My brothers and I thought my father invented the concept of the backyard ice skating rink. The first we heard of it was one night when he went outdoors in Chicago’s sub-zero weather to spray a thin layer of water onto a plastic tarp he’d stretched over a low wooden frame. Seemed like a crazy idea. But my father was like that. He had hobbies that became obsessions that grew into lifestyles–remind me to tell you sometime about his stamp collection, which sent all of us to college–and we were not surprised to wake up one morning to see a Zamboni-quality layer of ice sparkling beneath a pitiless winter sun.
My father’s ice rinks became the hit of a neighborhood where families shared Black Hawks season tickets and carpooling duties to kids’ hockey tournaments. Over the years as he refined his ice-making techniques and conscripted my three brothers to do hose duty, the only casualties were my mother (an uncertain skater who ended up with stitches) and Peter the pet rabbit (who died from eating the bath towel that shielded his cage from icy blasts of wind as kids tromped through the back door).
Nowadays you can buy backyard ice rink kits and supplies from dozens of outfits such as Iron Sleek (which sells ice rink “systems”) and Nice Rink, or you can save money and follow step-by-step DIY instructions from such sites as Instructables and Popular Mechanics (which promises that you can build a backyard ice rink “with little more than 175 feet of lumber, 25 metal stakes, and a 50-by-100-foot plastic liner”). But the principles remain the same as in the 1970s, when my dad staked the yard to determine its slope–my grandfather, a mechanical engineer, helped him with that part–and then winged the rest of it.
Is a backyard ice skating rink the right winter project for you? Read on to find out:
Pick Your Spot
A backyard ice skating rink is a project in climates where temperatures dip to 20 degrees or below–and stay there–in winter. In warmer regions, ice can turn to slush, which is no fun for anyone.
Choose a flat location for your ice rink, near a water source if possible (our hose stretched from its spigot all the way to the center of the ice).
Determine the Slope
No backyard is perfectly flat. Seriously, don’t skip this step: stake the four corners of the rink and then eyeball the stakes to determine which one is at the highest elevation. Tie twine around that stake at the height of the top of the ice surface (at least six inches from the ground). Then run the twine to the other stakes and tie it at a level height. You will see immediately the variation in height. (You will be filling the rink to the height of the twine at each of the four corners.)
For more tips about how to determine your yard’s elevation, see Backyard Hockey.
Supplies and Materials
Above: Photograph via Nice Rink.
The main materials you need to build a backyard ice skating rink are boards to form a perimeter to contain the water (pressure-treated plywood or 2-by-12 lengths of lumber will work), brackets to brace the boards to keep water from pushing them out of place, and a waterproof liner (preferably clear-colored or white) for the bottom of the rink. For components, you can go to a hardware store or buy specialty supplies online from companies such as NiceRink.
Build the Frame
Above: Photograph via Iron Sleek, which designs and sells outdoor ice rinks and sport court enclosures.
Shore up the rink’s low retaining wall with strong brackets to prevent water, as it freezes and expands, from pushing the frame out of shape. On a cold day (it’s best if temperatures are in the 20s and go even lower at night), unroll the liner, smooth it flat and drape it loosely over the boards (water will take up the slack as it freezes).
There are at least two schools of thought on how to fill the frame with water. My father’s technique was to fill our ice rinks in layers, standing in the dark with a hose every night for several nights. He waited 24 hours between layers to ensure that the previous night’s water was frozen solid. After four or five nights of adding water he tested it by walking on the frozen surface to see if it would hold his weight without cracking.
Another method is to fill the rink all at once. “Don’t try to fill in layers because you could jeopardize your liner. If you put down one inch of ice first, then try to fill again, the new water will bore a hole in your ice and fill from the bottom up. This will push up that first layer of ice, which could damage your liner. Avoid this by filling all at once,” says blogger Joe Proulx of Backyard Hockey.
Above: Photograph by Erin Boyle
To keep a rink in shape all winter, groom it a the end of every day of skating. Sweep the ice with a broom and then add another thin layer of water to smooth out the surface. You can do this with a hose, or you can have your children do it with a hose, or you can purchase a tool like the Nice Ice Backyard Ice Rink Resurfacer ($179.95 from X Hockey Products), which applies a thin, controlled layer of water evenly to the ice surface.
Note: To avoid damaging the lawn beneath, take down the rink as soon as water starts to melt in spring. Most experts recommend draining with a pump or a siphon.