DIY Lighting Enclosure

Like many freshwater enthusiasts who keep planted tanks, I soon got to the point where I realized that I just didn't have enough light. Inspired by Patrick Timlin's excellent DIY Light Hood article, I embarked on a quest to get the light levels that I desired.

I chose A H Supply's excellent Bright Kit(tm) after reading nothing but praise for the product and the company. After dealing with them, I can only more enthusiastically endorse them. The customer service is excellent, the product is excellent, and the prices cannot be matched.

I upgraded from 4 x 30 watt standard flourescents to a 2 x 96 watt power compact (PC) Bright Kit(tm) with 2 6700K bulbs to light a 60 gallon tank.

This documents my adventures building the enclosure and proves that you need absolutely no carpentry skill to achieve a good result. I hope it is helpful.

The Stuff (Materials List)

In order to build the enclosure, I had to gather some items:

  1. Wood (in my case, decent quality poplar)
  2. Waterproof wood glue
  3. Finishing nails
  4. A hammer
  5. A miter saw (or a handsaw, for cutting wood to size.)
  6. A coping saw (or a jigsaw would be preferred.)
  7. Lacquer (or paint)
  8. Paintbrushes
  9. Sandpaper (100, 220 grit)
  10. A tapemeasure
  11. A drill (optional)

Here we have poplar from the home center. With your purchase from AH Supply, you can opt to have them send you free DIY instructions for the enclosure. The instructions are very well written and provide a lot of useful information.

My tank is 48" long, and my intention was to rest the lighting enclosure on top of an acrylic shield over the tank. I made an enclosure which I could use with my existing canopy. As we will see later, it didn't work out quite as I had expected, but turned out better than I had hoped.

You can easily purchase pine for less than ten or fifteen dollars if you intend to paint the enclosure. I chose poplar for two important reasons.

One, it is nicer than pine and I wanted a natural clear finish on it.

Two, more importantly, I couldn't fit the available pine in my subcompact. They only came in 8' lengths where I was. I'm sure I could have had someone cut it down to size for me, but after trying to flag someone down for 10 minutes, I decided that poplar would look nicer.

I got 3 pieces of 4"x1"x4' (which actually measure 3 1/2"x3/4") for the outer frame and one of the top pieces, and a few 2"x1"x4' pieces for some of the top pieces.

Build It!

Next, I measured the wood and marked the lengths I wanted. I did the outer frame first and cut the pieces to size on a miter saw. This could easily be done with a little care with a decent wood saw. A miter box is handy but not necessary for making sure the joints will be square.

I used the sandpaper to clean up the sawed edges. Then, I applied a liberal amount of waterproof wood glue to the edges and hammered some nails to hold it in place while the glue cured.

I used small finishing nails. You can opt to screw the wood together, but remember to drill pilot holes. You might even want to drill some pilot holes for the nails if you are using thinner wood or bigger nails. Because a lot of the holes will be running with the grain, you could very easily split the wood if you are not careful.

Do NOT neglect the glue. The nails and even screws, if you use them, are no substitute for the glue. It is the glue that will hold the thing together. Waterproof glue is a bit of a pain to clean up (not surprisingly, it doesn't clean up with water very well). Make sure that your joints are well glued, but clean up any excess glue. It will be very difficult to sand it off later.

Once the edges are put together, it's time to cut the top pieces to size. Measure twice, cut once. Precision is key here if you want to be able to get a nice fit. It should be snug enough to friction fit in between the end pieces. The partially open top allows for excellent ventilation for the bulbs and the reflectors that will be mounted later.

Again, glue, then nails. Here you can see that I did not follow my own advice about cleaning up the glue adequately. It cost me an hour and a sore elbow later to clean it up for the finishing. You can get away with this if you are going to just paint it.

About this time, I realized a blunder I had made. The plans that AH Supply gave me called for 1/2" end pieces instead of the 1" pieces that I used (which are actually 3/4"). This meant that I was 1/2" short in my interior dimensions. The lights I had purchased fit in with 1/16" to spare! Not enough, obviously. Here is where I am glad that I went with AH Supply. An email or two later and Kim at AH Supply had some special sockets in the mail to me. These reduce the overall length of the installation by an inch. At this point, I also decided that a fan wouldn't be a bad idea and had Kim ship me a fan that I could wire up directly to 110vac current (parallel to the bulbs.)

Now, with a few days to kill while the rest of the stuff got to me, I sanded down the entire enclosure, starting with 110 grit and going to 220 and started the lacquering process.

I went with a semi-gloss clear finish. The lacquer is mostly important for waterproofing and moisture protection purposes.

Here are a couple shots of the finished product.

Let's see some Power!

Now that the enclosure itself is finished, we begin the wiring process.

There's a lot of little pieces that come with the light kit. It is very complete. The ballasts are very lightweight and run relatively cool. In the picture you can see the special sockets and the fan.

I needed to cut a hole to mount the fan. I traced out the rectangle, made room for the screw holes, then did my best with a coping saw and a drill I used to drill some pilot holes to stick the blade through. As you can see, it was less than ideal using a coping saw, but it did get the job done. If you have access to a jig saw, this is where it would come in VERY handy. Of course, you may not have heat problems and opt not to ventilate with a fan. In my case, my original intentions were for the enclosure to sit inside my canopy, and so ventilation was a must. As we'll see, it didn't work out that way.

Once the hole is cut, we mount the fan using the provided screws, filter and grill.

Now, follow the directions and wire the thing up. It is relatively painless and the instructions are very good. Do not make the mistake I made. Cut everything to length. Excess wires make it hard to mount the reflectors easily and to maintain a clean appearance.

I mounted the two ballasts on the big central top board and the fan should be able to blow air over them to keep them cool. The fan is also situated in such a way as to blow air over and below the reflectors, which get quite warm.

The special socket which can be purchased with the light kit is show on top. The standard socket is shown underneath it. As you can see, the special socket has a much smaller length footprint than does the standard one. If I hadn't made the mistake I did, it wouldn't have mattered much which socket I used, since I did not attach the socket to the wood. The clips that hold it in place hold it very securely and should be the only thing you need.

Here, we have the reflectors installed. They are very shiny, almost mirrorlike. AH Supply's web site has an in depth explanation of the technical merits of the reflector design. I can attest to their effectiveness. In order for the reflector to fit with the fan in place, the reflectors have to be notched. Tin snips are excellent for this.

The bulbs are then installed. This is a simple matter of slipping them into the sockets and then sliding them into the provided bulb holders. Then I made the mistake of plugging them in and looking at them.

Can you say BRIGHT?

Now, originally, I had planned to put this under canopy hood. Well, because I give good advice and seldom follow it, I measured once and measured incorrectly. The light BARELY did not fit.

I decided to mount the light OVER the canopy, and cut a hole in the canopy for the light to shine through.

For this hole, a jig saw was very necessary, and so I went and borrowed one. Then, same as before, liberal amounts of glue followed by nails then left to set for 24 hours.

Afterwards, I had a piece of plexiglass cut, which I screwed to the top of the canopy. If I need to do maintenance, it's a simple matter of removing the plexiglass. I have complete access to the guts of the light fixture from there.

This solution provided me with a few benefits. First, the plexiglass is now about 3" away from the water surface, which means it doesn't cake up with deposits as easily and is much easier to clean. Second, I have access to the fish and water for feeding and cleaning without having to move the light or a clumsy acrylic shield around.

And this is the final product.

Questions and comments are welcome at lkraven at lkraven dot com.


last updated July 26, 2000