This article was originally published in the New York Times in 2004, as part of a series I did for their ‘Circuits’ section.
Jan. 1, 2004 – As you read this, some of last year’s coolest technology products may have already melted down. Not the iPod or TiVo or the Xbox or the BlackBerry, but holiday decorations fashioned from ice, like Santa Claus, Father Time, snowmen, angels, star bursts, castles and even party masks.
Ice carvings and sculptures, traditionally the realm of chefs and chisel-wielding artisans, have become a high-tech production. Over the last few years many professional ice carvers have begun using computer-driven carving machines, enabling them to push the boundaries of creativity and broaden the market for their products.
”People think of ice carving and think of swans, hearts and dolphins,” said Julian Bayley, founder of Iceculture, a carving company in Hensall, Ontario. ”But ice carving is now moving to more of a functional design.”
Mr. Bayley developed one of the first computer-driven carving machines five years ago. He said such machines had turned ice carvings, once an art form for rarefied occasions, into a common feature of mainstream corporate events, weddings, festivals and private parties.
At the same time, ”the machines have given artists more of an extension of their talent,” said Randy Finch, co-owner of Ice Sculptures Ltd., based in Grand Rapids, Mich. Mr. Finch’s company has used computer-driven machines to help produce such icy creations as a full-size usable pool table, a five-foot-tall working Ferris wheel (made of 40 pieces of ice), and an ice fireplace in which the logs melt away in a simulation of burning.
”Technically you can do anything without the computer if you’ve got the time, but I don’t know that I would have,” said Mr. Finch, a former chef. ”It’s given us the drive and excitement to push the boundaries.”
In addition to speeding the carving of complex designs — a 3 1/2-by-6 1/2-foot corporate logo might take three hours to make by hand but just four minutes on a machine — the machines can create identical copies of individual designs, enabling companies to churn out economical centerpieces, sorbet dishes, shot glasses and even ice cubes etched with a logo.
Nadeau’s Ice Sculptures in Forest Park Ill., uses that replication ability to perform demonstrations each night at the local zoo, assembling and finishing sculptures from prefabricated parts. The company also creates ice building toys for children called Brrrr Blocks, similar to Lincoln Logs, said the company’s owner, Jim Nadeau.
The computer-controlled machines help make ice carving safer. Mr. Bayley of Iceculture, which recently created an elaborate ice bridge for an event at Rockefeller Center, said the devices could be used to cut the ice blocks so accurately that ”they go together like a piece of Lego.”
”We tongue-and-groove them so they lock into position,” he said, noting that an individual block can weigh up to 350 pounds.
The machines, known as CNC routers for computer numerical control, were originally developed for milling by the signmaking industry but are modified by entrepreneurs like Mr. Bayley, who added tools for cutting ice as well as tougher wiring to handle the cold of the carver’s freezer.
The machines come in both a flatbed configuration for carving shallower designs like scenery etchings and corporate logos and an upright format for making larger three-dimensional cutouts that a carver can later finish by hand. Many shops also use a non-computer-driven ice lathe, controlled by mechanical templates, for carving round items like pillars, footballs and crystal balls.
A typical set-up includes a design PC running off-the-shelf software for computer-aided design. That PC is linked by a cable or a network to another PC or controller box in the freezer workshop, which in turn is attached to the carving machine. Designs are loaded and modified on the design PC, then spooled to the carving machine for production.
”It’s great to be able to do most of the planning outside the freezer,” said Mark Donovan, vice president and director of operations for SoCal Ice Productions in San Diego. ”Previously, we’d kind of cut and stack and figure it out.”
Mr. Donovan, whose company is working on a set of eight-foot-long ice bars and accompanying Roman columns for a corporate party in January, said one challenge was finding talent, especially people who can cross over from the world of design to the world of ice. ”A lot of people are afraid to touch the ice, to deal with it as a medium,” he said. ”You know that when the bit hits, something’s going to happen.”
There are about 2,000 ice carvers in the United States, according to Alice Connelly, executive director of the National Ice Carving Association, including chefs who freelance as ice sculptors (a talent acquired in culinary school), but only about 100 pursue the art full time. Of those, she estimated that almost half have machines, which have recently dropped in price from around $60,000 to as low as $30,000 and have gotten smaller and even somewhat portable.
Additional equipment is required to distill water and extract impurities while freezing it with the goal of producing crystal clear, high-density blocks that will be slow to melt. (Carvings generally last six to eight hours at room temperature.)
The cost of a piece carved by computer can range from $1.25 for an ice cube with a logo on it to tens of thousands of dollars for large one-of-a-kind displays.
Mr. Finch of Ice Sculptures Ltd. said he had sold the design file for his ice fireplace for about $250 to other ice carvers. But he said he was careful about whom he sells it to. ”We don’t want to do a really nice design and then sell it to our competition,” he said. ”There are a lot of smaller companies out there that are starting up.”