The Zamboni ice resurfacer was invented by Frank Zamboni, an Italian immigrant born at the turn of the century.

In 1920, Zamboni and his brothers opened an auto repair shop but soon switched to building and installing large refrigeration units for the dairy industry. When business was slow, they opened an ice rink in Paramount, California, and named it “Iceland.”

The technology behind indoor ice rinks and refrigeration systems is the same. The main difference is that refrigerant does not cool the ice directly. Rather, it cools brine water, a calcium-chloride solution and antifreeze agent, which is pumped through a system of pipes under the ice, typically embedded in a concrete or sand base.

At the time, clearing and smoothing the ice meant towing a heavy scraper over the ice with a tractor. Walking behind the scraper, three to four workers scooped up the shavings, sprayed the ice with water, and then squeegeed the surface. This process took more than an hour, much to the unhappiness of skaters.

In the 1940s, with his background in cooling and refrigeration, Zamboni started to work on a prototype for an ice-resurfacing machine.

He introduced the Model A Zamboni in 1949. It had four-wheel drive and four-wheel steering on a hand-built chassis made with war-surplus axles and engine parts. The surplus parts included a hydraulic cylinder from a Douglas bomber.

The Model A was the largest machine he ever built, measuring 14 feet, 9 inches in length and 9 feet, 6 inches in height. Today’s large-model 520 is only slightly larger at 16.5 feet in length and 12.8 feet in height. They remain 7 feet wide.

The original Zamboni featured a large snow tank to collect ice shavings and two large water tanks. The machine also housed a cutting blade, conditioner, drivetrain, controls, operator seat, engine, and fuel tank (if it was a gas-powered model). Today, most Zamboni machines use natural gas, propane, or electric power to supply the clean operation preferable for indoors.

A Zamboni machine sprays hot water to melt the top layer of ice. The melted water then flows into the small grooves in the ice, which helps smooth out the unevenness. The larger models of Zamboni can remove close to 2,500 pounds of compacted snow. At the same time, it leaves behind about 1,500 pounds of water.

The typical Zamboni driving pattern is concentric overlapping ovals that measure about one-half the width of the rink. Today’s models typically have a 15- to 16-foot turning radius. Most Zamboni drivers work clockwise, but the direction is optional. The Zamboni typically needs 15 passes down an average (17,000-square-foot) ice rink.

Approximately 200 custom Zambonis are manufactured each year. They are hand assembled, and the lead time can be over eight months. Zamboni machines are not street legal, as they are not considered motor vehicles. Driving about 2,000 miles per year, they can run for decades with proper maintenance.

A few fun facts:

  • The first Zamboni sold for $5,000 in 1950 to the Pasadena Wintergarden Ice Rink. Later ones were sold to the Ice Capades, popular traveling entertainment shows featuring theatrical ice skating performances.
  • In 1954 the Boston Bruins became the first National Hockey League team to use a Zamboni.
  • There were 20 Zamboni machines on hand at the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games to resurface the various ice sheets.
  • Over 12,000 Zamboni name-brand machines have been built to date.
  • Each tire on the Zamboni machine is hand-studded with about 400 tungsten carbide studs on each full set of tires.
  • The cost of a full-sized Zamboni machine today starts in the low six figures. 


Doris Montag is a homespun historian and an exhibit curator who researches and displays historical collections of ordinary things, such as can openers, crochet, toy sewing machines, hand corn planters, powder compacts, egg cartons, and more. Contact or follow her on Facebook, HistoryofOrdinaryThings.

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