Ice, Ice Baby!

Here at our super, top-secret parks and recreation test facility (otherwise known as my back yard) we’ve been working to perfect our temporary ice rink construction techniques. This four-year project -- engineered by me and constructed with the help of my nine-year-old son, seven-year-old daughter, five-year-old daughter and occasional help from my dad and father-in-law -- has featured virtually no logical thought and speed has always taken priority over success. So, I guess you’re warned.

That being said, I’m happy to report that yes, Virginia, you can build a great temporary ice rink in Ohio. Here are my findings and step-by-step instructions should you be crazy enough to follow my advice.

Step 1 – Find a Level Spot

In my experience, this has been the most challenging part of the ice rink process. Our first test site (my former backyard) offered a fairly level space running horizontally along my house – which meant stray pucks were less likely to hit my siding (and more likely to hit my neighbor’s shed).

Our current site is basically the side of a hill. Well, actually it’s a small slope designed to drain water away from my house and into the retention basin along the back property line. The first two seasons we used this site, I tried to make due with the land as it was. I ended up with four inches of water in the shallow end and over 30 inches of water in the deep end. Obviously, this is not optimal. It forces you to fight nature – and, in this battle, nature always wins. No matter how much work you put into bracing the walls in the deep end, the expanding ice sheet is just too strong and the walls bend, bow and threaten to collapse.

So, this year, we leveled our chosen spot during the fall allowing for four inches of water in the shallow end of our rink and only 12 inches of water in the deep end. We needed to keep the surface sloped for drainage purposes.

I’m assuming, if you want to build a temporary ice rink in your community this won’t be as big of a challenge.

Points to consider:

1. The flatter the better. (If you don’t have a flat area, then make one. Trust me, you’ll be much happier in the long run.)

2. Make sure it is near a water source. You’ll need to fill the rink initially and resurface it regularly when its being used. (More on this later).

3. Grassy area or unused basketball or tennis court? Either one works fine, but the method I use (custom step stakes and four foot plywood walls – so hockey pucks and out-of-control kids and parents have a barrier) is designed for grassy areas.

4. The bigger the better. Our rink is 25 feet wide by 45 feet long and is quickly clogged with only six kids skating.

5. Remember, you have to let the water loose in the spring, so pay attention to where the water will drain when you take the rink down. (Don’t ask me or my neighbor’s how I know this.)

6. Orient the rink so stray pucks (if you’re allowing hockey to be played) won’t hit passing cars, nearby buildings, old ladies out for a stroll, etc.

7. Parking. Keep in mind you will need parking nearby.

8. Visibility. Since this is a seasonal venture patrons might not know it exists. The more visible the location the more it is likely to get used. For example, our city built a nice temporary rink last winter. The rink was near plenty of parking on an old basketball court next to a major road. The only thing missing was a big sign –so that’s something to consider as well.

Step 2 – Install the Walls

Once you have your site picked out and leveled, you need to install your walls. I’ve learned that you’ll need to do this before the ground freezes which is generally before Thanksgiving here in Ohio and you’ll want at least two feet of wall (more is better) above the water line to contain pucks and skaters. For me, that meant four-foot walls.

In the past, I’ve used ½ inch, pressure treated plywood to build my walls. But, going forward, I’m using the new thermo-formed plastic boards made by NiceRink ( because they make it easier to build radius (rounded) corners, they’re lighter and store easier than big sheets of plywood.

In fact, I now use the complete NiceRink system for my rink. It includes wall brackets, thermo-formed plastic boards (walls), a specially designed liner (puncture resistant and grass friendly), bumper caps for the tops of my walls and kick plates for the liner.

There are a few temporary ice rink suppliers out there (see sidebar), but the one I’m most familiar with because I use their stuff is NiceRink.

So, that being said, here are the steps to installing the walls with my system:

1. Decide if you’re going to have rounded corners or square corners. Rounded corners are a little harder to build, but really maximize your skating space and are great for hockey games. They also allow you to use a little less water.

2. Mark the corners of your rink with stakes and run a string between them. Make sure your corners are square by measuring the diagonal following this formula: (insert formula)

3. Put a step stake in every four-feet (see picture) along the line of your walls

4. Slide the plywood or poly walls into the step stakes

5. Screw the step stake brackets to the plywood or poly wall so the wind won’t knock them over. (They’re a little unstable until you fill with water).

One additional step I use with my plywood walls. I screw a two by four across each of the seams of the walls (see picture) and I caulk the seams so when the water freezes and pushes out (places pressure on the walls – filling all the little gaps in the wood) it doesn’t crack the liner. Jim at NiceRink says this is overkill.

6. Make sure the boards are firmly touching the ground. If, because of any variations in the terrain, you have space under the boards, fill them with dirt from the inside of the rink. I’ve had cases where I didn’t fill these spaces and the water forced the liner out under the boards in the middle of the winter creating a big bubble and scaring the !@#$% out of me. (I’ve never had one pop.)

7. Let the stakes and walls freeze into the ground

Step 3 – Install the Liner and Fill with Water

Believe it or not, the hard work is done. Once your walls are in, you simply need to roll out the liner, tuck it into place and fill it with water. The liner I use is the Nice Rink 1 material (a triple laminated, pre-stressed, high-density, six mil polyethylene sheet that Nice Rink says is over 200 percent more puncture resistant then regular six mil plastic). For parks and recreation applications, they recommend their NiceRink 3 which features added reinforcing filaments within the body of the material to prevent further tearing or zippering.

Whatever liner you choose from whatever supplier, here’s how I recommend you install it:

1. Make sure the weather forecast calls for a nice cold snap (25 degrees or lower for three or more days). The colder the temperature, the faster the freeze, the thicker the ice, the sooner you’re enjoying the fruits of your labor.

2. Rake the area where the rink is going to be placed to remove any debris or sharp objects (like screws you dropped during wall construction). Basically, remove anything that will puncture the liner.

3. Roll the liner down the middle of the rink. Make sure to overhang it on both ends.

4. With a helper, unfold the liner so it covers the walls of the rink all the way around.

5. Start on one end with your helper and, together, install the yellow bumper caps around the rink

6. Place weights in strategic areas such as corners and in the middle of the liner (or at least as far as you can reach from the wall) as you install the bumper caps to hold it down until the water is in place. (I actually use soft edged free weights, but anything heavy and not sharp will work. Jim sells some weights just for this purpose.)

7. Turn the hose on (or invite the fire department to do it for you) and remove the weights as the water covers them

8. After the rink is full, install the kick plates (liner guards) just above the water line by screwing the plastic plates in place (see picture). These make for great hockey games and protect your liner from sharp skate and shovel edges at its most vulnerable point – the water line.

A couple of words of caution:

1. If it is windy DO NOT INSTALL THE LINER! It will act as a big kite and will end up shredded in your hands. I know this because I didn’t follow this instruction two years ago and ended up buying two liners within two weeks.

2. Try not to walk on the liner during installation – this is only asking for trouble. Obviously, even the smallest hole in your liner means disaster.

3. If the fire department is not filling up your pool (I mean ice rink), be prepared for the hose to run for 24-48 hours depending on how big and deep your rink is. Make sure there’s at least four inches of water in the shallowest part. By the way, this is when you’ll truly find out how sloped your site is. Good luck!

4. Depending on the depth of your rink (hopefully no more then four to six inches) you may want to consider fencing it in until it’s frozen and safe. This is also something to consider during the freeze and thaw cycle we’ve been having the last few winters.

Step 4 – Enjoy!

If you’re like me, once the rink is filled you’ll be constantly monitoring the Weather Channel and to see when this thing is going to freeze and when you can get on it. Hopefully, you’ll have ice a few days after you let the water loose.

Of course, you’re work is never really done. Once the rink is frozen and the kids, parents and grandparents are skating away the ice will need to be worked and re-worked. Here’s how I keep my ice in great skating shape:

1. After every skating session I scrape and shovel the surface with good, old fashioned, metal-edged snow shovel. (This is when you’ll actually hate those high walls).

2. Then, I re-surface the rink with a re-surfacer I purchased from the folks at NiceRink. The re-surfacer hooks up to a standard hose and does a great job smoothing and hardening the ice. Be careful not to put too much water down. A thin layer works best.

3. You’ll notice the ice getting stronger, harder and faster after several re-surfacing sessions. If the weather holds (and you don’t have a big thaw and have to start all over) by the end of your first week on the ice you will have awesome ice.

Step 5 – Undo All Your Hard Work

When the first spring thaw arrives, you’ll know its time to take your rink down and, quite frankly, the sooner the better. If you take your rink down quickly the grass underneath will not be hurt. However, if you wait too long – you could be investing in some more grass seed. Again, here’s how I do it:

1. Find the deepest end of your rink

2. Prepare to get wet

3. Unscrew the kick plates from the deep end

4. Unscrew the plywood or poly sides from the step stakes

5. Gently lift the boards a few inches to create space underneath

6. Push the liner down and force it under the boards

7. Watch the water rush to, hopefully, a logical drainage area

8. After the water is released, uninstall all the kick plates and bumper guards

9. Flip the liner over and wash off the dirty side

10. Lay it in the sun to dry

11. Uninstall the boards and stakes and store them in a safe place

12. After the liner is dry, place some Bounce fabric sheets in the liner (and lay them in and around wherever you store the liner) because MICE really don’t like them, roll the liner up and store it

Now, you really are done. Wasn’t that easy? Maybe you should just chuck it and build an indoor facility instead.