Sculpting Ice Is A Delicate Pursuit Even after 30 Years of Practice

By Seth Daniel

Some might think working with glass is delicate business, but those folks haven’t tried carving ice.

For the past 30 years, Steve Rose and his company, Ice Effects, have provided the ice sculptures for First Night – with this year’s entries dazzling everyone with a maritime theme that included Jaws, the USS Constitution, Captain Nemo and the historic Boston Light.

But getting those slick looking pieces of ice together is tricky business.

“It’s incredibly heavy, first of all,” said Rose last week as he and his son, Nick Rose, and his apprentice, Noah Burt, chiseled out the giant NBC Boston sculpture at the foot of the main First Night stage in Copley Square. “It’s often compared to sand sculpting, but it’s very different. With sand you start with a big block and just carve by subtraction, cutting away to create the sculpture. We did that with the fishermen and Jaws this year. You start with a big block of ice and carve out the sculpture. The NBC sculpture is an example of block building. We have several pieces of ice we put together and then freeze together as one unit. The NBC piece is made up alone of 20, 300 pound blocks of ice fused together and carved.”

Rose, of Rockland, has continued the icy First Night magic for 30 years, and said he only missed on year because of a skiing accident.

Burt said he got involved first as helper and then learned the tricks of the trade. He works at it full time with the Rose family now, with some other seasonal work in the summer. He has been doing First Night sculptures for 10 years now.

“The best advice is don’t screw up,” he said. “You have one shot with ice. If something breaks with sand or wood sculpting, I imagine you can repair it. With ice, you want it to have that clean glass look. If something breaks, you’ll see a seam and that ruins the glassy effect. It takes a steady hand and a sharp eye. I have practices sometimes on dense styrofoam, but you have to just go work at it and learn how to use the tools the right way.”

Said Nick Rose, “Also, when you’re freezing the blocks, air needs to glow through the water as it freezes or you’ll get bubbles and everyone will see that.”

The tools of the trade are unique – lots of blunt instruments, natural – and a chain saw. The saw is used mostly to cut pieces of ice, but also to clear out seams so that water can be used to fill the gaps in the block building technique.

Another key piece of equipment is a plane, which they use to make sure surfaces are level by scraping away the surface of the ice.

Burt said he sees the chisels as very important to his work, as they let him fine tune the sculptures.

“The most important tools for me are the assortment of chisels,” he said. “We use wood working tools like with anything else, but we use them in a much different way.”

For Steve Rose, a key tool in the big pieces are bottles of water.

“The water is like glue,” he said. “It sticks it all together. It’s very tricky though and it’s a pain, but you need it. If you pour it on and it’s too cold, it will crack. If it’s too warm, it will just melt the ice. You have to be extremely careful with it, but you have to have it.”

Burt said carving ice was just a natural progression for his interest in art.

“I’ve always been interested in artistic things,” he said. “Steve needed help with the business and I wanted to help him out. It’s a ‘cool’ job.”

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