how ice sculptors make ice spheres and ice balls - ice sculpting secrets (2024)

  • September 26, 2007

how ice sculptors make ice spheres and ice balls - ice sculpting secrets (1)

a freshly pressed ice ball sits atop one of my ice block machines

updated 5/24/24 with a lot of stuff when restored to the site; currently debating how lazy to be about adding new info 😬

all about ice spheres and ice balls

This entry is a quick look at some of the ways you can ice spheres. First, check out the video from YouTube below. This method looks like an easy way to earn a trip to the hospital, but it’s impressive.

a bartender makes an ice ball with an ice pick. NOT a recommended technique!

the difference between ice spheres and ice balls

I’m going to start by making a quick distinction between ice spheres and ice balls. Ice spheres are sculpted spheres that are generally incorporated into an ice sculpture. Ice balls, on the other hand, are co*cktail ice, meaning that they’re the fancy spherical ice pieces that are intended for expensive bourbons and scotches. Ice balls melt slower and don’t dilute the drink as quickly.

I don’t spend much time on co*cktail ice. I don’t make co*cktail ice as part of my ice sculpting business and I don’t say a whole lot about it on this website. However, there is some overlap between ice sculptures and co*cktail ice. I will use ice balls in my ice sculptures on occasion. I don’t use them nearly as much as Max Zuleta of Art Below Zero does, but they certainly have their uses.

Most of the time, ice spheres are larger than ice balls. Ice spheres won’t usually fit in your drink glass, as least as far as the ones I’m talking about here.

the odd little nailbowl

In an earlier entry, we looked at the nailboard. Adapted from the standard nailboard, this “nailbowl” (below) is used to help make ice spheres by eliminating surface irregularities. The idea is that you sculpt an ice sphere to the point that it’s pretty close. Then you use this tool to further perfect the sphere’s roundness, just as you’d use a nailboard to perfect a surface’s flatness. Junichi Nakamura came up with this version and Aaron Costic has also demonstrated the usefulness of the tool.

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yes, I know there are no nails here, so nailbowl is a stupid name! 🙄 Want me to call it a screwbowl? That just sounds wrong 🤨 Anyway, “nailbowl” comes from the similarly inappropriate “nailboard,” which I didn’t come up with. But it sounds way better than “scratchy board,” which was another option and reminds me of cats.

specialized bits for cutting ice spheres and balls

The bits below, specialized for making small ice spheres and simply called sphere cutters, previously were available from the Ice Crafters website (But they aren’t anymore.) They were designed for use with a die grinder and produced by Ed Tillotson.

I don’t include these just to tease you. Lots of people have great ideas and are industrious and skilled enough to create innovative ice tools. This was one idea that evidently didn’t get enough traction. But that’s not to say the next version won’t be more successful.

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sphere cutters pic; image courtesy of

I have not used the bits above (or the ones below), but at the Olympic event in 2002, somewhat similar bits helped French carvers Michel Amann and Patrick Roger de Campagnolle secure second place and the silver medal. Their sculpture was titled “Hymn of Amphitrite,” and depicted a mermaid with feathery wings that also featured many precisely cut ice spheres.

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The sphere bit is attached to a drill and spins independently of 2 pins that are sunk into holes drilled in the ice and that keep the bit aligned. The carver cuts from one side of the ice to get half the sphere and then from the other to finish it.

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Michel Amann and Patrick Roger de Campagnolle also had a very interesting ice lathe for cutting ice spheres, which you can see in action above and waiting for action below.

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The photo below is from an event in Lulea, Sweden, and, as you can see, we (Erik Cantine and I) had several spheres to carve for the sculpture. Erik brought a specially made, portable lathe to make the ice spheres from block-shaped pieces of ice. Each sphere had a snowfilled design inside that was frozen in before the lathe was used. Erik’s lathe was lightweight enough to carry in a suitcase. Despite some minor difficulties, his portable lathe worked out great.

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the way I used to make ice spheres in competition

Finally, I sculpted several pieces in competition that would incorporate a small, nearly perfect ice sphere. With the help of Aaron Costic, I came up with a reasonably quick procedure for making the approximately 3-4” diameter spheres.

The spheres were incorporated into a couple of different designs over time, one a “merman” holding a pearl above his head and the other a mermaid diving for a pearl. The mermaid sculpture earned a gold medal at a Florida competition.

First, using a chainsaw, a cube with a slight larger than needed diameter is cut. Next, a narrow flat chisel is used to begin shaping the sphere by cutting through the middle of the edges instead of working on the corners. This process is sometimes called the “three hoops” method and rather than write a long, possibly confusing description, I’ve added the following diagram below. It’s called three hoops because you’re literally carving the paths of three virtual hoops around the block of ice.

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Instead of taking down the corners of the cube, you’re working on the “edge centers.” This method has a distinct advantage in that you keep control of your sphere because you’re not initially removing the cube corners, which would make it harder to handle. Once the “edge centers” have been cut down, all that’s left are the eight original true corners of the cube and, of course, the partly revealed ice sphere.

The combination looks something like an eight pointed star. After the “star” is finished, the points of the star are carefully removed with the same flat chisel or a slightly wider one and the resulting rough sphere/polyhedron is lightly sanded with an angle grinder (24 or 36 grit pad, with rubber backing wheel) to knock down irregularities. If I were carving a larger sphere, I would use the nail bowl shown at the beginning of the entry to work on the irregularities.

Finally, for a smaller ice sphere, it’s placed in some sort of appropriately curved metal holder that can be heated. I used to use a large ladle and I heated the ladle with a heat gun. (Unfortunately, the heat gun would often be damaged by the splashing meltwater, but they’re usually cheap. That’s likely not the safest procedure though.) While the metal is being heated, the ice is “rolled” so that it smoothes out the sphere shape.

The idea is to get a sphere that will roll and spin almost effortlessly in the ladle or other holder. Letting the ice sit still while heating will quickly damage it. The ladle method doesn’t work for larger spheres. A larger metal bowl might work, but then you’re faced with heating it evenly and enough. Rather than using heat to smooth larger spheres, you’re better off using an abrasive such as coarse sandpaper or maybe a wire brush or file cleaner. You can torch the sphere to glass it when you’re done.

high volume ice ball production

If you need to make a lot of ice balls very quickly, there are options. This is not something I’m focused on though, since this is usually done for co*cktail ice.

There are basically 3 options that I’m aware of. All 3 of these options rely on the essentially the same process, which is a half-sphere bit cutting into a flat slab of ice. Either 2 half sphere bits come at the ice from opposite directions at the same time, or you cut one side, flip the slab, and cut the other side..

  1. a dedicated ice ball machine, largely automated. You feed in small slabs of ice and it spits out ice balls. Obviously the most expensive method.
  2. a specialized drill bit and a drill press, combined with a jig to align your cuts. Probably the least expensive method.
  3. using a CNC, with a specialized half sphere bit for your CNC. You have to flip and realign the slab of ice for the second cut.

I’ll try to add more info and sources for this section. But since it’s really a co*cktail ice thing, don’t hold your breath.

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here are a couple of ice ball presses, that make 2.25″ and 2.5″ ice spheres. The black one is a mass produced model while the green one was courtesy of DLG Ice Factory.

ice ball presses

And last, but certainly not least, you can use an ice ball press, which is what produced the ice ball at the top of the entry. I have a couple of these small machines, as you can see in the pic above. I’m going to add a video later, as soon as I get around to it. There’s also another post that talks just about this kind of ice ball maker that I haven’t yet updated. These presses are interesting and very effective. But they’re limited to one size of ice ball per machine and usually just make one ball at a time.

Here’s a preview video from Mythbusters and an extra large size ice ball maker shows up at about 1:18 when they’re making ice cannonballs. Pretty cool!

links and stuff

I’m going to add more to this post later, I think 🤔 In the meantime, do you have another method for cutting ice spheres? Feel free to share it in the comments below (or elsewhere, depending on whether or not I’ve fixed the comments section for old posts yet).

Also, one of the reasons that I prioritized restoring this post from the old site is because I was trying to explain how to make an ice pearl for my new oyster ice sculpture design. This post is a much more comprehensive look at ice spheres than I could include in the oyster post.

You could also find photos and info from this entry on the ice sculpting secrets Instagram account or the facebook page. ice sculpting secrets is also on TikTok, although videos there aren’t really tied to posts as much. You can comment on IG and fb as well as below. And if it won’t LET you comment below, then definitely comment on fb and/or IG. Thanks!

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