How to Build an Indoor Land Turtle Table
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How to Build an Indoor Land Turtle Table

David T. Kirkpatrick, Ph.D

One of the major problems with keeping land turtles indoors is providing adequate space to assure their wellbeing. Turtles, unlike snakes, need a large amount of floor space to be happy, especially if you intend to breed your turtles. A snake can utilize almost all of the cage space with the addition of a few well-placed branches. Turtles, on the other hand, are not very good climbers. (Although they are persistent, and this persistence can sometimes overcome any climbing handicap!) Thus turtles need a proportionately larger amount of floor space than do snakes.

One solution to the space problem is to devote a whole room to the turtles and allow them freedom to roam. However, even if you have a spare room, which most people don't, there are still problems with such a solution. For example, the turtles are harder to observe without interfering in their activities. Drafts and difficulty of maintenance are other problems associated with this approach.

Another solution has been to use glass aquaria of various sizes and shapes. This brings the turtles closer to eye level, where they quickly become used to the occasional observer, while an optimal environment is easily maintained. Unfortunately, a glass aquarium of sufficient floor size in which to keep a medium-sized land turtle weighs quite a lot, making it hard to manipulate, which can cause problems with cleaning. They can also be quite costly.

After attempting both of the above methods for keeping land turtles, I finally opted for a solution that works as well as an aquarium while being larger, easier to clean, and cheaper - the turtle table. On a base of low bookshelves I rested a frame made of 2x4 inch wooden studs on which was placed a 4x8 foot sheet of plywood. The plywood had rectangular holes cut out of it, in which rested deep trays containing soil, soil and plants, or water. The trays were supported by their edge or lip on all four sides. To keep the turtles from wandering off the edges of the table, 16 inch high plexiglass sheets were screwed onto all four sides, and the four corners were sealed with aquarium sealant. The result is a large open area, with transparent yet sturdy sides. The inclusion of the recessed trays allows areas for the turtles to drink, hide, dig or lay eggs. If you have large trays, and thus a large hole, you can even get under the table and stand up in the hole, allowing easy access to the interior for scrubbing down the surfaces, which are water-resistant due to a polyurethane finish. Finally, with some care in building and a good staining prior to applying the polyurethane coat, the turtle table blends in nicely with most room decors. (A complete list of materials follows this article. For a graphics display of construction drawings, see David's homepage at

The turtle table can be easily constructed in four or five steps, which should take two to three days, depending on drying time for polyurethane and stain. [See Figure #1 for an "exploded" view of the essential design of the table.] The first step in building a turtle table is one of the most important - designing the layout of the surface. The location of the plants and the water tray are vital, as you cannot change your mind once you have begun. Also, some provision for lighting and heating must be made. I use clip-on desk lamps as both a source of light and of heat. I attach them directly to the plexiglass siding and hook them up to a timer. In my arrangement they are clustered near the water tray, and away from the plant trays. This creates shadows under the plants that the turtles like to hide in, and also warms the water slightly. By clustering the lights, a temperature gradient is set up across the table, allowing the turtles to choose the temperature that they desire.

Once you have decided on a layout, cut out the holes for the trays in the plywood sheet. Make sure that the holes are not too large! The holes have to be small enough to allow the lip on the trays to support the tray. Once you have cut wood away, it is impossible to replace it, so always cut off less than you want and trim it to fit.

When the cutting is finished, sand off the rough edges and apply a coat of stain and/or polyurethane. After it has dried, lightly sand it again with either fine sandpaper or steel wool, and apply a second coat. Remember to seal the edges also, especially around the trays.

The next step is to build the supporting frame. A simple rectangular outer frame with a few extra internal crosspieces will serve nicely. Be careful that you do not run a middle crosspiece in such a way that it will interfere with one of the trays that will hang down from the plywood sheet! [See Figure #1 for one possible arrangement] You may also want to stain and/or polyurethane the sides of the 2x4's that will show for added water resistance and attractiveness. Alternately, you could attach a higher quality piece of wood all along the edges, hiding the plywood and the 2x4 edges, and stain and seal it instead. Next, nail or screw the plywood sheet down onto the support frame. A quick dab of polyurethane around each nail/screw will prevent any moisture from seeping through the holes.

Finally, you need to cut and attach the plexiglass siding. If you purchase a 4x8 foot sheet, have the dealer cut it into three 16 inch x 8 foot lengths at the beginning. Then you need only cut one of the lengths in half and you have your sides. When you attach the sides, approximately 1 foot will be above the plywood base, and 4 inches will be used to anchor the side to the frame. [See Figure #2 for a view of the long side] One note of caution: you may want to make the plywood sheet (and thus the underlying 2x4 support structure) a few inches shy of a perfect 4x8 foot rectangle. Thus when you put in the plexiglass sides, you can cut off the few extra inches and be assured of getting tight corners. If you trust in the dimensions of the wood and the plexiglass, you might come up a half inch short somewhere, and thus leave an annoying gap at a corner!

Use a drill to drill holes through the plexiglass near the lower edge. The drill bit should be as thick as the shaft of the screws that you intend to use, but not as thick as the head of the screw. When you drill through the plexiglass, go slowly, and make sure that the bit is not heating up. If it gets too hot, it will begin to melt the plexiglass, and you will not be able to get a clean hole and you may mess up your bit. Next, take another bit that is as wide as the screw head and drill a little way into the plexiglass, but not all the way through. This countersinking allows the screw head to be flush with the plexiglass side when you install the sides. I recommend making the holes 1 inch to 1.5 inches up from the bottom of the side, with another hole 1.5 inches directly above the lower hole. Each set of holes can be spaced 1.5 feet to 2 feet apart. When the holes have been drilled, install the sides, and trim any excess at the corners with the plexiglass cutter/trimmer.

If you need or wish to reinforce the sides of the table, this can be done quite easily. Use longer wood screws and place a thin wood strip up the outside of the plexiglass. Anchor it with the two screws that normally anchor the plexiglass to the frame. The screws therefore run through the wooden strip, into the plexiglass, and imbed into the frame. Countersink the screws into the wooden strips rather than into the plexiglass. The addition of these strips on the outside of the siding will reinforce them against any especially pushy and aggressive turtle.

Finally, put a bead of ordinary aquarium cement/sealant up the inner edge of each corner, and along the inner seam of the plexiglass-to-plywood joint. Let the sealer cure overnight to allow toxic fumes to dissipate. The sealer finishes the waterproofing job and also is quite good in holding the plexiglass together at the corners. If you don't seal along the plywood-to-plexiglass joint, liquids can leak down between the plexiglass and the frame.

All that remains is to put the table onto its base. I use a set of low bookshelves that run around the table on three sides, with the fourth side against a wall. The bookshelves are 2 feet high, and this seems to be a good height, allowing me to reach over the top of the plexiglass without any trouble. Finally, insert the trays, fill up the water tray and put in your turtles!

Obviously, I have just given the basics in building the turtle table. There is enormous possibility for variation, depending on your needs and the needs of the turtles. Those needs include, but are not limited to: water, food, a proper temperature gradient, adequate light (a fluorescent full-spectrum light is an essential!), protection from drafts, and places to hide from other turtles and from intruding humans. However you may change the design of the turtle table to suit your needs, always remember that you are building a habitat for your turtles and try to place their needs first. How To Build a Turtle Table


Plywood: The plywood used should be 3/4 inch thick. 1/2 inch thick sheets can be used, but this necessitates a sturdier frame, and the inserted trays cannot be as heavy. Sheets with a "finished" side will look nicer, not having as many irregularities, and will not need as much sanding prior to staining and sealing. They are more expensive, however, and the irregularities in an unfinished sheet will provide more traction for the wandering turtles.

Plexiglass: Plexiglass sheets can be purchased from a plastics dealer/manufacturer. Check your local Yellow Pages. The thickness of the sheet is dependent on two related factors: how high the sides are going to be, and how big the turtles are that are going to be kept. The bigger the turtle, the sturdier the material and the higher the sides need to be to prevent breakouts by push-over or climb-over methods. For 6 inch long turtles, a 12 inch high side made of 3/16 inch plexiglass has been more than sufficient. A cutter for the plexiglass will be necessary. They look like utility knives with a hook at the tip of the blade, and can be usually be purchased from the same plastics dealer that sold you the plexiglass.

Trays: The cat litter trays are for plants, and as such should be large and deep enough to hold the plants you wish to use. All trays must have a lip or rim running around the outside edge of the tray. This should be fairly sturdy, as it will support the weight of the tray and its contents when it is put into the cutout in the plywood surface. A shallow tray, 1 to 2 inches deep, serves nicely as a water tray. A good source of this size tray is the kind used for developing photographic prints. Just make sure to get one with a good lip around it.

Plants: I have found that the best types of plants to use are those with a thick central stem from which broad heavy leaves emerge, under which a turtle can hide. "Corn plants" are a good example of this type. A large spider plant works also, if the leaves are gathered together and held a little up off the ground.

This article copyright 1990 by David T. Kirkpatrick. Originally published in Reptile & Amphibian Magazine, July/August 1990, pages 16-19.

Reprinting of this article for non-profit purposes is permitted provided that it is unaltered and appropriate attribution, including copyright information, is included. Please notify the author of any reprinting.

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