Secrets to Successful Iwagumi Stone Arrangement

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Many new aquarists first getting into aquascaping see the work of accomplished aquascapers and wonder: “how do they do that?” When it comes to Iwagumi (rock-only layouts in an aquascape), many newcomers believe that it is all about the quality of the rock being used – that professional and accomplished aquascapers alike have secret access to stone that blows away anything that they could ever dream of getting.

If this is you, you’ve probably spent hours fiddling around with stones in your aquarium, trying to get the perfect layout. You may have even tried posting pictures of your hardscape for other people to help you giving them your feedback, but no matter what the stone arrangement just kind of seems “forced,” it doesn’t feel “right.”

I was just like you once and had the exact same pattern! I would repeatedly try to get the stones to look “just right” again and again.

However, by the time I mastered my own Iwagumi layouts, I was honored and humbled with feedback from Takashi Amano on this layout:

Frank Wazeter Master Iwagumi Layout

Mr. Amano, evaluating the aquascape asked “how long have you been doing aquascaping?” My reply: “only about 2 or 3 years.” Mr. Amano, looking at it long again replied:

“I am surprised that you were able to create a layout such as this in such a short amount of time practicing. You have a very keen sense of wabi-sabi and the overall layout is incredible for such a small aquarium. I have no advice for further improvement of this layout.”

So how did I do it? I’ve described the process step-by-step below.

Frank’s Iwagumi method:


The first step you must master is to visualize how you want the aquarium to look at the end. Not at the end of the aquascape setup, but after the plants have all grown in. Focus on how the layout will evolve over time and grow into it’s own. What stones will be covered? Which will be most prominent?

Keep the visual aspect firmly in your mind and you’ll eventually achieve it through the arrangement of stone. Don’t just focus on each individual stone but how will they all come together to form a complete picture.

“In other words BEGIN your layout with the END in mind. The number one reason why most layouts fail is because they begin at the beginning, and not at the end. If that doesn’t make sense, imagine yourself shooting free throws in basketball. If there was no basket to shoot at – you wouldn’t have a goal to aim for and score. You would be just throwing a basketball aimlessly in a random direction: how can you hope to succeed like that?”

Your mindset is extremely important for aquascaping. For reference, it should take you no longer than 15 to 20 minutes to complete your layout hardscape. In a small aquarium maybe even less than 5 minutes! Be relaxed, and aquascape with purpose!

When you take longer than 30 minutes or so to scape a small aquarium, in the end the layout feels “forced” and you begin to lose the ability to “see” what’s right and wrong intuitively. In other words, just like writers get writers block, you get “scapers” block. So should this occur, leave the aquarium behind and focus on visualizing how you’d like the scape to look all grown in and come back to it in a few hours or the next day to complete your work.


The second step you must master is a little counter intuitive. Most people focus on the “quality” or “character” of a stone, rather than the appropriate size when it comes to stones. Your first focus must be size. It needs to fit to scale – the secondary focus is character and detail.

Most nano aquariums require that you select a rock you may even think is over sized! Place this stone, the “main stone” at the appropriate part of your layout.

iwagumi main stone first
Place the Iwagumi’s main stone first, in a nano aquarium this should take up almost 1/4-1/3 the size of the aquarium.

In small nano aquariums, it’s perfectly okay to be a little centered because the canvas size is so small. Place the stone at a slight angle, use this angle guide for reference of “impressions” of stone:

Straight: Gives a look of stability

Flat: Stable feeling – the stone isn’t “going anywhere”

45 degree angle – Dramatic. The stone could tilt over any time, but cast’s it’s shadow.

Angled but more straight in appearance: Stable, slightly dramatic.

Angles Closer to 45 degrees: dramatic, slightly stable.

The next part you must move onto is your supporting stones, it’s very important to make sure that texture and color matches, not just stone type. Make sure you select stones that “feel like” they should be part of the same group and aren’t immensely different from one another.


Placement of second iwagumi stone
Place the second largest stone in your Iwagumi next

Notice how the second stone is flat, and forms an opposite angle to the main stone which creates a greater feeling of stability in the layout, but still draws attention straight to the main stone.

Important note: While most people believe the main stone is the most important stone in the layout, it’s usually the second stone that’s most important because it dictates how the rest of the scape will flow and how you plant accordingly.

Adding the third support stone to the iwagumi
Adding the third support stone to the iwagumi

Placing the third stone. This stone will mostly act off of the power of the supporting stone, matching the angle and softening the overall angle that side of the tank. It will be invisible mostly after plants grow in, but it adds texture to the overall layout and the growing patterns of the plant. Some may refer to it as a “sacrificial stone” for this reason.


Completing the Iwagumi layout by adding stones 4 and 5
Completing the Iwagumi layout by adding stones 4 and 5

The 4th and 5th stone (making an odd number of rocks in a classic 5 stone layout) follow the motion of the left side of the main stone and distribute a feeling of “flow” for the aquascape down into the bottom left hand corner where it pleasantly tapers off, but appears as if it could go on and on in the same kind of rock formation. This prevents the eye from wandering unnaturally and forms a single “stone cluster” together, again the idea as if the stones have naturally occurred together.

*Important note* some of the placement here might look odd at first even, and the reason is, is that the END picture of the scape is for the majority of the secondary and tertiary stones to be completely covered by plants. Here’s a great lesson for the necessity of stones, even if you plan on them being covered later on and the necessity for visualizing.


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