How to

19 October 2016

How Ice Rinks are Made - A Look Under the Ice

As many of the residents of Westeros continue to intone, winter is coming. One of the most traditional and accessible of winter pastimes is to step out onto the ice of an ice rink and glide gracefully around (skid clumsily into the barriers) in the crisp winter air. There are many iconic venues for it, from the Christmas rink outside the Rockefeller to these other impressive spots. But it’s not just skating that takes place on the plethora of indoor and outdoor rinks worldwide, as people take to the ice for pursuits as varied as ice hockey, curling, or even the crazy ice karting.

Regardless of whether you’re shoving massive stones along it, or speeding around it in a kart, the surface of the ice needs to be perfect at all times. The hard work of the men and machines that maintain this pristine surface, however, is something that we take for granted. In this article we’ll take a look at some of the history of the ice rink and how it’s carefully looked after to provide an optimum environment for sports and activities.

The word ‘rink’ itself actually originates from a Scottish word meaning ‘course,’ somewhere where people played curling. At the outset, these rinks were largely at natural sites such as frozen lakes, but in the mid-19th century people began to experiment with creating artificial ice rinks. These early rinks were made out of an artificial ice substitute of hog’s lard and salts, and people eventually stopped going as they smelled so bad.  Thankfully, technology has now moved on a lot!

As refrigeration technology evolved, the use of natural ice became viable, and the very first mechanically frozen ice rink, the Glaciarium, was opened by John Gamgee in a tent off Kings Road, London in 1876.

The interior of the Glaciarium
This early rink operated on a prototypic system of copper pipes and chemical solution of glycerine, ether, nitrogen peroxide and water. The Glaciarium was a huge success, and Gamgee opened several more as rich aristocrats began to flock to them. The ice rink has continued to evolve from here, and there are three main types of rink in existence today, defined by the type of ice they use: natural, artificial, and synthetic.

Natural ice rinks are those in places where the winter climate is cold enough that water can freeze to a depth thick enough to support human weight. This ice can form on lakes and rivers, or over specially constructed holes filled with water. The largest natural ice rink in the world, according to the GuinnessWorld Records, is the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, Canada. It is 7.8km long, with a total maintained surface area of 165,621m2. The crew maintain the surface every night by cleaning off snow and then adding a fresh layer of ice by pumping up water from underneath it, and a similar process is used at natural rinks worldwide. It’s open 24 hours a day and is a popular winter attraction. If you do decide to go, don’t forget to grab a Beaver Tail, a local favourite fried dough snack!

The Rideau Canal    (Source: Vince Alonghi / Flikr)
Artificial ice rinks don’t rely on the natural climate and can be built anywhere. They generally consist of a layer of sand or concrete with pipes running through it carrying cold liquid containing antifreeze or refrigerant, and this reduces the temperature of the base layer to one that will freeze water on top of it. Water can be added in thin layers to control the depth of the ice, and this also allows markings or logos to be place before being covered with the eventual surface layer. Once the surface is created, it has to be maintained using an ice resurfacer, and this allows subtle variations of the surface for different purposes. Curling, for instance, requires a pebbled surface, so the resurfacer adds small droplets of water to create bumps. This building process allows rinks in some crazy places, such as downtown L.A., and there are even now portable versions that can create a movable rink!

The famous Rockefeller artificial outdoor rink     (Source: Peter Cruise / Flikr)
The final, and slightly less popular, category is synthetic ice. As the name suggests, this isn’t really ice at all, but rather a plastic polymer version. This is a more expensive process that provides a less authentic skating experience, so is not usually preferred, but synthetic rinks do exist.

Hopefully this look into the formation and upkeep of ice rinks has whet your appetite for some skating. When you go, remember to wrap up warm, and be thankful that the wonders of modern technology mean that you don’t have to slide around on hog’s lard!

Sam Franklin

With a master’s in Literature, Sam inhales books and anything readable, spending his working hours reformulating the info he gathers into digestible articles. When not reading or writing, he likes to put his camera to work around the world, snapping street photography from Stockholm to Tokyo. Too much of this time spent in Japan teaching English has nurtured a weakness for sashimi, Japanese whisky, and robot cafés.