how to sculpt ice

The coming months offer the opportunity to redefine your perception of ice. No longer the preserve of Torvill and Dean or something to avoid on the road, ice is being repackaged as a malleable object of beauty and a fitting canvas for artistic expression.

Duncan Hamilton has been Europe's leading ice-sculptor for the past 20 years (see Ice-cube man, right). Over the next few months he will be demonstrating his technique to a public audience for the first time.

While ice-sculpting remains a mystery to most people, Hamilton's skills have meant that, over the past 20 years, he has rubbed shoulders with a host of celebrities, including Margaret Thatcher, Clint Eastwood, Elton John, Steven Spielberg, Richard Branson and Oasis.

Hamilton's first commission was from Lord Forte for his nephew's wedding at the Hyde Park Hotel. At the time no one else sculpted ice professionally, and Hamilton was about to embark on a career teaching young chefs. Without his own premises he was forced to work in the hotel kitchens late at night, sculpting a pair of doves. Finishing at 3am, he received the princely sum of pounds 25, in contrast to the pounds 2,000 he commands for some of his commissions today. "Ice-sculpting started to grow so much that I had to make a decision on what to do," he says. "So I gave up teaching and took up ice-sculpting full-time."

Hamilton now has a studio in Wimbledon where he makes and sculpts his own ice. Clear ice is essential for sculpting, but the method by which it is made is tortuous. The frozen blocks of ice used take four days to make, and each stands 4ft by 2ft by 1ft and weighing in at around 500lbs.

To make clear ice, the freezing water must be constantly agitated and free from all impurities. The water is kept moving constantly and will freeze from the outside inwards. Any impurities or minerals remaining in the water will congregate at the centre of the block, creating a core of white ice. This white ice (reminiscent of domestic white ice cubes) is replaced with distilled water before the block has completely formed. Eventually the laborious process results in a glinting block of clear ice.

"Clear ice is very important and has a magical quality to it," Hamilton enthuses. "There are lots of things going on within clear ice like tiny fractures or stretch bubbles. When the light hits a sculpture it's beautiful."

Fashioning a sculpture also demands specialised equipment. The imported implements are from Japan and are similar in design to wood-carving tools. An ice saw has teeth two inches long and, added to a glittering array of chainsaws, chisels and picks, completes a formidable armoury of tools, which would not look out of place in a horror movie.

As a carving progresses, the implements used become smaller and more refined until the sculpture is completed. The finished sculptures are breathtaking, but doomed as they melt away after only seven hours on display.

In addition to practical displays of ice-carving (after which members of the audience will have gleaned enough to repeat them at home), including a pumpkin head for Halloween, an American spread eagle and a pair of polar bears, the forthcoming lectures will also boast a wide range of ice trivia - from details of ice preservation techniques in Roman times to a slide show on ice and the media.

Those attending the lectures will also learn how to freeze a bottle of vodka in ice. Any vodka drinking demonstrations will presumably be held only when the ice-carving tools are safely locked away.


Demonstrations of ice-sculpture, Collyer Hall Theatre, King's College School, Southside, London SW19 (0181-879 0036) 13, 27 Oct and 15 Dec. pounds 20,pounds 12 concs. pounds 50 for all three lectures