A Guide to Decorative Water Garden Fountains

One version of a ceramic planter garden fountain

David Beaulieu

Building Decorative Garden Fountains From Ceramic Planters

Elsewhere, we’ve discussed building inexpensive water features. In that project, the focus was on saving money wherever possible. In the present project, the focus shifts to building decorative garden fountains when you have some disposable income to…well, dispose of. For a project somewhere in-between cost-wise, you may want to see how to make a cascading clay pot fountain.

You’ll spend a bit more money on the fountain in the present project, but the results will be stunning. Ornate water features are sufficiently eye-popping to serve as focal points. In landscape design, focal points can make or break a project, so you’re spending your money wisely!

A tall, blue, glazed ceramic planter is at the heart of the project. Such ceramic planters can cost over $200 but can be turned into highly decorative water garden fountains. Besides their size and beauty, what you’re paying for is the fact that these ceramic planters are glazed. Glazed ceramic planters hold up to the elements (still, don’t leave them out in winter).

Creative use of copper pipes will make this water feature especially decorative (see picture above). A central pipe provides the plumbing for the water garden fountain. On either side is a decorative copper pipe, twisted artistically on top to form a curlicue.

The ceramic planter sits in a water-filled rigid pond liner, which rests below ground level. The copper pipes stand just in back of the pond liner. A pump resting on the bottom of the pond liner is connected to the central copper pipe with a rubber hose. Water is thereby pumped out of the pond and into the ceramic planter.

The following will show specific instructions, with pictures, illustrate all the steps involved in building such garden fountains…

Installing the Rigid Pond Liner

Ensure that the preformed liner sits level in its hole

David Beaulieu

As we said, the ceramic planter will sit in a pond. To create the pond, insert a rigid pond liner into the ground. To do so, you’ll need the following supplies:

    • Shovel
    • Carpenter’s level
    • Sand
    • Liner
    • Pump
    • 6′ of 1/2″ rubber hose for the pump

We used a “Little Giant” 120 GPH pump (displaces 120 gallons of water/hr.). The liner we used was 2′ across, 7″ deep.

Installing the Rigid Pond Liner

    • Install or have an electrician install a Residual Current Device near where the pond will be if you don’t already have one.
    • Place the pond liner upside-down on the ground where you plan to dig and trace around it, so that your hole will be the right diameter.
    • Now that you have a guide to go by, remove the liner and dig out the hole into which the liner will later be placed.
    • Make the depth of your hole approximately the depth of the pond liner. Try to keep the sides of the hole straight. If, however, after you’re done digging, you find that the sides came out uneven in places, either apply sand (to build out a depressed area) or remove a little more dirt (to shave off areas jutting out).
    • 1 inch of sand will also be applied on the ground under your liner. Why? Because having a sand base gives you some wiggle room, in terms of achieving a good fit. Just scoop out a little or pour in a bit more to alter the height of the liner, as needed. Your goal is for the liner’s rim to protrude approximately one inch above the soil surface (disguise it later with stones) so that soil doesn’t keep dropping into the water.
    • Install the liner. Check for levelness. Depending on the readings you get from the level, it is at this point that you’ll have to remove the pond liner from the hole and adjust its sandy floor accordingly. Once you’re done, you can disguise the rim with rocks, as we have done in the photo above (alternatively, you can wait until the end of the project to do this).

With the liner installed, we turn our attention to the creative parts of the project.

Supplies: Copper Pipes, Copper Tubing and Tools

Supplies needed for creating trademark twisted copper decorations

David Beaulieu

The blue ceramic planter that receives the water in this garden fountain project measures 9.5″ at the base and 14″ at the top; it stands 34″ tall. Besides the ceramic planter, the most eye-catching feature of the completed project will be the 3 copper pipes, one of which delivers the water to the ceramic planter.

There is a central copper pipe that provides the plumbing itself. It consists of 3 lengths of pipe and 4 elbows, the whole being soldered together.

The central pipe is flanked on either side by copper tubing twisted artistically on top to form a curlicue. But the two flanking copper pieces are not merely decorative: they will be anchored into the ground and will provide support for the plumbing.

Two kinds of copper piping are used here: solid and flexible. Both will have a diameter of 1/2″. The plumbing will be made from solid pipes. But the curlicue work will be done on flexible tubing—the type used in refrigeration (it comes in a roll).

Incidentally, note that no fish will reside in our pond. This water feature is purely decorative. Copper pipes are often avoided in the construction of fish ponds, as they can release toxins into the water.

In the photo above, you see not only the flexible tubing but also the tools needed to cut and shape it. In addition, for later steps in this project, you’ll need pliers and/or a vise, plus heavy-duty wire cutters. Next, we’ll begin to put the pipe-cutter to use on the flexible tubing…

Using Pipe-Cutters to Cut Copper Tubing

Cutting copper tubing with a pipe-cutter

David Beaulieu

First, we need to cut 2 lengths of pipe from the roll of flexible copper tubing. How long should the flanking pieces be?

Well, the plumbing pipe will be 4′ high, and the pieces flanking it will rise a bit higher than that. But remember to figure in extra tubing for the curlicues. To be on the safe side, cut the tubing longer than you think you’ll need it to be. You can always go back and trim it later. Besides, the flexible copper tubing we bought came in a 20′ roll, so we knew we’d have plenty to spare.

Unroll the flexible tubing, and cut off 2 pieces at the desired length, using a pipe cutter. A pipe cutter is like a vice with a blade on it. A knob tightens the vice around the tubing, bringing the blade into contact with it. Once contact is made, you spin the pipe-cutter around on the tubing. The blade digs into the tubing and severs it.

When using pipe cutters and other tools, always keep home safety tips in mind.

Next, we’ll give these lengths of tubing the curlicues that are the trademark of this garden fountain design…

Spring Benders: How to Shape Flexible Copper Tubing

Bending a copper pipe with a spring bender

David Beaulieu

For this part of the project, we’ll use a tube-bending tool called a “spring bender.” Since our tubing is 1/2″ in diameter, you must buy a spring bender intended to be used on the tubing of that diameter.

Now that you have 2 lengths of tubing to work with, you can twist the ends artistically. Take one of the pieces and reach for the spring bender. As its name suggests, this tool looks like a spring. Insert one end of the copper tubing into the mouth of the spring bender, as far down as it will go. Now twist with all your might!

There is no easy way for the novice to guide the spring bender so as to curve the copper tubing in a precise manner. It takes practice to get the tubing to bend the way you want it to. Frankly, you’ll find this part of the project the most difficult. But fortunately, precision isn’t required: all you’re looking for is a twist to provide some visual interest.

We’ll turn our attention to the plumbing, beginning with the soldering supplies: essentially, solder, flux and a means of heating the solder. The principle behind soldering is simple enough. Solder comes in rolls and just looks like wire. But the key to solder is this: it’s soft and melts easily. When it comes into contact with a pipe and attached elbow that has been heated, it wicks into the joint between them. After the solder cools, you have a bond. The flux (applied beforehand) cleans the surfaces of the pipe and elbow and results in a better bond.

The Plumbing: Soldering Supplies

Picture of soldering supplies used in copper-pipe garden fountain project

David Beaulieu

We turn now to the copper piping that will give us our plumbing for the garden fountain. We’ll now be working with straight, solid copper pipes, not the flexible tubing.

The plumbing consists of 1 long and 2 shorter pipes, all joined by copper elbows and soldered together. Since we’re working with 1/2″ pipes, make sure you buy elbows designed to accommodate that diameter. The main pipe is 4′ long. But we had to buy an extra 4′ pipe to cut up for the shorter pieces to be soldered to the main pipe. The 2 shorter pieces are 1′ long (cut with the pipe-cutter) and will serve as a “spout” and “intake” pipe.

Here we briefly discuss safety and soldering supplies needed for this project. Next, you’ll find an illustration that provides an up-close view of the composition of the garden fountain’s plumbing.

Soldering Supplies

To solder the piping framework together, you’ll need the following soldering supplies:

    • Flux
    • Solder
    • Propane torch and tank

Soldering seems a bit daunting—until you try it for the first time. One thing that will put your mind at ease is taking proper safety precautions:

    • Wear goggles.
    • Wear heavy work gloves.
    • Follow directions on a propane tank.
    • Use common sense in handling the propane tank and its torch flame.
    • Keep a fire extinguisher handy.

To further put your mind at ease, experiment on a piece of scrap pipe before you undertake the required soldering operation.

Next, we’ll look briefly at the soldering process…

How to Solder Copper Pipes

How the plumbing for the garden fountain is put together

David Beaulieu

The illustration above highlights better than a photo could of the soldering work required to create the garden fountain’s plumbing.

How to Solder Copper Pipes

    • Solder will adhere only to clean copper, so first, clean the elbow and the tip of the pipe.
    • Rub the joint surfaces with some sandpaper. The scarring will create a more receptive surface.
    • Daub a thin coat of flux on both the exterior surface of the pipe end and the interior surface of the elbow. Using a small brush makes this easier, but we just used a rag.
    • Join the elbow to the pipe end.
    • Now fire up the propane torch. Give the propane torch valve just a slight turn to get the flame going.
    • Once you see the flame, you can adjust the intensity. You won’t need a high flame for this soldering operation.
    • Keeping the torch as upright as you can, begin to apply the flame to the joint.
    • Move the flame around the joint to distribute the heat evenly.
    • When the copper at the joint starts to change colour, it’s starting to get hot enough to receive the solder.
    • Unwrap some of the solder from its roll.
    • Touch the end of the solder to the top of the joint. The solder should begin to melt. If not, heat the joint further.
    • If the solder starts to melt, take the flame away and run the solder around the perimeter of the joint, back to the top where you began.
    • Some wipe the joint with a wet rag at this point, but, if you do so, make sure you don’t jostle the joint!

Now, we’ll install the piping…

Installing the Plumbing

The tip of a rod being jammed up a supporting copper pipe

David Beaulieu

As mentioned earlier, the flanking copper pieces with the curlicues aren’t purely decorative. They’re also functional. Their function is to hold the central pipe (the pipe for the plumbing) in place. To accomplish this, the flanking copper pieces will be secured in the ground; then the central pipe will be joined to them, using copper wire.

But how are the flanking pieces secured in the ground? Well, we shoved a metal rod into the bottoms of each of the two pieces, then pushed down on each rod until it had penetrated several inches into the earth. But first, there’s the matter of how to anchor a rod inside a copper tube. To do this, bend the tip of the rod in a vice first (and/or use pliers), forming a hook. Adjust as necessary, until the hook is just the right size to “catch” inside the tube. This hook can’t be too big or too small. The idea is to wedge it several inches inside the tube. Strive for a tight fit. The longer the rod you’re using, the better.

Can’t find metal rods anywhere? Improvise! For instance, using heavy-duty wire cutters, cut away a length of the rod from a tomato cage. The malleability of the rods you choose may be less than ideal, so it may be hard to form the aforementioned “hook” on them. If so, in lieu of the hook, wrap duct tape tightly around the tip of the rod, building up its diameter until it’s slightly less than that of the tube.

Next, we’ll see how the flanking pieces are used to stabilize the central pipe…

Securing the Plumbing

Copper wiring stabilized the plumbing

David Beaulieu

The flanking pieces will be driven into the ground just a bit more than 1/2″ apart. As soon as they’re secured, insert the central pipe between them and join the three together, using copper wire.

In lieu of copper wire, you could also use silicone sealing “tape” for this step. We put “tape” in quotes because it’s not really sticky so much as it’s stretchy (although it does adhere to itself). This product is also good to have on hand in case of leaks at the pipe joints (it’s true purpose in life). When using silicone sealing tape, stretch it tightly as you apply it over the joint, and keep it taut as you unwind it. Wrap it several times over the joint, allowing each successive layer to adhere to the last.

We found another use for silicone sealing tape. Since the rubber hose from the pump can’t be soldered to the elbow, the tape can be used to add some stability at this joint. But doing so isn’t critical to the project’s success since the joint in question will be underwater, anyhow.

The last major step is to connect the pump’s rubber hose to the plumbing pipe. Insert the hose into the elbow that you’ve soldered to the short “intake” pipe (at the bottom of the plumbing). Note that this connection is easier to make if the elbow you used at this joint has a bend wider than the typical 90-degree angle.

Your Choice: Sound vs. Looks

The decorative water garden fountain

David Beaulieu

We presented one version of our garden fountain. In that version, upon completion of the project, not only the pond but also the ceramic planter was filled with water. If you take that approach, the visual element will perhaps be more striking, as you’ll be treated to the pleasing look of water spilling over the sides of the ceramic planter.

In order to keep water in the ceramic planter and achieve this effect, you’ll have to plug up the drainage hole in the bottom. A permanent way to plug it would be to use grout and a sealer. But if you wish to experiment with different options, forgo a permanent solution. Instead, plug the hole with something you can later remove, such as putty or—if you can find the right size—just a regular bath plug.

In the version presented on this page, we explore another option, for which you’ll want the ceramic planter’s drainage hole to be unplugged. Above, you can see that the ceramic planter has been left empty. As water falls into the empty planter, a cool hollow sound is emitted. We suggest trying it both ways. Decide for yourself if you prefer the look achieved in the first paragraph or the sound that results from choosing the option shown above.

Be sure to check the water level periodically for any garden fountain, so that the pump doesn’t burn out due to accidental loss of water.

The plantings you see in our photos include elephant earshosta plants, sweet potato vine, calla lily, and ferns.

By David Beaulieu