What Kind of Snow Do You Need to Make a Snowman?


It snowed enough last night that the schools shut down and your kids have off. You just got a notice from work that you’re not due in either. To enjoy this impromptu snow day to the fullest, the kids have asked to make a snowman with you. You think it’d be a good way to commemorate your day off as well. What kind of snow do you need to make a snowman?

To make a snowman that’s structurally sound, you need wet snow with some powder, but do make sure the snow isn’t too wet, ideally between 3 and 8 percent moisture. Wet snow has more free water, which acts as the glue that keeps your snowman’s base, abdomen, and head standing tall.

What’s the difference between wet and powdery snow? When you have the right type of snow, what size should the snowman’s head be compared to his base? We’ll answer all those questions and more in this article, so make sure you keep reading! 

Here’s the Best Type of Snow to Make a Snowman

 Although powdery snow if your best friend when shoveling, if you want to build a snowman, it’s about the worst type of snow you could have to work with. The temperature of the snow’s surface is well under freezing so melting isn’t an issue. This may sound like an upside, but since the snow melts slower, powdery snow lacks water. When you try to roll powdery snow into a snowball, it falls apart in your hands. 

Water–or, more specifically, moisture content–really is the key component to snowman construction. That’s why wet snow will best benefit your snowman-making endeavors. However, even all wet snow isn’t guaranteed to work. Why is that?

Wet snow has varying degrees of moisture, which is how much free water is in the snow compared to the number of ice crystals. Powdery snow is considered dry, as it has little if any water and thus little moisture. Moist snow has 3 percent water or less, wet snow has up to 8 percent water, and very wet snow has up to 15 percent water. If you have more water than that, it’s not snow, but slush.

Moist and wet snow are your top options for building a snowman. The free water in this snow is like glue, binding the snow together. If your snow is considered very wet, it’s like trying to do a crafts project with too much glue. The glue never dries and you end up with a mess. 

Whether the snow on the ground is loose and powdery or wet and compact all has to do with the type of snowflakes that fall. Here’s an overview. 

  • Rimed crystals: Often accompanied by graupel–hail-like precipitation that falls when water droplets cool quickly, attach to snowflakes, and freeze–rimed snow crystals have 6 sides and typically flat bases.
  • Radiating dendrites: A dendrite is a snowflake with branches, so to speak, that look like trees. With radiating dendrites, polycrystal develops from the dendrite, forming long branches. Radiating dendrites are also referred to as spatial dendrites. 
  • Bullet rosettes: Ice grains, or crystalline solids, can nucleate, which simply means they have a nucleus. Snow crystals will grow off this nucleus, typically at different sizes, developing into bullet rosettes.
  • Twelve-sided snowflake: A 12-sided snowflake is truly a wondrous sight to behold if you’re lucky enough to spot one! These flakes start from capped columns, twisting at an angle of 30 degrees to branch off into 6 sides apiece.
  • Triangular crystals: When temperatures hit 28 degrees Fahrenheit or so, the chances of triangular crystals falling from the sky increase. The snow crystal’s plates have arms, typically at the corners while the base is a standard triangular shape. These crystals are not super common. 
  • Double plates: A double plate may begin as a columnar snow crystal, with one plate becoming attached to the other. There’ll be a size disparity between the plates, as one is much bigger than the second one. The next time a snowflake falls, it may just be a double plate! 
  • Split stars and plates: Not all double plates stay that way. If the second plate is equally as large as the first one, then the snow crystal can be identified as a split star or plate. 
  • Capped columns: Capped columns have plate-like structures, with dual plates on either side of the thick columnar base. If you have a keen eye, you just might be able to see some capped columns during the next snowfall. 
  • Hollow columns: Unlike capped columns, which have a snow crystal base on either side of the column, hollow columns do not. Instead, their hexagonal, cone-like shape makes them look like rods. That said, due to their small size, you’re not likely to see them easily. 
  • Needles: Even thinner than hollow column snow crystals are needles. You need temperatures of around 23 degrees for needles to form. Upon landing on the ground, they form a hair-like texture. 
  • Stellar dendrites: Besides radiating dendrites, you might also see stellar dendrites. These large snow crystals have a diameter of about 4 millimeters at most, which is pretty big for a snow crystal! This is the classic snowflake everyone knows and loves.  
  • Fernlike stellar dendrites: If a stellar dendrite branches off even more, you might get a fernlike stellar dendrite. This has extra side branches with a fern-like texture. They exceed even stellar dendrites in size, as a fernlike stellar dendrite snow crystal is 5 millimeters in diameter at the smallest. 
  • Sectored plates: A flatter but still visually appealing snow crystal, a sectored plate is often hexagonal, but not exclusively. 
  • Stellar plates: Also thin, stellar plates look like stars and require temperatures of 5 to 28 degrees to appear.               
  • Simple prisms: The last snow crystal we want to discuss is the simple prism, which can vary in shape based on the speed of snowfall. A simple prism might be flat and hexagonal, long and columnar, or blocky.

What Else Do You Need to Make a Snowman?

The snow that has fallen today seems decently moist, but not soaking. You think it’ll be great to use to make a snowman. Besides just snow though, your snow-fellow also needs parts and accessories to make him look legit. Here’s what else you should have on hand.

Long Branches

Your snowman should have arms. Unless you’re sculpting the arms out of the snow as well, then branches are always a good standby. You want two long branches that are about the same size. Make sure they’re nice and sturdy so you can confidently insert them into either side of your snowman’s base. 

Scarf

A scarf gives your snowman personality and makes him look less naked. You could always go with the traditional red scarf or do whatever color, pattern, and type of scarf you prefer. It’s your snowman, after all! Involve the kids by digging through your winter gear and collectively picking out the scarf you think best suits the snowman. 

Stones, Buttons, or Coal

Many people who make snowmen add buttons or coal down the midsection of the snowman to dress up his torso. You might wish to do the same, as this is part of any traditional snowman style. In place of stones or buttons, you can always use coal.

Save at least two buttons, stones, or coal for the eyes. If you want more realistic eyes, plastic googly eyes or teddy bear craft eyes also work. 

Hat

It sure is cold out there! Make sure your snowman doesn’t freeze further by decorating his noggin with a hat. Whether you want a black top hat like the magic one that brings Frosty to life or a knit beanie is again your choice. Try a few hats on to see which one makes your snowman look the most dashing. 

Nose

A spare carrot you have in the fridge is the standard choice for a snowman nose. The problem with putting real food on your snowman is that hungry critters might be attracted to your snow creation. A plastic carrot nose is much less incentivizing to animals. 

Gloves and/or Coat

Surely you can spare one of your winter coats for your snow-dude, at least for a few days (or a few weeks). As we talked about in another recent post, insulating your snowman could help him last longer. Plus, with a coat and gloves, he looks complete! 

How Big Should the Base of the Snowman Be? What about His Head?

Rolling a large, completely smooth snowball for your snowman is hard work. You would hate for your snow creation to topple to the ground in a strong wind because he turned out lopsided, right? Fortunately, that sad end is perfectly preventable. 

Like getting the right type of snow for a snowman is scientific, so too is building the actual snowman, as it involves physics. If you snoozed through your physics class in high school, allow us to get you up to speed now.

In physics is a concept known as proportionality. With proportionality, you have two quantities that, when they decrease or increase, do it at a rate equal to one another. In other words, if you beef up the base of your snowman, you’d have to beef up his midsection and his head as well. 

To build a snowman that’s 6 feet high, you’ll need lots of moist or wet snow, 19 cubic feet in all, give or take. Then, you want a base diameter of 3 feet, a midsection diameter of 2 feet, and a head diameter of 1 foot for your snowman. 

If you need a ruler and measuring tape to make sure you get all the proportions right, then so be it. Building your snowman to the above ratio is not only engineer-approved, but it’ll ensure the parts never fall off before you put the hat on your snowman’s head. 

Tips for Prolonging the Life of Your Snowman

Do you want your snowman to last forever? Ah, don’t we all. Although no snowman is infinite, you can have yours for a surprisingly long time if you follow these tips. 

Build a Strong Foundation

A good foundation is the bones of your project, including for snowmen. Don’t just start by building his base on the ground, but rather, a foundation for that base. Pile some wet snow, about 2 inches, around where your snowman’s base will be. 

Add Sawdust to Your Snow

We discussed this in our post about how to make your snowman last longer, which we definitely recommend you read if you haven’t already. Sawdust + snow = pykrete, a more durable building material that melts slowly due to the insulating qualities of the sawdust. Before you start building your snowman, take some sawdust, sprinkle it into the snow, and begin the countdown to see how long your snowman lasts! 

Keep Him out of the Sun

The sun is a snowman’s worst enemy, even if the weather is cold outside. In the winter, the angle of the sun can be harsher, magnifying the effects of the rays. Build your snowman under the cover of a tree, a garage overhang, or any other shady area. It’s okay if he gets some sun, but full exposure day in and day out will melt your snowman into a puddle quickly. 

Insulate, Insulate, Insulate

It may seem strange to warm up your snowman, but insulating him keeps the snow-dude safe from colder and warmer thermal exchanges. Avoiding these fluctuating changes can maintain the structural integrity of your snowman as well as his coldness so he lasts longer. 

Watch for Hills and Other Hazards

If your front yard has an incline, you might want to reconsider building a snowman there. As the snow begins to melt, your snowman could lean towards the hill and collapse into it. Try to find even, hard ground and then build your snowman’s foundation there. 

Final Thoughts

Building a snowman that’ll last requires the snow to have a moisture content of 3 to 8 percent. This moist or wet snow has enough free water that can bind the snowballs together. Remember also to use the physics rules of proportionality when deciding on the size of the snowman’s base, midsection, and head. Best of luck and have fun! 

Geoff Southworth

I am a California native and I enjoy all the outdoors has to offer. My latest adventures have been taking the family camping, hiking and surfing.

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