POP Projects is a collection of new and classic projects from more than a century of Popular Mechanics. Master skills, get tool recommendations, and, most importantly, build something of your very own.
John, my 7-year-old son, and I crisscross our backyard, pacing the boundaries of our would-be DIY skating rink. It’s late October, too soon to be thinking about ice. But we’ve endured a few winters here in Ann Arbor, Mich.—frigid, soul-sucking winters—so we’re plotting a way to brighten up the dark months. As the day fades into twilight, we kick paths into the fallen leaves, defining the rink’s edges. An ambitious kid who’s towheaded like his mom, John skirts the far reaches of the yard.
My wife, MaryLinda, emerges from the house, holding our other son, Sam, 1; our daughter, Abby, 5, trails behind. “Wow, that’s going to be a huge rink,” MaryLinda says. Abby frolics in the leaves, obliterating John’s and my work. John throws up his hands, yelling, “Aaaah-beee!” It’s still just a notion, but the rink is already doing its job.
Before MaryLinda and I had kids, I survived the cold months in Michigan with a garage project, like rebuilding a car. But now, holing up solo wouldn’t cut it. The rink harked back to my childhood pond-hockey days and seemed like the perfect solution. I hoped it would get us all out of the house, while serving as a beacon for the neighbors, most of whom we still hardly knew after nine years.
But there was a problem: Our backyard slopes down about 3 feet over a 60-foot stretch from the back of the house. Any reasonably sized rink would need a stout retaining wall at least 2 feet high at the deep end. That would call for more water—and more construction—than I had in mind.
“Let’s use the driveway,” John suggests, an idea I consider until my wife asks where we’d park the cars.
“On the street, of course,” says John.
While preparing to tell John the many practical reasons his proposed solution won’t work, my gaze wanders next door, into the Browns’ backyard.
When Chris Brown, 48, and his family arrived, in 2005, they turned the rolling, wooded space into a soccer pitch, complete with full-size goals. In above-freezing weather, it was a great place for their two teenage sons to hone their considerable skills. But it went unused all winter, so…
“Let’s go talk to Chris,” I say to John, and we amble over. Since no one in Chris’s family skates, I mentally work up a spiel about why they need a rink in their yard. We say hello to Chris, and I start in with tales of my recreational hockey exploits, segueing into a sermon about the value of teaching our kids how to make the most out of winter’s harsh reality. My coup de grâce is a quote from snowboard innovator Jake Burton, who said, “I tell my kids, ‘Bring it!’ Winter’s just another thing to bring you down.” In other words, when life gives you frigid temperatures, make ice.
“Fantastic!” Chris exclaims. “Let’s do it.”
Startled by his enthusiasm, I warn that the rink might leave a mark when we dismantle it in the spring. Undaunted, Chris says, “Hey, man, we’ve got the space, let’s use it.”
Enlisting the Troops
With my rudimentary rink drawings at hand, I poke around the Web for plans that might show me something I’ve overlooked. My sketches call for a plastic-lined, 40 x 60–foot box made out of 2 x 12s conjoined by sheet-metal tie plates and held upright by iron stakes. I’m proud of the rugged simplicity—until I see the NHL-worthy rinks built by other backyard DIYers. The only thing they lack is a Zamboni. But for a time-challenged father of three, I reason, rugged simplicity is the way to go.
My plan relies on the field being basically flat, with the foot-wide planks accommodating any slope invisible to the eye. Knowing I’ll need at least 3 inches of ice for a stable skating surface, I figure I’ll have 9 inches of wiggle room. It all seems about right—but I wake up one night, terrified that my crude calculations will lead to disaster. I need a transit, a gradient-measuring device. I call Dave Ferguson, an architect friend. He drops by in early November, and we stake out a detailed grid, using his trusty transit.
Good move: The gradient of the rink location turns out to be a full 12 inches, so one end would be full to the brim and the other dry. We relocate the grid to an area with an 8-inch gradient. “That’ll do,” I think. But Dave isn’t finished. Two days later he e-mails me a computer-generated drawing of an oval rink and a list of building materials. His plan is far more elegant than mine, with boards of varying widths to bring the ice flush with the border.
Dave’s enthusiasm gets me thinking: If I ask enough people for help, I could Tom Sawyer the whole thing. But I also have a bigger idea in mind, another vestige of my youth. I grew up in New Jersey in the ’70s. We lived on a dead-end street of modest, single-story homes. The Garden State’s image has long suffered because of a foul, industrial corridor along the northernmost stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike, to say nothing of the stereotypes perpetuated by The Sopranos and—heaven save us—Jersey Shore. That’s not my New Jersey. In our neighborhood a strong work ethic and a propensity to help one another prevailed. The dads joined forces to build decks, replace sinks and finish basements. In one epic project, they plumbed all the houses to a new sewer line.
Ever since I moved to the reputedly friendly Midwest, I’ve been surprised not to find the neighborly spirit of my youth. Maybe, I decide, someone just needs to inject a little community spirit—someone with an ice rink to build. I pick a date when I think most people will be free—the day after Christmas—order the materials and spread the word.
Built To Thrill
Boxing Day dawns at 15 degrees with the threat of light snow. As I gather my tools, I fret about who’ll show up. I know I have enough hands to finish the setup in one day. In addition to Dave and Chris, another eager neighbor, Doug, even offers to split the $750 I spent on materials. But beyond us and our kids, who knows?
As I walk next door, I nearly drop my tools in awe. An army of adults and children—about two dozen in all—has gathered in the field. A few dogs have shown up too. The neighbors are shaking hands, making introductions and stomping their feet in the cold. Chris, who’s standing in the middle of the animated group, catches my eye, and mouths, “Holy cow!”
“So what should we do?” a voice of undetermined origin asks. I’m unprepared for this. I hastily suggest that someone build a fire near the driveway so we can all warm our hands. Two people peel off, and the rest stare at me expectantly.
As with any project, you learn as you go. Some lessons we took away from the rink build: Circular-saw blades designed for pressure-treated lumber cut far smoother and faster than typical crosscut blades; cordless-drill batteries drain quickly in the cold, so keep the chargers nearby; build the rink before the first frost—your hands will thank you, and it’ll be easier to get a tight fit between the wood and the ground.
I shift my gaze to Dave, passing the buck. During his 58 years, he’s mastered many skills, and his focus on building the rink is laser-like. But in terms of our approach to projects, Dave and I are like Oscar and Felix in The Odd Couple. I value speed over quality of craftsmanship. For the rink job, I just want ice; if the boards are uneven, so be it. Dave wants to build the rink with the precision of the Great Pyramid of Giza. At one point in our planning, I mention that I can’t spare a whole week. He replies, “Well, it has to be right.”
Through his architect eyes, I imagine, Dave sees a backyard masterpiece—and me as a slacker with a rusty hammer. Dave has a plan. In addition to prescribing specific locations for each plank—2 x 6s on the uphill side, 2 x 12s at the bottom of the slope, and a combination of 2 x 8s and 2 x 10s along the sides—he wants to shape each board to conform to the ground’s irregularities. This would remove any chance that the water-filled liner would bulge out and pop a leak. His technique also promises a uniform edge all the way around.
Too finicky? Yes. But after all he’s done to this point, I owe him the courtesy of following his plan. When he suggests that the two of us custom-fit the first board, to teach everyone else, I go along. As we mark, trim, test fit and retrim the lumber, our volunteers stand around, attempting to blow frosty smoke rings in the icy air. After a half-hour of tedious, finger-numbing work, Dave and I finish board one. The crowd dissents.
“Skip the trimming—it’s gonna take all day, and I’ve gotta drive my kid to practice later,” says Sam from across the street. Nods all around. A walk-off strike looms. But Dave holds fast, claiming that once we get the process down, the rest will be easy.
That proves optimistic. Owing to frozen tufts of grass, our fitted pieces fail to eliminate the gap between the wood and ground. A tight fit would require hours of adjustments. Dave relents, saying, “This will take longer than I thought.”
What’s that I hear? A collective sigh of relief? Now all we need to do is place the boards according to Dave’s blueprints, screw in the tie plates and drive the stakes. The crew splits into two work groups, and the yard beehives with activity. Chris’s wife, Nancy, arrives with hot chocolate and doughnuts. As if cued by a Hollywood director, a light snow falls. Four hours later, with the planks securely in place, everyone races into the Browns’ house to thaw out.
Who knew freezing water could be so complicated? When I researched rink building, the consensus seemed to be that obtaining billiard-table-smooth ice requires a multistage layering process. Pour in some water, let it freeze, add more water, and repeat until the desired depth is achieved.
Most seemed to think that this is best done during an all-night session, when the sun won’t slow the freezing. Crazy, right? Even an endless supply of my favorite frosty beverage wouldn’t make a night spent with a garden hose remotely interesting. Given cold enough temperatures, water freezes. End of discussion.
After Chris and I staple the plastic to the boards the following day, we turn on the hose. Nearly 18 hours later, the rink is full but, Houston, we’ve got a problem. At the deep end, where the water is 10 inches deep, the pressure has forced the plastic through the gap between the wood and grass, and there’s a trickling leak. We thought we had prepared for this by packing the gaps with snow, but it seems my quick-and-dirty approach has put the dirt on my face.
Not ready to concede the superiority of Dave’s fastidious methodology, I dash inside and check the forecast: temperatures in the teens or lower for the rest of the week. For the first time in my life, I rejoice in the cold. Over the next few days, I inspect the breach like a prison guard. By day three, it and the entire rink are frozen solid.
The job, however, is not done. The evening of our first skate, Dave drops by with a pair of spotlights mounted on 20-foot-tall boards. We secure the lights to the now-unused soccer goals. More donations pile in. Two benches appear alongside the ice. A neighbor from two doors away who missed the construction day presents a wide, sharp shovel perfect for clearing ice shavings. Another drops off a pile of hockey sticks and a bag of pucks. A week later, I fabricate two skating trainers out of PVC pipe (above) for the beginners.
For a guy who waited 48 years to lace up his first pair of blades, Chris is now all about the ice. He’s still shaky and lands on his backside so often we joke about calluses. But after four weeks, he never misses our Saturday morning adults-only hockey games. We have room for three-on-three play, and a couple of the neighborhood guys are so good we make them play with the small ends of their sticks.
Without the rink, I would have had no way to find out about their hockey skills. Nor would I have discovered that Clayton had played offense and defense for the Michigan football team, or that Charlene once figure-skated competitively and can still perform dizzying pirouettes.
Except for the adult hockey games, the younger set rules the ice. Every evening I arrive home and am greeted by two kids dressed for action. The Browns generously institute an open-door policy, so the rink is always open. Most nights, there are a half-dozen kids and parents gliding around. Folks out walking their dogs stop by to have a look and say hello.
Because of the rink, we’ve met more people in three months than we had the previous nine years. And this is during the winter, when we used to burrow indoors, a happy family, to be sure, but a family unto ourselves.
We used to curse the cold. Now we hope it lasts through April. When the ice melts, we’ll drain the water, dismantle the rink and wait anxiously for the mercury to fall again.