Wood For Vivariums
When thinking about wood for vivariums, can you use wood that you find outside for your bearded dragon or must you buy it from a store?
What Wood Is safe and What Is Not
In this post we investigate which woods are safe to use inside your reptile’s vivarium. We don’t intend to determine which woods you might make a vivarium out of and it should be noted that treated wood (or more precisely, lumber) is a totally different risk profile.
Which Why and How? – Wood for Vivariums
Are you are looking to add something different to your vivarium decor and don’t want the bog standard shop bought offerings?
Have you ever walked through a park or forest and seen a lovely branch or piece a of wood washed up on the beach and thought “is this a safe wood for lizards”?
Do you want to save yourself some money? Don’t mind spending some time foraging for that unusual wood feature or for an interesting climbing branch to make your lizards enclosure unique? But then you’re wondering if it’s a safe wood for vivariums.
This post will talk you though what types of wood to avoid and what wood is safe to use in a vivarium. We also go through how to prepare the wood so it is parasite and bacteria free.
Which wood should not be used In a Vivarium?
There are several types of wood that you should avoid using as decor in you beardies vivarium / tank.
Woods to avoid are:
- Coniferous or evergreen wood. (eg. Pine, Cedar, Douglas Fir, Camphor wood).
- Wood with thorns (eg. hawthorn, honey locust, Acacia trees).
- Wood that has been chemically treated.
Why are some woods not safe for your Lizard?
Some trees especially coniferous trees produce a thick sticky resin that oozes from the tree, it is thought to be a protective mechanism against damage, disease or infestation.
These trees also releases aromatic phenols, which are a volatile organic compound and are mildly acidic. It has been reported that short term high level exposure to these aromatic phenols have been known to cause respiratory irritation, skin lesions and burns. Exposure has also been known to cause muscle twitching and tremors which can easily be mistaken for MBD. In extreme cases exposure can cause seizures.
To put this in context low levels of synthesised phenols are used in our every day cleaning products including disinfectants and mouthwash.
Reports abound on the internet relating to sudden onset of dog seizures as a result of exposure to phenols from Eucalyptus oils and other essential oils around the home. Dogs have far more fresh air exposure than is likely inside your vivarium, even with excellent ventilation.
Cedar is the most toxic for your lizard and should be avoided at all costs. Pine, fir and eucalyptus do not have the same potency as cedar but all should be avoided and known safe options used instead.
Camphorwood also referred to as camphor tree or camphor laurel is also an evergreen which produces an oil that is extremely potent. And must be avoided.
It is also worth mentioning that cedar, pine, eucalyptus and camphor are becoming very popular as essential oils. The use of these oils around reptiles (and other pets) can have a detrimental effect on their health. Recent studies have shown that exposure to these oils can induce seizures and when the oils were removed the seizures stopped.
Any wood that has thorns should also be avoided. They have the potential to cause necessary injury to your lizard.
Chemically treated wood should also not be used in your lizard’s enclosure, simply because they have previously been treated with chemicals that may not be safe for reptiles.
Which wood is safe for use in a vivarium?
There are a wide array of wood that are safe to use in your vivarium. Below are just some examples this is not an exhaustive list.
- Tulip tree / Magnolia tree
- Crepe Myrtle
- Apple tree
- Dogwood (Cornus floridana)
Is there a difference between Bogwood and Driftwood?
The simple answer is YES…
Bog wood derives from hard wood trees that have spent hundreds to thousands of years submerged in either lakes, rivers , swamps or bogs. They are dark in colour due to the years of natural staining by organic matter. Bog wood is heavier and denser than driftwood.
Driftwood is essentially any tree, branch or piece of wood that has been drifted out to sea and washed upon a beach. It is usually light in its colour due to sun bleaching and natural weathering.
Why Is Driftwood and Bogwood safe?
Driftwood and bogwood will still need to be cleaned and sterilized before being used as decoration in a vivarium in order to make it safe. But, does it matter what type of wood it is? The answer is no – and this is because driftwood and bogwood have been separated from the living portion of the tree for so long that any phenols are long since evaporated or washed off.
It can be almost impossible to tell what type of wood (by eye at least) bogwood or driftwood is in any case. It may be from a Cedar or an Oak – you probably won’t know. But if it’s been in the bog or the ocean for a long time those nasty chemicals will be long gone and the wood safe for your bearded dragon.
Once the phenols and thorns are no longer a concern, the only issue left is parasites, bacteria or fungi. So, it is for this reason that we need to clean and sterilize bogwood or driftwood before using it.
How to Prepare Branches and Wood for Use In a Vivarium
Once you have sourced a branch or piece of wood that you want to used in your lizards vivarium, it will need to be made safe before use.
- Ensure the wood has no sharp edges (these can be sanded smooth) or holes where your reptile could get stuck. Avoid wood that it has started to rot.
- Remove any loose bits including bark and leaves. A wire or hard brush works well for this.
- Wash / soak the wood in 20% bleach solution this will help to remove any moss, lichen, fungus and bacteria that may be on the wood. Rinse thoroughly.
- You will then need to bake the wood in the oven for at least 30 minutes at 130 degrees or 260 Fahrenheit. This process will kill of any parasites and remaining bacteria. Allow to cool before handling.
- If your oven is not big enough for your chosen piece of wood, another option is to deep freeze the wood. Chest freezers are ideal for large branches. The down side to freezing is the process takes longer. Ideally you will want to leave the wood in deep freeze for at least a week if not longer to ensure it kills off all nasties. The wood will need to thaw and dry before use.
- Your piece of wood is now safe and ready to use as decor in your vivarium or tank.
Finding your own Basking rock
A good basking rock is often expensive to buy and will be the same as as many others. Why not make your beardies vivarium even more unique by adding a basking rock you have sourced your self!
The same principles apply to to rocks as they do for wood:
- Size is important – make sure it is not too large / high for the enclosure.
- No sharp edges – If your chosen rock has sharp or rough edges you will need to smooth them down with a file or rasp. This will avoid unnecessary injury to your beardie.
- It will need to be meticulously cleaned – Remove all dirt including any moss, fungus and lichen. Wash with a 20% bleach solution and rinse thoroughly.
- Sterilise your rock – It is not advisable to put rocks in the oven at high temperatures, there have been incidences of some types of rock exploding due to air pockets expanding within them. Instead soak the rock for a few hours in a diluted bleach solution and rinse thoroughly. This process will kill of any remaining parasites and remaining bacteria. You can also spray with reptile friendly antibacterial spray and leave to air dry.
- Placement of the basking rock – Take care when placing the basking rock in the enclosure, the rock must be sturdy and stable you don’t want the rock to fall over and injure your bearded dragon.
Hope you have fun and save some money too!!
We would love to see your unique habitat creations!! If you have any questions or comments please leave us a message below.
Thanks for reading! 😊
We have been pet sitting our son & daughter in law’s leopard gecko. My husband & I have grown a bit attached to him.
As I’ve been doing some research on LG’s, I came across your helpful article.
Question: We had pieces of driftwood that I had gathered from SW Gulf Shore of Florida last year. I thought it would be a great addition to the LG’s tank. The wood has been sitting in a bag in our garage for a year.
I soaked it for a few hours in bleach/water solution, scrubbed & rinsed. I am currently baking it in the oven as you directed. I noticed when I opened the oven door to turn the wood over, there is a strong, bleach smell. I am baking it longer. I did soak the wood for quite a while in the bleach solution & the wood is quite porous. Do you suggest after I bake it, rinsing it again & rebaking? I don’t want to harm the gecko with remnants of bleach chemicals!
Thanks for your help!
Thankyou for your comments, It sounds like you have done a thorough job. The odour of bleach can linger usually if the bleach solution was a bit too concentrated or it wasnt rinsed enough.
But from what you have said there will be no need to re-bake the wood but I would suggest that you rinse it again and leave it to air dry.
Hope that helps 🙂
All the best with the LG
Claire and Steve
Is poplar wood safe to use?
I would be cautious when using poplar as there are so many sub species.
If you are using branches for décor I would avoid the balsam poplar as it very fragrant.
Hello is aucuba branches safe to use in with my bearded dragons vivarium ?
sorry for the delayed response,
I really dont know much about the aucuba, It more of a shrub than a tree, and for some animals eating the leaves and berries can make them sick.
sorry I cant be more helpful.
Just wondering if you have an actual scientific studies to show pine is toxic to reptiles? I understand they have had studies to show the effects of cedar on rodents but have not been able to find any studies regarding reptiles with pine. If not, how did you come up with the statement that pine is toxic? Thank you.
I’ve got some arborvitae (an evergreen shrub) branches that I’d like to use, since they’re pretty cool pieces, but am I right in assuming that the evergreen watch group includes this? Is there any way I can make it reptile safe? This is for a snake tank. Thank you!
Unfortunately these are an coniferous evergreen and therefore not safe to use. It is extremely toxic to reptiles including snakes!
There is no way that I’m aware of to make it safe, its just not worth taking the chance when there are so many other woods that are safe to choose from.
Is there anything i can do to make pine work? several layers of water based polyurithane perhaps?
Apologies for the delay in replying…
Several coats of water based Polyurethane would be a great solution to allow the safe use pine, when buying make sure that there are no additives for mould prevention. This can be toxic.
It is also worth making sure that it is safe to use in an aquarium – If its safe for fish its safe for reptiles
Hope that helps
What type of oak are we referring to? I have a ton of red oak that I can shape…
We are referring to all oak, of which there are over 500 species all of will be either white or the red oak.
The red oak you have is safe to use,
hope that has clarified things for you.
Is crepe mrytle branches safe to use for reptile branches ?
Yes crepe myrtle is safe to use as long as it is clean and free from disease, rot ect.
We have a few lengths of unknown wood that we found along the shore of the Bow River in Canmore Alberta. It’s a mountain fed river with a rough bottom and rocky shore where we found them.
They are all stripped of any bark or loose matter and had been smoothed out naturally when we found them.
We’ve had 1 of them for at least 3 years. Stored in the garage for a couple years and then in our house for almost a year. It’s completely dried out and we’ve never noticed anything seeping from it. We want to use this in our Beardies enclosure but am concerned it might be Pine.
Can we use it as it is or should we ‘bleach’ it as recommended above, or should we avoid using it?
It’s too long to fit in the oven.
I would say that it is safe to use, from your description its sound like it would be classed as a driftwood.
I would advise that you clean it before use, for this wood (because its been in your home) you can either steam clean it or wash it with a reptile safe cleaner. If you wanted to use bleach make sure that you rinse it well and allow to air dry.
is sycamore safe for in a dart frog vivarium?
We don’t have much experience with dart frogs. Sycamore would be safe for reptiles.
sorry we couldnt be more helpful.
Would American basswood be safe to use? Thanks
Yes it is safe to use, basswood also known as linden trees and lime trees (although not related to the fruit) .
It is a beautiful tree, its wood is soft and fibrous and the wood is also odorless. Freshly cut basswood will have a high moisture content and could increase the humidity temporarily.
These trees are also renowned for their flowers which have many health benefits, often used to make tea and honey.
Is pecan wood good to use?
Pecan is a hard wood and part of the hickory family, it is safe to use. Pecan has many uses and often used as flooring because of its hardness and durability. Pecan has a high water content which means it will shrink back as it dries out. It is better to use pecan that has already been cured especially if you want to use it to make a vivarium or a structure to go in the beardies enclosure.
I have a vivarium with charred pine do you think it would be okay for my bearded dragon? The plywood is a hardwood.
Yes charred pine will be ok, The charring process involves applying intense heat to the wood which removes moisture and all the volatile organic compounds. Which means that all traces of the resin in charred pine will be removed making it safe to use.
Hope that helps
Claire and Steve
I’ve heard cherry is also on the unsafe list. If I’m considering repurposing old cherry wood furniture, could I seal it and then line it with a safe wood? Or is it just a bad idea in general. Thanks!
Cherry is a hardwood and is safe to use, I am assuming you are re purposing the old wood furniture to make a vivarium? Old cabinets make some really cool and unique enclosures.
I would advise that you check the furniture has no woodworm and that if it has been varnished to sand it back and remove it at least on the inside where you reptile will reside.
Good luck with your project
Claire and Steve.
I have a piece of spruce wood lying around… Is that okay for a terrarium?
I would advise against using spruce in your terrarium as it a coniferous tree, similar to pine and fir.
Hi, I was wondering if walnut trees are good for terrariums. Thanks!
Yes absolulely, walnut is a hard wood and will be just fine in your terrarium.
You will of course need to make sure the wood clean and free from debris first.
Thanks for the great article. We have Some pieces of very aged driftwood from a clean lake that we were hoping to use in our new crested gecko enclosure. You have driftwood under your safe list. Would it be safe even though we don’t know what type of tree it came from? There are a lot of pines in the area but it could really be anything. I know fresh cedar or pine isn’t recomended but I’m wondering if being so aged it would be ok?
Thanks so much for your help.
Driftwood is safe to use in your gecko’s enclosure as long as it has been thoroughly cleaned first.
It can be difficult to determine what type of tree driftwood originated from, fortunately this doesn’t matter due to the weathering processes it has undergone.
The continuous cycle of getting wet and drying out along with the sun bleaching will make the wood completely devoid of any harmful properties, consequently making it safe to use in a vivarium, terrarium, aquarium etc.
Hope that helps
Claire and Steve
Great article, thank you! Question… what about birch and poplar woods? I am planning to build a tank for my beardie and these are less expensive than oak. Safety is more important though, so I wanted to check. Thank you for your help!
Hi Courtney thanks for your comment and question,
You are absolutely right safety is more important, however you are in luck!
Birch is absolutely fine to use, it does produce a sap that is edible similar to the maple. In the format you will be using it in sap wont be an issue anyway.
I would be more cautious when using poplar as there are so many sub species. I would avoid the balsam poplar as it very fragrant.
If you are buying poplar wood ready to use try to choose planks that have very few knots as these will still leak resin when hot. To avoid this happening when viv is constructed I would heat the knots with a heat gun or hairdryer and remove all the excess resin before use.
Hope that helps
We would love to see how the build turns out 🙂
Claire and Steve
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