without a carrot…

Building a snowman all by yourself.  Because your friends are lame, your parents are busy, and snowmen are awesome.

Building a snowman isn’t quite as easy as we all seem to think. You might be saying: “I made snowmen when I was 5!” True. But your Dad was helping you. And when you were older, you (probably) had friends.

But what happens when you get a bit older, and your friends don’t want to make snowmen anymore? Could you still do it? Think about it: can you lift that 2nd snowball onto the base[1] snowball all by yourself? CAN YOU??

No, you probably can’t. Because if you think about how big that ball should be (for a respectable snowman), it should be a good 60cm in diameter (therefor 30cm in radius). That means it has a volume of:

43 π(30cm)3 = 113 097cm3

which is 113 097mL or 113L, which is 113kg. This assumes that a good wet snow is about the same density of water (it isn’t…). And while it is surprising that a ball of water of radius 30 cm should weigh 113kg (is that right?? Somebody please check my math). But as I write this I am getting less lazy. So lets say our snowball-man snow (a wet wet snow) is at the upper end of the density of snow (therefore about 0.8g/mL, or ~80% the density of water) which brings us to about 90.5kg. Still a pretty heavy snowball.

Have you ever tried to roll a 90kg guy up a hill? Or dead lift one and set him on top of a larger, deader guy?

Sounds less easy, doesn’t it? What I had to ask myself was: had I ever made a snowman without my Dad? AND: how small were our snowmen?

It may or may not surprise you that not long ago I found myself in Iceland after a snowstorm with the most gorgeous wet snow. But there was no one with whom to engage in a snowball fight, and absolutely no one wanted to make a snowman.

I hadn’t really appreciated how hard it was to make a snowman all by myself, but once I’d started, I certainly couldn’t allow myself to fail.

So I was all in, and all my physical prowess and human ingenuity was set to work on this snow man. And in so doing, I realized how much practical physics a group of kids will absorb in the process of making the classic 3-ball snowman[2].


Why We Often Don’t Finish Our Snowmen

One of the reasons we so rarely make a full snowman is because:

  1. The Lure of the Fortification — by the time we have that nice big base ball, it is so very tempting to build a bunch more base balls and make a wall or fort. It is much easier to make many base balls and roll them into place than it is to get a smaller ball on top. And a snow fort is FAR more practical in the free time of little boys and girls on a fine snowy day.
  2. Legal Guardian calls you in for cookies, hot chocolate, lunch, dinner, school or bedtime.
  3. Teacher calls you in from Recess.
  4. In trying to raise the second ball, it splits, and you have to start over again. This only has to happen a couple (or zero) times before the snowman project turns into a rigorous snowball fight.

But I’m not a little kid anymore, and Mom and Dad aren’t here.

I’m a grown-up:  I make my own cookies, and lift my own snowballs.

Making the Snowman

Snowball Basics

The principle of the snowball is so well known that we have terms like ‘the snowball effect’ and ‘things snowballed out of control’. Basically, when you have a nice wet snow, then the snow is sticky, or cohesive. When you set a snowball of a critical mass on the ground, it’s weight will push into and stick to the snow below it. As you roll this ball, it will collect the snow beneath it, and grow as you roll it. A small snowball rolling down a hill, as cartoons so pointedly teach us, will gather speed and mass as it descends, and can be quite massive by the time it reaches the bottom.

If you are stuck with powdery snow, you can apply pressure and ‘make’ the snow sticky, and in this way you can make snowballs in sub-ideal conditions.

This process is not to be confused with snowballs for throwing. Certainly, you can roll out a snowball and drop it on your enemies, or heft it into the air to hit a jerk kid or a sibling square in the chest, or perhaps launch it out of a catapult. But in a standard snowball fight, speed, accuracy, and quantity of ammunition are what count. Your success in a cuthroat snowball fight will be largely determined on your pre-existing stockpile of snowballs and the rate at which you can make and hurl more. If you are trying to roll out your snowballs in these conditions you are going to find yourself cold and wet and disappointed. No, for a snowball fight (even though that’s not what we’re talking about here), you just scoop, press, and throw. It’s important.

The Base Ball

Generally, you roll this until it is so big and heavy that you can’t roll it anymore. If you were a clever kid, or a careful planner, then you probably started your snowball a specific distance from your desired snowman site, and then made adjustments by zigzagging appropriately to reach your target.

If you make a snowball (as you should) at least 1m in diameter, that means that your snowball (by the conventions of our previous calculation) is over 400kg!

Holy shit, but that’s the deal. I’m sure my base snowballs were this big when I was a kid. But how did I move it? Even with a friend, it’s a big fucking lump of snow for a couple of 60lbs. kids.

Of course, we used microwave technology (or at least microwave theory).

Natural Frequency

Every object has a natural frequency, based on its shape and mass (and probably other factors). Microwaves work, I have repeatedly been told, by generating microwaves at the natural frequency of water, causing the water molecules in the food to vibrate and heat up the rest of the food.

I don’t know why this results in metal causing sparks, plates getting disproportionately hot, or why running the microwave empty is a no-no, but that is an investigation for another day. The point is that Stuff has a natural frequency, and snowballs fall under the category of ‘Stuff’.

So if you lean into that snowball and get it to move, and then time your next shove well enough, it will rock a bit more. You can keep this up, shoving at the snowball’s natural frequency, until it rocks right over. Then start again, and keep going. Be careful not to shove too suddnely, else you might fracture, shatter, or otherwise destroy your base ball.

The Second Ball

This is where all the craft comes in. You need to pace this ball out so that it is right up to your base ball by the time it is the right size. But you aren’t going to lift it. Not without Dad. Even if you’re a grown up, you’re not going to lift it without Dad. So what did I do, in a village of 160 people, in Iceland, after a snowstorm, with wet wet snow?

I did what they say the Egyptians did[3]: I built a ramp.

A nice smooth ramp, with a gradual incline. A gentle slope.sisyphus

And then I rolled that ball up the ramp, a little at a time. Because it wasn’t a smooth ball and the snow wasn’t slippery, I was able to push it up a little, and then lean on it so that it stayed in place while I rested. You must be very aware of your lateral pressure! You do not want your snowball to fall off the side of your ramp. When you are near the top, push with precision rather than brute force. The Buddha would tell you to push with compassion and not your rage[4]: You don’t want to be Sisyphus, knocking it right over the other side. No. you. don’t.

Once the second ball was on the base, I was quite concerned it would dislodge and fall. It is windy in Iceland. So I worked it gently, rotating slightly back and forth until I felt it had nestled comfortably into place.

The Head

The last ball you roll is the smallest. You should be able to pick it up (but it will still be a little heavy! ~27kg, if you don’t suck), and place it on the second ball. Then all that’s needed is the face and the arms. Snowman arms made of snow are usually stubby and lame unless you are exceptionally talented. There aren’t a lot of trees in Iceland, so I had to settle for some skinny little reeds. And the face offered more trouble than one might expect…

Snowman Faces in Iceland

More of a problem than you might think. The traditional carrot nose was out of the question: food is really expensive here (especially in winter), and there was no way I was going to take a carrot outside growing season[5] and put it on a snowman!

Eyes made out of coal? Not likely. Most of Iceland is heated by geothermal technology. Not a lot of need for coal, so don’t expect to find any. Luckily, beer was legalized here in the 80s (I’m told), so a bottle nose and bottle cap eyes did nicely. I didn’t have enough bottle caps for a good smile, but someone who knew the area told me there were rocks beneath us. Unfortunately, the rocks were muddy, so it looked like my snowman had been eating poo.

Engineering Note: Fourth Ball is Fifth Business

The ramp takes a lot more snow than you might think, and can take quite a while to build. I’d advise rolling an extra, 4th ball (it’s really the 2nd ball you’re going to use (or maybe the 3rd, if you didn’t plan it out from the beginning), but it isn’t part of the 3 balls of the snowman, so we’ll call it the 4th. You can use it to get a good mass of snow in your ramp zone, then smash and sculpt it.


Now you have a snowman. It was surprisingly warm the next day, so he shrunk a bit, and the eyes and mouth fell out. Then it rained and he shrunk more. Then he was hit by a truck that was delivering an oven. So. very. ironic.

melted snowman
fallen stones, melted snow, and broken dreams…

1. I realize now that we’re going to have to establish some nomenclature here, to avoid unnecessary ambiguity. Because, in a snowman, which ball do you consider the first snowball, and which is the third? If you’re making the snowman, I bet the first ball is the base ball, and the third ball is the head, counting from the order you made and placed them.

But if you’re looking at a snowman, I’ll bet a lot of people count down from the top, meaning, to them, the first ball is the head, and the 3rd ball is the base.

2. If you say anything about 2-ball snowmen, you can just leave now. 2-ball snowmen are for people that grew up in Florida, or a place where they have trouble counting to three. And we’re not talking about 4-ball snowmen, either. Those are stupid. Why do you want your snowman to have a tiny head? If a magic wizard brings him to life, who is going to date him? No snowlady is going to look twice at a four-balled tiny headed snowman! You might think you’re showing off, but you’re just being an ass-hole. Don’t be an asshole. Your 3-ball snowman will have hope. Your 4-ball snowman will just make it look like you are trying to show off and that you suck and that you suck at showing off.If you’re not making 3-ball snowmen, then we have nothing more to talk about.

(… but if you are making a 3-ball snowman with a secret (or displayed) snowball resting on his head, then it’s okay. Especially if the extra snowball is concealed under a hat or turban. Our snowmen have a right to defend themselves, and be fashionable. The important thing is that the extra snowball is not it’s head. Because that’s just stupid).

3. Even though I still maintain that the artificial limestone theory makes way more sense. Either way, ramps were still certainly used at some point during the pyramids’ construction…

4. Genghis Khan, on the other hand would simply eat the snowball, squat on the base snowball, and shit the second ball into place. He would then probably piss on it, to that everyone would know that it was his, and to remind the snowball who’s boss.

5. This, I suppose, is debatable. Since Iceland draws much of its heat from geothermal sources, the price of heat and electricity is exceedingly cheap, and since the population density is quite low, land outside the city is not particularly expensive. This means that Greenhouses are far less expensive to run and maintain than in other economies. I have, in fact, been told that Iceland is Europe’s largest producer of bananas (which, if true, is shocking (except, perhaps, in light of the above information)

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