and how not to cook your turtle.

by Bob McNally

How To Find, Choose & Treat Driftwood

Let’s start with what constitutes driftwood

For most folks, driftwood is any piece of wood that has lost its bark. But how that wood lost its bark is what makes the difference between which wood will work out in the long run.  Wood that is collected from the forest floor usually doesn’t work out well. A piece of wood that lays on the forest floor for any length of time has lost it’s bark because a multitude of insects and fungus wormed their way into the cambium layer just under the bark. The cambium layer is the newest wood in the tree and is also the softest. Once the cambium layer is devoured the bark is now detached from the wood. But, because the wood is lying undisturbed on the forest floor, the bark remains in place, creating the perfect cover for the next wave of wood devouring insects and fungi. The fungi actually do more harm than the insects because they permeate the wood, rendering it soft and utterly useless.

Wood that manages to fall into the water loses its bark a little differently. The cambium layer breaks up rather quickly. In most hardwoods it’s only about 1/8” thick or less. But in water, once the bark is loose, the water washes it away. The dark hiding places that fungi need to do their damage is gone. The only thing left to break down the wood is the erosive effect of the water, which gives the wood its soft edges and polished appearance. Exactly what we’re looking for in a piece of driftwood.

In the hunt for driftwood, I recommend using only water borne driftwood. The rivers are the best source. They’re usually hundreds of miles long and they’re usually lined with trees. The best places to start your search are any cove. Dams, bridge abutments, and sharp turns in the river. You can find driftwood on ocean beaches but it’s not as plentiful.


What to do to your driftwood to make it safe

I’ve read suggestions ranging from boiling the wood, to baking it in an oven, to giving it a salt bath, to bleach solutions, etc.... None of which are easy to pull off if you have a three foot piece of wood.

The first thing to do is thoroughly dry the wood. Store the wood for at least two months in a dry, airy place (not your attic; if there're any woodborer larvae or the like residing in the wood, this is a good way to introduce the little vermin into your house!). Placing it in direct sunshine once in a while will speed up the drying process. Some place with low humidity will help. Well-dried wood is crucial for step two to work. I also chisel away any bark and all soft spots. These soft spots are the result of fungal breakdown, as in decomposition. We only want very dry, good solid wood to work with.

Once I’m satisfied the wood is dry, step two is to fumigate. I use the household flea foggers sold in house wares store. I pile all of my dried wood into the tool shed, which for me is usually a pick-up truck load. Block up all of the openings with newspaper and use one can of fogger. The instructions on the can will tell you that you can return to the room after two hours. I’m not that trusting. I don’t go back into the shed for a couple of days. Even though the toxins self-neutralizes in two hours, I give it a few weeks just to be safe. After the three to four months, between drying, fumigation and neutralizing, I’ve got driftwood I can almost trust. There’s more to be done later in the final cleaning process.

Warning: The following represents our best lay understanding of safety information pertinent to defoggers with the active ingredient Tetramethrin for use in driftwood preparation for turtle enclosures, provided in good faith. We do not & cannot make professional claims as to the safety or lack thereof of such products (for human, animal or plant), anyone choosing to use the products in this manner must assume full responsibility for such use, & we strongly recommend first researching the matter yourself to ascertain the degree of safety & risk.


A Word About Roach Foggers

Note: Many will be wary of using commercial insecticides on an enclosure appliance for fear of harmful residues. In the foggers I’ve used the active ingredient is Tetramethrin. It’s been studied thoroughly, & lots of info. is available on its properties. Its 'claim-to-fame' is its alleged harmless nature after quick degradation. It degrades in less than two hours! Consider its aerosol density is 0.05% in a 12x12 room. In tests on mice, rats, dogs, rabbits, and birds, it’s been found to render no harm to DNA or chromosomes. In tests ranging from 90 days up to two years, with direct ingestion rates of 200mg up to 1500 mg a day, the only significant change was a mild weight loss in tested subjects over control animals. The same results were confirmed in direct inhalation tests. In the feeding tests, 95% to 100% percent of the degraded by-product (oxidized Tetramethrin) was recovered in the feces. In other words, it passes right through the system. In rabbit eye tests, 96.5% pure doses administered directly in to the eye only created slight hyperemias. All irritations disappeared within 48 hours. In skin tests with mammals and birds, once again with 96.5% pure solutions administered to bare skin there were produced no reactions or allergies in any of the subjects. Yes, this stuff is toxic to fish in its use form, but degradation renders it harmless even here.

 Bottom line: Industry tests can't seem to make this stuff harm anything but it's intended targets. Once introduced into the air it is absolutely harmless after two hours.

Final Notes: Don't boil the wood to sterilize it; this can harm the piece (the wood expands when boiled; this can weaken it & open small gaps letting in more water & hastening decomposition). I also recommend against 'finishing' the wood with any sealant, even if thought to be aquarium-safe. Let's take an example; Marine Epoxy finish. Absolutely not. Unless you dip the entire spot, then maybe. There're too many nooks and crannies in the wood. Every one would have to be thoroughly filled, otherwise, as soon as any moisture gets beyond the epoxy seal you'll get fungal growth. It'll be black, very ugly and trapped. We're not dealing with low moisture content here. The ever present changes in humidity from the on/off cycle of the basking light cause a lot more expansion and contraction than normally experienced. The epoxy will actually cause faster breakdown of the wood. All of the "clear" coat finishes also have a fair amount of silica in their make-up and as it breaks down, you'll be feeding algae their favorite food.


How To Design & Build Your Driftwood Basking Platform

In the wild there are many variables that impact basking (i.e.: temp.s of the water & air, time of day, cloud cover, trees & other shading cover, breezes, constant movement of the sun). We can’t offer this variety in our tanks, only a largely constant set of theoretically ‘optimal’ conditions with limited variety (i.e.: the water is heated & the basking lamp on or off). We plunk a chunk of something in the tank under a light bulb and call it a basking spot. Often the spots are too small to offer a good range of temp.s for thermo-regulation. It’s either in the water or on the platform.

What I offer is no perfect solution, but it gives turtles some place else to go, & even if it’s just 8” away, it makes a difference. With a well-designed driftwood basking platform you can give your turtle the choice of varying degrees of warmth without sacrificing swimming area.

Wild turtles bask on everything from muddy banks to rocks, but basking species often prefer a tree that has fallen into the water. The turtles straddle the semi-submerged limbs or rest on the trunk. Watch long enough & you’ll see them slowly turn themselves against the sun. They often start out facing the sun to dry off but then turn themselves to get dry the rear end. A secondary benefit is that most of their plastron is exposed to the air and also gets dried off. Granted this is just my theory, but after a few hundred hours of observation, I think I answered my biggest question. Why do most of the turtles face the same direction basking on a log and this is my theory.


Photo by Richard Lunsford


Photo by Richard Lunsford


Look closely & you’ll see four turtles on this limb. Now suspending a limb across the top of your tank in just that perfect way allowing both access and a way to get fully dry is tricky. But we’ll do our best to recreate it.

You’ll need enough driftwood to have a vertical post strong enough to support a horizontal piece about three times the length of your turtle and at least half its width. For the base, I prefer slate. Flooring slate works well. It has sufficient thickness to be drilled and hold a screw without cracking or flaking away. It can be purchased in 12” x 12” squares for just a few dollars per piece.

The tools involved can be intimidating. I own several power tools that make this kind of work a snap; you may need to buy or borrow. This equipment requires skill & if you aren’t familiar with how these tools operate I suggest you don’t attempt this project. At a minimum you need a good full-size hand-saw, better still is a reciprocating saw & best of all, the ultimate tool for this work is a band-saw. NEVER ATTEMPT TO CUT ROUND OBJECTS WITH A CIRCULAR SAW. A CIRCULAR SAW WILL BE OF NO USE WITH THIS PROJECT. A drill is a must & a free standing drill press is better. You need: Masonry Drill Bits: 3/16” for the screw shaft and 3/8” for the screw head. Wood Bits: 1/8” and a 3/8” or a pocket hole bit. Choose screws designed for outdoor use (the vinyl-coated type is the best). A sharp chisel and lots of 100 grit sandpaper (a higher-end option would be a motorized sander (drill-mounted) of some kind (not a grinder); the best option would be an oscillating spindle sander or a sand-blasting set-up.

Our Equipment List:

1.)    Hand-Saw if not Reciprocating Saw if not Band-Saw. No circular saw!

2.)    Power Drill if not a Drill Press.

3.)    Masonry Drill Bits: 3/16” (for screw shaft) & 3/8” (for screw head).

4.)    Wood Bits: 1/8” & 3/8” (or a pocket hole bit).

5.)    Outdoor screws (ideally vinyl-coated.

6.)    Sharp Chisel.

7.)    Lots of 100 grit Sandpaper if not an Oscillating Spindle Sander or Sand-blasting setup.


Next measure the enclosure to decide what you need to build.

1)      Measure the interior length of the tank.

2)      Measure the interior width of the tank.

3)      Measure the water line from the bottom of the tank. This is the most crucial measurement. You must establish a common waterline because once built, you don’t want to tear apart the basking platform to adjust it higher or lower.

4)      Measure where the basking light is in relation to the tank. I find working from the back and the left side is easiest. E.g. let’s say the light is 10” from the left and 9” from the back. This is your heat light’s hotspot. Decide whether you want the basking platform centered under the hotspot or be off to one end or the other (this determines the range of temp.s your turtle is offered).


Let’s start with the piece of wood you have chosen to make the basking platform out of. I start with a handful of pieces to choose from.

Photo by Bob McNally

For my example:

The intended turtle is 8” long SCL living in a 150 gallon aquarium. The basking light is centered in the tank. The turtle’s owner also wants the basking spot to be centered in the tank. So, out of the heavy pieces on the left I chose this one.


Photo by Bob McNally


The next choice to make is the supporting trunk and any aesthetic branches you want to add. I have discovered that adding branches that reach just below the surface afford the turtles places to cling to while sleeping at night. I call these sleeper branches. I have an array of wood to choose from in this picture.

Photo by Bob McNally


Okay, it’s time to get our hands dirty. First up: take your chisel and pare away any and all soft or loose wood. Scrape away any bark. When you’re sure that what’s left is all solid wood, then sand, sand, and sand some more. A minute layer of the entire old surface must be removed. In order to avoid the white flowing fungus (harmless but ugly) that manages to bloom after driftwood is re-hydrated, you must either sand or sandblast. Now we’re ready for the first cut. In order to mount the basking spot on the vertical post, we need a flat area to mount it to. This is where the band-saw comes in. I cut the log in half down its length.

Photo by Bob McNally


This can also be done by clamping the log vertically in a vice and either hand-sawing the log down its length or using a reciprocating saw. The end result is a reasonably flat-bottomed basking platform and the bonus is…… the cut-off piece becomes the access step for the turtle. Whatever way the log curves, you simply reverse the direction with the cut-off piece like so.

Photo by Bob McNally

Use the 1/8” wood bit to pre-drill and then secure the step to the basking spot. Where the step and the spot meet is where you want the waterline to end up at. This gives the turtle a submerged area to climb out on and a basking spot that extends high enough out of the water that it is always dry (important for a healthy plastron).


Next up:

Choose your vertical support pole. Clean it up like you did the basking spot. Now let’s take that waterline measurement and simply deduct the thickness of the base slate. In the case we’re working on, the waterline was 21”. I cut the vertical post to 20.75”.

Photo by Bob McNally


What you see here is the drill, the specialized pocket hole drill bit, pocket hole guide (blue thing), clamp, a piece of wood with a “V” cut into it, and the supporting log.

Photo by Bob McNally


This is what it all looks like when drilling. The clamp holds the V and the jig in place on the round log, while the two-stage pocket hole bit drills a pilot screw-hole at exactly a 15 degree angle. I drill at least three of these holes as evenly apart as my eye can tell around the top of the trunk. These angled holes allow me to screw directly into the underside of the basking spot. The alternative is to drill down through the top of the basking spot into the trunk. That route requires 3” screws and a really good eye if you want to get multiple screws in place for rigidity. You can “eyeball” the angled holes, but the jig just makes it so much simpler.


The next big step is where and how to place the vertical post on the slate base.

Photo by Bob McNally


The drill bit on the left is the 3/16” masonry bit and the bit on the right is the 3/8”. The yellow screw is the vinyl coated exterior screws that I use. They’re about $5 a box. I place the support pole on the slate somewhere near the center and trace around the trunk with a pencil. Then it’s over to the drill press.


Photo by Bob McNally


You can see the pencil outline of the trunk. I’ve drilled the ‘through holes’ with the 1/8” masonry bit from the top. I then flip the slate over and change-up to the 3/8” bit and countersink the holes. This gives the screw-heads a place to lock in and keeps the base from wobbling. Always back the slate up with a piece of scrap wood to prevent the slate from breaking out when the drill bit comes through.

Photo by Bob McNally


This was the end result of this project. The additional trunks are the sleeper branches I mentioned earlier. They are attached to the base in the same manner as the support trunk. Because of the height of this particular basking spot I purposely snugged up the one sleeper against the back of the basking platform and screwed the branch to the platform for extra support. Before I do my final screw tightening, I apply a thin layer of aquarium silicone to the bottoms of any vertical trunks. It helps keep the water from wicking up inside the wood.


You can expect your basking spot to last at least three years. I presently have two that are that old and I can tell that they still have an easy three more years in them.


Maintenance: When I do a total cleanout, say once every nine months or so, I take the platforms into the shop and scrape away the algae and snug up the screws.


Good Luck,

Bob McNally


Appendix I.) Some Completed Examples.


Every piece is a unique piece of artistic expression, whether you design an elaborate piece with several sleeper branches or a utilitarian basic platform. You can aim for a 'swampy' look or otherwise customize your design for a given effect.


Platform 1. Tuwhada's Platform.

26" left-to-right, made for 21" water-line, used by 2 RES (8 & 9" SCL).

Photo by Bob McNally


Platform 2. Denise's Platform.


Made for softshells - lack of sleeper branches to maximize unobstructed swimming space.

Photo by Bob McNally


Platform 3. One of Jan O.'s Platform's.


This one has sleeper branches & a balanced look.

Photo by Bob McNally


Platform 4. Lovely Lisa's Platform.


Rear View. You can 'get a little wilder' with your style.

Photo by Bob McNally


Front View. Consider weight distribution when choosing your base slate piece.

Photo by Bob McNally

Platform 5. Another Piece (Owner Unspecified).


There's a lot of flexibility in design.

Photo by Bob McNally


Platform 6. Another of Jan O.'s Platforms.


Note the balanced, 'little forest' look.

Photo by Bob McNally


Platform 7. Another of Jan O.'s Platforms.


Another of Jan O.'s Platforms.

Photo by Bob McNally


Platform 8. Another Piece (Owner Unspecified).


Note the extended length sleep branch on this piece.

Photo by Bob McNally


Platform 9. Lynn's Platform.


Front View. Designing larger platforms for deeper water setups gives you more room to design striking pieces.

Photo by Bob McNally


Rear View. You can use short, 'bottom' pieces to make a more naturalistic floor terrain.

Photo by Bob McNally


latform 10. Unusual Platform Project - Owner Unspecified.

This platform was designed for a long, thin tank with non-centered lighting. The highest point is beneath the off-center basking light. This is the basic main basking platform.

Photo by Bob McNally



You can clearly see how much sleeper branches add to a platform, both for the turtles' comfort & your tank's aesthetic look.

Photo by Bob McNally


Planning: The 'X' is where the basking light shines down & the blue rectangle the tank wall perimeter. With the basking platform against the back of the tank you must be sure your turtle can't stand on it, grab the tank's top rim & escape!

Photo by Bob McNally