Aquarium Driftwood: How to Find, Prepare and Add Your Own To a Tank

A piece of aquarium driftwood isolated on white

© Swapan / Adobe Stock

Part of the fun of keeping an aquarium is creating an attractive and enriching environment for your fish. Driftwood is a popular aquarium decoration, as it looks great and can help create a natural type environment for your aquatic creatures.

The problem with sourcing it is that it can be fairly expensive and it may also be a challenge to find a piece in a store that's the right shape and size for your tank.

With so much driftwood to be found just lying on beaches and riverbanks, many fishkeepers wonder if it's safe to collect their own.

The good news is, yes, it's okay to use some driftwood that you've found yourself. The bad news is it requires quite a lot of cleaning and preparation to make it safe to use.

This article will tell you all you need to know about safely adding your own driftwood to an aquarium.

What is Driftwood?

Driftwood is a generic term for basically any wood that has been in a body of water and washed up on a beach, shore or bank.

It's generally gray, gnarled and weathered-looking, which is what makes it a popular aquarium decoration.

It's also more suitable for use in aquariums than freshly cut wood as more of the tannins have leached out during its time in the water, so it takes less time to prepare.

Why Add Driftwood to Your Aquarium?

While many people might assume the only reason to put driftwood in an aquarium is for aesthetic reasons, there are a number of benefits to having it in your tank.

Sure, it does look great, but it's also an excellent place for fish and any other aquatic creatures to hide.

A bare aquarium is a pretty bleak place for fish to live. They like to be able to tuck away somewhere a bit more sheltered if they feel insecure. And it's also nice for them to have more places to explore for enrichment.

If you have any algae-eating critters in your tank, driftwood can also be a place for them to find food.

In larger tanks, colonies of good bacteria can populate, which helps to maintain a cleaner and healthier environment. Driftwood is the perfect place for these good bacteria to make their home.

The tannins that leach from driftwood naturally lowers the pH of the water. Although this isn't a benefit for everyone, many fish keepers have to add chemicals to the water to artificially lower the pH.

So, if you find that your tank's pH is regularly too high, driftwood could help solve this problem.

What Kinds of Driftwood are Safe to Use?

If you're going to be collecting your own driftwood, you need to know which types of wood are suitable and which aren't.

Hardwoods are fine to use, but avoid softwoods. Softwoods generally contain a large amount of sap or resin. This can leach out of the wood into the water and cause problems in your tank.

Trees such as pine and other evergreens are softwoods, so a good rule of thumb is to avoid wood from any trees that don't shed their leaves or that bear cones.

The problem is, when you find washed up driftwood, it might be hard to tell what tree it came from. But, here's a tip: If you can dig your fingernail into a piece of wood, it's probably a softwood. If you can't, it's hardwood.

Some types of wood are particularly prized over other for aquarium use. Manzanita is good because it naturally contains less tannins, which can discolor the water.

African driftwood, Malaysian driftwood, and African or Savanna root are also popular because they're self-sinking and don't need to be weighted down.

However, if you're using found pieces of driftwood, you're not going to find these varieties unless you happen to live in Africa or Malaysia.

According to INJAF, the following woods are unsafe for aquarium use:

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

Some of these are toxic, some of them rot too quickly and others excrete sap or other unwanted substances.

Is Driftwood Safe for Both Salt Water and Freshwater Tanks?

There's some dispute about whether it's wise to use driftwood in salt water aquariums at all.

As mentioned above, the tannins that leach from driftwood lowers the pH of your water. In freshwater aquariums, this doesn't often cause much of an issue, but the same can't be said for marine aquariums.

Many people who have saltwater aquariums struggle to keep the pH of their water high enough at the best of times. So, if you factor in another thing that's lowering the pH in their tank, this could spell disaster.

That said, if you have no problem maintaining the pH in your marine tank, this shouldn't be an issue.

In terms of types of wood, there aren't any varieties which should be avoided in a salt water tank but not a freshwater tank or vice-versa. If a type of wood is fine for one, then it's fine for the other, too.

Be careful if using driftwood from the sea in a freshwater aquarium. There can be salt and sand deeply ingrained in the wood, and you don't want to introduce salt into a freshwater tank for obvious reasons.

If you boil and soak your piece of ocean driftwood for long enough, it should be okay in a freshwater tank. But, we'd suggest erring on the side of caution and only using driftwood from freshwater environments in freshwater tanks.

Can You Put Found Driftwood in an Aquarium?

Driftwood washed up on a sandy beach at sunset

© Brad / Adobe Stock

Now we get to the crux of the issue: yes, it is possible to put found driftwood in your aquarium, but it's not as simple as just collecting it and throwing it right in.

If you don't properly prepare the wood before putting it in your tank, you could introduce all kinds of harmful bacteria and other nasties which could ultimately kill your fish.

It's vital that the wood is fully cleaned and sterilized – a process that we'll explain fully later in this article.

If you're unsure the wood is suitable, or you don't know whether you've cleaned it properly, don't take the risk.

It's better to shell out for aquarium-safe driftwood from the pet store than to risk the lives of your fish.

What Common Problems Might Occur Using Found Driftwood?

Not everyone feels comfortable using found driftwood because problems can occur.

The ecosystem in an aquarium is fairly fragile, so introducing unwanted organisms, chemicals and other pollutants can be extremely harmful.

Let's go over some of the common issues that can happen when using found driftwood and don't prepare it properly.

Bacteria

This is probably your main concern when using driftwood you've found. If a piece of wood has been floating around in a river or ocean for several years, it's going to have picked up some bacteria.

There is such a thing as good bacteria, but a lot of bacteria is also harmful. Since you have no way of knowing what kinds of bacteria are on a piece of found driftwood (bar complex lab tests), you're best off assuming the worst.

If you just place a bit of driftwood in your aquarium without making sure it's properly cleaned and sterilized first, it's likely to wreak havoc on the natural ecosystem of the tank.

This could make your fish unwell, or even kill them.

Hitchhikers

We're not suggesting that something literally thumbed a ride from a piece of driftwood, but there are all sorts of critters that might live in a bit of old wood.

If you collect driftwood from the shore, it's likely there are some creepy-crawlies living in there, especially if it has been washed up for some time.

Even if you collect the driftwood straight out of the water, there may be some aquatic creatures that have made it their home.

Pollutants

Some woods can be treated with chemicals, so if it looks like a piece of wood that was used for something else before and then discarded, avoid it.

If it looks like a natural piece of wood, however, it should be fine.

One thing to think about is where you're collecting the driftwood from. If it comes from a body of water you know to be polluted, it would be unwise to use it.

Tannins

Tannins are compounds found naturally in all wood. While there's nothing inherently harmful about them, they leach out into the water and discolor it, giving it a kind of tea-stained look.

Since this replicates the appearance of Amazonian blackwater habitats, some fishkeepers actually enjoy the effect, especially in tanks containing brightly colored tetras.

If a piece of driftwood has been in the water for some time, most of the tannins may have already leached out. Otherwise, a lengthy curing process is necessary before the driftwood can be used in your tank.

How to Prepare Driftwood for Use in an Aquarium

The moment of truth is here. We've told you how important it is to properly prepare driftwood for use in an aquarium, and now we're going to tell you how to do it.

It's a fairly simple process, but it must be done to the letter or you risk endangering your tank's inhabitants.

Cleaning

The first step is to thoroughly clean the exterior of your driftwood.

Get yourself a stiff-bristled brush – such as a vegetable brush or a nail brush – and scrub every inch of your piece of driftwood.

Only use hot water, never any soap, detergent or other cleaning products. These can be extremely harmful to your fish and should always be avoided.

If there's any bark left on your driftwood, it's best to remove it, as this is a prime location for insects to hide.

You should also sand down any sharp edges that could harm your fish.

Cleaning it in this way will get off any superficial dirt, but there's still more to be done before it's safe to go in your tank.

Sterilizing

It's imperative you properly sterilize your piece of driftwood before you even consider putting it into your aquarium. It's during this process that you'll get rid of the majority of bacteria, so it's not optional.

First, you'll need to find a pan big enough to fully submerge your piece of driftwood. This might be tricky if you have a particularly big piece of wood, but you can find large stock pots which should be of a sufficient size to fit most pieces of driftwood.

Boil your driftwood for at least 2 hours. If you have a particularly large or thick piece of driftwood, you might want to increase this by an extra hour or so. You need to wood to heat all the way through to the middle or else it won't be fully sterilized.

If you can't find a pot big enough for your piece of driftwood, just go and find a smaller piece. Some people recommend cleaning the driftwood with a weak bleach solution, but we think this is too risky.

If you don't fully rinse the bleach out, this could kill your fish. Plus, the bleach would only clean the exterior of your driftwood, meaning there could still be harmful bacteria deep inside the wood.

Curing

This is the final step to go through before your driftwood is ready to use in your tank.

The main point of the curing process is to leach out the majority of the tannins in the wood so it doesn't discolor the water or lower its pH levels too sharply.

However, it also helps to saturate the wood so that it will sink on its own in the tank and won't need to be anchored. That said, some driftwood will never sink naturally, no matter how long it's been in the water.

Curing your wood is easy, but time-consuming. Although it is quite a hands-off job.

All you need to do is submerge your driftwood in a container of water and leave it in there for 1 to 2 weeks.

Keep an eye on the water, and once it becomes darkened by the tannins, empty it out and replace it with fresh. Keep doing this until the water stops becoming significantly darkened by the tannins.

Once you're happy with the amount of darkening – or lack thereof – the wood is ready to be placed in your aquarium.

Driftwood Dos and Don'ts

If you find yourself with any questions or issues related to using your own driftwood in your aquarium, these quick dos and don'ts might help you out.

DO

  • Plan out where you're going to put your driftwood before you get started. Putting it in an awkward place or having to move it around could stress your fish.
  • Remove any bark, moss or lichens
  • Cure your driftwood until tannins stop discoloring the water (unless you want this to happen).
  • Use a filter containing activated carbon or a chemical filter such as Purigen to help clarify your water if tannins are discoloring it.

DON'T

  • Select a piece of softwood to go in your aquarium.
  • Collect driftwood from a body of water that's polluted.
  • Use any cleaning products, soap or detergent when cleaning your driftwood.
  • Skip the sterilizing step
  • Forget that driftwood can lower the pH in your tank and you need to check levels accordingly.

Conclusion

If you enjoy a good project or just want a really specific size or shape of wood that you can't find in a store, finding your own driftwood might be right for you.

Just remember to always err on the side of caution and be sure to fully clean, sterilize and cure your driftwood so you don't mess up the conditions in your tank and harm your fish.

Properly preparing your own driftwood is a fairly lengthy process, so if you're not fully invested in it as a project, it might not be worth your time.

If you're just doing it to avoid spending a few bucks, you're probably better off just saving up and buying some aquarium-safe driftwood when you can afford it.

Happy fish keeping!​

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