For the past few winter seasons, my family has enjoyed our very own backyard ice rink. It’s one way to fight off cabin fever.
There are several good reasons to try do-it-yourself rink building: It’s cheap, it’s relatively easy, and it’s a great way to get the entire family (and often friends and neighbors) together for outdoor fun. A backyard ice rink is a great motivator for newbie skaters too. My daughter and I both could barely stand up on a pair of blades when we built our first rink, but with unlimited ice time and no crowds to intimidate us, our confidence quickly grew.
My rinks have been small; novices and young children will find an area of just 250 to 300 square feet fine while learning to master the basics. Confident skaters will need much more space to really enjoy. While bigger is better, larger rinks require more work in preparation and maintenance. If you have the yard for it along with the muscle to build and maintain it, a larger ice surface will keep more people interested for a longer period of time.
Whatever the size, backyard ice rink building basics are the same. In my experience, it takes a couple of hours of planning in the fall, with my framing done in an afternoon.
Building the frame for the rink before the temperatures and snow fall is much easier than battling the elements later. Sighting a relatively flat area of the yard is key. Nearly all will have some grade to contend with, usually sloping away from the house to help runoff. Find the area with the flattest portion that is big enough for the rink you have in mind. Remember to consider the distance your garden hose will have to reach when it comes time to fill your rink.
When considering size, think about the liner you will be using to hold the water in your rink before it freezes. There are commercial liners available from online retailers and a few stores. Like pool liners, they can be quite expensive, though they will often last several seasons if taken care of. If you’re cheap (like me), thick plastic or large weather-proof tarps work fine. Just be sure to buy whatever you’re going to use for a liner first, as this dictates the rest of the building process. When sizing a liner, remember to factor in two feet more than what you intend to build; if you want a 20- by 30-foot ice surface, you’ll need a liner that is at least 22 by 32 feet.
Building a frame for the rink is the next step. Essentially what you’re doing is making a large shallow pool. You’ll need 2-by-6 lumber board (2-by-10 if you have a larger slope). Total up the number of boards you’ll need and head for the lumber center. Most centers sell them in 8-, 10- or 12-foot lengths. A rink that will be 20 by 30, for example, would need 10 ten-footers. After you get the lumber home, set up the pieces end to end where you intend to build your rink.
Resist the urge to start nailing or screwing pieces together at this point; sight your frame, making sure the pitch of the yard isn’t going to cause 10 inches of ice on the deep end and half an inch in the shallows. Too little ice surface will crack and melt easily, and render your hard work useless after skates puncture the liner underneath.
When you’re satisfied the boards are in the right place, go ahead and fasten them together. If you are confident the level of water you’ll need at the deepest end of the rink won’t exceed six or seven inches, you should be able to simply nail the boards together with four inch common building nails. For a more secure joint, it’s best to use screws. If you intend to reuse your frame next year, screws or bolts are a must.
If you do have a “deep end” that exceeds six or seven inches, you may need to reinforce the boards with braces to keep things square and secure. A few triangular brackets made from one by two inch strapping screwed to the board will ensure things stay structurally sound.
It’s a good idea to check how your liner will fit over the frame, but keep in mind you DON’T want to leave it down until you are ready to fill and freeze. Keep an eye on the forecast; when two or three days of freezing temperatures and dry weather are predicted, go ahead and spread the liner over the frame. You can secure it by simply tucking it under the boards.
As the rink is being filled, watch to be sure the liner is not being stretched. Relieve any stress by pulling some of the liner out from where you tucked it in. This is why your liner should always be bigger than your frame. Be patient; it can take several hours to flood a rink, especially a larger set-up. Keep an eye on it and watch for any leaks or problems with the frame. If you rely on a well for your home’s water supply, ensure that your system can handle the load. You may need to fill your rink a little at a time over several days; if you go that route, be sure to let each layer freeze completely before adding more water. Most rinks can be filled all at once and frozen over in a night or two of winter temps.
After the initial freeze, you’ll have beautiful crystal clear ice; over time (and with snow, sleet and thaws) the ice will cloud; don’t worry about it. You can keep the surface relatively smooth by brushing it with a broom after each use and shoveling snow off before any hard freezes.
Always be sure to supervise young children near your rink — treat it just as you would a swimming pool. Test the surface each time before letting them skate.
Building a back yard ice rink is a fun, inexpensive and relatively simple way to keep the family enjoying the outdoors in the middle of winter. Add a fire pit, a spotlight and some hot coco and your yard may be the best place to be — even in deepest winter.
Rick Ganley is the host of Morning Edition on NHPR.