How to build a backyard ice rink
A Michigan man brought his neighbors together with a cold-weather project to brighten the winter months. See how he did it.
More than 175 linear feet of lumber, 25 metal stakes and a 50-by-100-foot plastic liner were used to build this backyard ice rink. // © Popular Mechanics
John, my 7-year-old son, and I crisscross our backyard, pacing the boundaries of our would-be do-it-yourself skating rink. It's late October, too soon to be thinking about ice. But we've endured a few winters here in Ann Arbor, Mich. — frigid, soul-sucking winters — so we're plotting a way to brighten up the dark months. As the day fades into twilight, we kick paths into the fallen leaves, defining the rink's edges. An ambitious kid who's towheaded like his mom, John skirts the far reaches of the yard.
My wife, MaryLinda, emerges from the house, holding our other son, Sam, 1; our daughter, Abby, 5, trails behind. "Wow, that's going to be a huge rink," MaryLinda says. Abby frolics in the leaves, obliterating John's and my work. John throws up his hands, yelling, "Aaaah-beee!" It's still just a notion, but the rink is already doing its job. (Bing: Find more tips for building a backyard ice rink)
Before MaryLinda and I had kids, I survived the cold months in Michigan with a garage project, like rebuilding a car. But now, holing up solo wouldn't cut it. The rink harked back to my childhood pond-hockey days and seemed like the perfect solution. I hoped it would get us all out of the house, while serving as a beacon for the neighbors, most of whom we still hardly knew after nine years.
But there was a problem: Our backyard slopes down about 3 feet over a 60-foot stretch from the back of the house. Any reasonably sized rink would need a stout retaining wall at least 2 feet high at the deep end. That would call for more water — and more construction — than I had in mind.
"Let's use the driveway," says John, an idea I consider until my wife asks where we'd park the cars.
"On the street, of course," John says.
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While preparing to tell John the many practical reasons his proposed solution won't work, my gaze wanders next door, into the Browns' backyard.
When Chris Brown, 48, and his family arrived, in 2005, they turned the rolling, wooded space into a soccer pitch, complete with full-size goals. In above-freezing weather, it was a great place for their two teenage sons to hone their considerable skills. But it went unused all winter, so ...
"Let's go talk to Chris," I say to John, and we amble over. Because no one in Chris's family skates, I mentally work up a spiel about why they need a rink in their yard. We say hello to Chris, and I start in with tales of my recreational hockey exploits, segueing into a sermon about the value of teaching our kids how to make the most out of winter's harsh reality. My coup de grâce is a quote from snowboard innovator Jake Burton, who said, "I tell my kids, 'Bring it!' Winter's just another thing to bring you down." In other words, when life gives you frigid temperatures, make ice.
"Fantastic!" Chris says. "Let's do it."
Startled by his enthusiasm, I warn that the rink might leave a mark when we dismantle it in the spring. Undaunted, Chris says, "Hey, man, we've got the space, let's use it."
Enlisting the troops
With my rudimentary rink drawings at hand, I poke around the Web for plans that might show me something I've overlooked. My sketches call for a plastic-lined, 40-foot-by-60-foot box made of 2-by-12s conjoined by sheet-metal tie plates and held upright by iron stakes. I'm proud of the rugged simplicity — until I see the NHL-worthy rinks built by other backyard DIYers. The only thing they lack is a Zamboni. But for a time-challenged father of three, I reason, rugged simplicity is the way to go.
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My plan relies on the field being basically flat, with the foot-wide planks accommodating any slope invisible to the eye. Knowing I'll need at least 3 inches of ice for a stable skating surface, I figure I'll have 9 inches of wiggle room. It all seems about right — but I wake up one night, terrified that my crude calculations will lead to disaster. I need a transit, a gradient-measuring device. I call Dave Ferguson, an architect friend. He drops by in early November, and we stake out a detailed grid, using his trusty transit.
Good move: The gradient of the rink location turns out to be a full 12 inches, so one end would be full to the brim and the other dry. We relocate the grid to an area with an 8-inch gradient. "That'll do," I think.
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But Dave isn't finished. Two days later he e-mails me a computer-generated drawing of an oval rink and a list of building materials. His plan is far more elegant than mine, with boards of varying widths to bring the ice flush with the border.
Dave's enthusiasm gets me thinking: If I ask enough people for help, I could Tom Sawyer the whole thing. But I also have a bigger idea in mind, another vestige of my youth. I grew up in New Jersey in the '70s. We lived on a dead-end street of modest, single-story homes. The Garden State's image has long suffered because of a foul, industrial corridor along the northernmost stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike, to say nothing of the stereotypes perpetuated by "The Sopranos" and — heaven save us — "Jersey Shore." That's not my New Jersey. In our neighborhood, a strong work ethic and a propensity to help one another prevailed. The dads joined forces to build decks, replace sinks and finish basements. In one epic project, they plumbed all the houses to a new sewer line.
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Ever since I moved to the reputedly friendly Midwest, I've been surprised not to find the neighborly spirit of my youth. Maybe, I decide, someone just needs to inject a little community spirit — someone with an ice rink to build. I pick a date when I think most people will be free — the day after Christmas — order the materials and spread the word.
Built to thrill
Boxing Day dawns at 15 degrees with the threat of light snow. As I gather my tools, I fret about who'll show up. I know I have enough hands to finish the setup in one day. In addition to Dave and Chris, another eager neighbor, Doug, even offers to split the $750 I spent on materials. But beyond us and our kids, who knows?
As I walk next door, I nearly drop my tools in awe. An army of adults and children — about two dozen in all — has gathered in the field. A few dogs have shown up, too. The neighbors are shaking hands, making introductions and stomping their feet in the cold. Chris, who's standing in the middle of the animated group, catches my eye, and mouths, "Holy cow!"
"So what should we do?" a voice of undetermined origin asks. I'm unprepared for this. I hastily suggest that someone build a fire near the driveway so we can all warm our hands. Two people peel off, and the rest stare at me expectantly.
I shift my gaze to Dave, passing the buck. During his 58 years, he's mastered many skills, and his focus on building the rink is laserlike. But in terms of our approach to projects, Dave and I are like Oscar and Felix in "The Odd Couple." I value speed over quality of craftsmanship. For the rink job, I just want ice; if the boards are uneven, so be it. Dave wants to build the rink with the precision of the Great Pyramid of Giza. At one point in our planning, I mention that I can't spare a whole week. He says, "Well, it has to be right." Through his architect eyes, I imagine, Dave sees a backyard masterpiece — and me as a slacker with a rusty hammer. Dave has a plan. In addition to prescribing specific locations for each plank — 2-by-6s on the uphill side, 2-by-12s at the bottom of the slope, and a combination of 2-by-8s and 2-by-10s along the sides — he wants to shape each board to conform to the ground's irregularities. This would remove any chance that the water-filled liner would bulge out and pop a leak. His technique also promises a uniform edge all the way around.