[Ice Rink]

Ice Rink

[Newspaper Article] One way to mitigate the cold and snowy New England winter is to have sources of outdoor fun for December through February. My kids (ages 9 and 11, at the time) had always enjoyed roller blading, so I figured they'd like skating, too. Plus, their friend Charlie was a hockey nut, so they were always hearing about how fun the game was to play. The previous summer, I had sold a swing-set our kids no longer used, making 1000 square feet of flat, nearly level patch of ground behind our house, right near a water source and right under some outdoor flood lights. So, inspired by a newspaper article in the Boston Globe (and by an early bout of cold weather), I made an ice rink in my back yard.

There are numerous sources of information on how to build your own ice rink (the aforementioned newspaper article has some pointers, but a good Google search will give you far too many links to follow). In fact, there are even home ice rink products, such as liners and rink walls and rake thingies to smooth out your ice and even entire kits ... but most of these seemed too expensive to me for what they gave you. So, I amalgamated bits and pieces of information in designing and maintaining my own rink. It was a bit daunting at the start, but once I had an intuitive feel for what I wanted to do, it all fell in place pretty well.

While I just complained above that it is cold here (I live in New England) in the winter, I'm really about as far south as you'd like to be and still hope to have a skateable (as opposed to fishable) rink for most of the winter. This meant, to me, that I'd have to go with a liner (that, and the hard work in mashing show and patiently freezing layers of water for a liner-less rink seemed daunting). It also meant I'd need to have a frame tall enough to cover the slight slope in our back yard.

[Lumber] For the frame, I chose 2"x10" pine boards (I guess 1" thick boards could be used, but I was wary of the weight of the water causing troubles with the joints). My rink is 25'x40', so this meant 15 boards (pieces of the extra are needed for the joints and corers). The local lumber store delivered for free, so it was simply a matter of telling them how many boards I wanted and waiting a couple of days for them to bring the wood.

For the frame, I joined the edges by taking 1' pieces of the 2"x10"s and attaching them with six 3" deck screws. The corners are similarly joined by attaching an additional board along the outside with 4 screws, and putting 2 more screws into the ends of the joining board. I initially drilled small guide holes before putting in the screws, but found the wood soft enough to just drive the screws in right away using a screwdriver bit with my electric drill. This saved a lot of time. The result is a free standing frame (no need for stakes) that is strong enough for the 10" of water it holds back before the water freezes.

[Frame 1]
[Frame 2]

Before putting the base in place, I first cleared the snow that had fallen (early!) since I had heard dire warnings about snow bases settling once the ice was in place, thus cracking the surface. I did the clearing with a snow-blower, which saved a lot of time but did put a few gouges in the grass underneath the lawn. Also, once I had started, I realized that the frame rose up considerably on top of just one corner of the rink, so I did some last-minute digging (whee, that was fun). Once that was done, the frame went up pretty easily - about an hour of work. For the corners, this was easier when son helped hold the boards in place while I drilled, but most of it was a single-person job.

[Base 1]
[Base 2]
[Base 3]
[Base 4]

Next came the liner. While you can buy liners especially made for home ice rinks (as per my note on the many commercial products), tarps and plastic sheeting can be used as well and are a lot cheaper (I estimate the kits are about 3x what you pay in doing it yourself). I used 6 mil plastic sheeting that I got at Home Depot. It came in 20'x100' rolls, meaning I had to create a sealed seam to get my 25' width. I first cut the two plastic pieces to the right size, then joined them by using some plastic glue (used on boats and such, so waterproof) and putting a layer of duct tape on top. I did this in the basement to make the work more comfortable, but our rink is bigger than our basement so aligning the sheets was a pain in the butt. I hope to use the gymnasium of our local school in future years.

[Liner 1]
[Liner 2]
[Liner 3]

Once the glue had set (about 24 hours), I brought the liner outside and laid it over the frame. I made sure to provide enough slack so the water could push the liner down to the ground and not rip it. I tucked the liner under the frame in some places and used staples (with a newly purchased staple gun) in others. Based on a tip I found on the Web, I used some boards to weigh down the liner while the rink filled (making sure to remove the boards once they floated, of course).

[Linerdown 1]
[Linerdown 2]

After that, the rink was ready to be filled. I purchased a new 50' rubber hose (50 feet was just long enough to reach from the tap to the corners of the rink) since the old hose I had was made of plastic and leaky and was sure to be trouble in the winter. I filled from uphill to downhill to see where the water would settle, but I don't think this particularly mattered. While filling, the rink liner bulged in a few places where the ground was uneven so I propped these spots up with snow and leaves. Once filled, I just waited for the cold weather to do the trick. Unfortunately, I got a couple of snowfalls that kicked in before the ice was hard. This meant I had to shovel heavy slush a couple of times to clear the rink (whee, again). But the third time was the charm.

[Fill 1]
[Fill 2]
[Fill 3]
[Fill 4]

While waiting for the rink to freeze, I built a tool to smooth the ice. Again, there are commercial products that do this, but even hand-held smoothers cost about $200. Ice rink professionals use a Zamboni, a gas-powered, ice-smoothing machine that not only has a cool name, but also drives around the ice rink in a cool pattern. I was tempted to try and jury rig a Zamboni on my driving lawn mower, but decided that it was overkill (sigh). So, I built a hand-held smoother out of PVC pipe. Now, maybe plumbers and do-it-yourself plumbers would find this pretty easy, but I had a tough time figuring out sizes and threading and what not just to get a garden hose attached to the end of a pipe. I knew what I wanted, but getting the Home Depot guy to help was impossible so I sorted through all the parts until I had what I needed. Two 2' sections form the top of a tee with a cap on each end, and a 4' section makes up the handle. I have a valve on the end to control the water flow and a rubber thingie on the end to put the hose in place. I drilled a bunch (6 at first, but I'm now up to about 18) of really small (1/16") holes in the pipe to lay water out evenly. I call it the "Zambini" (a catchy name I shamelessly borrowed from here). When ready to smooth the ice, I hook the hose up to the hot water tap for our washer, run the hose out the window to the rink, and I attach it to the Zambini. The thin layer of hot water melts the shavings and gouges from the skates and freezes quickly.

[Zambini 1]
[Zambini 2]
[Zambini 3]
[Zambini 4]

[Zambini 5]

Sports are a big pull with my kids (and me), so I wanted to be able to play hockey. I was a bit worried that my rink would not be large enough for meaningful games, but 25'x40' works pretty well (although, as many online have said - it is always nice to go bigger). I purchased a couple of cheap nets ($20) from Dick's Sporting Goods (these need to be anchored with sand bags or something to stop them from sliding when hit), some basic sticks and a bag of pucks. Add kids and, voila, instant hockey game!

[Hockey 1]
[Hockey 3]
[Hockey 2]

Overall, how did it work out? It was a lot of work setting up, not even counting the reading and designing I did before even starting. For awhile, I was not sure it would be worth it (I had fears of slushy or bumpy ice, leaky liners and a flooded yard, a snow rink or water rink instead of an ice rink, and other doubts). And I'm sure I have more to learn about making good ice and making it faster and easier. However, now that it is set up, it gets a lot of use - at least an hour a day on vacations and weekends - with more dabbling by my kids and their friends on the ice on other days. I've even enjoyed skating and playing some pickup hockey (not that I'm any good, but it is quite fun). As of now, I'll certainly do it again next year.

Below are some links that may be useful if you are thinking of building a backyard rink yourself:

Happy skating!

-- Mark Claypool