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DIY Tortoise Table Guide: Build Your Own Habitat 🐢

Tortoise tables are quite easy to build and offer many advantages over glass enclosures. A DIY tortoise table, or for that matter, any tortoise table or vivarium is best for small tortoises or hatchlings.

Large chelonians need a pen. As such, the first few years of captive tortoises’ lives are best spent indoors in a small enclosure. These offer excellent protection against predators and weather conditions.

Additionally, you can better control living conditions, especially temperature and humidity. Many of these tortoises require high humidity levels to thrive.

Once the turtle is older you can relocate it to a garden or yard. Here is how you can build your very own tortoise table. Some tortoises such as the Hermann’s remain small their entire lives and can live in tortoise tables for as long as you want them to.

Building a Tortoise Table

Sulcata tortoise in its tortoise table on substrate
Sulcata tortoise in its tortoise table on substrate

Building a tortoise table with dimensions of 4ft x 3ft should be large enough and you can alter it as needed depending on your specifications. Avoid using lumber treated with arsenic – this is toxic. You also need to have a location in mind.

I recommend a place with access to sunlight such as a window. Since most tortoise species require moderately high temperatures.

I don’t recommend keeping the tortoise table in an unheated shed during the cold seasons (fall and winter) unless of course, the tortoise is endemic to the temperate zones.

Materials needed

  • 2 to 4 2×6’s depending on the size
  • Thick plywood (at least 19 mm or ¾ inch) for the bottom
  • 1 box of galvenized screws
  • Wood glue
  • Silicon caulking
  • Vinyl flooring or alternatively plastic lining
  • Substrate
  • Decorations (rocks, live plants, hiding spot)
  • Lighting fixtures for UVB & Heat lamps

Tools needed

  • A claw hammer
  • Skilsaw or Jigsaw
  • A tape measure
  • Yard or Meter stick
  • A Drill
  • Drill bits
  • Belt sander

Building the frame

1. Build the frame

If you decide against using a bookshelf or wardrobe, you can build a simple 4ft x 3ft rectangular frame. 

The backing for wardrobes and bookshelves won’t be strong enough to hold the turtle and the content of the enclosure. So you should remove this.

2. Add legs

At this stage it’s recommended to install legs for the table if you are going to have any.

You can build legs for the table using 4×4’s or possibly 2×4’s. If your setup has a stand or is using a table then legs can be skipped.

Generally tortoise tables will sit on the floor directly or will be on an existing stand like a table or desk.

3. Add the backing

Depending on if you added legs or not, you can measure the plywood to fit the bottom with corners cut out for the legs or not if no legs were added.

Attach the plywood to the back of the bookshelf using wood glue and screws with the vinyl facing inwards.

Flip the table and work on the inside. The table should stand sturdily on its legs. If the legs are weak you may need to add some braces at the bottom to strengthen the legs.

4. Install the liner

Roll out the vinyl or liner to the size that is needed and add a little extra so there is enough to go up and cover the walls as well. Start pushing it in until ifit it in the tortoise table until

Once the liner has been test fit you can either leave it as is or you can secure it with an adhesive. Avoid stapling or using nails/screws as this will puncture the liner and will defeat the purpose.

I recommend not gluing it as you may need or want to change the liner at a later stage.

The reason for the covering the sides is to catch any water or waste and keep it from getting into the wood.

Preparing the table for the tortoise

Now that you have built the table it’s time to get it ready for your tortoise. The below are general instructions and the needs may vary from tortoise to tortoise.

Check our tortoise species page to find yours and then check the care sheet for specific instructions.

1. Add a substrate

Choose the appropriate substrate for your tortoise which can be sand, soil, or something like zoomeds tortoise floor and add it in. The depth should be around 4 inches or so, but can be deeper depending on your table size. The reason why there should be several inches of substrate is that tortoises like to burrow down.

Sterilized topsoil is an excellent substrate type to use for the enclosure. You can also use a mix of play sand and topsoil. The soil needs to be slightly moist.

You can achieve this by misting the substrate once a day. Depemdomh on the species, humidity levels need to be between 50 to 70 percent.

2. Setup Lighting

Turtles need UVA/UVB to grow and remain healthy. This allows them to synthesize vitamin D3 and use calcium. There are many UV lights and futures out there.

Some ideal lamp fixtures to fix to the table are the Zoo Med Reptisun T5-Ho Terrarium Hood or the Fluker’s Mini Sun Dome (which holds a 5.5-inch bulb).

It’s best to choose a UV lamp that doesn’t produce heat. This allows you to also install an additional ceramic heat lamp which can be on even at night. I recommend the ReptiSun 10.0 Compact Bulb. Be sure to check our UVB bulb guide for more on how to choose one.

The lights need to be on for 8-12 hours a day and off during the night. Check UV output regularly with a UV meter or UV tester. And change the bulbs accordingly. I recommend changing the bulbs every 6 months.

3. Setup Heating

I recommend using ceramic heat lamps such as the REPTIZOO reptile ceramic heat lamp to warm the enclosure. The heating requirements differ from one species to another.

Most tortoises require basking temperatures of 90 F to 100 F. this basking temperature is ideal for most Mediterranean, tropical and subtropical species such as sulcata, Hermann, pancake, Indian star, Egyptian, Greek, Russian, and red-footed tortoises.

The cool end of the enclosure should have a temperature of about 60 F and at most 75 F.

Use a thermometer to monitor temperatures around the enclosure. You can also regulate the heat lamp using a thermostat. This is why a ceramic heat lamp is recommended over a mercury vapor bulb.

You can regulate the temperature settings independently of lighting. A good thermostat to use is the Hagen Exo Terra Thermostat.


Most tortoises require moderate to high humidity levels. This is especially essential when the chelonians are still young and growing. Low humidity levels can lead to poor shell development.

Red-footed and sulcata tortoises require humidity levels of 70 to 80 percent, while Russian tortoises require humidity levels of about 40 to 50 percent. Mediterranean tortoises such as greek, Egyptian, Hermann, and several others require humidity levels of 40 to 60 percent.

Consider investing in a humidifier for the room within which the tortoise table is situated. In temperate zones, indoor humidity levels can fall pretty low especially during the cold seasons.

You can monitor humidity levels with a humidity gauge.

Hiding spots

All chelonian enclosures require a few hiding spots. These offer the chelonian a safe space to retreat to.

You can buy a commercially made hiding spot or make one out of an opaque plastic container. Turn the container upside down, and cut in a doorway.


Make sure there is always shade available. This gives the chelonian a place to cool off. This helps prevent overheating.

The water dish shouldn’t be deep enough to drown in. Tortoises are not good swimmers. The water dish shouldn’t go above the carapace.

It is your responsibility to protect the tortoise from harm. If you have other animals in the house that can harm the tortoise, consider installing a wire mesh over the enclosure. This will protect the tortoise from unwanted visitors such as cats and dogs.

Make sure you leave an access point or make it easily removable for maintenance and feeding. 

Hiding spots shouldn’t be objects that the tortoise can flip over trying to climb on them. I recommend going with domed hiding spots as these reduce the chances of the tortoise flipping over.

Where you place the table once you have built it is important. If you can avoid moving the table often. If the table has access to natural sunlight, that is a plus. Just make sure parts of the enclosure are still shaded, and the temperature within the enclosure doesn’t get too high.

You will eventually need to clean the enclosure. Make sure you put everything back in their same positions. Change can be stressful for chelonians.

Video of a tortoise table being built

The below video is a walkthrough on a tortoise table that has been built to fit in a specific space. Be sure to check it out before you start your project so you have a better idea of what you will want to build for yourself.

Wrapping up

A DIY tortoise table is an excellent project to have and a perfect way to to take full advantage of the space you have available.

As mentioned above you can repurpose old bookshelves or create an enclosure from scratch with fairly minimal effort and tools. You just need to build the frame, add a liner, pick a location and then setup the enclosure. You should be able to finish this project in 1 – 2 days depending on your needs.

Let us know in the comments below how your tortoise table turned out and if you have any other suggestions to make this guide better.

For an outdoor setup see our guide on creating an outdoor tortoise enclosure.

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Tuesday 31st of August 2021

It wouldve been really nice to see an actual picture of the finished table after allllllll of the detailed instructions. It appears you have to cluck out of this link to watch a video for any visual. With everything you provide here only to not show the finished accomplishment kind of sux. Now if there is a pic in alllllll of these details I never saw it. Theyre so many pop ups and/or ads it becomes frustrating and takes away from your pertinent information.