The science of building the perfect snowman

Everything begins with a proper foundation.
Everything begins with a proper foundation.
Image: Reuters/Chris Wattie
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Building a snowman, that universal celebration of winter, is actually a deceivingly difficult task. Every year, around this time of winter’s arrival in the northern hemisphere, “build a snowman” peaks on Google Trends. And there’s another flurry of interest, thanks to the Disney blockbuster, Frozen, featuring a wisecracking snowman named Olaf and the sweet princess duet, “Do you want to build a snowman?”

There are more than 89,000 YouTube videos to teach them how. Two years ago, someone even patented instructions on the process.

Humans have been making sculptures out of snow for thousands of years, but despite our primal instincts, we’re clearly still struggling to perfect them. “It’s a special activity that’s very old. If you’re making a snowman you’re probably participating in one of the first forms of folk-art known to man and maybe one of the very few activities we share with our ancestors,” says Bob Eckstein, author of The History of the Snowman.

So what’s the best way?

One of the best sources for snowman construction comes from a plan by an engineering class at Bluefield State College in West Virginia published in the journal Industrial Engineer (paywall). The decade-old paper describes a figure entirely made from snow, requiring no additional supports, materials, or professional sculpting skills. To accomplish this, the most important consideration is finding the right snow.

Professor Roy Pruett, who was responsible for the plans, told Quartz: “The snow has to be somewhere right around 30°F (-1 °C), where there’s just a little moisture in it. It can’t be too cold or not cold enough.”

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Temperature is paramount, says Pruett. Too high a temperature and the snow will be wet and lack strength. If the snow is too cold and dry, it will be too powdery to form stable snowballs, which are then built out into the base, torso, and head of the snowman. You’ll need a lot of this good quality snow: the engineers’ ideal snowman—standing 6 feet tall—takes almost 19 cubic feet of compacted snow. Proportion—the ratio of each segment to the next—is important for stability. The engineers suggest diameters of 3 feet, 2 feet, and 1 foot for the foundation, torso, and head, respectively.

Where you build your snowman matters, too. There should be a “foundation of at least two inches of wet snow,” since the depth of snow in your building zone becomes your building material. It’s best to avoid the bases of hills near sledding paths and windy areas—at least if you want your snowman to have a long life.