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How to make an ice sculpture

How to make an ice scuplture - PASSION for Ice

How to make an ice sculpture or should I say, create and carve an ice sculpture is both easy and difficult at the same time.  The obvious thing to start with is the ice block - the raw material for carving an ice sculpture. Professionally ice blocks can take anywhere from 5 to 8 days to make depending on the ambient temperature.  The How to make an ice sculpture starts here.

Creating an ice block in its simplest terms is a matter of pouring water into a tub or basin and freezing it in a deep freeze.  This method can take anywhere from 24 to 48 hours to create the ice block - depending on how big the tub or basin is and how much water it holds - domestically.

You may be a little disappointed in the result when you take out the ice block from your mould or basin.  It will look cloudy, uneven and tends to be  full of air bubbles.  A professionally made ice block is clear, clean and vibrant.  The secret consists of various aspects (not just one - that would be far too simple!)

Filtered Water

As clean as our water is in the UK, straight from the tap, it does contain impurities (or the good stuff the water companies want us to have).  These impurities can be 'seen' in thefinished ice block if not filtered out.  Water supply companies are not all the same.  Some are better than others and less filtration (or even none in some cases) may be needed.

The Freezing Tank

Professional ice blocks are made in Freezing tanks (Ice Block Makers).  In Europe most Freezing tanks produce ice blocks that measure physically 100cm x 50cm x 25cm  (1m x 1/2m x 1/4m) and weigh around 20 stone (280lbs or 127kg).  However, it is not just a matter of filling a tank with water and letting it freeze - if only it were that simple!   A Freezing tank is a giant freezer.  The cooling elements are at the bottom of the tank.  The water freezes slowly upwards at approximately 7cm or so a day.

One of the secrets to clear, sparkling ice blocks is that we (Passion for Ice - keep the water in the freezing tanks moving at all times.  There are one or two water jets (depending on the tank) at the water level circulating the water round and round.  The water is in constant motion.  How to make an ice sculpture is getting closer.

On the 7th Day...

It could be the 5th day or even the 8th (or a day or two later if it is the summer). Ice block making is very much ambient weather dependent.   Once the water has completely frozen in the Ice Block Maker,  the ice block is ready, well, almost. The impurities have risen to the top and look like sprinkled white salt.  Depending on our work-load, we will either remove the impurities with a skimmer on a daily basis (a smaller version of a swimming pool skimmer) or slice a top off the ice when the block is formed.  

Taking the 20-stone ice block out of the tank is a feat in itself. Some Freezing tanks are top-loaded (the ice block has to be winched-out by a hydraulic 'crane' vertically) or front-loaded; a panel opens on the front of the freezing tank and the ice block slides out easily on top a trolley (if only!)

At around 20-stone (280 lbs / 127kg) per ice block, respect and strict Health and Safety procedures have to be met and followed.  A falling ice block can be a dangerous encounter. A 20-stone ice block does not bounce or take any prisoners lightly!

Hydraulic trolleys, winches and cranes not only save our backs from pain and stress, but make our life safer and (a tad) easier to transport the heavy blocks around. Each block at this point is around minus 18 to 20 degrees in temperature.  Yes, we wear thick insulating gloves. We are macho, but not that macho to handle them without gloves (and wear steel-capped boots).   Frostbite is a real and present danger and could set in with prolonged handling of the ice blocks at this temperature - let alone hands sticking to the ice (Remember the film Dumb and Dumber and the tongue sticking to a pole scene - it can and does happen).


From the freezing tanks the ice block is then moved into either a walk-in freezer or very large commercial chest freezers for storage until needed.

How to make an Ice Sculpture - almost there

When straight from the freezing tanks, the ice blocks we have created are not perfectly rectangular.  Ice unfortunately does not freeze uniformly and a dead-flat top is not formed. Where the water jets have been circulating the water around the tank, indentations, hollow ridges and gullies at the top of the ice are created making the surface very uneven and looking like the Himalayas.

Making a perfect Ice Block for Carving

To create the perfect 100 x 50 x 25cm ice block for carving, we have a chainsaw jig set-up in the workshop. Imagine a lumber mill and the wood being planed into perfect rectangular wood lengths.  This is what we do for every ice block in order to have consistency and a uniform shape to work from. Instead of a rotary blade spinning round cutting the wood in a lumber mill, we use a long chainsaw that is fixed and lops of the top of the ice block.  The Ice Block Makers (freezing tanks) are perfectly squared off at 90 degree angles right around the tank apart from the top.  This is the only section we need to make level and flat.

Squaring off the ice blocks is known as a 'Wet Day'.  The chainsaw sprays ice and slush everywhere.  On a blazing hot summers' day, it can seem quite incongruous to see piles and piles of snow heaped-up outside the workshop looking like lost Swiss snow drifts. It soon melts and evaporates.


How to make an Ice Sculpture - This is it!

Professionally there are two places we can carve an ice block; either in the walk-in freezer or outside of the freezer.  Both areas have their challenges.  The walk-in freezer is pretty darn cold - anything from minus 10 to minus 18 degrees (unless someone leaves the door open and it could be a balmy minus 5 degrees in there!)  Even with protective insulated gear on, we can still get up a good sweat when carving in the freezer.  Carving is a very physical activity - when making full size -1m x 1/2m x 1/4m ice sculptures.

Using ice blocks this size requires a lot of room and especially if two or three ice blocks are needed for a particular big sculpture design.

So, How to make an ice sculpture - the secret. Carving an ice block outside for some carvers is easier.  However, there are some difficulties and challenges to over come. As soon as an ice block is made, one cannot carve immediately outside the freezer until the ice block has 'warmed-up'.  Using chain saws, power tools and so forth will simply shatter the ice block into a myriad of beautiful internal cracking shards.  If you want to carve outside in the ambient temperature, short-sleeve shirt exposing your bulging muscles to all that pass by, you will have to let your ice block 'sweat' for a period of time.

Sweating the ice blocks allows the outside of the ice block to in effect, 'warm-up' and reach zero degrees.  This time period will be totally dependent on ambient temperatures and prevailing conditions.  Once at the right temperature, carving has to be pretty fast. Every minute that goes by,  the ice block is melting and will become softer and softer.  There will come a point when the ice is literally too soft to carve.


Before putting a chainsaw to the ice, knowing what you wish to carve or create needs to be carefully thought and planned out.  Many professional ice carvers can pre-visualize the final result in their minds'-eye, that is, how the final ice sculpture will look when it is a finished piece.  This is an art, a skill that needs clear logical thinking as well as ability and talent.

As a professional ice company (Passion for Ice), the vast majority of clients we have already know what shape or design of ice sculpture they would like before we start carving - be it a birthday number, an animal, bird, Wedding hearts or some other great or unusual design.  If they don't, we would suggest or propose ideas to them by showing pictures, images, drawings and so forth. By the end of this process and the order has been placed, we will have an image of what they would like.  It may have to be modified, changed or adapted, but at least our carvers have an image to work on.

Carving from memory or just starting out with a vague idea of what you would like tends not to work well.

Drawing the outline.

The first step is to draw a rough outline of the finished sculpture in 2D onto the ice.  This will indicate initially how much ice one needs to cut away before the actual design part can start. Carvers rarely carve the design straight away.  Removing all unnecessary ice is the first job.  Once a rough cut has been made, the chainsaw (for now) can be put down. Power tools are then used to further hone-in on the design, cutting, refining and taking away more of the ice to get to a close but still crude outline of the design.

Careful control of the tools is imperative.  It is all too easy to cut away a section of the ice either accidently or not thinking about the stages one must go through to get to the point where the actual design will shine through.

Once this stage is complete - the semi-rough outline, finer power tools or even hand tools can be used.  There are a plethora of exquisite Japanese hand tools that can be used for ice carving.  These are not cheap by any stretch of the imagination.  A simple single Japanese saw can be £400 plus - depending on the quality, size and teeth.

Once the design is close, finer power tools come in to their own; moulding, rasping, shaving, digging, indenting, routing and so forth techniques are all used.  At this point the Ice Sculpture is almost but not quite complete. 

The last part is the Finishing.  These technique will differ from ice carver to ice carver.  Many ice carvers use hand-made tools  - created by themselves to smooth off the ice or make slightly quirky or unique finishes that fit in with the design or finish they are after. A short while ago we had to make a military head gear for an event - a Guard's Bear Skin.  One of our carves created with nails, screws and odd bits of metal a (for want of a better word) comb to create the texture of the Bear Skin hat. Through trial and error and many adjustments, the comb became essential to pull-off the finish a Bear Skin has. Carving a Formula One (F1) Racing car ice sculpture or Vodka Luge has its own challenges - but that is for another Blog/article!

Carving is not always straight forward, there tends to be a lot of head scratching and thinking up of ideas and techniques to use to create a particular shape or finish.  It is not a matter of grabbing a chisel and a mallet and chipping away at the ice until the design or shape emerges. Far from it.

For home ice sculptures, the basics above have been outlined. Each professional company, be they carpenters, precision engineers, mechanics or even ice companies such as ourselves Passion For Ice,   have our own tools of the trade.  Some tools are mega expensive, but no company ever really starts with a 'complete set' of specialist tools.  They are acquired over the years - either bought in or developed in-house. Creating your own tools for doing the job makes one unique, different, innovative and more accomplished to tackle difficult jobs other ice companies would not know how to approach or start.


This is part One of How to make an ice sculpture - the basics. In following articles we will explore  various other techniques and more Trade Secrets!