I built my first backyard ice rink in the winter of 2001. I made plenty of mistakes, too. I made the liner too short, didn't put enough water in for the first freeze, and stepped out onto the ice way too early. Regardless, I had my ice rink, and my kids loved it! Fortunately for me, my oldest, Emily was only 4 years old at the time. She was plenty happy just to slide around on the ice.
My two oldest are both budding skaters. Emily is heavily involved in figure skating, while her younger brother, AJ, is on his second year of hockey. The need for smooth ice is certainly greater now. Over the past 4 years I've experimented with various techniques to produce smooth ice. Here are some of them.
Most importantly, you need to build your ice rink with a solid foundation. If your ice is too thin, it will crack and be difficult to patch. If you step on it early you'll create ridges and bumps that will need smoothing out. If your liner has a leak your ice will have a slope to it. Additionally, some of the things that cause bad ice are out of your control, as well. Freezing rain, snap thaws, high winds and snowstorms can all make having perfectly smooth ice more difficult. So, just how do you get a really smooth surface?
Ok, you've got a decent rink set up and the water has completely frozen. You've removed any snow or other debris from the surface. If you were really lucky, your kids were able to skate on your rink straight away. However, most of the time wind or snow has created a crusty top to the surface that makes it impossible to skate upon. To fix this you'll need some time, water and lots of patience.
First, scrape off as much of the crust as you can with your shovel. It helps to have a sturdy shovel with a metal blade. Next, get your hose out. Don't use a nozzle on the end, just let the water flow out freely. Additionally, it works best if you put the end of the hose right down on the ice. Starting at the furthest point away from your spigot (so that your hose does not get dragged through the water) on your ice rink, start applying water. Slowly walk back and forth moving the end of your hose. As the water comes out it should completely cover the surface with a new coat of water. Your goal is to put a single layer of new water on your rink that is as thin as possible. Using this method you will usually end up applying a 1/8 to 1/4 layer of ice once the water has frozen. You might be tempted to linger while applying water. This will certainly put more water on the ice, but it is a mistake. Your ultimate goal will be to put many very thin layers of ice on your rink. In the end this will achieve the best result. Creating a thicker layer of ice can cause there to be a sheeting of ice where the layer beneath does not adhere to the top layer. As soon as skates hit this thicker layer it will chip away and be worse than what you started with.
The new layer of ice that you've applied will take a few hours to freeze. During this time, you can go in and warm up, but you need to take care of your hose! If you leave it out in the cold you'll be stuck with a solid core of ice when you come back out. You won't be able to use this hose and it's a real pain to thaw out. I suggest you use one of 3 methods for keeping your hose useable. The first is to blow out your hose with an air compressor. This empties the hose of water and allows reuse when you want to add the next layer of ice. The second is to use one of the portable hose reels that are
available. Wind up your hose and bring it inside. This can be somewhat annoying, as the weight of the hose reel can be considerable when the hose if full of water. It's also somewhat messy. The final method is to simply let a trickle of water run through your hose while you're inside. As long as there is a little water running through the hose it won't freeze. This works great for days when you're putting multiple layers of ice down, but obviously isn't great when you've finished working on the ice for a few days. One note, do NOT leave the trickle of water running out onto your ice. Doing so will cause the ice around the end of your hose to melt and you'll have a small, depending on how long you're gone, in your rink.
On the weekend I can usually get 2, 3 or sometimes even 4 layers of ice down, depending upon how cold it gets. After work during the week it's really only possible to get one or two layers down. Be careful when you put that second layer of ice down. You'll notice right away that your ice is far more slippery than when you put down the first layer.
Using this method I was able to get pretty good ice. It's easily good enough for hockey. The figure skating can still be more difficult, but it's plenty good enough for practice.
If you have more severe problems, take a look at my trouble shooting page. Here you'll find information about ridges, holes, cracks and other common issues.
If you're looking for the smoothest ice possible, check out my homemade Zamboni page. Using this you can apply very thin layers of ice in less time than the method stated above.
Enjoy your rink, your kids will love you for it!
Build it BIGGER!