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Related Articles: Pond Design, Excavation, Is it Level?Block, Liners, Concrete and Pond Liners, Wood-Liner Ponds, Converting Pools to Ponds, Waterfalls, Rock Selection/UsePlumbing, ElectricalPumps, Sealing Concrete, RepairExample Ponds/Water Features

/Aquatic Gardens, Design, Construction & Maintenance

Pond Construction Methods

by Robert Fenner  
Aquatic Gardens

Ponds, Streams, Waterfalls & Fountains:
Volume 1. Design & Construction
Volume 2. Maintenance, Stocking, Examples

V. 1 Print and eBook on Amazon
V. 2 Print and eBook on Amazon

by Robert (Bob) Fenner

      Actual building is the bug-a-boo of most waterscapers. "Oh, I don't know about electricity, concrete, plumbing... your pet fear here". Don't worry; lots of technical and labor help is available and willing. This stuff is not that hard, just up to this point, unfamiliar.

With the proper steps taken, most all the separate jobs to completion may be done by yourself or more enjoyably, with friends. There is nothing mysterious or tremendously difficult about constructing small to large water effects. With the use of liners or block or other novel materials the actual basins may be constructed over several days rather than by a crew. For the most part, elements do not require special tools, expertise, licensing or permits.

What these projects do require is thoughtful, conscientious, careful planning and progress over time. Be patient; it pays. Due to possibly working with power tools, heavy rocks and sharp objects, safety should be foremost in mind. Working with concrete is hard work! Take your time and save your back. Best of all, understand that this work (and life) are process oriented. Enjoy the building phase of your project in earnest as well as the anticipated enjoyment of it's finish/operation.

It's strongly suggested that you invite the family to join in. These endeavors last a lifetime and more.

There are may ways of building ornamental fish ponds; liners, concrete, fiberglass, preformed, and more. The most commonly employed techniques involve a balance between knowledge & perceived ability, cost & desired function and appearance.

In this overview piece I'll try to make known to you these more popular methods of pond construction, their respective benefits and rationale. We need to carefully consider the importance of appropriate fabrication of the pond basin/s and related structures.

Who's on First?

There is no "right" of "wrong" arrangement of pond building. The achieved desire,

1) Retaining the system's water,

2) Maintaining an optimized/stable water chemistry and physics,

3) Not mal-affecting #2 above by way of interactions between the water and construction materials; this can be accomplished in any number of ways. Your personal preferences are surely to be limited/affected by what you're familiar with, the intended use and longevity of the pond, and resources available to do the project.

Steps to Completion:

1) Dream-, as in "I saw it all in a..." i.e. what you want.

2) Means- $, space, time (the big T), expertise.

3) Design- layout; in writing.

4) Engineering- mechanicals, controllers, structural.

5) Construction:

A) Layout, survey, stake, hose or more.

B) Excavation- Keep digging.

C) Filtration- Yep, now!

D) Plumbing- fill, drain, recirculation.

E) Electrical- pump(s) et al.

F) Structural- basin(s), falls, rockwork.

G) Clean & Start Up.

H) Stocking.

6) Operation/Maintenance.

Let's discuss the four most encountered types of construction in view of the above factors. The following ways will all 'get you there'. Some are more appropriate for some applications... opinions vary; this is part science, part art, part voodoo... you'll soon know which is my favorite.

Methods/Materials of Pond Construction

1) Liners- PVC, Butyl, Polyethylene (visqueen), others.

2) Concrete- with or without liner. Cast, thrown, hand-pack, shotcrete, gunite.

3) Block, Mortar, Concrete, covered by a waterproofing agent.

4) Fiberglass/Resin- pre-formed, in-place chopped and layered...

5-) Others (there are many)

A. Earthen- with or w/o intended leaking.

B. Earthen with inpenetrants; e.g. bentonite,...

C. Tar paper... yes, tar paper.

D. Wood, metal, plastics...

Please refer to the various specialized articles available in various issues of this magazine for an in-depth discussion of each of the following types of construction.

1) Liners:

Also known as waterproof membranes, are available in many formats. They come as single layer, laminates/composites of varying thicknesses, typically measured in thousandths of an inch (=mils). For some applications liners can make adequate pond basins by themselves, with a minimum of cost for excavation and/or support. The thicker (twenty mil plus) butyl (rubber) and PVC (vinyl) liners are best and second best respectively.

Liner-only ponds can be constructed at a cost of a few dollars per gallon depending on other costs for pump, filtration, decor, etc.

I am a BIG fan of using liners as an underlainment in all water feature construction. All residential, commercial and public projects we installed employed PVC liners as a first and last leak-defense should any other barrier fail. I swear by them.

An added bonus of liner-only or liner-with other technology use is the ability to add to and modify existing structure. It is a relatively simple matter to unearth, otherwise reveal the in-place liner, and anneal a new piece of membrane to it via solventing. Other types of construction can be a real nightmare at these old and new junctures. The mention of cold-joints brings us to method number:

2) Concrete:Or More Accurately Cementatious Materials.

Construction with these takes several shapes in terms of format/type and mode of application. As clarity is pleasurable, a short glossary here:

Cementis a calcined mixture of limestone and clays of various formulations; it functions as the "glue" or binder in cementatious mixtures. Combined with water and sand this is mortar; useful for sticking things together. Add crushed rock (aka aggregate) & voila (!) you have concrete ("with concretions"); a rigid, ionic, crystalline structure with great resistance to compression and stress forces.

Ponds are 'thrown', a popular method in some countries, 'shot' through a nozzle with or without air (as a 5% water, dry mortar, 'gunite'); sometimes with small aggregate (shotcrete), pumped and hand-packed (ugh!), as well as cast into forms.

These hydrated calcium silicate/carbonate mixes are pushed, poured, tossed, blown into and around reinforcing mesh for added strength. This network is typically steel in the form of rod ('rebar'), welded or twisted wire ('chicken', 'stucco').

Combining concrete with metal wire mesh applied over a waterproof membrane is the very best technology for almost all water effects. These combo. methods give maximum flexibility in terms of artistic expression, ease of construction, and leak-proofedness (is this a word?), at a moderate cost. They are the best available, most appropriate method of pond construction for serious, permanent installations.

3) Block, Mortar, Concrete

Ponds made in this way have the advantage of being able to be created by just one person, over whatever period of time, at the builder's leisure. For vertical, formal, geometric walls, they can't be beat. When combined with a waterproof membrane, they're super. By themselves they tend to be worrisome leak and crack-wise, particularly where there is substantial hydrostatic pressure in the surrounding soil, freezing, earthquakes.

4) Fiberglass & Resin:

There's a bunch of ways to go here. Pre-made ponds that are modular that you fasten and joint together, down and really dirty chop-gun and layered do it your-self possibilities abound.

Pre-formed ponds are widespread in many Western European countries. They are fast to install, come in many sizes, colors, shapes and uses.

You can actually make your own in a mold or free hand... but don't do it, I implore you.

The problem(s) with fiberglass ponds: Many and disastrous. Number one, they're toxic. I don't care how you make, treat or maintain them, they delaminate; fancy word for they fall apart. Making them is no picnic either. Look at the safety gear used in the industries that deal in these materials and the laws governing their use. Geez.

Number two: Most are too small and shallow to be practical for koi or water gardening...

Thirdly: They weather poorly, you dare not step into one after it's installed for fear of cracking it... please stop me here. Per gallon, per year of service, per resin and fiberglass poisoning, think again.


Here we are again Dear Reader and aquatics friend. To "journey again", (reiterate) most anything that will hold water and not outright poison your livestock will work to make a pond. I've seen bath-tubs, inverted coffin covers, boats cast on land & filled with water...

If experimentation as adventitious behavior is any indication of evolutionary striving, pet-fish types are no where near there zenith in trying out novel construction materials and application methods. Because your koi, etc. should live well now "for they will be a long time dead", earnestly pursue enlightenment in theory before committing to any action in pond building.

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Gessert, Kate Rogers. 1989. How to create your own water garden. Family Circle 5/89.

Strange, Arthur. 1980. Garden pools; part one: their construction and planting. Freshwater and Marine Aquarium 5/80.


Aquatic Gardens

Ponds, Streams, Waterfalls & Fountains:
Volume 1. Design & Construction
Volume 2. Maintenance, Stocking, Examples

V. 1 Print and eBook on Amazon
V. 2 Print and eBook on Amazon

by Robert (Bob) Fenner
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