January 2019

Every winter this town common in Norwich, Vermont is transformed into a skating rink with the addition of a plastic liner and water.


In the north it's easy to take ice for granted. Water puddles one minute, hardens like rock the next. Happens every winter. Some folks accept the water-to-ice mutation with a shiver and wish for early spring. Others embrace the freezer season and grab a pair of skates for hockey, figure, nordic, or free ranging. Look for a skating lake or pond nearby but make sure the ice is thick enough for safe skating: 4" at least. More for snowmobiles, trucks, etc. 

(From the Minnesota DNR:  Your safety is your responsibility. Check ice thickness at least every 150 feet. Temperature, snow cover, currents, springs and rough fish all affect the relative safety of ice. Ice is seldom the same thickness over a single body of water; it can be two feet thick in one place and one inch thick a few yards away.)

For pond and lake skaters, prepare to do some snow shoveling unless you get lucky with a spell of thick natural black ice. And check around, there may be folks maintaining skating ice nearby, who'd welcome your help.

If you're a pond owner, there's your backyard rink. But it'll take some doing. Here are some tips on becoming a rink meister.

If you're fortunate, early ice will freeze thick enough to skate on without a snowfall  to prevent the pleasures of skating on black ice. Skating on ice you can see through to the pond bottom, with leaves and air bubbles frozen in the ice, and fish below, is one of the thrills of free range skating. But after the snow arrives, you'll need to shovel or snowblow to maintain a smooth surface. (Many shovelers make light the work!) Bad weather like rain, sleet, wet snow, or not keeping up with maintenance, can leave a rough surface that needs clearing and flooding to renew skatable ice.

Thawing and refreezing can also create bad ice. Snow melt or runoff from an upslope shore can cover the ice and leave bumpy surfaces when refrozen. Water pooling on the ice can freeze and create shell ice to trip up skaters. Flooding may be necessary. 

Got the skating bug, but no pond? All you need is a level lawn or field, or paved driveway, plus some water and north country cold to create your own rink. It takes some planning, like figuring rink size for starters. How big will depend on terrain available, and how big you aim for. 

I've seen small rinks about 30' square, up to hockey size, as much as 200' x 85'. Small rinks are easiest to build, and will work fine for beginners and figure skaters. You might want to start small to get a feel for the work and expense involved and enlarge from there if so inclined.

To begin you'll need flat minimum-slope terrain. Many rinks use 2" x 10" perimeter boards to frame the rink. To keep the water from sloshing over the sides, the land can't slope more than 10" over the rink length. Boards are usually connected by smaller boards or braces nailed or screwed at the joints. Screws or bolts allow for easier dismantling at the end of the season. Angle brackets can help for the corners, with bracing along the sides to strengthen the boards against the water weight.

After assembling the rink border you have a choice about base: natural ice or plastic.

A natural base will start with either a foundation of snow, or water flooded in layers, or both. Snow is often packed (helpers with snowshoes are good) and then water added by flooding or spraying.

Building up a solid smooth ice sheet on a field or snow base is an art you'll have to perfect with time. Ground and air temperature will play a big part in success. 

You'll want air temperatures of 20F or less when it comes to flooding or spraying. A plastic liner can create an instant base. Plastic allows you to skip the challenges of snow/water-base building, and simply pump water into the sealed pool. PVC, poly, and other types of liners can be used, in varying thicknesses. The thicker the plastic, the less the chance for punctures. But thicker means heavier, so factor in labor. A rink liner in my town is about 12 mil and needs 5-6 people to lift and install. The liner wants to lay on a smooth surface (lawn, tennis court, etc.) with no sharp stones to poke holes as the water weighs down. Once the liner is installed, and temperatures are 20F or colder, the rink is flooded. If leaks are discovered, they can often be repaired with special tape.

After the ice is established, ongoing maintenance will be needed to clear off new snow, slush, etc. Fresh layers of ice often need to be sprayed or flooded on the ice after a cleanup. The idea is to create smooth ice, rather than a surface bumpy with frozen snow, slush, rain, etc.

Water requirements will vary depending on the size of the rink, whether the base is natural or plastic, and how much water is used for resurfacing. Keep in mind that it takes 7.48 gallons to fill a square foot one foot deep. If you fill your rink to about 6" that's 3.75 gallons per square foot. To fill a 40' x 40' rink, you'll need 6000 gallons. That's for a liner rink; building up a base on natural ground will probably need more. I know one rink that's pump-flooded from a nearby stream, to avoid stressing the owner's well.

If building and maintaining a rink sounds like big work, well, it is. One shortcut is to buy a prefab rink like EZ Ice Rinks which supplies the parts and liner. But homemade or kit, the advantages of a lawn rink are also big. You get the advantages of a pond without the expenses and legalities of a big excavation job. Or traveling to a distant pond or commercial rink. And on 6" of solid ice you can relax about drowning dangers. Then come spring you get your lawn back. With a backyard rink, skating on thin ice is the way to go.


Read More Pondologies

Topics vary from month to month and provide great information when researching where you want to build a pond, and how to plan construction; 

techniques to repair ponds and maintain good water quality. Other areas of interest include pond uses for everything from swimming to fish stocking, skating, garden irrigation, predator control, beach building, fire protection, wildlife attraction, and much more.