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Ice sculpting is big business worldwide — and this tiny Ont. town is a major player

Ice sculptures are big business, a luxury item coveted worldwide, and the tiny town of Hensall, Ont., plays a crucial part in that.

Hensall, Ont., home to one of the largest ice making and ice sculpture producers in the world

Carver Danielle O'Rourke spends her day chain sawing, grinding and chiselling away at ice to make sculptures. She works at Iceculture in Hensall, Ont., one of the larger ice making and sculpting operations in the world. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

Punk music blasts as Danielle O'Rourke wields her chain saw, chipping and cutting away at a larger-than-life deer. She's printed out some photos of deer for reference and has even brought a moose toy for added inspiration.

But getting the deer just perfect can be a tricky task — it looms over her, weighing about 3,000 pounds and made out of very thick ice. She's bundled up in snow pants and long johns because her workspace is a freezer that's -8 degrees C.

"It's actually harder than you think," she said on a sculpting break. "There's no air pockets (in the ice) so it's more dense."

Ice sculptures like the one O'Rourke is carving are big business, a luxury item coveted worldwide — and her employer plays a big part in that. She's an ice carver with Iceculture, an ice-making facility in tiny Hensall, Ont., about an hour northwest of London.

The town is home to just 1,000 people but the business is among the largest ice making and ice sculpture producers in the world.

Art canvasses sit frozen in blocks of ice inside of Iceculture. The art is part of a frozen art festival taking place in Kingston, Ont., next year. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

Rebecca Luscombe just started working at Iceculture and helps coordinate the festivals they take part at.

"I'll tell you the truth, I was shocked by how many people want ice," she says. "We have a ton of demand. We have more demand than we can keep up with."

Ice sales reflect 'wealth'

Ice may be ephemeral but buyers are willing to pay big money for it; Iceculture says they've sold ice worth as much as $100,000.

Exactly who is buying says a lot. Iceculture has shipped their ice creations all over Europe, the United Arab Emirates, Thailand and India. In many of these places, ice is a novelty.

Adam Steffler used to show up to Iceculture after school to help make ice blocks. Now he does it for a living. 'You got to get used to the cold pretty quick. You spend a lot of time in cold environments.' (Haydn Watters/CBC)

Andreas Schotter teaches international business at Western's Ivey Business School.

"It indeed does reflect some form of wealth," he said. "That you are able to have something like that, for example, in the desert or climates that are warmer."

How to make an ice sculpture

  • You need ice blocks. Iceculture makes them in industrial freezers.
  • Each block weighs about 300 pounds and takes about four days to make.
  • They are removed from freezers using a small crane pulley system.
  • Blocks can then be put together and shaped by machine or by hand. Hand tools used include chain saws, grinders and hand chisels.

Schotter said it is a good example of companies successfully leveraging Canada's image internationally. Iceculture has shipped massive ice lounges, ice slides, ice castles, even a life-sized elephant, made up of 100 ice blocks.

"That was just challenging because it was so big and I'm so little," says O'Rourke.

O'Rourke saws away at an ice deer. If she makes a mistake and carves too much, there are ways to fix it. 'If something falls off, we can stick it on sometimes if it’s a good break or just replace the block.' (Haydn Watters/CBC)

Finished sculptures are sent via refrigerated trucks and container ships. For larger projects, staff will escort the ice, meeting it at its destination and helping assemble. 

Sometimes that can be a bit of a logistical nightmare.

One of Iceculture's large ice shipments to Dubai once got caught up in a shipping strike and sat in the container ship for six weeks. They were worried there would be a "tsunami" of melted water when they opened up the container. Miraculously, the ice held.

Sculptures have 'no comparison'

When the economy falters, ice sculptures are one of the first things to go. Iceculture was hit hard by the 2008 recession and have had to scale back on international orders in recent years because of transport costs.

Right now, they say the demand is still there though. They've got a back log through the fall and winter.

Rebecca Luscombe coordinates all of the festivals Iceculture takes part in. With temperatures dipping, the industry is moving into its busy season, which extends until March. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

Suguru Kanbayashi has been sculpting ice since he was 13 or 14 years old. He picked it up from his dad in the 80s and continues to preserve his "father's legacy."

He used to compete regularly and travel the world. He's now head of the Canadian Ice Carvers Society in Ottawa, which helps coordinates the ice sculptures at the city's Winterlude.

Machines help carve minute details into the ice. Technology has helped the industry evolve and create more elaborate designs. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

He admits ice sculptures are a luxury but he also knows why they persist.

"It's something that sets me apart from other people. It's a conversation topic," he says. "Ice carving is a form of art that really has no comparison toward any other medium."

About the Author

Haydn Watters is a roving reporter for Ontario, primarily serving the province's local radio shows. He has worked for CBC News and CBC Radio in Halifax, Yellowknife, Ottawa and Toronto, with stints at the politics bureau and the entertainment unit. He also ran an experimental one-person pop-up bureau for the CBC in Barrie, Ont.

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