The Chilly Art of Ice Carving
So, continuing with our artistic thread, let’s talk about ice carving. I first discovered ice carving in my earlier years as an apprentice cook. In the dark ages of the late 80’s, ice carving was pretty rustic. The craft wasn’t seen to often, and when we did them, we usually used tacky rubber molds. Typically these were things like bowls, swans or some other such thing. Moving ahead about 10 years, the game begins to change. I did my pastry schooling at the CIA in the early 90’s, this is were I learned how to carve properly. Upon returning to Canada, I started to freelance for hotels and resorts in southwestern Ontario. Things went viral from this point forward. First let’s have a look at the history, then a little on the craft, and it’s applications in culinary arts.
History of Ice Carving
The history of ice carving begins with the harvesting ice. The earliest known record of an ice
harvest is found in the Shih cheng or “Book of Songs” written at about 600 B.C. This collection
of stories describes the everyday life of the Shensi warrior-farmers as they lived in the highlands
of northwest China, and mentions their winter routine of flooding their fields with water. When
the water had frozen, the ice was cut into blocks and stored in icehouses. The ice was used in the
warmer months to keep their fish fresh.
In the 1600s, native hunters and fishermen of the Chinese province of Heilongjiang, on the
border of Russia, designed ice lanterns for dark winter nights. They filled buckets with water to
make ice, then slid it out, and put a candle in the hole to make a lantern. The trend spread, and
people started hanging decorated lanterns from homes and parading them in carnivals. In 1897,
the Transsiberian Railway was extended through the small Chinese fishing town of Harbin in
Heilongjiang, once occupied by Russia. As a result of the traffic, Harbin grew into a
cosmopolitan city. With below freezing winds from Siberia, and ice from the frozen Songhua
river, Harbin became the home of the annual International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival.
Currently, this festival features the work of thousands of artists from all over the world.
The first well-documented ice palace was built as the setting for a monstrous joke. On the frozen
River Neva, in the winter of 1740, a shivering bride and groom spent their wedding night in a
building of ice. The palace was commissioned by the Empress Anna Ivanovna, who like Peter
the Great, had a malicious sense of humor. In St.Petersburg, to distract the people from the bitter
cold, Empress Anna had an ice palace built as the stage for a wedding. Anna forced Prince
Mikhail Golitsyn to marry her exceptionally ugly servant. After the church ceremony, the bride
and groom, covered in furs, seated in an iron cage fastened to the back of an elephant, headed an
elaborate procession including horses, camels, wolves, & pigs. Guards posted outside made sure
that they spent the whole night in the frozen mansion.
Harvesting natural ice increased throughout the world until the mid 1800’s when Ice
manufacturing began. In 1834, Jacob Perkins, obtained a British patent for the first ice making
machine using ether. In 1859 Ferdinand Carre invented an ice machine that used ammonia, a
much more volatile liquid. Cans of water were lowered into a 15 degree brine (Calcium
Chloride) solution chilled by an ammonia system. Air was bubbled into the center of the can to
make clear ice for carving. By 1920, 750,000 blocks of ice were made every day in the United
In 1892, Nellie Melba was performing in Wagner’s opera Lohengrin at Covent Garden. The
Duke of Orléans gave a dinner party to celebrate her triumph. For the occasion, Escoffier created
a new dessert, and to display it, he used an ice sculpture of a swan (swans were featured in that
opera). The swan carried peaches which rested on a bed of vanilla ice cream and which were
topped with spun sugar.
The Sapporo Snow Festival which began in 1950 is one of Japan’s largest winter events. Every
winter, about two million people come to Sapporo to see the hundreds of beautiful snow and ice
sculptures. For seven days in February, these statues and sculptures turn Sapporo into a winter
dreamland of crystal-like ice and white snow. 1955, the Self-Defense Force joined in and built
the very first massive snow sculpture, for which the Snow Festival has become famous for now.
In 1964 Virgil Clinebell invented a machine that produced 15 lb blocks of clear ice. This lead to
the CB300 which makes crystal clear 300 lb blocks of ice. Modern carvers use crystal clear ice
to make ice carvings. In recent times Ice carving has become more specialized. Because of this
specialization more and more professional chefs are leaving ice art to the modern ice carving
Since 1989, Fairbanks Alaska has hosted the annual World Ice Art Championships. Over 100
sculptors come from around the world each year to sculpt large blocks of pristine natural ice.
The competition is broken down into two main categories: Single Block and Multi-Block and
each competition is further separated into Abstract and Realistic sculptures.
In the late 1980’s there was a tool revolution lead by Mark Daukas. By winning numerous
competitions he brought attention to the die grinder & angle grinder. Steve Brice has invented
numerous tools including many ice carving bits & the nailboard. The art of ice sculpture is
continually evolving; ice is spun on lathes & cut by routers controlled by computers. Affordable
ice makers are now available that make 300lb. crystal clear blocks in your own freezer.
Amendola, J. (1994). Ice Carving made Easy. Van Norstrand Reinhold.
Fred Anderes, A. A. (1983). Ice Palaces. New York: Abbeville Press.
Robert Garlough, R. F. (2004). Ice Sculpting the Moderm Way. Canada: Delmar Learning.
Sculpting ice presents a number of difficulties due to the variability and volatility of the material. Ice may be sculpted in a wide range of temperatures and the characteristics of the ice will change according to its temperature as well as the surrounding temperatures. Sculptures are generally carved from blocks of ice and these blocks must be carefully selected to be suitable for the sculptor’s purposes and should be free of undesired impurities. Typically, ideal carving ice is made from pure, clean water. However, clear, transparent ice is a result of the freezing process and not necessarily related to the purity of the water. Clouded ice is often the result of finely trapped air molecules that tend to bind to the impurities while naturally freezing. Mechanically clear ice is usually made as the result of controlling the freezing process by the circulation of the water in the freezing chamber. This process hopes to eliminate any trapped air from binding to the impurities in the freezing process. Certain machines and processes allow for slow freezing and the removal of impurities and therefore are able to produce the clear blocks of ice that are favored by ice carvers. However, not all blocks that are carved are clear ice. White ice blocks look like snow and are sometimes carved. Colored ice blocks are produced by adding dyes to the ice and can be carved as well. In some instances, clear ice and colored ice are combined to create a desired effect.
There are various sizes of ice blocks that are produced artificially. Naturally made blocks can be cut to almost any size from frozen rivers or from “ice quarries,” which are essentially lakes or ponds that have frozen over. Today, ice blocks are produced en masse by various companies throughout the world. One of my piers and long time friend, Julian Bailey runs a company in Hensall, Ontario called “Ice Culture”. You can find them here.
If you happen to be in the market for an ice carving demonstration, or would like more information about the “how to”, feel free to contact myself or Julian at Ice Culture. Cheers, and happy mother’s Day 🌹!