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Construction of an outdoor ice rink


Real estate sellers have a saying: "Real estate is about three things: Location, Location, Location." The same is true for any ice rink. Where you place the rink determines what building methods you need, how large of liner to use, and how easy it is to maintain. Ice rinks require daily or bi-daily maintenance, and water is required to perform most of it. If the rink is hard to maintain, it won't receive the attention it needs to be enjoyed.

Outdoor ice rinks are a great source of entertainment. Some people simply like to skate, while others like to practice or play hockey. It's great to show up at the local rink and show off a skill you've been working on all week. Or, skating under the full moon while everything is quiet is an experience that must be felt.

Several options for building outdoor ice rinks are presented on this page. They're based upon the most common method of building an ice rink: Lumber and a tarp. This is by no means the only way to do it, so don't be afraid to try different methods.

Choosing a Location

The choice of location is one of the most important decisions a rink builder will make. This will determine how much lumber needs to be purchased, the size of the liner required, and how difficult maintenance can be. A good location is relatively close to water sources, has good lighting or places to run lighting, and is close enough to the house or garage to make storing tools and equipment easy.

For hockey use, what's behind the rink's shooting ends must also be considered. Placing the shooting end a mere 8' from the house is likely to result in damage to the house. A puck shot out of the rink tends to disappear quickly, and is usually a pain to retrieve. (That's why most rink builders have a supply of pucks nearby.) Netting behind the shooting ends (and wrapped around the sides) can prevent damage and lost pucks, plus it makes little noise when hit by a puck. The netting will require some sort of pole to be suspended from, so what's in the ground needs to be considered.

When choosing a location, consider the grade in the area. While rinks can be built in areas out of level, excessive changes in grade can result in too much water in one end to freeze solid and too little water in the other to skate on. Choose the most level location possible, and consider that you may need to sacrifice some rink size for a more favorable grade. Large grades will require larger liners to accomodate the deeper boards required. If the grade changes an extreme 24" over the length of the rink, the liner will need to be more than 48" larger than one needed for a level location.

Winter sunsets are often around 5:00 PM. This means that most rink use is done after dark, and the rink will require some form of lighting. If the rink is far away from the power source it may be impractical to run lights, so the rink can only be used on bright nights. An ideal location is close to yard lights so no extra work is necessary at all.

Maintenance is a large part of a rink's life. Simply skating takes the ideal smooth ice surface and makes it rough. After some time of this, a resurfacing will be required. The rink should be shoveled and a layer of water put down on the ice. With good access to tools the maintenance is easy, and will be done regularly.

Locating the rink well will make the experience of building and maintaining the ice rink an enjoyable one. A rink that is relatively level, close to lighting (power), water, and storage is in a good spot.

Initial Construction

The materials needed for this project include enough side board material (lumber) to go around the perimeter, a liner, and some form of stake or bracket to hold the side boards up. Optionally, some bags of tube sand may come in handy.

For this section, a right-angle bracket is used. This is simply two pieces of 2x material screwed together squarely and secured with a third piece cut at 45 degree angles to form a brace. Holes are drilled in the ground end at both ends for a 12 steel stake to secure the bracket. The sideboards are then screwed to the brackets using a single screw so the boards can conform to the ground.

Start at one corner, and work your way out. Attach each board to the bracket (it's not necessary to secure the bracket at this time), and make sure it sits flat on the ground where it's at. Only one screw is needed to hold the boards to the brackets. After the rink boards have been fully assembled, make sure the boards align close to straight. Precision is not necessary here, simply having boards that look like they're in a straight line is good enough.

Secure the brackets to the ground using a long steel spike or piece of rebar. A single spike in the hole closest to the rink will hold the frame in place until it is time to flood. For deeper spots (more than 6" or so), install more spikes.

At this point, everything can be left alone for as long as necessary without risk of major damage. The liner should not be installed until it is time to fill.

Final Construction and Filling

At this point in time, the finished rink boards may have given you a better idea where any large dips or deep spots are. If the boards hover off the ground by more than about an inch, they may lift from the force of the water. Placing sandbags or cardboard along the boards will keep the liner from getting underneath the boards and lifting them.

Watch the weather to determine when to drop the liner. The ideal time is just before a cold snap, one or two days before if filling by garden hose. If temperatures are consistently below 30F, the water will freeze into ice but will not do so very quickly.

When the time comes to drop the liner, simply drape it over the ice rink boards and make sure there's sufficient liner on each side. Temporarily secure the liner with clamps or something similar while the rink fills.

Check the liner often and allow it to adjust to the boards. If the liner is taught, release the pressure and resecure the temporary clamp.

// Staple the liner to secure it. Use cardboard to prevent tears. Decide how much is enough

Construction Methods

Boards on End

To use the boards on end method, boards of an appropriate depth (6" minimum) are attached together by butting two long boards together and fastening them to a plate that goes on the outside. Essentially, this creates a board the distance of the two combined boards. At the ends, the boards are screwed together using a butt joint (one board butts up against the other). The frame is then secured with stakes of some sort.

The advantages to this method are its simplicity, and for a level yard it requires the smallest and least expensive lumber.

The disadvantages to this method are limited size, and limited depth.

Initial Construction Time: Moderately short
"Next year" construction Time: Moderately short

Stacked Boards on End

A variation of the boards on end method, this method is one that a friend of mine uses. To make a board section, 2x8s and 2x10s are stacked on top of each other and backed with a 2x12. The joints between the individual boards can be staggered, which will reduce the tendency of the boards to bow backwards. The boards are staked in place using 2' sections of rebar.

The advantages to this method are the greater depth allowed, and the stronger boards which will allow them to span longer distances between supports.

The disadvantages to this method are the amount of material required, both expense and weight, and construction will take some time.

Initial Construction Time: Moderately long
"Next year" construction Time: Moderate

Plywood Boards

This is my preferred building method. Plywood sheets are ripped down to 16" widths (three 8' sections are attained from one sheet of plywood), and held in place by L-shaped brackets. The plywood should be at least 5/8" thick, but does not need to be better than sheathing grade.

The brackets are key to this method. They're made by cutting two pieces of 2x material to the same size, approximately 12" for a 16" tall board, and butting them together. To support the bracket, a brace is made of the same material and cut at 45 degrees at both ends. Finally, a hole is drilled in the side that will go in the ground for a 12" spike.

Plywood is turned on edge and attached to the brackets using one screw per bracket. Where two pieces of plywood meet, a bracket is placed at that joint and one screw per piece of plywood is used. After the boards are assembled, adjustments are made until they're even and spikes are driven through the bracket and in to the ground. A rubber mallet works well for driving the spikes in to the ground.

The advantages to this method are minimal amount of material, expansion is easy, and rink materials take little space when stored.

The disadvantages to this method are making the brackets takes time the first time, there's a lot of cutting so a compound miter saw is a must-have tool, possible sharp edges where the ground makes large changes in elevation.

Initial Construction Time: Moderately long
"Next year" construction Time: Moderately short

Wall Insulation

This method is not suited to personal back yard ice rinks. The structure is way overbuilt for the purpose. In this method, the ice rink walls are backed with top and bottom plates with studs between them, like a house wall. The stud cavities are then insulated to attempt to reduce the amount of melting on warm days. The board sections are bolted together with carriage bolts and nuts, and can be staked in to the ground.

Unless doing a public rink, where the boards will be used as a stopping method, forget this method and use the plywood boards method.

The advantages to this method are the boards are extremely sturdy, and height of the boards is only limited by the supports

The disadvantages to this method are: construction time, amount of material required, and off-season storage space.

Initial Construction Time: Long
"Next year" construction time: Moderately short

Building tips

Protect the wood. While most construction lumber will usually weather well, composite materials such as plywood will not. Exposure to the elements will take a toll on end boards, so protect them with paint or polyurethane. Pressure treated lumber is an option, but make sure it's rated for ground contact.
White reflects light, so use dark. In some places the sun may hit your end boards and reflect off them on to your ice, causing melting. Painting the boards a dark color will absorb the light rather than reflecting it.
Protect the liner. The liner is a significant part of the ice rink. On the shooting ends at least, cover the liner with boards to prevent accidental punctures from damaging your liner. Resurfacing floods will raise the ice level slightly on each flood, so a hole at ice level today could become one under ice level next week.
Use an old liner to protect the new. Before laying the new liner, put the old one down first. This will smooth the surface slightly and hopefully avoid any punctures as the new liner fills.
Buy a pair of insulated PVC gloves. (From elgoodbill.) Insulated PVC gloves are completely water proof, so when working with water for filling and flooding your hands won't get cold.
Don't trust the liner size. Tarps are often hemmed, but sometimes plastic sheeting is sold in smaller dimensions than what's on the package. If you need every bit of your chosen dimension, make sure your liner is large enough before it's time to flood.

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