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Ice Sculptures 101

By Mat Foster on 7th August 2020 (updated: 13th August 2020) in Blog

What is ice sculpture?

Ice sculpture is an artform involving the carving and chiselling of a block of ice to form a desired shape. Although most commonly used as decorations or centrepieces, ice sculpture can also be functional in its purpose. The earliest ice sculptures were shelters, created by indigenous people (PDF) seeking respite from harsh weather conditions.

How long do ice sculptures last?

Ice sculptures can last over 12 hours, depending on their design, their size and where they are kept. When kept outside in cold conditions, ice sculptures can last much longer, which is why all the major ice sculpture events take place in countries with exceptionally cold winters.

The relatively short lifespan of an ice sculpture is partly the reason why they are often used for celebrations. The design of the ice sculpture can be tailored to a specified theme and it will then last for the duration of the event, but no longer, making it a privileged sight that only guests will be able to enjoy.

How long do ice sculptures last at room temperature?

At room temperature, ice sculptures can last over 12 hours, depending on the conditions and design of the sculpture. The fine detail of the sculpture starts to disappear within the first 4 hours. The overall shape and form of the sculpture lasts much longer. After 12 hours at room temperature, approximately 70% of the ice remains.

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Raw materials

What are ice sculptures made of?

Ice sculptures are made out of large blocks of ice, which sculptors then carve, chisel and shape to suit their needs. In the early days of ice sculpting, carvers would make use of cold conditions and moulds to create blocks, however today there are more efficient modern means to create large clear blocks of ice on demand.

It’s possible for ice carvers to import blocks of ice, however, many choose to create their own ice using purpose-built machines. Having free access to an industrial ice maker allows ice sculptors to take orders for bespoke ice sculptures months in advance. The finished ice sculptures can be kept in pristine condition with the use of a giant walk-in freezer until the time comes for them to be delivered.

History of Ice Sculpting

Whilst the popularisation of ice sculptures is a relatively modern innovation, the tradition of ice sculpting goes back thousands of years. Historians believe (PDF) that inuits were the first to harness ice for their own purposes. Deep in the arctic tundra, without any modern innovations to keep them warm, these natives created igloos with large blocks of ice to take shelter from the harsh polar environment. Although these people weren’t creating sculptures as we recognise them today, these practices still continue and are proof of this material’s useful qualities.

The earliest written evidence of ice sculpting can be found in Shih cheng, a Chinese text from 600 BC. A passage depicts a group of warrior-farmers living in the north-west highlands of China who relied on using the typically cold weather to farm ice for use throughout the warmer months. The Shensi routinely flooded their fields with water, so that when the frosts came they would have thick sheets of ice to harvest. This ice was cut into blocks and used to keep fish fresh.

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Inuits build an Ingloo in 1924

Who invented ice sculptures?

Many ice sculpting traditions can be traced back to China. Historical records note (PDF) how natives of Heilongjiang in the 17th century created ice lanterns, in order to keep out the long dark of the night. Over time this invention grew in popularity and enthusiasts soon began decorating and hanging their lanterns. On the edge of the Russian border, the fishing town of Harbin saw a boom in its population as it was linked up with the Transsiberian Railway in 1897. With temperatures below zero and easy access to fresh water, Harbin would capitalise on its creative traditions by hosting the first annual International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival in 1963.

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Giant ice sculpture at Harbin’s International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival

The harvesting of natural ice is a practice that was largely made obsolete by ice manufacturing techniques, which began to be developed during the 19th century. Jacob Perkins became the proud inventor of the first ice maker in 1834, his process involved using the dangerous chemical ether. A competing process was introduced in 1859 by Ferdinand Carre using a combination of very cold brine and ammonia. Although more dangerous, this method became widely used and by 1920, hundreds of thousands of ice blocks were being made and distributed every day, just in the United States.

Perhaps one of the most iconic ice sculpture moments in history occurred in London in 1892. Opera singer Nellie Melba was performing in Wagner’s Lohengrin at Covent Garden, the visiting Duke of Orleans wished to celebrate her performance with a special party and commissioned French chef extraordinaire Nellie Melba to create a dessert for the occasion. A combination of vanilla ice cream and peaches were presented to the triumphant singer atop an exquisitely carved swan ice sculpture, wowing all present and creating an iconic dessert in the process.

The demand for clearer, purer ice drove further innovation in the 20th century, when Virgil Clinebell patented an ice machine that could produce clear blocks of ice weighing over 6kg. His follow up, the CB300 produced perfectly clear blocks of ice weighing over 20 times as much as its predecessor. Clinebell continues to produce commercial ice machines, with the CB300X2D being their latest innovation.

Innovations in the world of ice creation naturally led to new ground being broken in the world of ice sculpting and soon eagle-eyed businessmen were beginning to recognise the value in this exciting new medium. Steve Brice and Mark Daukas were amongst a handful of entrepreneurs in the late 1980s to capitalise on the gap in the market, and soon ice sculptures became more commonplace in corporate functions and private parties alike. Technology has continued to play a part in the realm of ice sculpting with some companies relying on CNC cutters and routers to create cheap ice sculptures for parties however, there are others (including Glacial Art) who prefer to maintain the hand-carving traditions that have been part of our culture for thousands of years.

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Mat Chaloner demonstrating live ice scultping at York Ice Trail

Ice Sculpting Techniques: how do people make ice sculptures?

Whether ice sculptors are creating a 5ft tall sculpture or a much smaller piece, the same techniques are usually applied. The size of the sculpture is determined and then large blocks are procured. A design for the final piece is usually conceived before any carving takes place, once a sketch has been produced, the sculptor gets to work.

The first stages of the sculpting are usually undertaken with the aid of a chainsaw. Either using the sketch as a guide or going by eye, the sculptor slices large chunks from the block, leaving a very rough outline of the final ice sculpture. From here on in more finesse is required, as the sculptor must be careful not to threaten the structural integrity of the block whilst achieving the desired level of detail.

Ice Sculptures in the Media

Even the simplest of ice sculptures can prove to be an eye-catching spectacle that turns heads and creates memories. Ice sculptures can take on different appearances depending on the type of ice used and the degree to which they have melted. Hard edges become smooth, lines begin to blur and surfaces can transform from hazy to perfectly clear. For these reasons, it’s understandable why the world of film and television often draws on ice sculptors’ expertise to create a memorable moment or visual.

In the 2002 James Bond film Die Another Day, an ice hotel was the location for a spectacular action set-piece. More recently, ice sculptures took the place of political leaders in the Channel 4 hosted Climate Change debate. Television shows such as Game of Thrones have enlisted the aid of ice sculptors in order to create striking sets that couldn’t be replicated with computer-generated effects, proving that the demand for hand-crafted artisanal ice sculptures is as relevant as it has ever been.

Ice sculptures around the world

There are a number of renowned ice sculpture events that take place around the world, some of which have been running for decades now.

Amongst the most iconic is the Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival: one of the oldest of its kind, which sees the construction of massive sculptures made from both ice and snow. The Sapporo Snow Festival, in Japan, attracts thousands each year who flock the city to see the giant snow sculptures, whereas the Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Festival, in South Korea, is home to the world’s largest indoor ice sculpture plaza. In Europe, Holland hosts a regular ice sculpture exhibition in Zwolle, featuring the work of the world’s finest ice sculptors.

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Glacial Art Ice sculptors work on World Art Ice Championships entry,

The World Art Ice Championships is the annual competition held in Alaska which attracts over 100 competitors from across the globe every year. There are four categories in the competition which are completed over the course of a fortnight: Multi-Block Classic, Amateur Exhibition, Double-Block Classic, Single-Block Classic. Whilst the prize money isn’t necessarily a jackpot, the prestige that comes with a competing can help an ice sculpture company raise their profile in the community – it also offers a great opportunity to get involved with the global ice sculpting community.

In the UK, the York Ice Trail has become one of the most well-established events of its kind. 80 ice sculptures are installed across the city over the course of two days in February, all of which are sponsored by local organisations and businesses. Liverpool has been home to a number of ice sculpture events, including the semi-permanent light show Aurora and Christmas themed ice sculpture trails on the historic Albert Dock.

Further north, in Newcastle, the Lone Wolf Ice Bar was a purpose-built ice bar exhibition created for the Christmas season. Live ice carving demonstrations and ice sculpting workshops take place across the weekend, giving visitors a chance to get to grips with the art form themselves. Down in Wales, Cardiff’s annual Winter Wonderland might not host ice sculptures, but it is home to the UK’s only ice-trail, a 250m long ice skating experience. Meanwhile, in the capital, Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland is home to a snow and ice sculpture walk-through experience; 2019’s event depicted Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Ice sculpture uses

Ice sculptures can serve many uses thanks to its extraordinary versatility. It can often prove captivating to both young and old alike because it is such a mesmerising material, and because of the near-limitless array of forms it can be sculpted into. Whether they’re used in a purely decorative form, or in a practical setting, an ice sculpture can prove to be a major talking point at a PR event, not to mention offering a fantastic photo opportunity that can create unique shareable memories for guests. Ice sculptures at corporate events can bring company branding to life, poke gentle fun at the CEO or launch a new product in an innovative fashion.

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Aston Martin ice sculpture completed for corporate event.

A thoughtfully conceived ice sculpture can be a breathtaking centrepiece for a wedding, incorporating a symbol that unifies the happy couple. Ice sculptures for weddings can come in the form of table centrepieces, or could be incorporated into the buffet as a way to keep food fresh and appealing. For an even bigger impact, an entire ice bar can be built, complete with everything a trained bar man would need to serve drinks to guests. Ice bars can be themed to the event and add an extra layer of grandeur to a celebration.

Ice sculptures can also be used to create a playful talking point at any social occasion by incorporating a luge. Alcohol ice sculptures, or vodka luges as they’re more commonly known, are ice sculptures that have a secondary purpose as a means to drink alcohol through. The design of the vodka ice luge can be tailored to the event and guests can then take turns drinking through the ice sculpture, creating a shareable moment that can be experienced by any adult attending the event.

How does an ice luge work?

Ice luges work by utilising plastic tubing that travels through the sculpture, or by a simple channel being carved at an angle down the length of the ice sculpture. A channel for pouring alcohol (or any other liquid) is incorporated into the ice sculpture, and then guests are invited to take a shot. At informal affairs, a vodka ice luge can be used as an exciting way to engage party goers and encourage interaction. Ice luge designs can be as complex and conceptual as desired, with endless possibilities for candid photos and videos. These sculptures are ideal for birthday celebrations, but can also be an exciting element to add to a military ball or student union party.

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An Iceberg themed vodka luge.

How much are ice sculptures?

Ice sculpture costs vary greatly depending on the size of the piece and the time that it takes to complete. Some companies use CNC cutters, allowing them to charge relatively little for generic, mass-produced ice sculptures. Meticulously designed, hand-carved ice sculptures will always cost more to produce, as the end product is of superior quality.

Glacial Art ice sculptors create unique ice sculptures that are hand-carved from large blocks to finely detailed finished pieces. We create bespoke ice sculptures that are made to order from our clients’ exact requirements. Our high standards are always the same, whether we’re creating 80 ice sculptures for York Ice Trail or a single sculpture for a wedding.

How do ice sculptures not melt?

Ice sculptures can be prevented from melting at a rapid rate by being kept in cool, or cold conditions. The larger the ice sculpture, the longer it will take to melt, however, every sculpture inevitably melts.

The time that this takes to happen will depend on a number of variables: the larger the ice sculpture, the longer it will take to melt. The melting of an ice sculpture is all part of the performance. It changes throughout the day, becoming something different yet still beautiful in an abstract way.

What is the point of ice sculptures?

The point of ice sculptures is to either provide a useful function or a decorative art piece. Ice shelters provide clear uses, but naturally, lose their functionality once they melt. At weddings, ice sculptures can be used to create shareable photo opportunities that are more valuable because of the short lifespan of the sculpture.

What do you call someone who makes ice sculptures?

Someone who makes ice sculptures can be called an ice sculptor, an ice carver or even an ice artist, although that term should only be given to people who create their ice sculptures with their hands, as opposed to using CNC machines or other forms of automation.

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Mat F finished a camera ice sculpture with a chisel.

How much does an ice sculpture weigh?

Ice sculptures can weigh anywhere a few hundred grams up to hundreds of kilograms, it all depends on the design and purpose of the piece. The lightest ice sculptures created might be these 3D printed ice cubes created by TBWA/Hakuhodo, a Japanese creative advertising agency.

Ice sculptures can weigh up to several tonnes, depending on their size. The ice blocks that the Glacial Art team use for their sculpture weigh around 120kg each. Several of these blocks may be used in service of a single sculpture, leading to sculpture weighing as much as 300kg.

Is ice carving an Olympic sport?

Ice carving is not an Olympic sport, however it has been featured in conjunction with the Winter Games as a Cultural Olympiad event. The Cultural Olympiad is a series of cultural events that take place alongside the traditional Olympic Games.

Ice sculpting was included as part of the Cultural Olympiad for the first time at the 1988 Calgary Winter Games. At the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, the USA’s National Ice Carving Association took an active role in managing and adjudicating the ice carving competition.

Unfortunately, ice carving is not regularly featured at the Olympic Games, however the World Art Ice Championships in Alaska and Harbin International Ice Sculpture Competition are both held on an annual basis, keeping the competitive spirit of ice sculpture alive.

Are ice sculptures sanitary?

Ice sculptures are sanitary, as long as they are made from pure water and kept away from bacteria. Most ice sculptures are not intended for consumption, however some are used as part of drinks and food preparation.

Ice bars are made from clean ice, but in order to keep drinks preparations hygienic, clean plastic cases can be slotted into pre-carved slots, allowing bartenders to easily manage their drinks station without the worry of cross-contamination. Similarly, ice luges are kept clean with the use of sanitised tubes and funnels, those drinking from the luge can also use disposable spouts.

Case Studies/Testimonials

Lone Wolf Ice Bar, Newcastle

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The completed Lone Wolf ice bar.

Glacial Art was commissioned to create a semi-permanent ice bar lounge at Newcastle’s STACK, a container village home to independent businesses and bars. Our team was given the mammoth task of taking 24 tonnes of ice and transforming it into an immersive Apres Ski themed bar experience.

Ice bars have long been a speciality of ours, but this project came with a litany of additional logistical challenges that makes it one of our stand out jobs. The project was confirmed in November 2018 for an installation date of the 17th January 2019, this presented the first real challenge: finding over 200 blocks of ice at the busiest time of the ice sculpting calendar.

Although we can grow ice from our base in Liverpool, we had nowhere near enough time to do this, our usual suppliers had also sold their stock. We ended up sourcing the ice from Belgium and spent four weeks preparing ice sculptures that would then be transported up to the ice bar in Newcastle.

Amongst the pieces that we completed ahead of the bar opening were a life-size snowmobile, a giant ice throne and a pack of wolves. These pieces were transported up to Newcastle in climate-controlled vans, but not before we completed the bar itself. We spent 9 days in total constructing the lounge itself, which included a functioning bar, seating areas and walls. The finished article was one of our biggest installations to date and was visited by hundreds of revellers throughout the winter season.

Find out more about our work at the Lone Wolf Ice Bar.

Game of Thrones Ice Sculptures, Belfast

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Mat F and Mat Chaloner on the Game of Thrones set.

Glacial Art have worked on two occasions with HBO’s Game of Thrones, lending their unique skills to the production design of an episode in Season 4 and also constructing an ice throne to promote the home release of the series.

Our team was given the challenge of creating natural but man-made ice henge that would form a key part of the set design for the Season 4 episode ‘Oathbreaker’. Having long been fans of both the books and the show itself, this was an exciting opportunity for the team, as well as a real professional challenge in itself. The ‘ice henge’ was to be comprised of ten spikes, each of which would weigh 300 kilograms. We also had to prepare spares, in case any pieces were damaged on the way to Belfast or didn’t survive the two days of shooting.

The scale of the task alone was much bigger than anything the team had previously attempted, and then there was also the challenge of moving the finished product to Belfast for shooting. Flexibility was a key skill we needed to employ for this job, as two days before we were due to ship the spikes, we were asked to add an extra foot to their height. Thankfully, we had extra ice and manpower on hand to complete the last-minute adjustments and ship the spikes on time.

We spent two days on set in Belfast, managing the delivery and assembly of the ‘ice henge’ which needed to remain as intact as possible for the duration of filming. For the sake of continuity, we remained on hand to keep the ice looking its best and to protect it in between takes, which wasn’t an easy task considering that we were working in plus temperatures.

Our work often has a limited life span, usually living on in photographs, so having our ice sculptures featured in a cultural phenomenon such as Game of Thrones was a real stepping stone for us into the world of television and film.

Find out more about our work with Game of Thrones.

Ice Sculpture Resources

Harbin International Ice Snow Sculpture Festival 

World Art Ice Championships 

York Ice Trail 

History of Ice Carving from Icesculptingtools.com 

Wall Street Journal: Ice Carving at the 2002 Winter Olympics 

BBC Travel’s The Origins of Ice Sculpting 

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Mat Foster has over a decade's experience working with ice, founding Glacial Art with his creative partner Matt Chaloner in 2008. After studying Model Making and Design at Sunderland University, Mat spent four years working in model and prop design, before starting Glacial Art in Liverpool as both Creative Director and ice sculptor. He has worked with major brands including Nescafe, HBO, JD Sports and Rolex.