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When Keith Martin learned to sculpt ice during culinary school in the mid-1990s, he figured the skill might lead to the occasional carved swan. But after moving to Breckenridge from Ohio in 2001, Martin fell in love with the craft thanks, in part, to his choice in condos: His new digs were across the street from where the town holds the annual International Snow Sculpture Championships.
The now 32-year-old competition typically sees around a dozen teams transform 12-foot-tall blocks of snow into everything from cubist abstractions to realistic depictions of humans and animals. Then, the 30,000-plus attendees choose their favorites. After five years as a spectator, Martin talked his way onto a team in 2006 and won bronze. Nearly two decades later, he makes his living as an ice and snow carver and has led Team Breckenridge since 2011. Martin and his squad have carved Norse gods, winged figures, and more, winning the top prize in 2014. But he promises that his creation for this year’s event (January 27 through February 1; free) will be his magnum opus. Although he’s tight-lipped about what the sculpture will look like, Martin was willing to divulge some trade secrets to help boost your snowman game.
1. Scout Some Shade
“You’ve seen plenty of snowmen rotting outside on sunny January days,” Martin says. “That’s usually because they’re getting direct light.” To make sure Frosty sticks around, Martin recommends building under an evergreen or in the shade on the north side of your house, even if temps are well below freezing.
2. Pack It Tight
If you’ve ever thrown a snowball, you know that compressed snow holds its shape much better than loose flakes, so the key to a good sculpture is starting with a dense block. Packing it by hand is better than nothing, but for the best results, find a large cardboard box and stuff it until you can’t poke your gloved finger into the snow. Then flip the box over and either slide the snow out or cut it free.
3. Make A Tool Kit
“It’s trial by error to figure out which tools work best,” Martin says, but a handsaw, a car ice scraper, a butter knife and spoon, and a brush (anything with soft bristles will work) are a good start.
4. Sketch It Out
Martin has spent more than a decade planning his design for this year’s competition. You don’t need to take that long, but you should rough out a blueprint. For beginners, simple shapes like turtles are safe bets, but get as creative as you want—just steer clear of features that can succumb to gravity, like a bird’s flapping wings.
5. Get To Work
Start by outlining your design on the block with sidewalk chalk. Then, carve away the negative spaces with the saw and ice scraper. Once you have the basic shape, use the knife and spoon to add details such as fingers and textures. Finally, go over the sculpture with the brush to remove loose snow and create a smooth finish.