Ice sculptor carves out a niche in Erie

In a Jan. 25, 2017 photo, Bill Sandusky uses custom-made electric hand tools to create ice carvings at Erie Ice Works, in Erie, Pa. (AP)

ERIE, Pa. (AP) — Chain saws and a vast assortment of handheld power tools litter Bill Sandusky’s Erie Ice Works studio.

Inside the 4,500-square-foot facility at 1220 W. 20th St. are two large freezers – one measuring 14 feet by 16 feet, the other 22 feet by 10 feet.

Nearby sit two Clinebell blockmakers, each of which can make two 300-pound, crystal-clear ice blocks.

Sandusky, a 52-year-old Erie native, opens the door to one of the freezers. A low hum is audible from a computer numeric controller, an ice-carving machine for fine-detail replication of logos.

Sandusky calls the $15,000 piece of equipment “my second employee.”

Scattered about his studio walls are dozens of photos and newspaper clippings depicting his ice-carvings.

Sandusky has been carving ice for more than 25 years, at one point he was competing throughout the United States and Europe.

These days, he’s content appearing at winter festivals and running his business, which he opened in 2013 after returning to Erie in 2012 following a 12-year stay in Colorado.

“You meet a lot of people at the festivals,” Sandusky said. “The biggest thing is not so much doing (the carvings), but the finished work, when people see it. A lot of people are kind of amazed by the detail. A lot of people are amazed at how you can put it into 3-D.”

These days, he’s content appearing at winter festivals and running his business, which he opened in 2013 after returning to Erie in 2012 following a 12-year stay in Colorado.

Perfect outdoor ice-carving weather occurs when temperatures hover in the 15-degree to 25-degree range, Sandusky said.

The coldest weather he ever carved in was in Fairbanks, Alaska, when the thermometer bottomed out at minus 42.

“It’s almost like working with glass,” Sandusky said. “It’s really, really touchy. You can’t use any heat or anything like that. You have to know the properties of ice, what it will do, what it won’t do, what you can get away with, what you can’t get away with.”

Usually, he sculpts ice carvings for businesses, individuals, private parties, corporations, festivals and clubs.

During winter, his busy season, Sandusky completes five to 10 ice carvings a week, each of which sells for about $350. At winter festivals, he commands at least $150 an hour for a live carving demonstration.

Even so, the bigger piece of Sandusky’s business involves the sale of packaged ice, block ice and dry ice – especially once spring arrives.

He distributes ice to convenience stores, businesses, construction companies, fairs and festivals, including the Roar on the Shore motorcycle rally.

Sandusky said he sells about 40,000 pounds of ice a week during summer and about 12,000 pounds of ice weekly during winter.

“It does really well. The packaged ice side of the business has actually overtaken the ice carvings in revenue,” Sandusky said. “It has done very well. Business has grown tenfold every year.”

But on weekends from November through March, Sandusky can be found carving ice at some festival in the tri-state area.

Sandusky said he can tailor a carving – sculpted from 300-pound ice blocks made in his studio – to whatever a customer wants.

He carves for weddings and parties, holiday-themed events, corporate meetings, festivals and fairs. Tabletop centerpieces, food displays and drink luges are some of his most popular works.

Sandusky started carving ice in the late 1980s, when he worked as a production manager for the Marriott Copley Place hotel in Boston.

“You never got paid for it. You would go down to the loading docks after your shift and you would just learn,” Sandusky said.

Looking back now, Sandusky said he never envisioned it would lead to a vocation.

And yet, by the end of this winter, Sandusky said he plans to relocate his business to a larger Erie facility of about 6,000 to 8,000 square feet with loading docks.

“It’s much better to work for yourself, and I have so much more freedom now than I’ve had before,” Sandusky said. “The economy is not real stable, but I have a service that nobody else has. I have a niche. Although they do ice carvings in bigger cities like Cleveland, Buffalo and Pittsburgh, we have the same work they have in these other, bigger cities, if not better. It’s right here. The freedom is just unbelievable.”

The most enjoyable aspect of his job, Sandusky said with a laugh, is “just being the boss and not really having to answer to anybody – except my wife.”


Erie ice sculptor Bill Sandusky is scheduled to appear at these upcoming events:

-Feb. 12, Lake Erie Arboretum’s 12th annual Winterfest, noon-3:30 p.m., at Frontier Park.

-Feb. 17, Wintertime at the Maritime festival, 6-10 p.m., at Erie Maritime Museum, 150 E. Front St.