Ice Sculpting in Michigan

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It’s getting cold again, and that means that ice sculpting is back. From the basics, like dolphins and snowflakes, to the more elaborate custom-made creations for birthdays and weddings ice, sculpting has become a serious industry.

But how exactly are these sculptures made? Gone are the days of a person finding a large chunk of ice and using an ice pick to create something. Today, most ice sculptures are made by professionally trained sculptors.

First, the ice is made by a special process to keep it as translucent as possible. This is done by slowly freezing water in a container for about two days while pumps circulate the water to stop bubbles from forming. The ice is then shipped away to the sculptor, who uses a personalized template to cut out the basic shape of the sculpture. These templates can be anything from a majestic swan to a child’s favorite superhero.

At first, the sculptor creates his template by drawing the basic shape on something, like cardboard paper, and then cutting off the extra ice around the template. The template is then placed against the ice block and the ice is cut into a basic shape using a chainsaw. No recognizable figure can be seen in the ice at this point.

Next, special tools are used to create the detail. An electric disk grinder is used to shave, smooth and round off the ice. Then a die grinder is used to make the smallest details, like the wings of an eagle, a person’s name or a company’s name, in a sculpture. An old fashion ice pick and hammer are still sometimes used to simply chip away the ice, but they have become increasingly less common compared to today’s modern tools.

The last step is to use a blowtorch to melt away all the chipped and imperfect ice on the outer layer to reveal the crystal clear ice throughout. The final product looks professional and can last 4 to 6 hours inside before melting and becoming unrecognizable or risking falling apart and hurting someone.

Sometimes special machines are used to create ice sculptures instead. A lathe is a machine that is used to spin a material quickly while making precious cuts into it. Often lathes are used in big factories to cut metal to precise dimensions or in a woodshop to create things like chair legs, candlesticks or bowls. But special lathes are used now to create ice sculptures. They can create things like ice luges and centerpieces for weddings and other events.

With new ice sculpting technology, ice sculpting has become more popular than ever; there are companies like Michigan Ice that are in business year-round making custom ice sculptures for weddings, birthdays, graduations and corporate events. Their biggest ice sculptures are their ice tables. Usually used as a bar table for drinks, these tables can get quite elaborate. The sculptors at Michigan Ice are professionals and are able to create some of the hardest ice sculptures like martini bars.

Most people who work as sculptors start in the hospitality business. Some are also trained in food carving. These are people who want more training in how to have large catered events and know that ice sculptures are a great way to really make an event memorable. There are seminars people can take during the weekends where they can learn all the basic skills in order to get
started themselves.

Plymouth, Mich. hosts the Plymouth Ice Festival every year in January, and it’s one of the biggest ice festivals in the state. This year, ice-sculpting competitions will take place from Jan. 9-11, and visitors can see amazing ice creations even while they are being made. Ice sculpting lessons will also take place throughout the weekend, and kids can learn the basics of ice sculpting through hands-on experiences.

If you don’t want to go that far to see some cool ice sculptures this winter, East Lansing will host their annual Winter Glow festival on Dec. 5 downtown. Christmas music and a free reindeer petting zoo will be available in addition to the ice sculptures.

With each winter season, ice sculpting is becoming more and more popular. It is a growing industry that is spreading across the nation and becoming easier to get into with better tools for the job and easy-to-find training. So maybe the next time you see an ice sculpture, you will understand a little more about the work that went into it.


Charlie Thompson is a senior majoring in professional writing. A Windy City native, he is a fan of Chicago hot dogs and the Cubs. Last summer he interned at BetterPoints in London and loved every minute of it. He enjoys watching the Oscars and going to art museums and a good beer.


Tags: January