How Ice Sculpting Works

Slovakian artist Stefan Bankovich working on a sculpture for a 2010 competition
Slovakian artist Stefan Bankovich working on a sculpture for a 2010 competition
©JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images

Talented sculptors hone their skills over decades to express their artistic intent in the most powerful way they can imagine. Some of these artists inspire such awe that their stone work becomes famous for hundreds of years. Others are famous for about four to six hours. That's the burden faced by ice sculptors.

Ice sculptures can take nearly any form, from massive dragons, to medieval warriors, to tigers, to bears. These works used to be a rare extravagance. Now, they're an increasingly commoditized product, particularly in their smaller forms.

The most common ice sculptures are small- to medium-size pieces commissioned for fancy weddings and corporate events at a cost of $300 and up. For example, you might see an elegant ice swan as a centerpiece for chilled appetizers or drinks. At press and investor events, companies like to show off their success and profits by ordering sculptures emblazoned with their corporate logos (while ostensibly ignoring the ominous symbolism of melting and dripping that always follows). Many of these pieces are machine made.

Human ice carvers take their work to bigger proportions and they don't just work as vendors. These sculptors have creative vision and technical skills that are necessary for working with a material that features radically different properties depending on environmental conditions and even on the type of water that's used to make the ice. That means they have to know their science, too.

Their final results aren't merely neatly-stacked blocks of snow. These works of art may range from simple shapes (like rectangles or circles) to full-blown figures of people and animals, complete with exquisite and perilously delicate details like individual fingers and feathers. At room temperature, these piece may last for a few hours. In the middle of a frozen winter landscape they could last for months.

Sculptures may come from a single block of ice or they may be built from numerous blocks of ice melted together. No matter how big or how small, they're going to be heavy. A gallon of water weighs roughly 8 pounds (3.6 kilograms); in frozen form the weight doesn't change much. Stack a few frozen blocks of ice together and you'll see that a sculpture gets scary-heavy in a hurry, yet another technical challenge that artists must consider.

Ice sculpting is an ephemeral type of art. These crystalline pieces feature many of the technical intricacies and symbolism of traditional sculptures. And sometimes they are simply functional and fun. How exactly do clever artists transform ice into art?

Frozen in Time

China’s 2013 Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival
China’s 2013 Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival
©STR/AFP/Getty Images

These days, ice is easy. You can stroll to your fridge, press a teensy button and watch as an avalanche of ice cubes rattles into your glass. Hundreds or thousands of years ago, ice wasn't nearly this convenient. It was a resource, one that took hard labor to produce.

Populations throughout history have known the value of ice. Farmers in China intentionally flooded their fields in autumn so that the water would eventually freeze. Then they used the blocks to preserve food through warmer months. More than 4,000 years ago, Inuits in North America learned to stack ice to make igloos. For people all over the world, ice meant food and shelter and survival.

In wealthy ancient cultures, ice was luxury. Royalty would ship ice at great expense and then use it for fancy juice drinks and other rare treats. In an age where there were no freezers, ice was a truly temporary but potent sign of power.

Ice wasn't just a resource. Sometimes its translucent characteristics were perfect for decorative purposes. Centuries ago, Chinese villagers would partially freeze buckets and water, slide out the resulting cylinder, cut a hole in the top and pour out the unfrozen water. Then they'd insert a candle into the center. Voila, ice lanterns.

These artistic displays were the forerunners of wintertime carnivals and festivals that revolve around ice sculpting. There are now multiple large events around the world, some of which result in entire multi-story buildings conceived in ice, illuminated with colored lights that evoke the look of a frozen fairy tale land.

In 1990, Alaska became the host of the annual World Ice Art Championships, which is now a month-long event that attracts dozens of teams and tens of thousands of visitors. Canada is home to several large ice-based events, including the Quebec City Winter Carnival, the Ice Magic festival near Lake Louise and the Deep Freeze Festival in Edmonton, where chainsaw-wielding artists attack blocks of ice with frostbitten fury.

But the biggest and most mind-blowing event is the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, in Harbin, Heilongjiang, China. When complete, the grounds turn into a literal ice city, crammed with huge buildings and fanciful art, all illuminated for maximum visual effect. The village includes massive features like the Great Wall of China and the Egyptian Pyramids, all quite at home in a city that averages about 5 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 15 Celsius) for a high temperature in January.

Water is the Way

The Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival by day may not have all of the evening light effects to illuminate the ice, but it’s still dazzling.
The Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival by day may not have all of the evening light effects to illuminate the ice, but it’s still dazzling.
©Cancan Chu/Getty Image

Ice sculpting obviously begins a single critical ingredient: water. Not all water works equally well for artistic purposes. Carving experts typically favor pure, clean water that makes for the smoothest, clearest ice.

But the relative clarity or cloudiness of ice aren't the only indicators of purity. When dirt and other particulates hover in water, they may attract air molecules, too, and the ultimate result is ice that looks less than pristine.

The conditions in which the water freezes also play a role in clarity. To make the clearest ice for sculptures, it's important to remove as many dissolved gases as possible. Some companies use large machines to circulate the water, pushing out air bit by bit. But you can accomplish the same thing at home by boiling water a couple of times and then freezing it.

Many artists prefer the glistening, pure appearance of clear ice for their work. But that doesn't mean translucent or opaque ice doesn't have a place in sculpting. Just as with different types of rock, sculptors know that they can incorporate materials with different qualities to add to the pieces they create.

They can add color, too, with dyes, gels or sand. Colored lights (often LEDs) offer the most spectacular effects. After sunset, these bright bulbs bring out subtle details and intricacies that are difficult to see in daylight.

Of course, before you can start carving, you need ice. Manufactured ice comes in an array of sizes for carving. Businesses may opt to purchase specialized machines such as the Clinebell Carving Block Maker, which has two 40-gallon (151-liter) tubs that produce ice crystal-clear blocks every three to four days. The resulting blocks measure 40 x 40 x 10 inches (102 x 102 x 25 centimeters) and they crush the scales at more than 300 pounds (136 kilograms). If you're a hobbyist ice carver you may balk at the investment required for one of these machines — they cost more than $6,000.     

Natural ice that's cut from frozen lakes can be even larger than human-made blocks. It's this variety that's most often used for ice buildings and structures that require massive chunks of ice that serve as foundations. These can weigh as much as 2 to 3 tons (1,814 to 2,722 kilograms) and require massive machinery to move and place them.

Cracking the Ice

An artist working at The Museum of Ice in Moscow's park Sokolniki in 2010
An artist working at The Museum of Ice in Moscow's park Sokolniki in 2010

There are a lot of ways to make ice sculptures. One of the easiest is to pour water into a mold, freeze it, and then peel the mold away. These pieces generally aren't as clear and don't feature the kind of sharp edges of a true carving. And it's kind of cheating.

True works of art are hand-carved. Artists employ a range of hand and power tools to carve the block into a work of art. Chisels, hand saws, heat guns, nail boards, sanders, chainsaws, and die and angle grinders fitted with special bits are all parts of a sculptor's toolbox. Sculptors often learn their techniques in culinary school or at specialty classes dedicated to ice carving.

In the 1980s and 1990s, a sculptor named Mark Daukas propelled ice carving into new artistic territory. The Californian is a six-time national champion and won dozens of competitions around the world. His secret is no secret – he simply decided to start using power tools instead of traditional chisels.

Sculptors learn to work fast. Most typically wedding pieces are completed in just a couple of hours, and they work in large freezers chilled to temperatures much colder than your home fridge, at around 20 degrees Fahrenheit or even less.

Because they work with a medium that is delicate and brittle, it's not uncommon for artists to accidentally break parts of their designs. They can't just scrap the piece and start over again. So instead, they'll try to retrieve the broken piece (or fabricate a replacement piece), wet the end of it and press it to the main body and let the parts freeze together, a technique that's called welding. To accelerate this process, the sculptor may use butane to cool the ice and make it bind.

Horizontal breaks are easier to fix because gravity binds them. Vertical breaks may be impossible to repair, particularly if it's a heavy or extravagant shard.

Breaks aside, you can skip much of carving's manual labor and buy a CNC (computer numerical control) machine tweaked to carve ice – in essence, a robot ice cutter. To create a sculpture, you design it on your computer using any program that can create vector files (such as Corel Draw or Adobe Illustrator) and then connect to the CNC table. The machine is equipped with various bit sizes that you can swap out depending on the project.

Zip your design to the machine and it will automatically carve the ice for you in minutes. If it's a 3-D piece, once the carving is done on one side, you flip the ice over and the bit goes to work on the other side. Novices can operate the machine after only a couple of days of training, but the convenience doesn't come cheap. The Ice Carve Pro, for example, retails for more than $20,000. Some machines sell for as much as $50,000.

Carving up the Competition

This exquisite building was carved for the 2010 Japan, Hokkaido, Asahikawa, Snow festival.
This exquisite building was carved for the 2010 Japan, Hokkaido, Asahikawa, Snow festival.
©JTB Photo /UIG via Getty Images

Although individual ice sculptures are fun, there's no better place to get a taste of ice sculpting than at a large ice festival. These events are mostly held outdoors during cold winters in the Northern Hemisphere, everywhere from the United States to Europe to Japan.

There are always sculpting contests associated with festivals. Judges rank each piece by creativity, expression, difficulty, final appearance and similar variables. Each competition operates a little differently. At the Ice Magic Festival in Canada, each team of artists gets 15, 300-pound blocks of ice and 34 hours to complete their project. There's also a category in which a single artist receives one block of ice and has an hour to finish.

Freed from space and (hopefully) temperature constraints, many artists plan humungous pieces. It's not unusual for works to top 15 feet (4.6 meters) tall and 20 feet (6.1 meters) wide.

Even with extreme care and a light touch, these sculptures are finicky and fragile. Many competitions are remembered more for their catastrophic crashes than the pieces that remain intact. For example, at the 2005 World Ice Art Championships, Junichi Nakamura created "Birth of a Blue Bird," featuring a reclining woman. As he removed one of the temporary supports, the entire piece collapsed into millions of pieces.

In addition to the impermanence of their work, failure is something that ice sculptors must learn to live with. The best ones push the boundaries of what seems possible in ice. Nakamura is known as one of the most inventive and courageous ice artists in the world. One of his most famous pieces, called "Let it Be," enclosed a bird within a cage well over 10 feet (3 meters) tall, an enormously complicated challenge that demonstrated just how much potential there is in ice art.

Outside of competitions, there is a hot market for frozen attractions. There are numerous ice hotels in cold-climate countries where you can sleep on beds fashioned from ice. There are ice churches where you can say your wedding vows. There are even entire lounges made from ice. And, of course, you can just go to your friend's wedding reception and drink cold vodka shots that slide through an ice swan.

No matter how you experience ice sculptures, they are a unique form of art that's constantly evolving as tools improve and artists find new ways to create smaller details and ever-bigger structures. These artists keep finding new ways to permanently dedicate their lives and efforts to fashioning pieces that are inherently temporary, a testament to the human need to create beautiful things, even when they can't possibly last.

Author's Note: How Ice Sculpting Works

I've never had the opportunity to carve ice. As a kid, however, I did create some pretty impressive snow tunnels with my friends. After one particularly heavy snowstorm we wandered out to an empty part of the yard and starting digging like the bored, over caffeinated kids we were. A day later we'd burrowed what seemed like hundreds of feet of tunnels and the local newspaper came out to photograph our grand, sprawling fort. Then, one of the tunnels partially collapsed on my face, ending our adventure and sparking a lifelong struggle with crippling claustrophobia. So in hindsight, maybe ice carving would've been a better bet for me.

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