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How and Why to Build a Backyard Rink

The first thing you have to know about building a backyard skating rink is that the Law of Hydrodynamics as amended for rink owners states that water seeking its own level will find it in your neighbor's yard. I learned this in the 1950s when, in my first effort to build a rink, I let the garden hose run all night in the backyard pf my parents' home in Winchester, Massachusetts. The next morning I found not the hoped-for frozen pool but a river running though out lilacs and under our neighbor's grape arbor. My engineering failure was nothing compared to the diplomatic problem facing my parents, relationships with those neighbors being such that Whiffle balls hit into their yard were ruled automatic double plays. The summer after I'd flooded their yard we changed the rule to automatic side retired. My yard produced a generation of straight-away hitters but, alas, no supremely gifted skaters.

I didn't try to build a rink again until the 1980s when I had a home and children of my own. This time I succeeded. Though before I answer the questions of How, I have to deal with the matter of Why. When I was a boy, I made my first attempt to build a rink, no one asked me why. It surprised me that, upon seeing an adult building a rink, my friends assumed they knew why. Obviously, I was trying to construct a catapult to send my son and daughter soaring toward careers in hockey or figure skating. While I knew a rink would enhance their skating ability, I also knew that wasn't why I was building it, nor is it why my wife Barbara and I have continued to have a backyard rink for 15 years and counting, long after our children have moved (albeit not so far that they don't still log considerable ice time).

The question of why to build a rink has less to do with a career in hockey than with the pure joy of skating and playing. Or, as my daughter Tracey, then eight years old, said one morning when Barbara asked her if she wanted to sign up for figure skating lessons at the town rink: "No. I want to have my own fun. Not somebody else's fun." In the matter of personal recreation and casual sport, we find it more enjoyable to descend the evolutionary ladder, moving away from organization and mass participation toward individuality and spontaneity. A backyard rink is for pickup hockey games wherein fairness and justice are built-in by the players, not tacked on by striped-stirted authority. It's a safe place for a child to take those first shuffling and hesitant learn-to-skate strides (as a generation of family and neighborhood children have on our rink). It's a place for my solitary early morning skates and for our occasional Saturday night skating parties for family and friends where shinny with a frozen tennis ball is followed by a hot chocolate or a cold beer. We build our rink for the best reason of all. For the fun of it.

Backyard rinks are, by definition, makeshift affairs and chances are that no two are ever going to be exactly alike. But here's one proven way to put up a low-cost rink that will provide you and your family with those two most precious commodities — ice time and fun.

Here's How.....

As you read this, remember this one guiding principle: a backyard rink is essentially a corral of plywood with a plastic liner. Yes, we too know that Wayne Gretzky's father Walter built his rink by letting a sprinkler run all night in the backyard of the family home in Brantford, Ontario. We once visited the Gretzky home and rink, where it is obvious that Walter benefitted from a gentle natural depression in his yard — one that could collect water in a wide but shallow puddle — and from his location in southern Ontario which gets a lot colder than does my town of Natick, Massachusetts. What worked for the Gretzkys probably won't work for those of us south of Canada and the border states and for those of us with a sloped backyard.

Is Your Yard Suitable.....

A rink requires a comparatively flat service. My 56' x 33' rink has about an 11-inch variance from the deepest to the shallowest part. Thus, when I'm finished flooding, the water is about three to four inches deep at the shallowest end and about 14 to 16 inches at the deepest end. I suspect that much more than a 14-inch variance would mean too much water pressure on the boards, pressure that could warp or break the boards or rip the plastic liner. Once you select the flattest area of your yard, examine it for rocks or exposed roots or anything that might rip the lier. I let my grass grow extra long in the fall to provide a natural padding for the plastic.

Plywood and Plastic....

Your main costs will be for plywood and plastic. Once built, the boards will last for years (we still have a few that date back to our rink's first season) but the plastic liner will get torn and ripped and is an annual expense. The best material to use as a plastic liner is a seamless 40' x 100' sheet of 6-mil clear industrial plastic available at most building supply stores or lumber yards. 40' x 100' is a standard industry size and the price will be roughly $150 (U.S.). You can get larger sheets but those will be either custom made or a special order and will cost a lot more.

We made our rink boards by buying 14 standard size (4' x 8') sheets of three-quarter-inch plywood and thirty 10-foot two-by-fours which serve as legs for the boards. We then had the dealer cut nine of the boards in half length-wise, thus giving us eighteen sheets measuring 2' x 8'. The five remaining large sheets form the backstop behind our goal at the deep end of the rink, and the two-foot high boards form the low walls around the rest of the rink. The main function of the low boards is to hold the plastic in place and to keep errant passes from sailing out of the rink. Of course, you could have four-foot high boards all the war around your rink or at each end (if you plan on having two goals) but that will add to your cost and labor and make snow removal more difficult.

We make our large boards by nailing one of the two-by-fours to each end of a 4' x 8' sheet of plywood in such a way that a two-foot length of two=by-four extends below the board (these will be the legs of the board that will go into the ground) and four feet of the two-by-four extends above the board (these will serve as posts on which you can nail a wire backstop to keep high shots and deflected pucks out of your neighbor's yard). We cut the remaining two-by-fours into three-foot lengths; these will be the legs of the lower boards. Nail one of these smaller legs to the end of each low (i.e. 2' x 8') board so that one 12-inch leg extends below the board. These legs will be adequate to hold the low boards in place, since these boards are under far less pressure than the larger boards at the deep end of the rink. (And you'll be surprised at how easier it is to dig a one-foot hole than a two-foot hole.) Constructing the boards is a one-time job. Once you've made your set, you can save them from year to year.

Dig This....

The hardest part of the annual rink construction is digging the post holes and putting up the boards. Starting in the fall, well before theground freezes, you will have to dig post holes and set the boards in place. Each hole for the big boards has to be at least two feet deep to allow the bottom of the board to be flush with the ground when the board is lowered into place. The holes for the low boards need to be only one-feet deep but the same principle applies — make sure the bottom of the board is flush with the ground. Depending on the hardness of the soil in your yard, you might consider buying a sharp narrow spade or renting a special fence post-hole digging tool for a weekend. These resemble two long narrow spades hinged together near their blades.

Obviously, one post hole can accommodate two board legs. The ends of each board should be touching each other to create the smoothest possible seam. As you lower each board into the ground and shovel the dirt back into the holes around the board legs, make sure you tamp down the ground firmly to secure each board in place. A thorough tamp down is crucial. Digging post holes is a demanding and tiring job and not something you want to do in one day unless you have a lot of help. I start in October and rarely dig more than two or three holes at one time.

An OK Corral...

When the boards are in place you will have completed your "coral". But because the seams — the place where two boards meet — rarely will fit perfectly flush, you'll want to cover them with soft material to prevent the plastic from ripping on the rough edge of an exposed board or from being pushed out through a gap in the boards and ruptured under pressure of the water. We employ old strips of carpeting but canvas or any other tough fabric would serve equally well.

Since your yard is probably uneven there will be some gaps where the bottom of a board is not perfectly flush with the ground. We fill these gaps with rags or old sheets. Put this material inside the rink where it will cushion the plastic liner and keep it from being pushed out under the boards by the water. Warning: don't put in your plastic liner until the day — indeed, until the very hour — that you're ready to flood. The longer the plastic is exposed the greater the chance it will be torn.

Fence It In.....

When you corral is finished, you might want to buy a roll of garden wire (chicken wire isn't strong enough) to nail to the two-by-fours above the high boards or that part of the rink we've come to call "the shooting end." (Or you could skip this step on the theory that nothing teaches a hockey player the value of shooting low more than a long tramp through the snow to retrieve the puck that he or she just shot over the boards).

Flooding and Freezing.....

Don't get faked out by those first few frosty days of late fall or early winter. What you need to make ice is a three-day stretch of serious cold wherein night temperatures are no more than 5ºF to 15ºF -10º to -15º) and day temperatures don't rise above freezing. The colder the better. Keep an eye on the long-range weather forecast. When you're certain that a frigid stretch is no more than a day away, you're ready to put in your plastic liner and flood your rink.

Toll out the plastic and staple it to the rink boards. Make sure the plastic liner extends far enough up the boards to be above the water level. We staple ours right to the top of the low boards and about two-and-a-half feet up on the high boards. As soon as the plastic is in place, turn on the hose and let it run. Using one garden hose takes is about 26 hours to fill our rink. If your outdoor faucet is frozen, simply pour warm water on it. Even on the coldest days, two pitchers of warm water will de-ice a faucet.

Check the rink frequently when flooding. Sometimes pressure from the rising water can start to pull the plastic off the boards and you have to restaple. Even at night, I go out every two or three hours with a flashlight, checking for problems. You won't (and shouldn't) sleep much on the night you flood.

First Ice.....

Now comes the east part. Put the hose in the cellar (if you leave it out it will freeze) and wait for the water to freeze. But wait patiently. The water will skim over quickly but it may be three or four days — maybe longer — before the ice will be thick enough to skate on. I test mine by holding onto a low board and slowly transferring my weight to the ice until I hear it crack. If it doesn't crack, I put my entire weight on the ice and walk around. But the main point here is that you want to be wearing shoes — not skates — when you check the ice. A hole in your plastic liner made by the blade of an overeager skater is an impossible repair job.

A Goal.....

Once the ice is ready, you'll have a lot more fun on your rink if you can get or make a goal. We got an old one from a nearby rink that was going out of business. Be sure to take the goal off the ice every night or whenever you're not using it. If you leave the goal in place it will gradually sink into the ice, creating a dangerous and immovable obstacle. We simply slide our goal over to the low boards and tip it out of the rink so that the crossbar lies on the ground. It's an easy matter to tilt it back onto the ice when we want to use it again.

Resurfacing.....

The First Commandment of a backyard rink as it applies to all skaters over 10 years old is: If you skate you shovel. After the ice has been used for a while and snow starts to build up on it, we scrape it clean with a plastic shovel (plastic shovels seem to glide more easily over the ice than do metal shovels). If you're going to skate more that day, don't resurface. Even in single-digit cold it takes water longer to freeze on natural ice than it does on artificial ice. An occasional scraping every hour or so will work fine.

Don't resurface until you're finished skating for the day. It's best to avoid resurfacing until late in the afternoon or at night. Temperatures are colder at these times and the angle of the sun — which can cause melting along the boards even in sub-freezing temperatures — isn't a factor. Shoveling the ice after a snowstorm is another matter. A snowblower (one light enough to lift over the low boards) is probably the best option, though we still use shovels and revel in the exercise.

Let There Be Lights.....

If you have an electrical outlet outdoors you might want to light your rink for night skating. We light our using five 150-watt floodlights mounted on the garage and on the back porch roof.

Taking It Down.....

Sometime in March, as the sun moves through the equinox and temperatures rise, it will become obvious that skating is over for the season and it's time to take down the rink. It is the gloomiest job in the gloomiest month. We drain ours by using a dandelion picker (a three-foot wooden shaft with a notched metal tip) to jab holes in the shallow end (Note: if you grain the rink from the deep end the greater volume of water might saturate the ground and end up — as our did one year — flowing into your cellar.) Drain the rink gradually in dry weather over a period of about two to four days.

When the plastic is exposed, we use a pair of shears to slice it into roughly six-foot strips which can be folded in half, rolled up, tied with a string and stacked like cordwood pending the arrival of the trash collector or your trip to the dump. After the plastic is out, it's an easy matter to pull the tacks out of the material you used to seal the seams (be careful not to lose a tack in the grass or it could piece next year's rink) and to take down the fencing above the high boards (we transfer ours directly into the garden where it serves as a trellis for peas).

It's easy to pull out the low boards and to store them in the garage. Fill in the post holes as you pull out each board. The high boards can present a storage problem because of the 10-foot two-by-fours attached to them. But we just lean ours against the back of the garage. Removing them is a two-person job. Throw a fistful of grass seed on the tamped down dirt above the post holes and, after a few mowings, you'll hardly be able to see where your rink had been.

The question we're asked most frequently is: doesn't the rink kill the grass? No. Indeed, the plastic liner serves as a kind of green house so that the grass that had been under the rink is often turning green ahead of the rest of the yard.

There's no sugarcoating it, a backyard rink is a lot of work. Is it worth it? It is on evenings after work when Barbara and I clomp down the wooden runway leading from the porch to the rink and, with the rink lights off, skate by the light of a rising full moon; or on a weekend when we look out the kitchen window and see a child shuffling in that special learning-to-skate awkwardness outlined against the red sky of a late winter afternoon.