Castles in the Sand?

sand-castleBy Joe Zentner

From limestone cliffs on Middle Caicos that drop sharply to secluded beaches, the sand castle builder swings her binoculars past a handful of sunbathers to watch the ocean sweep into a private cove. She focuses on the soft, golden grains of sand the swirling waves leave behind and begins to imagine surreal forms emerging on the beach. She’s a sand sculptor and the beach is her canvas.

Children typically build sandcastles purely for the fun of making them. Adults, however, are increasingly engaging in sand sculpture contests, in which the goal is to create structures that don’t appear to be constructed simply from sand.

Known as a “modern art” for only about 30 years, sand sculpting is a pastime that draws widespread attention from the public. Sand sculptures seem to interest people wherever they may wander. Master carvers demand a high grade of sand, such as that found in Hawaii, where the coral beaches at Waimanalo, Kailua, and Punaluu are spiced with pure cream of tartar. Or in Alaska near the Eskimo village of Hooper Bay and along the Tanana River in Fairbanks, where the sand is like ivory dust filed off a walrus tusk. Or at St. David’s Head in Wales, or Topolobampo in Mexico, or the Ras-EL-Bar resort in Egypt, or on sugar-sandy beaches of the Turks & Caicos Islands. Only the best will do.

The early grains of time

It is difficult to believe there was ever a time when people did not relax near a shoreline and move wet sand around until it resembled a familiar object. Sand sculptor Ted Siebert writes in his book, The Art of Sandcastling, that the ancient Egyptians made sand models of the pyramids before starting actual construction. An Indian myth dating to the 14th century refers to the poet Balaram Das, who built devotional sculptures from sand. Still, the first documented references to serious sand sculpturing would not appear for another 500 years.

Early “artists” to monetarily profit from their sand sculpting abilities surfaced in Atlantic City, New Jersey in the late 19th century. Spectators walking along the boardwalk threw tips to the bowler hat-wearing sand sculptors.

Some people credit Philip McCord with creating the first true sand sculpture in 1897; it featured a mother and her baby. By the early 1900s, word had gotten around that money could indeed be made in sand sculpturing; consequently, enterprising “artistes” were soon found on nearly every city block — so much so that the Atlantic City town fathers began viewing them as public nuisances. In 1944, a hurricane tore up the famed boardwalk and demolished the nearby sand dunes. The city government saw the change in landscape as an opportunity to ban sand sculpting all along the shore, a law that has never been rescinded.

Sand sculptors were earning money — as well as a reputation for financial chicanery — on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1901, Emory James wrote an article for The Strand magazine concerning a “Professor” Eugene Bormel, who was creating sand sculptures on the coast at the North Sea summer resort town of Nordeney. James assures his readers that the professor should not be classified with “the cheapskates of the sands, who, for a few coins, as well as bread and butter, deign to display their artistic skill before the multitude.” (Professor Bormel, supposedly, donated all of his hard-earned coins to charity.) His preferred subject matter — mermaids and renditions of the Sphinx — remains among the favorite subjects of modern-day sand sculptors. The larger sculptures drew the most interest — something that has certainly not changed. James also dryly notes that “hair and lace effects are two things which the unskilled should leave alone.”

After World War II, when people started taking beach vacations in earnest, family sandcastle contests began popping up in beachside resort towns all along the U.S. East Coast. However, modern day sand sculpturing really got started in California in the early 1970s with the teaming up of Gerry Kirk and Todd VanderPluym, who became collectively known as Sand Sculptors International (SSI). They set the standard for the art form by organizing teams of sculptors to create incredibly detailed replicas of famous castles and fantasy architecture.

Today, many beachside resort towns host at least one sand castle contest annually. Europe turns into a virtual sandbox every summer with multiple projects employing many sand sculptors who try to outdo each other in hugeness and special effects. One artist, G. Augustine Lynas, has been doing public sand sculptures for half a century. He designs them to be gradually destroyed by the tide, encouraging brief but intense emotional attachment to the disappearing art. Lynas’s works often combine anatomical forms with architecture and landscape. Some pieces are enormous, some small. A few are dry and low relief, while others are tall and highly detailed.

While professionals are undoubtedly devoted to their craft, the real magic of sand lies in the hands of anyone who discovers that you can do really cool things with wet sand, shovel, and a marked propensity to be a kid again.

The basics

fancy-sandcastleThe first thing to keep in mind when sculpting in sand is that you are going to get sand all over yourself no matter what you do; therefore, be creative. The best sand for sculpting purposes is found just below the crest of an ocean beach, and is of the right consistency 15 minutes or so after the last retreating wave has left. However, not all sand is the same. The most common problem with ocean sand is that it has been surf-rolled (rolled back and forth with the tide) for centuries and, over time, becomes rounded. Even mixing with gobs of water will not allow you to build a sandcastle out of a pile of miniature ball bearings. Salt, shells and seaweed further complicate the purity of sand and its ability to stick together. The older the coastline, the more surf-rolled sand is likely to be.

The secret to piling sand up in the air and convincing it to stay there long enough to be carved into something spectacular is called compaction. There are three ways to compact sand, with softpack being the easiest. That is, pack and pat moist sand into a mound that roughly resembles the shape you are envisioning. Handstacking will help you reach greater heights in altitude, while letting water and gravity do much of the compacting for you. But if you want to go really big, then you will have to use forms. Serious sand sculptors use a combination of these three compacting methods.

Tools for sculpting can come from your kitchen or workshop. A shovel is a must. Bring one with a long handle to spare your back, as well as a bucket. Masonry trowels, spatulas, apple corers, chisels, Popsicle sticks, spoons, knives and pastry brushes are all useful. Improvise. A plastic fork with the middle prongs broken off makes a perfect tool for forming intricate sand columns. A spray water bottle will help keep the surface wet to avoid crumbling. My own chop-suey collection of castle-carving tools includes a piece of monofilament fishing line to hold taut while making clean cuts down walls and towers, several pieces of jig-sawed carved hardwood to shape straight, concave, convex, corner-in and corner-out steps, platforms, and terraces, as well as an assortment of spoons to precisely extract sand from sandcastle anterooms.

Some sand sculptors chart temperatures and barometric pressure for atmospheric combinations most suitable to their talents. Others stick a wet finger out the bedroom window when they wake as a means of testing wind velocity. All agree that since a full nine hours between tides is usually needed to construct a magnificent castle or other creation, the best time to begin is as soon as the tide starts receding.

sand-beach-buddiesThe creative process begins by drawing a rough sketch of the castle you’d like to build. Then, choose a square site in the sand near the water, but not so close that waves will destroy your creation the instant the tide comes up. Make sure the square is large enough to accommodate your building plans.

Dig a hole down to the water table, where sand is dark and moist, or, as an alternative, bring up large buckets of sand from near the ocean. Scoop wet sand onto the center of the area where you’ll be working. Work fast so the sand stays wet.

Build towers by forming and stacking sand patties about the size and shape of thick pancakes. Place larger patties on the bottom and gently shake the patties from side to side as you pile them so that the sand settles. Seal the towers by gently pouring water over them.

Build walls to connect the towers of your castle by jiggling (gently shaking from side to side) wet sand into brick shapes and laying them on top of one another. Carve the towers and the walls into shapes using a small trowel, a putty knife or plastic utensils. It’s a good idea to dig a moat around the castle to protect it, at least momentarily, from invaders, including breaking waves, dogs and vandals.

Sand sculpturing will not allow you to produce a proportional human figure that is standing upright, or with a hand pointing straight out from the body. Many sculptors who have worked in wood, bronze or marble have considerable difficulty learning to recognize the limitations of sand sculpturing.

Only experience will allow you to complete the sculpture of your dreams. “Practice, practice, practice” is a good maxim for any sculptor worth her or his sand. Only you know when the sculpture is finished.

Caution: sand tunnels large enough to enter should be strongly discouraged. Children have been killed by collapses of underground chambers; such a collapse is guaranteed if wave swash reaches the structure.

The phenomenon

From Hawaii to Holland, Alaska to Mexico, the Turks & Caicos Islands to Cape Hatteras and Sri Lanka to Japan, sand sculpture has become an increasingly popular phenomenon. Shaping sand offers elements of performance, participation and relaxation that are unique to the beach. Sand sculpting is a fantasy, purely an object from the imagination. Such art is mentally and physically interactive; a person expresses in sand what cannot be expressed any other way. Adults find sandcastle construction to be almost Zen-like in its ability to create total focus and relaxation.

Sand sculpting is not just an interesting art form — it is a great experience. Watch a sand sculptor at work, or explore the huge castles, beautiful princesses and fierce dragons that rise out of the sand — inevitably, feelings of summer, sun and long days on the beach will burn into your memory, to be revived on a chilly day in mid-Winter.

Crowds, so familiar in our cities, who gather to watch the activities of a building site or who wouldn’t miss a fire, stand transfixed in front of a sandcastle under construction. For the creator, the indefinable pleasure derived is not disconnected from the fact that such a permanent-looking structure on so ambitious a scale can be made in so short a time, and yet disappear so dramatically and so completely. When the people leave and the sun sets, the ocean slithers up on the beach, splashes over the shattered fortifications, and Jo Jo the Dolphin Sand Sculpturemelts the battlefields back to flat sand.

sand-jo-joSandsational Sand Sculpting is a professional sand sculpting company based in Melbourne, Florida. Partners Jill Smith and Thomas Koet travel the world to make their sandy creations. There are no special ingredients. All the sculptures are made with only sand and water. Visit www.sandsational.com to see and learn more.

Joe Zentner, a retired professor and freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to Times of the Islands. Joe and his wife Mary regularly visit the Islands.

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South Caicos was once a major exporter of salt harvested from its extensive salinas. Award-winning Master and Craftsman Photographer James Roy of Paradise Photography (myparadisephoto.com) created this vertical composition by assembling a series of six images captured by a high-definition drone which was a half a mile away from his position.

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