Friday, August 16, 2019

Handling ice, Part 2: the ice itself

In the previous post, I talked about how ice was handled when it had to be moved along the length of a wooden deck used for icing refrigerator cars (you can review that post here: ). In the present post, I want to say a few words about the ice itself.
     One of the largest ice consumers in the world in the early 1950s was Pacific Fruit Express, using about two and a half million tons of ice in 1952. A summary of the PFE approaches to ice (both natural and manufactured) can be found in the PFE book (Pacific Fruit Express, 2nd edition, by Thompson, Church and Jones, Signature Press, 2000). Here I want to just show a few illustrations.
     Since the 1920s, the standard PFE manufactured ice block weighed 300 pounds. It was a truly imposing object to handle. Often in PFE ice houses and on ice decks, a sign could be seen, that read "That block of ice is bigger and tougher than you are. Watch it. Safety first.”
     These ice blocks were made in rectangular steel containers called “cans.” The cans were handled with a system of overhead hoists. The first step was to fill the cans with city water, as seen in the photo below in the Roseville ice plant in 1924 (this was the largest artificial ice plant in the world). Six full cans weighed almost a ton.

(These first three black-and-white images are PFE photos, from the author’s collection, now in the California State Railroad Museum.)
     The filled cans were moved to an opening in the ice plant floor, where they were lowered into a circulating brine solution, cooled below 20 deg. F. All this planking is removable.

     When a group of cans had fully frozen, they were lifted out of the brine and taken to a station where they could be hosed with warm water to loosen the ice, then the ice blocks could slide out.

     It’s important to recognize that the ice was frozen as quickly as possible. This means that dissolved air in the original water fill would be rejected by the freezing ice in the form of bubbles, but during rapid freezing, these bubbles could not escape and remained trapped in the ice, making it opaque. If freezing is done sufficiently slowly, these bubbles can escape and leave the ice clear, as is usually desirable for consumer ice.
     Here is a photo of ice arriving on the ice deck in Roseville. It is obvious that the ice is quite white in appearance. This is what one sees in reefer icing photos from anywhere in North America. The burlap covers, incidentally, are to reduce ice block wastage (by melting) before they are needed.

      I mention this because some modelers have used clear plastic blocks to represent ice (several commercial kit makers have offered such ice, including Campbell and some others). But of course this is entirely non-prototypical. Note also that the ice blocks shown above do not have sharp edges and corners, but have become rounded with handling and wastage.
     My view is that the least one can do with clear plastic ice blocks is to sand them to make the surfaces cloudy, and round all edges and corners. This is still a translucent ice block rather than white, but to many viewers it “reads right” as ice, where a dead white block might not.

Note that these figures have the two ice tools I described in the previous post (see first paragraph for link), the bi-dent at left, and the pickaroon. I will say more in a future post about my model ice deck.
     I will return to modeling in reporting on changes to the ice deck in my layout town of Shumala in subsequent posts.
Tony Thompson


  1. Sunshine models (no longer in business) once made cast-resin ice. And instead of rectangular blocks, they had chunks and partly-melted blocks, and things. Are such shapes appropriate for our model ice docks? Or were most of the blocks "perfect"?


  2. Yes, I have one of those sets. There are a bunch of rectangular blocks, along with, as you say, chunks and partly melted pieces. The ice was manufactured as large blocks, and was chopped into smaller pieces as it was loaded into the car. I don't think many partly melted or chunk pieces would have been left around between icing jobs, but of course if you are modeling icing in progress, the chunks work.

    I have not used my Sunshine ice pieces on the deck (yet). I don't think they are much of an asset, but of course it depends on what you are trying to represent.
    Tony Thompson

  3. The white coloring of the ice is something I really hadn't noticed before. Now one is left in somewhat of a quandary . . . do you model the ice accurately (which many may think is incorrect), or use the translucent look that most viewers will likely think is accurate?

  4. I know what you mean, Jack. I tried painting one of my clear plastic ice blocks dead white, doesn't look very good. But visibly translucent isn't really right, either. I am trying to abrade the surfaces enough so it loses most of the translucent look. I think that might be good enough.
    Tony Thompson

  5. Good call on the sanding of blocks to maintain some level of transparency to ensure that it "reads right". That's a trick that hollywood uses constantly with props. It should look authentic and sometimes actually authenticity can look too fake. It's worth bending the rules of reality a bit at times to maintain the illusion.

  6. In re-reading the comments this morning, a thought hit me. I wonder if using something like polypropylene would give the right look? I just looked at a cutting board made of the stuff, and while mostly opaque, it does have just a hint of transparency to it.