How to make ice sculptures

It's pretty darned easy to make fanciful, colorful ice sculptures right in your own backyard. All you need is a bunch of containers, colored water, a level surface and a good ol' cold winter.

If you want to see past sculptures from 2008 look here and from 2009 look here. Here's a DYI on making hanging ice balloons and another DYI on regular ice balloons.Be sure to watch the video of the crackling cold ice balloons being harvested (at the end of the slide show).


CONTAINERS

The fun part about making cast-ice pieces is that almost anything that will hold water can be used. Try sturdy plastic, aluminum, copper, steel containers like bundt pans, chip and salsa bowls, cake pans, mixing bowls, pie tins, jello molds, apsic molds, rubber gloves and our absolute favorite type: silicone baking molds. The silicone molds easily yield the frozen ice without any thawing. They aren't affected by the cold. What generally doesn't work are paper or cardboard containers like some nut tins and oatmeal cans. These will eventually absorb the water and blow up in a soggy puddle. Also try large molds like kiddie pools, snow sleds, snow saucers, garbage cans and lids and plastic garbage bags.

Another characteristic of a container to avoid are ones with undercuts. Some containers have openings or ridges that extend into the inside of the can making ice removal difficult or impossible. Most containers have a little bit of "draft"  (sloped sides) making the ice removal easy. In general, avoid glass containers; the expansion of the water when it freezes will most likely crack the container - Oh my, what a mess! 

We even like making our own containers like snipping the tops off of pop cans with scissors. This yields round cylinders of ice. Be creative and take a chance. Heck, it's just ice for pete's sake.

PREPARATION

Sometimes getting the ice out of a container is just a plain pain-in-the-butt. We tried using Pam cooking spray but haven't had much luck with it as a release agent. If you have a pan that may cause you anguish then spray WD-40 instead on the inside. Ice then pops out. However, this may add another pain-in-the-butt later. You'll be "welding" these pieces of ice together with a light water misting and any release agent left on the ice will be a barrier against an ice joint forming. So we don't like using any release agent at all but instead use hot water to release the ice. It's up to you! 

You'll need a level surface. We used to use a bank of snow and mash the containers into the snow to level them out. We got smart this year and put a junky table outside and made sure the top was level in both directions.


Lay all your pans out on the table and add, if you wish, anything you want frozen into the ice. This adds a little drama / interest to the piece. We use golf balls, forks, tinsel, shredded paper, nuts and bolts, Barbie dolls and anything that's lying around. Have fun with this! Remember, you'll get these items back in the spring when this melts.

We've also been experimenting with wearable ice. A simple lanyard frozen into the piece can turn it into an ice necklace.

Another trick is to embed one mold in another. The photo below right shows paper cups in a shallow round tray. After the ice freezes and the cups are removed the ice in the tray will have perfect holes cut through. Cool! Even better, you may unmold the paper cups and then place them back into the holes where they came. If different colors are used you can make fantastic ice creations.

COLORING THE WATER

You needn't color the water and sometimes we don't but it sure looks cool. We've experimented with a bunch of colorants. A few squirts (about 1/8 cup) of tempera paint in a 5 gallon bucket makes a bright, opaque color. Same with latex paint. Rit liquid tie-dye colorant makes a strong transparent color. We tried Kool-Aid and were disappointed at how much you had to add to get a decent color. We had to add almost the whole container of grape Kool-Aid powder into a 5 gallon bucket to make it color bright and even then it left the ice looking like dirty dishwater! Tang, the orange juice of astronauts, is a great colorant. About 1 cup of the powder in a 5 gallon bucket makes a strong color. Plus, you can lick the ice! Food coloring works so-so.

We like to use hot water as it is less full of entrained bubbles and produces a clearer ice than cold water.

We came across a bit of a dilemma last year as we made our ice sculptures on a local lake. We were a bit concerned about using paints in our ice as when the ice melted the paint would, of course, enter the lake. So we used food coloring in limited amounts. This year we are on land in a scrubby field so a bit of paint won't hurt.

FILLING THE CONTAINERS

Not much explanation needed here. Take some of the liquid into a small container to ease the pour. Here we use a graduated cylinder. Pour slowly to minimize spilling as excess water will freeze around your mold and then you'll have a stuck mold. Fill almost to the brim of the mold. Be aware that the ice will push up as it freezes.


UNMOLDING THE ICE

You'll have to check when the ice pieces are done. Sometimes the larger pieces look and feel completely frozen but on occasion a pocket of water remains in the center. It may not be a problem but sometimes that water dribbles out on to you. On 10 - 20 degree F nights most forms will freeze over night.

For facts unknown, some forms release their prey far easier than others. Plastic pie tins (they really are plastic and not tin!) let go of the ice easily. Sometimes giving the form a sharp rap persuades the release. Sometimes not. In any case running hot water over the back of the form will cause it to let go. Simply hold the form up-side-down with one hand under to catch the released ice. Run hot water over the bottom and within seconds the ice should fall out. Turn the water off and replace the ice into the mold. Quickly bring the ice outside and put it onto your ice pile.

STORING THE ICE

We make a lot of ice for the ice sculpture ice party and need to store it outside. We lay a tarp out onto the frozen ground out of the sun and lay all the ice pieces on that. The tarp is folded over all of it. If the temperature rises above freezing you need a bit of extra protection..We shovel a good layer of snow over the tarp to insulate it. It's worked well to do so.

MAKING YOUR SCULPTURES

Hooray, you've successfully made a pile of colorful ice pieces! Now what? Make a sculpture! Plan out in your mind what you want to make and starting from the bottom lay one piece on the other. You can weld the two pieces together with a slight misting from a water spray bottle. If the air and ice are cold enough the two will fuse together. Hold the two ice pieces together for 30 seconds or so and they will stick together.