How Ice Sculpting Works

By: Nathan Chandler

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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