How it Works: The Ice Resurfacer

From the Winter 2020 edition of Learn to Skate USA: The Magazine

As Charlie Brown once said, “There are three things in life that people like to stare at: a flowing stream, a crackling fire and a Zamboni clearing the ice.”

Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of going to a hockey game or skating competition is watching the ice resurfacer glide across the ice, a smooth glassy line trailing behind the machine. Have you ever wondered how it creates the perfect smooth ice skaters love?

Before the invention of the ice resurfacer, maintaining the ice at rinks across the country was a laborious task that took over an hour. Rink employees would walk behind a tractor-led scraper to scoop up shavings and spray water. Because the process was so time-consuming, one man began experimenting with mechanized methods of resurfacing the ice.

An early prototype of the Zamboni.

Frank Zamboni, the owner of the Iceland skating rink with his brother, Lawrence, and cousin, Pete, in Paramount, California, created a working prototype of a mechanized resurfacer that could clean the ice in 20 minutes.

In 1949, he filed a patent for his Model A ice resurfacing machine, today known as a Zamboni. Word quickly spread, and soon professional hockey games were using a Zamboni to clean the ice between periods, and Olympic champion Sonja Henie even took one on her ice skating tour.

A lot of the work a Zamboni does happens in the conditioner, the piece trailing behind the driver (image credit: Zamboni).

So how does a Zamboni work? Most of the work happens in the mechanism underneath the driver, called a conditioner.

First, a blade shaves a thin layer of ice from its surface, and a horizontal screw called an auger collects the shavings. A vertical screw propels the shavings into the snow tank (next to the driver’s seat). Then, water is fed from the large tank in front to rinse the ice. Dirty water is collected with a squeegee, vacuumed, filtered and returned to the tank. Clean water is delivered to the ice through a pipe and spread evenly by a towel pulled across the ice behind the conditioner.

All of this happens in the blink of an eye as the driver glides across the ice, creating the perfect glossy ice that skaters can’t wait to mark up again.