How to Build a Snowman, as Told by an Ice Sculptor
Learn the tips and tricks to that perfect roly-poly shape.
On a brisk winter day, the blanket of newly fallen snow is just begging to be packed into roly-poly shapes, stacked one onto the other, and then brought to life with the details: a corncob pipe, a button nose, two eyes made out of coal, and a top hat for good measure. Beyond these basics, what makes your everyday front yard snowman into a beloved character worthy of legendary song lyrics like, say, a character named Frosty?
Keith Martin has an idea. For over 19 years, he has been sculpting spectacular art displays from snow and ice. Most reputably, he is the captain of Team Breckenridge, winners of the annual Breckenridge International Snow Sculpting Competition hosted in Colorado. His projects—including fire-breathing dragons and a 15-foot tall Geppetto carving a snowflake—are certainly more complex than what we are asking him to help us out with. Still, even Martin admires a traditional three-piece snowman as much as we do.
Know your snow.
What is the weather outside? Does the snow stick in heavy clumps or swirl in flaky drifts? Is it bright and sunny or dim and overcast? These are the environmental elements that help or hinder the making of your snowman. Surprisingly, a rise in temperature makes for the prime time for building a snowman, and a dip in temperature helps the snowman last longer. "When the temperature is warmer, the snow has a higher moisture content and allows the individual flakes to form bonds that hold them all together," Martin says. "When it gets cold at night, these bonds freeze all the flakes together. It is these bonds that allow for the snowman to hold his shape for days to come."
Before you begin building, try a snowball test: Scoop up a handful of snow and pack it compactly in the palm of your hands. If it holds shape as a solid, icy sphere, it is prime stuff for snow sculpting. If it dissolves into flakes, you'll have to add moisture with some water as you build your snowman. And where should you build your snowman? Well, certainly not at the bottom of a sledding hill. Pick a spot that won't get caught in the crossfire of a snowball fight or under the falling drifts of snow from a tree. Your open yard—clear from heat sources that emit from the house—could be a suitable home.
Roll snow into a roly-poly body.
Start by molding a small snowball in your hands—this will serve as the base of your snowman. Roll that ball on the snow-covered ground, allowing it to collect snow and gradually grow in size. Martin adds that you should change directions mid-roll so the snowball maintains an evenly round shape. Repeat the rolling process three times until you have three balls of snow in even proportion from large (the base) to medium (the torso) to small (the head). Assembling these three spheres is perhaps the trickiest part of the process. How do you stack the snowballs without them toppling over or breaking apart? Martin says to keep the proportions reasonable. "If you desire to make the largest snowman the neighborhood has ever seen, you might consider how you are going to lift those balls of snow on top of each other," he says. "Not to mention that you need someone on the other side to make sure they don't just roll off."
Give your snowman a personality.
This is where the real fun comes in. Many a snowman flaunts a carrot nose and eyes of coal, but the snowman pictured above is dressed in finery made from materials found in its habitat. Gather pinecones, and arrange them any way you like to form facial features, buttons, a hat, or a band for earmuffs; a pinecone still attached to its branch makes a distinguished pipe. Evergreen boughs can be joined with floral wire to form long scarves or a bow tie, or to embellish a top hat molded—whether it be a gelatin mold, pudding mold, mini brioche mold, or croquembouche mold—from snow. Or give your snowman a pair of rosy cheeks by mixing about five drops of food coloring into a cup of water, and pouring it into a spray bottle; set the bottle's nozzle on fine to avoid a blotchy complexion, and then go spread some cheer. Be creative, but remember not to make him too top-heavy with adornments, as he will be more likely to topple over.
Despite your best efforts, your frosty friend is likely to melt away at the first sign of spring. That is to be expected, but as Martin admits, "They are fun to produce even though they are only temporary."