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Ice architect raises the bar

By Mike Creger, Forum Communications

DULUTH — If you’re thinking about building your own backyard bar made of ice, you’d do well to remember the letter “s.”

You’ll be in for a lot of sawing, scouring, setting, soaking and sanding. While you’re at it, you’ll experience slipping and maybe a little swearing if you didn’t wear steel-toed shoes.

Or you could just hire Swarbrick, as in Chris Swarbrick and his Ice Occasions company that has been around the ice creations business for 13 years. It is in its third year of building specialty bars in Duluth and up the North Shore.

Experience counts and it builds confidence. That’s why Swarbrick had no fears of nearly 50-degree weather lousing up his latest project, the ice bar on the deck of Little Angie’s Cantina & Grill in Duluth’s Canal Park.

“Too cold, too warm,” he said of playing with the temperature vagaries of Old Man Winter over the years. “We know there’s cold weather coming.”

Putting the ice-block couch together in September weather at the ice bar Monday actually was a good thing, Swarbrick said. The slight melting will help meld the blocks together when it was expected to get below freezing overnight and for the rest of the week.

With a moving truck backed up to the steps of the deck, assistants Tom Schiller and Paul Madsen wheeled in 300-pound blocks of ice, 40 inches long and 10 inches thick. Schiller used a mill saw you’d normally see gliding through wood. Once the base of smaller blocks of the bench was set, they scoured the ice blocks with pieces of board with screw tips sticking out. Those blocks serve as the cushions on the couch and the scouring helped fuse them with the base.

The blocks were split lengthwise to make for the bench backs.

Electric chain saws and hand saws were used to rough up the areas where the blocks meet, allowing them to fuse together. Water is splashed on the joints for more melding and shavings from the saw cuts are used to fill in here and there.

The finishing touch involved an orbital sander and more wetting.

It was a couple of hours of work Monday to get the couch just right. The team expected to be at it until 10 p.m. Monday and back on the job Tuesday with finishing touches Wednesday.

More parts of the project were sculpted at the Ice Occasions shop in Ellsworth, Wis. An elaborate bar will have plenty of sculpted details along with the important branding that helps pay for the $10,000-plus novelty. The official name of the bar will be Opulent Vodka Ice Bar & Lounge. It should be open for business by Thursday.

The theme is “fire and ice” and it will feature carved torches, tables, a fire pit, and a cauldron full of liquor.

There were no plans on paper laid out as Swarbrick and his team worked. Schiller says they’ve done enough ice structures to have a good idea in their heads as Swarbrick tells them how many more blocks are needed from the truck.

The ice is also made in the shop, taking 72 hours to freeze into crystal clear blocks.

The Little Angie’s lounge will open Friday and then be open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays until it thaws. It also will be featured as part of Winterfest and during the second annual Little Angie’s Invitational Ice Carving Competition on Jan. 19.

Ice Occasions is back on the North Shore with repeat ice bars at Grand Superior Lodge north of Two Harbors and in Lutsen.

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