As a culinary instructor at Lorain County JVS, Kristian Smith draws attention when he shows up with these occasional tools of his trade: chisel, sander, die grinder and chainsaw.
Trust us, it’s not as strange as it sounds.
“I’ve been an ice carver for 17 or 18 years,” explains the Elyria resident. “It’s something I picked up while working as a sous chef for a private club.”
Ice sculpting isn’t something Smith does for a living. Not at the $175 he might garner for creation, delivery and setup. But the skill comes in handy when a banquet customer needs a decorative reindeer, Christmas tree, snowflake or eagle. Or maybe the occasion calls for an icy space shuttle for NASA or a fire hydrant for a gathering of firefighters.
“I guess artistic ability helps, but we use templates,” says Smith. As he explains it a paper template fits right over the block of ice and you chip away at whatever sticks out. But actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that. “You start by outlining the template with a die grinder that’s got a ‘V’ bit on it,” Smith explains. “You cut away the bigger pieces first, and then set the depth to give your piece more of a three-dimensional appearance. You shape it, add detail, sand it, finish and polish.”
It’s clear, that is, if Smith is starting with a Clinebell block. “A 300-pound Clinebell block is one that’s formed through equipment and a process that eliminates air bubbles and makes your cube as clear as glass — especially if you use filtered water (no tap water rust). It’s not the sort of thing you find in your ice cube trays or the local pond in January. “We have our own Clinebell ice machine and make the ice blocks as we need them for the carvings.” One block usually costs 50 or 60 bucks.
Warm the Chill
Working with ice that’s too cold is bad. So ice carvers have to warm up a block of ice — so to speak — to around 27 degrees by letting it sit for a couple of hours before making that first cut. It’s a preparatory step known as tempering.“ Otherwise, it could shatter like an ice cube when you drop it in water,” says Smith.
For The Sport Of It
Competitive ice sculpting is in a league of its own. “We usually know ahead of time what we’ll be carving so we can practice, but other times you just know the general theme,” says Smith, who coaches his JVS culinary students after-hours in the fine art of ice sculpting and takes them to the occasional competition. “You have maybe three hours, but then there are speed competitions where you might have as little as 20 minutes.” And that’s without the benefit of a template.