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Snow Water Equivalent

Snow Water Equivalent Cabinet is a data sculpture illustrating snowpack measurements.

Motivation & Inspiration

There is no formula that I use to create a sculpture using data. Inspiration can come from anywhere, and the case of the Snow Water Equivalent cabinet, it came from a very personal and intimate experience, rooted in my memory and nostalgia of growing up in the mountains in Colorado. The allure of snow and it’s quiet all encompassing beauty has always captivated me.

This sculpture emerged from my love of being in the mountains, and my fond memories of snow from childhood. Snow is the perfect seasonal water storage system, one that captures excess precipitation as frozen ice crystals during the winter months. The snowpack then slowly melts during the spring and summer months feeding the streams and rivers that bring water to lower elevations. The natural landscape depends on this phenomenon, as do humans who rely on snowfall to be used for irrigation, industry, and public water needs in the dry summer months.

The inspiration leads to in-depth research to learn about how snowfall is studied and recorded as a way to better understand the long-term trends and patterns of natural phenomena in the landscape.

Data Encoding


Finding the data

Research into the study of snowfall lead me to the website of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a division of the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Water and Climate Center. The NRCS operates and maintains an extensive automated system in the Western United States. They established the SNOTEL program, which stands for SNOw TELemetry, to conduct snow surveys and to develop accurate and reliable water supply forecasts. Quantitative data such as air temperature, precipitation, snow depth, snow water equivalent, and soil moisture are available and easily searchable on their website. I found a number of sites in the Sierra Nevadas in California where I now live.

Paper mockups

My process is exploratory. I use drawing and sketching as a way understand the shapes and relationships from year to year and to envision how to transform the data into an aesthetically engaging physical form. Sketching allows me to experiment with different orientations and formats based loosely on the dataset, as I work my way through the process of two dimensional iteration to three dimensional form. During this stage, I am thinking through how I might build the forms and what materials they could feasibly be made out of. The annual charts of snow water equivalent were stacked to compare year to year snowpack levels.

Applying the data

The sculpture has continuity. The layers consist of thirty-one years of snowpack measurements from the data source, from 1980 through 2010 when the sculpture was made. Once I have come to a form that is working well in regards to proportion and scale, I apply the actual data points to drive the form that will be fabricated. At this point I decided to orient the layers of data vertically. This is when I move from sketching to using digital tools and programs to aid in design, which allow me to represent the data as accurately as possible.

Digital design

To keep the design of the form as true to the dataset as possible, I took each annual chart of snowpack into the computer program Adobe Illustrator and indexed them in relation to each other. The charts were used to drive the digital layout design that I later used as plans to cut the materials and begin to fabricate the sculptural form.


The plans for the parts design in Illustrator are used as templates to cut out the shapes in plywood on a bandsaw. They are stacked and glued together into one solid form, at which point they are ready to be carved.

Rought Shaping

Rough shaping the plywood is done after the glue is fully set. The carving is done by hand with an angle grinder with an abrasive disk, in addition to hand-held shaping tools. I use safety equipment including a face shield, respirator, and hearing protection. It requires lots of practice to be able to control and use these tools safely and accurately. I grind away the plywood until it becomes a single fluid form.

Fine Sanding and cutting

Using finer abrasive tools to continue to smooth out the form, I finally use sand paper of various grits to refine the sculptural carving into a completely smooth form. It is then ready to be sliced into sections which I did with a table saw and a special jig to maintain alignment and accuracy.I refer to a spreadsheet with the dimensions for each layer while I’m working on the machines.

Fabricating the framework

The framework for the cabinet is made out of solid wood, which requires advanced woodworking skills to fabricate. This image shows how each segment of the cabinet, each representing one year, was laid out and cut to size before being glued together. Each section was a different dimension based on the annual data, which makes it very labor intensive to fabricate. I have a systematic method of labeling each piece to keep them organized to avoid making mistakes.

Building the drawers

Every single drawer is a different size, following the variation in the annual water precipitation at the data site. This makes the drawers very labor intensive to fabricate as well, since each one is cut individually, again referring to the spreadsheet with dimensions.

Assembling the drawers

Once the drawers are built, the sculpted plywood sections are attached to the front of each drawer. They will reform the sculpted form once the drawers are assembled into the cabinet framework. The shallow, small drawers represent years where there was very little water available in the snowpack. The section of the carved plywood seen from the top of the drawer shows the graph of snow water equivalent for that particular year.

Staininng the framework

The solid wood framework is made out of Ash which is a light toned wood. I stained the framework black to create visual contrast with carved plywood drawer fronts. Here each segment is ready for the final coat of stain and a protective finish.

Final Assembly

Each finished framework segment is organised in order of year, from 1980 at the bottom to 2010 at the top, and affixed in place.

Materials and Tools

  • Software : Adobe Illustrator, Microsoft Excel
  • Hardware : Woodshop (tablesaw, bandsaw, drill press, jointer, planer), hand held grinders and shaping tools.
  • Material : Solid wood (ash), plywood, hardware, water based stain, wood finish.


The concept behind the data drives every decision about what finished form the data will take. The Snow Water Equivalent sculpture ultimately took the form of a cabinet to make a connection between snow as a natural device for storing water and the devices humans use for storage. The size of each drawer is limited by the amount of precipitation and snowpack, thus for very dry years, one does not have much space for storage. People can approach the concept from a number of perspectives. They may see a beautiful, evocative form. They may be drawn to the technical skill or material use. They may ask themselves “what am I looking at and what is it telling me? Why is this drawer so small?” The piece is an invitation to investigate further and have an experience in which they might learn about water systems through a personal, subjective experience.

The piece starts with the data, and the data reveals the process involved in translating the data into a finished form. As the artist, I direct the process of discovery and translation using my unique skills and perspective. Often the concept behind the data calls for a material or a technique that I am unfamiliar with. Those decisions push me to figure out new fabrication techniques and learn methods to use new materials. The data, the story, and the inspiration drives that exploration. The iterative process from data to form is very challenging and although I struggle and get stuck at times, I don’t move forward with a piece until I feel that it is in its most refined state and ready to be realized in the physical realm. The artifacts we make have the potential to raise awareness, bring about dialogue, change perceptions, and tell a story – they can be vessels embedded with information, from which knowledge can be derived.

Cover of Making with Data

New Book

How can we give data physical form? And how might those creations change the ways we experience data and the stories it can tell?

Making with Data: Physical Design and Craft in a Data-Driven World provides a snapshot of the diverse practices contemporary creators are using to produce objects, spaces, and experiences imbued with data. Across 25+ beautifully-illustrated chapters, international artists, designers, and scientists each explain the process of creating a specific data-driven piece—illustrating their practice with candid sketches, photos, and design artifacts from their own studios. Featuring influential voices in computer science, data science, graphic design, art, craft, and architecture, Making with Data is accessible and inspiring for enthusiasts and experts alike.

Making with Data, edited by Samuel Huron, Till Nagel, Lora Oehlberg, Wesley Willett, has been released in the AK Peters Visualization Series at CRC Press / Routledge.

Huron, S., Nagel, T., Oehlberg, L., Willett, W., editors. Making with Data: Physical Design and Craft in a Data-Driven World. First edition, AK Peters: CRC Press, 2023
ISBN 9781032182223 (Paperback), ISBN 9781032207223 (Hardback)

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