Thursday, January 8, 2015

Ice Lanterns

When I posted a picture of the ice lanterns we made last winter, I got so many questions about how we made them. 

Apparently, just freeze water in balloons isn't quite a complete enough description. I decided when we made them again, I would do a complete step by step guide. 

One of the main components is cold weather. Really cold weather. Our mild December weather has been replaced with bitterly cold January weather, so conditions are perfect for ice lantern making. When I arrived home yesterday, having braved the -25 degree wind chills, I announced that today was the day for ice lantern making. Bug and Monkey were both very excited. Duck was excited because everyone else was.

Ice Lantern Instructions (Or a Tutorial on Making The Most of Ridiculously Cold Days)

(Bug was very into the idea of a tutorial on the lanterns, so he took most of the photos. Making sure I give credit where credit is due.)

Step 1: Gather your components: You'll need balloons, food coloring, a sink, and subzero temperatures.

Step 2 (Optional): Add food coloring to balloon. I love the colored ice, but if you have objections to color, food coloring, or ending up with blue and green fingertips, this can be skipped. If you do want color, add the food coloring first, before filling the balloon with water. It's almost impossible to do this the other way around. 

Add a lot more food coloring that you think you need; we added two large squeezes from the bottle. As the ice forms, it tends to exclude most of the food coloring, so it will not be as deeply colored as the initial water, which is why you need so much.

Step 3: Fill balloon with cold water. Hook balloon over the end of the faucet and fill, supporting the balloon with one hand to avoid potential disaster. 

Inform your children that indoor water balloon fights in January are not acceptable. Fill until the balloon is the size you want your lantern (but not so large that the balloon bursts). This will be limited to what size of balloons you use. I like somewhat larger lanterns, so I use large balloons and add water until the balloon is somewhat bigger than a huge grapefruit. Disconnect the balloon from the faucet, remove all the air, and then carefully tie the balloon closed.

Step 4: Freeze balloon. This is where those frigid temperatures come into play. I'm sure this could be done in a freezer, but you want plenty of room around the balloon so it retains its nice round shape and freezes evenly. Do not place the balloon in snow to freeze. 

(Again, this is a photo of what not to do. Even though the snow seems to perfect to hold the balloons upright and nice and still, do not do it!)

Turns out, there is a reason they make igloos out of snow. It's an excellent insulator; the bottom of balloon that was sitting in the snow didn't freeze, so we had to move the balloons onto an open area of our deck to even out the freezing.

This part needs to be timed carefully. The goal with freezing is just to get an outer shell of ice, but have the inside still liquid. Don't forget about your balloons and leave them out all night, otherwise you will have giant ice marbles. These are also very pretty, but they are most definitely not lanterns. With our temperatures of -10 and windchill of -25, it took a little less than 3 hours for the balloons to freeze the appropriate amount. If the balloons are smaller, or if it's colder, it will take less time. And vise versa. I recommend making a couple extra to experiment with.

Step 5: Remove the balloon. Working one at a time, we brought the frozen balloons inside, set them in the sink, and cut off the balloon. 

Now, we have a lovely ice sphere.  

From here on out, I usually handle things with a paper towel, because ice is slippery and so very cold.

Step 6: Cut off one side. This is my kids favorite part. Holding the ice ball very carefully (or leaving the sink to do the holding), use a knife to cut off one side. 

I usually cut off the side that was on the bottom of the balloon, since it tends to freeze in a funny shape anyways. It's more of a gentle hacking motion than a cutting motion. 

Dump out all the unfrozen contents, leaving a beautiful ice shell. Prepare for your hands to be very, very cold.

Step 7:  Add a candle and display the lovely ice lantern.

We place our lanterns on our front porch. We tried leaving a few inside last year, but apparently they do better in their native environment of arctic air.

I love seeing the candles flicker inside their beautiful crystalline spheres. I feel that this family activity and the shine of colored light helps do just a little to dispel the sometimes oppressive winter darkness.


  1. Awesome! I'll be making these tonight! :)

    1. I hope you did make them. If you did, you'll have to let me know how they turned out.

  2. How fun & very beautiful! I'm going to try this with my kids.

  3. I wish it was cold enough here for these!

    Oh, who am I kidding? I'm glad it's NEVER that cold!

    1. I agree. If I had to choose between nice weather and ice lanterns, I would choose nice weather every time!

  4. They are so cool. Wish I could make them here but it never gets that cold here in CA.

    1. I'd love if it never got this cold. This is just our small attempt to make the most of these cold days.

  5. How pretty! I love this idea!!

    1. They are pretty! And fun! (I try not to use pretty too much, or I'm worried my boys will revolt against doing pretty projects :))