How Doug TenNapel Built a Koi Pond

June 24, 2018

I’ve always had a thing for amphibians and often post about them on Facebook. For most of my life I’ve raised newts, frogs, salamanders and toads. But this koi pond will be the largest expansion of my amphibian sanctuary dreams.

Below is a picture of my backyard as I started to plan out the koi pond. Our family put in all of the tile last year, so I already gained some experience with cutting stone and doing a little cement work. This area was either going to be a garden or a pond and I went with a pond. Little did I know that what I thought would take two weeks would become a monster month-and-a-half epic project!

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I started with online research. I interviewed every koi pond owner who wanted to talk about it, and like bee keeping, koi pond owners are a cult unto themselves. They share techniques on water flow, algae control and plant choices. Everyone has an opinion and they are informed by experience. I gained knowledge by watching hours and hours of professional koi pond builders.

May 10th, 2018 I was on the brink of breaking ground. I decided to document each step of building my pond and here is the first entry:

Planning the koi pond on paper

 

I think by sketching. That’s just how my works after drawing my whole life.

 

 

I draw step by step illustrations to make the physics work in my mind. Here is a sketch I doodled in charcoal showing how the tile steps down to an inner shelf, covered in black plastic liner then covered in rocks:
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There is a retaining wall in the backyard and the plan was to have the waterfall flow over the wall, but the wall was too high. I decided to rent a jackhammer and bust down part of the wall. I had to do this first because I didn’t want to blast cement everywhere after the pond was built. Of course, I later scrapped this waterfall design and wouldn’t need to tear down the wall.

This is a clip of an air-hammer:

Breaking the Wall. Jackhammer rental.

I found that it didn’t work very well so I rented a 75 pound jackhammer to actually tear the wall apart.

My friend Beau and I did a lot of cement work, blocking in walls, building a stone staircase, and laying the cinderblock edge of the pond.

Here is the first attempt at the waterfall. I had two pre-formed pools that would spill into each other before dropping down into the main pond.
I lined some of the pond with cinderblock and used old cement scraps to build up an island. I ended up ripping most of this out.
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I contracted a plumber to put in a water line so the pond could auto-fill if the level got too low. This keeps the pump from drying and burning out if we’re on vacation and the heat evaporates a ton of water. I used the ditch the plumber dug to also run an overflow drain from where the pump would be down to my rain gutter line that moves the water off my property and down to the street gutter.

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I tried to dig out the pond by shovel and the ground was full of rocks and clay. After a week of digging I barely got a foot deep and I was aiming to go at least three feet deep. I realized my hand digging efforts weren’t going to work.

The Ground Is too Hard!

So I rented a back hoe. Now, I’ve never built a koi pond and am not super handy with tools. Not naturally, anyway. So over the years I’ve done so many do-it-yourself projects that I’ve grown more confident. But renting a back hoe topped all of my equipment rentals! This is the smallest back hoe I could find.
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Once I got the hang of digging with a big machine, it came pretty easy. I scooped out a month’s worth of digging in about three hours.

Running the Back Hoe!

I wasn’t the only one who was terrified…

Back Hoe BUNNY!

As I scooped out the soil and clay I exposed an old, broken sprinkler system that hadn’t worked in five years.

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The hole was dug, and I cleaned up the edges making sure there was an outer ledge for tile and and inner ledge where I would pile up rocks to help carry the weight of the edging stone where people could stand.

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I ordered the liner from a local plumbing and drain shop. The guy who worked the counter was helpful as he was known locally as “the pond guy.” He became my Ben Kenobi. I got my kids to help roll the 1,000 pounds of plastic over the empty hole. We added a little water to the bottom so the weight of the liquid naturally pushes the liner out to where it needs to be. The edges are secured by dropping a few rocks along the waterline at each stage which helps remove wrinkles.
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By the first evening the kids decided I shouldn’t build a koi pond… they wanted a swimming pool! We checked the liner for  any sharp stones coming up from underneath. I started trimming the edges of the liner just so it was easier to manage. I also redesigned the waterfall by pulling the prefabricated tubs out and stacking a cascade of giant slab rock.

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The edges were made up of huge slabs of field stone that overlap the liner and are cemented to pre-existing tile. I got the waterfall flowing after installing the pump where I learned a little bit about plumbing. This was the first time I did a lot of PVC cutting and gluing. There were leaks, I’d have to rip it out and do it all over again. The waterfall leaked so I put on more cement, it would crack again and leak again. I covered it in a poly-sealer and it would still leak. I finally ripped it all out and laid black liner over the waterfall and covered that with rock. Then it finally stopped leaking.

I got so excited with the progress of the pond and the pump working that I bought some junker goldfish and some plants to experiment with what would best survive.

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Once the pond was done, I could hardly believe it. I cleaned up my tools and repaired the yard. There is still a lot more gardening work to do around the pond, but that’s for another day.

Clip of the finished pond

Oh, and what about the amphibian sanctuary? A bunch of tree frogs have already moved in. They sing every night and have laid hundreds of eggs in the pond… most of which are eaten by my fish!I caught a pic of this female croaking one night:

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If you ever want to build a koi pond I say “go for it!” But I would also recommend starting on a much smaller pond, because you really can make a 4 foot pond look amazing. But I’m happy with mine and look forward to spend my time buffing it out instead of hauling rocks and driving back hoes.

Building a koi pond is not an exercise in landscaping, it’s just another art medium. I considered aesthetics, composition, flow of line, appeal, contrast and a host of other design elements but instead of using paint, I’m using natural rock, cement, plumbing and fish. It’s like grabbing little gobs of nature and sculpting with life. It’s not nature, it’s my tribute to nature. In the end that’s what I do in comics, animation and painting… not actual nature but my tribute to life and to God who made it. As Tolkien said we are sub creators.

Koi Pond Update with plants!

One of the most difficult environments to create is one where amphibians reproduce. A universal sign of environmental flourishing is the presence of amphibians, because you have to get both land and water right for them to reproduce. Last night I found a clutch of tree frog eggs in my water plants and I had a sense of satisfaction:

Proof of Life

As I explore other forms of art, everything I learned from other mediums comes into play. Most of my formal design rules came from a single Introduction to Design class I took in college in 1984. As I read the Illusion of Life I saw how many of those principles were operating in Disney animation. I continue to remain the forever student and in offering these teaching videos, I’m only giving back what others gave to me.

Here is a smattering of links about me if you want more information:

For an overview of my career click here.

I don’t make koi ponds for a living, I make comics! You should check them out.
Check out my 16 graphic novels at Amazon

While this is my more personal website, you might want to read more about my usual art here:
More of my articles on my professional website.

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2 Responses to “How Doug TenNapel Built a Koi Pond”

  1. Ryan Says:

    Great write up! It was inspiring. As a not-super-handy guy myself, it’s inspiring to watch you learn and finish a big project like this.


    • I’m so not handy that the auto-fill valve popped off today and my kids came in to say water was spraying out of the hose everywhere! I went to home depot and bought cinch clamps and tightened the hose back down to the spigot. So now I know how to do that too!


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