Frozen creations

Jan. 1, 2008
Crafting Sizable, elaborate ice sculptures, such as a 12-foot tall Eagle's wing, a life-size Jennifer Aniston, or a giant Pegasus is a considerable challenge.

Crafting Sizable, elaborate ice sculptures, such as a 12-foot tall Eagle's wing, a life-size Jennifer Aniston, or a giant Pegasus is a considerable challenge. A sculptor needs artistic vision to design the pieces, large blocks of ice from which to create the sculptures, the means to move these blocks around, tools to form the creations, and a place to work the ice.

The next big difficulties are safely storing the sculptures, then transporting and placing them on display.

For LA Ice Art in Inglewood, California, overcoming such hurdles is just business as usual, says owner Rex Covington. An artist in the LA ice scene for more than 20 years, he has created all shapes and sizes of ice sculptures and overseen their transport.

The company creates ice carvings for any event, such as weddings, parties, celebrations, and all types of business functions. Over time, though, it has come to specialize in creating dramatic ice pieces for Hollywood, and for its movie, television, and celebrity party scenes.

Some unique ice sculptures recently created by Covington include a 900-pound Panda Bear for the film, The TV Set; a 4-foot diameter ice globe for a Real Time with Bill Mayer HBO promotion; and a large Marine Corps logo for a general's retirement party.

Covington didn't plan to become an ice sculptor. He was working as a waiter in an upscale Beverly Hills restaurant when the chef asked for some help to do ice carvings.

“I had a background in art, so I volunteered, figuring it would be a chance to put my creative talents to work,” recalls Covington. “I found I not only enjoyed it, but I had a knack for it. I began doing it on the side, and eventually started my own ice sculpting business.”

In addition to being an accomplished ice sculptor, he also has an aptitude for business, and has grown his company. It expanded to the point that he often had trouble finding ice houses that could keep up with his demand for carving ice blocks. That led him to form a business arrangement with Cal Ice Company in nearby Culver City, California.

Owned and operated by Ralph Corbin, Cal Ice supplies all types of ice, including blocks, cubes, crushed, and dry. Its focus, however, is supplying “emergency ice” - ice that is urgently required.

“This would be, for example, when we get a call from a restaurant or hotel that's putting on a major function, and its ice machines have broken or it has run out of ice,” explains Corbin. “We get them whatever ice is needed as fast as we're able to.”

Covington and Corbin, who acquired Cal Ice in 1999, have known each other since they were children. The two created a business arrangement to share a space that would suit their independent businesses.

About three years ago, they bought a building in Inglewood, a city southwest of Los Angeles, and customized it for their individual businesses. They operate from that location to support each other's business and meet the varying ice demands of Los Angeles.

Carving blocks

Their facility has nine Clinebell Equipment Company machines that produce carving ice blocks. Four are owned by LA Ice Art; five by Cal Ice. Each machine produces two 20-by-40-by-10-inch crystal clear blocks of ice. Each block weighs 300 pounds.

Regular tap water is run into the machines that freeze the ice from the bottom up, says Corbin. A pump continually circulates any unfrozen water, keeping any impurities in motion so they can be siphoned off. The result is dense, clear ice.

“We also create colored blocks of ice by using a special coloring formula I have developed,” notes Covington. “But that's a trade secret.”

The ice block-making machines produce two blocks of ice every three to four days.

The ice blocks are removed from the machines with a special hoist and placed on pallets in a 1,000-square-foot freezer, which was purchased used. The freezer is maintained at a temperature of 25°F.

Finished sculptures also are stored here along with Cal Ice's products. Other than ice blocks, Cal Ice buys all its ice.

Design elements

Covington uses metal tongs to grab the 300-pound ice blocks from the freezer and pull them to his workspace, an open area within the building. “I don't like to work in a freezer,” he says. “Ice blocks stay cold enough that they don't melt much.”

By working in the open, cleanup is easier because ice cuttings, shaving melt, and water runs into the drains built into the sloped floor.

For the more complicated sculptures, Covington designs them on paper. He says he doesn't need to do this for the simpler carvings.

Unlike a lot of ice sculptors, Covington doesn't use a template or computerized router to create his designs. “Once I visualize the design in my mind or work it out on paper, I sculpt it by eye.”

The tools of his trade are electric chain saws with very sharp blades, routers, grinders, chisels, picks, and special ice working implements.

Larger sculptures require several blocks of ice. To attach them together, Covington uses a technique known as grafting. An ice block is laid on its side. A long aluminum plate is heated to a high temperature and placed on top of the ice block to sear it.

The plate is removed and another ice block is placed on top. The two pieces are immediately moved into the freezer where they freeze together. The seam is hardly noticeable.

“No more than two ice blocks are joined together at a time,” says Covington. “More than 600 pounds is just too heavy to handle.”

For ice sculptures that require many blocks of ice, the blocks are carved, stored, transported, and assembled on-site.

A simple one-block sculpture can take about an hour to fashion and costs around $250. The more complicated the sculpture, obviously, the more time required to form it, and the higher the price tag.

Careful handling

To transport ice sculptures, LA Ice Art contracts with Cal Ice for trucks, drivers, and helpers.

Cal Ice's fleet is comprised of three low cab forward trucks: a 2000 GMC W3500, 2001 Isuzu NQR, and 2004 Mitsubishi Fuso FE125. All have 16-foot refrigerated van bodies manufactured by General Truck Body Company of Los Angeles.

The GMC and Isuzu have Carrier Transicold refrigeration units. The body on the Mitsubishi Fuso uses a Thermo King reefer unit.

All three trucks, purchased used, are powered by a turbocharged diesel engine backed to an automatic transmission. Both the Isuzu and Mitsubishi Fuso have a 2,000-pound capacity fold-under Interlift rear liftgate with a 42-inch-by-80-inch platform.

“The Interlifts were a little more expensive,” Corbin says, “but they have been worth every penny because of their long-lasting reliability. I'm planning to add one to my GMC to replace its rear step bumper.”

Ice sculptures are loaded into the trucks in one of two ways, depending on the piece and where it is being delivered.

The sculptures are placed on pallets and moved by Cal Ice's forklift and either set into a truck, or the sculpture itself is manhandled off the pallet and set onto a furniture pad laid on the truck's floor. If on a pallet, a pallet jack is used to situate the pieces for transport. Otherwise, the sculptures are dragged on the pad to their traveling positions.

“Load bars can't be used to keep ice sculptures in place, as they can damage a piece during transport,” says Covington. “Instead, furniture pads - the number one tool for safe ice sculpture delivery - are packed around the sculpture to keep it in place.”

“My drivers are particularly cautious when moving ice sculptures,” Corbin adds.

At the delivery location, an available forklift unloads the pieces and moves them to their display location. Otherwise, the truck's Interlift liftgate is used to lower the sculptures, which are then moved by hand onto specially-designed handtrucks or onto cargo carts for transport. For the one truck without a liftgate, ice sculptures are unloaded by hand.

For the larger pieces, ice wranglers - contract labor experienced in handling ice blocks and ice sculptures - are hired to assist in getting the pieces moved and set up.

Ice sculptures will last anywhere from eight to 10 hours, before they start looking bad, says Covington.

Traffic woes

“With all the traffic congestion in the LA area, low cab forward trucks work best,” Corbin says. “They give my drivers good visibility and are very maneuverable.”

He and Covington concur that a big headache with transporting fragile ice sculptures and delivering emergency ice is dealing with the traffic, “which seems to be bad all the time nowadays,” says Covington.

“My trucks can't afford to get stuck in traffic,” says Corbin. “When businesses are out of ice, they need it immediately. Ice sculptures need to be delivered no later than an hour before an event to allow time to get them to where they need to be and assembled.”

Traffic has become so troublesome that Corbin is contemplating adding a fourth truck. He also is considering using a GPS tracking system, and is looking into wireless real-time vehicle tracking systems from Teletrac.

“I keep my trucks well-maintained because I can't afford breakdowns in my business,” Corbin says.

Expansion plans

“Our businesses have grown considerably over the past couple of years to the point that we've outgrown our current facility and our ice-making capability,” says Covington. “Ralph and I are working on plans to develop a large state-of-the-art ice-making and freezer facility that will be solar powered.”

Covington also is looking forward to continuing to impress people with his ice-carved creations. “If you can think it up, I can form it in ice,” he says. “And I can get it moved safely,” adds Corbin.

“The challenging jobs are always the most exciting, and no challenge has been too difficult — so far,” Covington remarks. “When I find the time, I'd like to do an ice sculpture of a 15-foot Trojan horse. Come to think of it, it would be great fun to sculpt a big rig in ice.”

About the Author

David Kolman

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