can be a great experience and adding driftwood is one of the best ways of reflecting a natural environment.

Just make sure you always prepare everything correctly.

If you’re at all unsure, opt for the easy option and buy some prepared aquarium driftwood instead.

If you have anything to add or feel we haven’t covered something correctly, please let us know in the comments below.

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