Ice Sculptor

Ice Sculptor

Dr. Ice

New Orleans, LA

Male, 46

For more than 2 decades, I've been an ice sculptor, mostly for events in and around New Orleans. This means that if it can be made of ice and it's fun, I've probably made it for some crazy all-out party. I am a gold medal ice carver and my teammates and I also have a Guinness World Record for the world's longest ice bar. In 2004, I was ohh, so close to winning a world championship in Alaska. Alas, we came in second...maybe next time. But want to know something about ice sculptures? Ask me!

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Last Answer on November 17, 2014

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Is that a standard hardware store chainsaw you're using or do they made special chainsaws for ice carving?

Asked by juliojones about 5 years ago

In the pic that is/was on the front of the site where I'm carving a dog with a chainsaw, that's a standard Stihl electric chainsaw, which is a very high quality saw that costs about 3 times more than a Craftsman saw, for example. Ice carvers do tend to modify their chainsaws, however, especially the chains. We take off a lot of the safety features so that the saw will cut faster. Most of these safety features are designed to protect woodcutters from kickback, which is where the saw tip comes back at the operator so hard and so fast that it's impossible to stop; very dangerous! Ice doesn't create kickback like wood does though, so we don't need the kickback safety features; they just slow us down, and a lot of the time, we're kind of in a hurry!

Sorry if this is obvious to everyone except me, but where do the giant blocks of ice for your sculptures come from? Do you freeze them yourself in some sort of giant mold? How about the truly enormous blocks for carving competitions?

Asked by pp4 about 5 years ago

That's actually a very good question. There are generally two sources for the blocks that ice carvers use day to day. The first is the icehouse style of ice block that is mass produced by ice companies. The old-style icehouses that I occasionally visit in my area have rows and rows of "cans" that are suspended in a freezing solution. These cans are filled with water and freeze solid over the course of a couple of days. They bubble air into the water through long metal tubes that they pull out just before they get frozen in and the water movement caused by the bubbling action helps make the ice clear. However, these blocks rarely are completely clear because salts and air get trapped in the center. So they end up looking like a mostly clear block of ice with a white core in the center. These blocks are relatively cheap, but they're often not ideal for carving because of the white portion in the center. The other main source for carving blocks are specialized ice block makers called Clinebell machines (although Clinebell Equipment Company no longer makes all the machines). Blocks from these machines are slowly frozen completely clear over three or four days and the machine is set up in such a way that you can freeze stuff into the block as it's being made. (Ice carvers freeze all kinds of stuff into ice blocks for events.) Each of the machines only makes one or two blocks at a time, and they take longer and the blocks are usually better quality, so the blocks are more expensive when sold. But because the machines are smaller and self-contained, ice sculpting companies are often able to own their own block machines rather than buy blocks from an ice company. Both the can blocks and the Clinebell blocks are of a similar size and usually weigh somewhere between 250 and 400 lbs. The "standard" is 300 lbs. These blocks, however, are tiny compared to the giant blocks we carve in Alaska, or the ones they use to build the ice hotels in Sweden and elsewhere. The blocks we use in Alaska are harvested from a frozen pond using heavy equipment and might weigh anywhere from almost two tons to over three. The ones used for the Swedish ice hotel come from the Torne River. There are also a few giant ice block machines in the world that make blocks of a similar size to the natural Alaskan and Swedish blocks.

What's the most intricate ice sculpture you've ever seen?

Asked by Bookman Jones about 5 years ago

The most amazing and intricate ice sculpture I've ever seen would have to be a sculpture titled "Let it Be" in 2011 in Alaska. I'm not sure how tall it was, but I'd guess about 18 feet and it was of a cockatoo inside its cage. Everything, cockatoo, cage bars, the cage door, was all ice. All of the sculptors at the event were amazed by the sheer audacity of even attempting the sculpture. The sculpture was carved by Junichi Nakamura, Shinichi Sawamura, Yoshinori Mabuchi, & Koji Murakami and they totally pulled it off. You can see a picture of it here. It's the first picture in the gallery.

Wouldn't this all be much easier for a machine to do? Like why wouldn't a sculpting company just make huge molds for swans, ice luges, chandeliers, or whatever the most common requests are?

Asked by whoishomerrr about 5 years ago

Good question; you would think that molding ice sculptures would be the way to go, but it turns out there are some difficulties with molding ice. It usually doesn't turn out as clear as a carved sculpture and you can't get the same level of lasting detail. It also takes a couple days to freeze a larger molded piece, while most carved sculptures can be created in a couple of hours or less. On top of that, you have to have a LOT of molds to cover a large portion of the requests and those molds take up a lot of space. And if the client wants something just a little different than what you have, you're out of luck unless you're willing to get another mold made (which is expensive). In short, hand carving is much more flexible and faster than the molding approach. That said, molded ice does occasionally play a part in the sculptures that I create. But there's another method that has a better chance of displacing human carvers and that's using a programmable CNC machine, which is basically one step away from a robot ice carver. These machines have become very popular because of their precision and flexibility. They're most often used to engrave logos or designs into the ice and they're so much more precise than a human carver that I can almost always tell if one was used just by looking at the sculpture. We use CNC machines for some of the things we do and plan to use them more in the future. I think the best way to go is to mix the methods, using whichever method works the best for the sculpture that you're making at the time.

What was the raciest sculpture you've ever been hired to make?

Asked by G-Rose about 5 years ago

I've been expecting this question to show up sooner or later ;) The raciest sculptures that I've made are exactly the ones that you think that I've carved: the anatomically correct ones. Most of them are ice luges too. All kinds of parties go on in New Orleans and for some of those parties, those sculptures are a perfect fit.

That's really interesting about the CNC machines. If they're way more precise than humans, do you see them as the beginning of the end for your profession? Would be a shame. Dudes carving ice with chainsaws are awesome.

Asked by whoishomerrr about 5 years ago

No, I don't think they're the beginning of the end. I think a CNC machine is a tool that will allow ice sculptors to produce more sculptures and will open up more opportunities for ice sculptures at events. And you kind of answered your own question: watching a carver quickly create a sculpture at a performance/demo/competition is pretty cool; watching a machine create a sculpture: not as cool. But ask me again in ten years ;)

How long does it take you to do your average wedding/party ice sculpture? Have you ever been *this* close to finishing and made a fatal mistake at the end and had to start all over?

Asked by G-Rose about 5 years ago

I'd say that it usually takes 1-2 hours to do most of the sculptures that I do for weddings or parties. That's only the carving time though. That doesn't count any design time, tool set up time, clean up time (lots of clean up time!), transportation/delivery time, or set-up/break down time. So it sounds awesome: less than a couple of hours of work and you're on to the next one! But there's a lot of logistic and creative time that's harder to tally. But I can carve a sculpture pretty fast if I have to. More than once, I've competed in events that give you about 10 minutes to complete a carving. That's pretty much a chainsaw start to finish sculpture; no time for little tools. Regarding the second part of your question, there are only two kinds of ice carvers: those who have broken one at the last minute and those that are going to soon. It's part of working with a fragile medium that might be deteriorating as you work on it. One time I was really happy with an eagle that I'd made and I was sliding it across a tile floor into the freezer. Let's just say that I learned not to slide ice sculptures across tile floors any more. The little drop-offs and hard, unforgiving surface of a tile floor can be deadly to sculptures. Most of the time though, sculpture breaks happen on the way to set up. I sent a friend of mine to go set up a Marilyn Monroe sculpture and a Statue of Liberty sculpture along with a few others. We insulated them and put them in the back of a closed trailer. However, our efforts to secure them apparently weren't good enough and he said what when he got there, it looked like they'd spent the trip fighting it out. Somehow though, he managed to put things back together somewhat, and he salvaged the sculptures. Never saw how those turned out in the end; kind of curious about that...