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Old 04/06/2018, 02:06 PM   #1
sfdan
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DIY Acrylic mesh screen with splines - step by step

I wanted to make a mesh top on top of my aquarium, but I didn't necessarily like the look of the metal screen kits, and unfortunately the professional custom options were far too expensive for my big tank.

So I made a DIY version. I certainly didn't come up with this idea, other people mention doing similar things in other threads on RC but I don't think there were any step by step guides. So hopefully this is helpful to somebody if they are considered a similar idea.

My total cost for 2 covers, which were 32" x 44" each, was a little under $130. The bulk of the cost was the acrylic which I paid for by the sqft, so if your covers are smaller your cost will be significancly less.

Acrylic from TAP acrylics: $100
1/4" mesh from BRS: $12 x 2 = $24
25 ft of .140" vinyl spline from hardware store: $4

Each one looks like this:



And both of them on the aquarium:



Here is how they are made:

Step 1. Acquire Acrylic

First, I got the acrylic from my local acrylic shop, TAP acrylics, pre-cut.

For each one, the pieces were 2" x 28", and 2" x 44", and they were 1/2" thick cast acrylic.

If your tank is smaller you could probably have 1" or 1.5" width, but for my tank the 2" was just right. I don't think you want to go any thinner than 1/2" to maintain the strength of the cover after you put the spline groove in it.



Step 2. Glue acrylic sections together

I'm not an expert acrylic worker, so I did not attempt to or actually do a precision job of this. But it does show that anybody can do this.

I used some Weld-on 16 I had lying around, lined up the corners, put a giant dap of the 16 in there and then lightly clamped them together.





If you look closely you'll notice I had pre-routed one of the spline grooves before gluing. Don't do that, I found the splines were easier to route afterwards.

Speaking of which..

Step 3. Route out the spline groove

Any plunge router with an edge guide will do. I used a standard 2 flute 1/8" bit, which did a workable job but a bit designed for acrylic would have almost certainly done a better job at chip clearing. Just take your time and and route the full depth in multiple passes.



I made the groove a little over 3/16" of an inch deep, approximately in the middle of my 2" acrylic strips. You just need to do this on all 4 pieces and make sure the grooves all connect at the ends.



Step 4. Sand the edges on the spline groove

This is important, as the edges on the spline groove are very sharp and will slice right through the 1/4" netting as you install it (ask me how I know!). I used 80 grit followed by 120 grit, but I think all that matters here is taking the sharp edge off.



Step 5. (Optional) Chamfer the sides

I used my router and a chamfer bit to put a chamfer on the inside and outside edges to soften them and make it easier to slide around on top of the aquarium.

If you don't use a chamfer bit you should at minimum sand the sharp edges a little bit to soften them.

Step 6. (Optional) Put on some corner braces

I put corner braces on all 4 corners for a couple reasons:

1. To reinforce the joints and ensure they are strong enough. I'm *fairly* sure that the acrylic joint would be strong enough without reinforcement, but no harm in overengineering.

2. The corner braces give me something to grip onto when moving the cover on and off



If you don't have a CNC machine, you can easily just glue two strips of acrylic in an L shape to make a corner brace. Just make sure they don't cover the spline groove.


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Old 04/06/2018, 02:07 PM   #2
sfdan
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Step 7. Put on the netting

The technique is really the same as for the metal screen kits, for which BRS has a great video about (https://www.bulkreefsupply.com/video...-instructions/).

But basically, you lay out the netting.



Start putting in the spline on one corner



Then your goal is to hold the netting taut while putting the spline in. The netting gives you a very good visual indicator of whether you are going straight or not.

I personally didn't have much luck with the spline roller (as used in the BRS video), so I just used a screwdriver and worked my way around. It was fairly tedious work, but had good results:



Then your last step is just to use a utility knife and trim the excess netting, exactly as done in the BRS video.


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Old 04/07/2018, 07:27 PM   #3
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Looks pretty nice.
Pretty high end diy.

Are you worried about the acrylic warping?


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Old 04/08/2018, 12:09 PM   #4
sfdan
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That remains to be seen, but I'm fairly confident it won't warp all that much since it is 0.5" thick, cast acrylic, and basically the whole thing is exposed to the same conditions that shouldn't necessarily encourage warping.

Prior to making this I was using a solid 3/8" polycarbonate lid that came with the aquarium, and within a couple weeks that had warped quite a bit. But that is a situation where one side is the heat and humidity of the aquarium, and the other side is the dry and cooler air on top, and in between you have a solid sheet of plastic. With a screen like this you don't have any sort of differential like that.

And also I've been using a much less fancy screen made of 1/2" acrylic square rod on top for my 120 for over a year and haven't had any warping whatsoever.


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Old 04/08/2018, 04:27 PM   #5
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Does the frame rest on top of euro brace on your tank?

For rimless tanks, the frame’s outer edge can be routed the thickness of the glass.

I made the mistake of polishing the acrylic with a blow torch by not doing a small section at a time. I probably should have polished around 6” at a time, let it cool completely before polishing the next segment.


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Old 04/08/2018, 06:05 PM   #6
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Yes my tank has 4" of bracing all around and 6" in the middle, and the 2" width and general dimensions were chosen to fit right on top the bracing.

That is a great point about the rimless tanks. If you got the router and edge guide already, there are a variety of ways you could customize the design to fit your current tank.

The key part of the design and the reason I made the guide was to show that if you have 1/2" thick acrylic, and you route a 1/8" groove, the spline and mesh netting system works great. Beyond that, there are tons of customizations and different ways to design it. I think that is also a huge advantage of using acrylic instead of the metal screen rails, because with acrylic you can really customize the shape and profile however you want.


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Old 04/08/2018, 07:21 PM   #7
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looks really nice. good job


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Old 04/10/2018, 10:11 AM   #8
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Good job! I made one that is very similar only I used 3/8 poly carbonate and since I did not have a router I cut the groves for the spines on my table saw. I also had to make the lid to fit around the internal center overflow on the back glass. It is my understanding that poly carbonate is less likely to warp. Mine is recessed in my rimless tank and is barely visible.


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Old 04/10/2018, 12:57 PM   #9
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Good job! I made one that is very similar only I used 3/8 poly carbonate and since I did not have a router I cut the groves for the spines on my table saw. I also had to make the lid to fit around the internal center overflow on the back glass. It is my understanding that poly carbonate is less likely to warp. Mine is recessed in my rimless tank and is barely visible.
Very cool. I was debating between 3/8" and 1/2", but eventually went with the thicker choice so there would be more material after the spline was cut. Since polycarbonate is stronger that probably allows for the whole thing to be thiner.

I'm looking at some of the custom, professional options, and it seems like some are made out of polycarbonate and some are made from acrylic, so I think each material probably has its advantages.

I'm still a little suspect about the whole warping thing. Maybe I'm thinking about it a little too much like wood, but for a mesh screen the conditions around the plastic should be roughly the same all the way around so I'm not sure why it would want to warp. This is in direct contrast to a solid lid where the humidity/heat on one side would be massively different than the other side and warping seems inevitable. But I guess I'll see how mine does over time.


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Old 04/10/2018, 01:24 PM   #10
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I kinda doubt if either product will warp. Mine has been on my tank for 6 months with no change.


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Old 04/11/2018, 10:55 AM   #11
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Looks sharp!

I've no experience with acrylic but lots with PVC trim from the big box which machines beautifully. Probably fill the tank first so the edge reaches the bulged sides. Rip the four sides, lap joints at the corners, rabbet the "bottom" so it drops centered over the tank rim, and dado the grooves for the spline.

Did you consider using regular fiberglass screen instead of acrylic mesh? What is the advantage of acrylic mesh?


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Old 04/11/2018, 12:54 PM   #12
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Looks sharp!

I've no experience with acrylic but lots with PVC trim from the big box which machines beautifully. Probably fill the tank first so the edge reaches the bulged sides. Rip the four sides, lap joints at the corners, rabbet the "bottom" so it drops centered over the tank rim, and dado the grooves for the spline.

Did you consider using regular fiberglass screen instead of acrylic mesh? What is the advantage of acrylic mesh?
From my understanding the acrylic mesh lets a lot more light through, but I haven't tested them both so I can't say for sure. I have tested the acrylic mesh with my PAR meter and it drops the PAR by a few percent, but less than 5%.

Considering how much cost goes into my lighting, the choice of mesh material is solely based on what keeps the fish in while maximizing the light that comes through.


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Old 04/11/2018, 03:38 PM   #13
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Nice job
I had 1/4" acrylic that warped. Hopefully the 1/2 in will be thick enough you don't have to worry.


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Old 04/12/2018, 12:08 PM   #14
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Nice job indeed. I'm using regular screen framing and the black struts bug me. Been thinking about making acrylic ones. I was thinking of being lazy and just gluing the mesh with thickened Weldon.


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Old 04/12/2018, 12:24 PM   #15
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Quote:
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Nice job indeed. I'm using regular screen framing and the black struts bug me. Been thinking about making acrylic ones. I was thinking of being lazy and just gluing the mesh with thickened Weldon.
I had actually considered that (though never tested it), but I've found with the screen on my older tank that I have to replace the netting about once or twice a year as the intense lighting and inevitable salt creep seem to make the netting brittle and cause it to eventually rip. And once there is a little rip the whole things needs to be replaced as the rip eventually gets bigger and bigger.

So the good part about this design is that in order to replace the netting I just pull out the spline, put some new netting on and then very tediously put the spline back in. Not necessarily fun, but a fairly standard procedure. As opposed to with glue where you'd have to sand/scape all the glue off and then do the gluing process again.


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Old 04/12/2018, 09:41 PM   #16
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Hmmmmn, yes, that's a good point .....


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Old 04/13/2018, 08:00 AM   #17
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Quote:
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Nice job indeed. I'm using regular screen framing and the black struts bug me. Been thinking about making acrylic ones. I was thinking of being lazy and just gluing the mesh with thickened Weldon.
It would be difficult to stretch without channels and spline. It was really easy to cut the grove in the pieces before gluing using a cheapo plywood blade on my table saw. My material was 3/8" so I cut set my table saw to about 1/8" depth and cut the grove 1/4" from the inside edge. Very easy dyi project. I think I used the smaller diameter spline from Lowes.


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Old 05/03/2018, 07:57 PM   #18
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Quote:
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I had actually considered that (though never tested it), but I've found with the screen on my older tank that I have to replace the netting about once or twice a year as the intense lighting and inevitable salt creep seem to make the netting brittle and cause it to eventually rip. And once there is a little rip the whole things needs to be replaced as the rip eventually gets bigger and bigger.

So the good part about this design is that in order to replace the netting I just pull out the spline, put some new netting on and then very tediously put the spline back in. Not necessarily fun, but a fairly standard procedure. As opposed to with glue where you'd have to sand/scape all the glue off and then do the gluing process again.
You definitely want to make the mesh replaceable. I use the BRS mesh over my old tank for a couple years and after time it gets brittle and tears easy.

Nice project! Thank you for the write up. It will help me complete this same project over my tank.


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Old 05/12/2018, 06:07 PM   #19
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Again thanks for the write up. I just completed mine using your techniques. Routering the grooves were a pain as stated. I should have ordered the correct bit for Acylic.








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Old 05/12/2018, 07:37 PM   #20
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Nice write up! Will have to copy this


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Old 05/12/2018, 08:14 PM   #21
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Again thanks for the write up. I just completed mine using your technics. Routering the grooves were a pain as stated. I should have ordered the correct bit for acrylic.
Since I made this I've done a bit more routing on acrylic with just normal bits and I think the key is just to take shallow passes and keep the bit moving. If your bit isn't cutting smoothly then your passes are too deep. Based on my experience with acrylic, doing shallower passes and moving the bit relatively quickly is much better than doing deep or even intermediate passes while moving the bit more slowly.

But I'm sure if you have the bits designed for acrylic it probably is much easier.


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Old 08/18/2018, 09:44 PM   #22
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Nice job
I had 1/4" acrylic that warped. Hopefully the 1/2 in will be thick enough you don't have to worry.
Now that I have 3 months of history with the screens, I can answer the warping question!

I wasn't sure exactly what would happen with the heat of MHs above and the water from the tank below, but I have the answer. My screens have a slight warp, where each end of the 44" screen is about 3/16" off the tank bracing, so each top looks like a very very shallow smile. My guess is the cause is that little pools of water inevitably get on the bracing for my acrylic tank, and the bottom of the screen absorbs the water causing it to expand a little bit and create the upward bend.

For me personally this 3/16" is not a concern at all, as they still look fine and the gap is really tiny and there is no way a fish could get out, but if you were very obsessive about your top being dead flat, maybe choose acrylic that is a little thicker.


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Old 08/20/2018, 11:33 PM   #23
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Now that I have 3 months of history with the screens, I can answer the warping question!

I wasn't sure exactly what would happen with the heat of MHs above and the water from the tank below, but I have the answer. My screens have a slight warp, where each end of the 44" screen is about 3/16" off the tank bracing, so each top looks like a very very shallow smile. My guess is the cause is that little pools of water inevitably get on the bracing for my acrylic tank, and the bottom of the screen absorbs the water causing it to expand a little bit and create the upward bend.

For me personally this 3/16" is not a concern at all, as they still look fine and the gap is really tiny and there is no way a fish could get out, but if you were very obsessive about your top being dead flat, maybe choose acrylic that is a little thicker.
Good to know. My 1/4" warped noticably. Not enough to let a fish out. Luckily the cut was completely symmetric and I would just flip the top each week when I cleaned the tank.


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Old 08/21/2018, 07:08 AM   #24
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I made mine from 3/8 poly carbonate and it has not warped.


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Old 08/21/2018, 08:22 AM   #25
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I made mine from 3/8 poly carbonate and it has not warped.

I think OP used 1/2" thick acrylic. so is polycarbonate like lexan?


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