How To Carve Ice | Varyer
A block of ice being shaved down.

How to Carve Ice

& musings from someone who does

Have you ever entered a place and felt an immediate familiarity? Something one step below déjà vu. You haven’t been there before per se, but it resonates deep within your psyche. It feels comfortable. First and foremost, Nadeau’s Ice Sculpture facility in Forest Park, Illinois is completely covered in things. Ice things for sure; tools, old chests, posters of epic ice builds passed. But, other things too. Illustrations of all Nadeau’s Ice office dogs (some wearing hats!), a plastic severed limb, an ancient time card punch. You quickly recognize the space as a living museum. We were immediately greeted by Nadeau’s boss and our tour guide for the day, Max. He is, hands-down, the friendliest stranger you could cold call and invite yourself to meet in a global pandemic. We learned a lot about the trade and the space. We worked with ice spheres and clinebells where we attempted to freeze flowers in growing blocks of ice. Though we walked away with extremely cold hands, the experience left us with very warm hearts.

Many blocks of ice in an industrial freezer.
Industrial ice-carving equipment.

I really like this ice house, and I've been to quite a few now. For one, this is the oldest ice sculpting house in America. It’s 41 years old, this is like grandpa. But this place always has a feeling of one-half home and one-half factory setting. There's ice picks in every room, but then there's also Disney characters. It's very cool.

Roses in a tub of water.
The edge of a block of ice.
A person stands next to a large tub of water.

The history of the building is that it used to be a juice factory. Now in the 50’s there was a thing called the juice wars that nobody really knows about. It's hard to find history on. Whoever got the school juice contracts in the area was the leading juice manufacturer of the time. So, during contract renewal time, competitors would be trying to hit your juice tanks in drivebys to empty them out so that you couldn't fulfill a juice order and they would win the school contract. We pulled slugs out of the walls.

A person holds a perfect cube of ice.
A chainsaw sits atop a block of ice.
Many perfect spheres of ice sit within a plastic tub.
Various handheld tools for carving ice.
An ice sculpture of a reindeer with an electric light bulb nose.

Just pressure, heat and time. It's like diamonds, you know what I mean? It's slow and steady, slow and steady.

Large blocks of ice stand behind tubs filled with smaller ice cubes.
A gloved hand reaches into a tub of perfectly cubed ice.
A person uses a tool to carve into a chunk of ice.

You guys want to get cold now or you want to get cold later?

A person holds a large serrated tool for ice carving.
A mechanical drill carves a block of ice.

A lot of ice sculpting came from tallow sculpting because tallow was around a lot longer. But when ice sculpture came to the United States, it was how many swans do you have this week? I got ten swans this week. That's a busy week! Swans are one of the easiest pieces to do with hand tools; almost everything was done with a six prong ice chipper or an ice chisel back then.

on why Nadeau's logo is a swan

A machine engraves many "h"s into a sheet of ice.
A person holds a branch of flowers and a mechanical tool.

The sun likes to destroy ice sculptures before anything else. So even if it was negative ten outside, an ice sculpture would be just decimated from UV rays. We have a tendency of working against daylight.

A pronged hand tool protrudes from a chunk of ice.