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Site updated:
25th June 2016

Build a Vivarium for a Corn Snake

It really is very easy...

Building your own vivarium is something some snake keepers will be keen to do and will enjoy doing for themselves, but for others there are many shops here in the UK that can supply vivariums as well as all the various items you will need to house your snake. For example, reptile products and reptile vivariums at Pets at Home and other retailers are available, including products that cater for exotic pets such as corn snakes.

But for anyone interested in building a vivarium of their own, then this page will hopefully be of some help in guiding you and giving a few tips on building a vivarium for a corn snake. The kind of vivarium you will need for a full grown adult corn snake will only be 36 inches long (nearly 1 metre) and doesn't need to be very tall or deep. 18 to 24 inches in height is perfectly adequate. A taller viv would be more difficult to keep warm and is completely unnecessary for a corn snake. They do like to climb, so a branch of some kind is useful for the snake to get some exercise on, but even so, 24 inches tall is plenty high enough. Equally, the depth or front to back measurement doesn't need to be any more than 18 inches. Corn snakes don't need a large area to live in - in fact they really don't like big wide open spaces, preferring to keep under a hide most of the time.

36inch long snake vivarium for adult corn snakes      14inch long snake vivarium for hatchlings
A 36 inch long snake vivarium for adult corn snakes and a 14 inch long snake vivarium for hatchlings

Basically, what we are building here is a cabinet with sliding glass doors at the front, a panel covering the rear and the other parts, the top, bottom and sides being made from either some kind of plywood or plastic covered chipboard shelving. The chipboard shelving I'm thinking of is the Contiboard type which is available from B&Q and other DIY stores and comes in a range of sizes and colours. You need either the 15 inch or 18 inch wide shelving and one 3 metre long piece will be just about enough to make a vivarium with - basically, one metre each for top and bottom and the third metre cut in half to make the sides. Other materials you will need include a panel for the rear, glass for the sliding doors, along with plastic glass runners and some other odd bits of 1x1 wood to provide a bit of stiffness to the whole thing.

Before I go any further, a quick health warning. Only undertake this project if you know how to use an electric drill, saw and screwdriver safely and in a proper manner. Use your common sense and please make yourself aware of all relevant safety issues (for instance, don't have small children running around while you are working).

Right, with that out of the way, I can now get on with describing in more detail how to actually build a vivarium. It is going to be quite a lot of reading, so I am going to mainly describe building a viv made with chipboard shelving, as this is easiest, although if you prefer to use some plywood boarding, the construction is essentially the same. For the plywood, you would need to add some decorative strips afterward to hide the rough edges of the boarding as well as varnish the wood with several coats of waterproof (marine) clear varnish.

So, first we need two long pieces and two short pieces cut from the 3 metre boarding (try and choose one in the store with minimal damage to the corners). These pieces will become the top, base and sides of the vivarium. Drill 3 holes at each end of the top and bottom pieces. The holes need to be in line with the centre of the vertical side piece and then countersunk. Study the diagrams below (which are not to scale) and hopefully all will become clear. If you have trouble understanding any of this, please email me and let me know what I can do to improve this page.

Snake vivarium building diagram      Snake vivarium building diagram

Anyway, next cut two pieces of 1x1 inch wood that are the same length as the width of the shelving and two pieces being the width of the shelving minus 1 inch (ie if the shelving is 15 inches, make the 1x1 wood 14 inches long). Drill two holes through the wood one way and two holes going the other way and countersink all the holes. Later on, you will fit these pieces into the corners, where the bottom meets the side and where the top meets the side, to give the whole construction a little more stiffness and rigidity. You also need one piece of 1x1 wood that will fit across the front of the vivarium at the bottom. It will sit on the base piece, inside the two side pieces, so the length needs to be the length of the base piece minus 2 thicknesses of the board. Standard thickness for this kind of board is 15millemetres or 5/8 inch, so the wood will be 30mm or 1 1/4 inches less than the length of the base piece. One thing to note, before you screw any bits of wood or boarding together, give the edges a good smear with some clear silicone sealant, thus making all joints waterproof. Clean off any excess goo that gets squeezed out of the gaps.

Snake vivarium building diagram

You can tell I was never top of the art class - maybe the picture below will help.

Snake vivarium building diagram
This picture shows a black base and tan coloured side, with a stained piece of
1x1 across the front and partially stained white plastic glass runner on top.
Also see a stiffening piece of wood going from front to rear

Now you see why the two pieces of stiffener for the bottom corners are one inch shorter than the width of the shelf - they fit behind the piece of 1x1 wood going across the front. The two pieces of wood that go in the top corners and the top itself can all be fitted together now and a suitable panel to go on the rear will hold it all in shape - make sure your right angles really are 90 degrees, or the glass won't fit very well... The kind of panel that is suitable is a hardboard 'bath' panel. These have a white plastic covering on one side and are easy to clean. Measure up the size you need and cut and fit it to the rear of the vivarium, using screws every few inches all the way around. The small chipboard 'shelf' screws are ideal for this, being only 5/8 inch long.

You will also need a couple of vents in the rear panel, near the top. The easiest to use and fit are the round 'soffit' ventilator covers that you can buy in DIY stores. Draw round them with a pencil and then cut out the required hole, making it so the vents are a tight snug fit. See the picture below.

Snake vivarium building

After that, there is only the glass and runners to fit, along with a couple of extra details. So for now, take the plastic runners and note that there are two sorts, a deep channel and a shallow channel. The deep channel has to be fitted to the top of the vivarium and the shallow channel to the bottom (on top of the 1x1 wood going across the front). The runners have to be fitted this way so that the glass can be lifted into place without it falling out afterward.

The runners need a good sticking with a high quality contact adhesive like Evostik to firmly hold the runners in place. Next you will want to fit the glass - you could have bought this already and then carefully made the vivarium to fit the glass; or you could now carefully measure the actual gap you have between top and bottom glass runners after constructing the vivarium and then go and order glass to fit. In any case you will want to make sure the glass fits properly and slides across evenly and closes properly with a suitable overlap in the middle.

For lighting, these days most people use LED's of some kind. I have found strips of LED's that are small enough to stick to the rear of the plastic glass channel, at the top of the vivarium, with two of them joined together with a short cable between them. The cable that feeds them can be hidden behind the piece of 1x1 wood that goes from front to rear at the top of the vivarium. If you trim some of the wood away, the cable can be fitted neatly behind it, out of sight, with it going out the rear of the vivarium through a small hole drilled in the rear panel. These LED's don't get hot and use very little electricity and are definitely the neatest thing since sliced bread as far as lighting a vivarium is concerned - no more hot bulbs with guards around them...

Snake vivarium building
A view looking upward and outward from the vivarium, showing the LED lights that
normally you don't see, hidden behind the plastic glass runner at the top of the vivarium.

And really, that is about it. The only other thing you will need to do is to buy and fit a 17x11 inch heatmat along with a thermostat and a digital thermometer. The thermostat and thermometer will both come with a probe on the end of a cable. So you will need to drill holes in the rear panel for these cables, checking first as to exactly where you need the holes. And make the holes only the minimum size you need as corn snakes are the greatest escape artists on earth and will exploit any opening they can find. Once you have fitted the heatmat and stuck it down (either with tape or silicone sealant all around the edge) then you could fill the holes in the rear with some sealant.

The only thing to do now is to stain the piece of wood across the front, and then place all the other bits and pieces in the vivarium, like woodchips for substrate and then get the vivarium up to temperature and check and adjust the thermostat until you get a steady temperature reading. If you tie the thermostat probe and thermometer probe together with a rubber band and then lay them on the surface of the woodchips, directly over the heatmat, then the kind of temperature you want is around 27-28C or 82-85F

Leave the vivarium with no snake in it until the odours from the sealant and stain have completely gone, say a couple of days... And, to begin with, when heated by the heatmat, woodchips can give off a bit of a smell of, well, warm wood, so don't be too surprised by this.

After this it only remains to introduce your snake to his new home. To begin with, he will probably move around the vivarium, exploring and looking for a way to escape. After this he will tire and will disappear under a hide, or burrow into the woodchips and you may not then see him for a few days, so it will probably be best to just leave him to it so he can settle into his new home, as moving is stressful for snakes and they need time to get used to their new surroundings.

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