How Do They Do That? (Text Only Version)
The most frequently asked question on the beach is "What holds sand sculpture together?"

The simple answer is that each little grain of sand is attached to several other little grains of sand by the surface tension of each tiny droplet of water. In fact, it is the water that is the most important element in sandcastle construction. Adding water to sand, and hoping that they are mixing together is usually a recipe for disaster at some later stage when you are attempting to carve delicate details in a block that is not properly constituted. Much better to start adding sand to water right from the first shovelful.

All sand is not the same. The most common "problem" with ocean sand is that it has been surf-rolled (that is rolled back and forth with the tide) for centuries and becomes rounded. Even proper mixing with enough water will not allow you to build an eight-foot castle out of a pile of ball bearings. Salt, shells and seaweed add further complications to the purity of the sand and its ability to stick together. Some ocean beaches, such as Seal Point, California, are located near the mouth of rivers that regularly deposit fine silt grains on the beach to combat surf-rolling. A few miles down the coast, the finer grains have all been deposited and the sand has an entirely different consistency. The older the coastline (e.g. the US East Coast), the more surf-rolled the sand is.

At Harrison, the sand on the beach has been dredged from the bottom of Harrison Lake where the current has gently deposited it since the last Ice Age. It is highly angular and extremely silty. (So much so that Master Sculptor, Larry Nelson of California calls it "Mud".) It is this combination of circumstance that allows sculptors to regularly build central pieces that are over 12 feet tall in competition and has seen three, progressively-higher Guinness World Records for the World's Tallest Sandcastle set on the beach in Harrison Hot Springs.

Most professional sand sculptors use the West Coast technique of compressing sand and water in different sizes of plywood forms. Start with a sheet of 5/8" plywood and cut it into 2-foot widths. A sheet will thus yield four, 4-foot pieces. Attaching the pieces of plywood to each other is usually accomplished by adding two, 2" x 4" stringers to the top and bottom of each piece. Make the stringers a foot longer on each side so that you can nail or pin them together. A little forethought and your design will allow you to interlock any piece with another, so that you can make boxes 4' x 6' or 2' x 8'.

Planning your entire sculpture is extremely important so you can establish exactly how big your base must be to support the entire height of the piece. Each level of the piece is normally a foot shorter on each side than the one below it and you must recognize that you will probably have to carve up to a foot of sand away from the outside of each formed block. Making each stage a foot smaller all around will allow you to have a 6" step to climb the entire structure and provide a firm base for you to stand on to start carving several feet in the air. SAFETY NOTE: Even the most experienced carver has "forgotten" where they were and stepped backwards into space! Make certain that the area around your sculpture is clear of shovels, forms, buckets, sharp tools and pieces of wood if you need to safely "bail-out" from on high.

Take the time to level your first form . Dig the high end into the sand and then, making sure you have your bottom form firmly locked together, start by thoroughly soaking the sand inside the form before you start shovelling sand. Normally, you should try to start as far away from the form as you can, so that you are throwing sand the farthest distance when you are freshest and the form is the lowest. Continually add buckets of water and ensure that all your sand is wet.

When you have built up a foot of wet sand, it is time to start compacting. A compactor can be constructed of almost any solid material, but the most effective is a base of 1" steel plate with a 4-foot pipe welded to the center of the plate. SAFETY NOTE: Slamming a compactor on your foot (or someone else's) IS NOT RECOMMENDED ! Similarly, team captains must ensure that team members are adequately spaced when shovelling and that they continually aware of where other team members are. Team members packing buckets of water into the plot should normally be dumping them on the opposite side of the form from where the shovellers are working. Shovelling fifteen tons of sand and dumping 1500 five gallon buckets of water is HARD WORK! Make sure that team members take rest breaks, are rotated from left-hand to right-hand shovelling and that you have adequate supplies of water or Gatorade, etc. Fill your first form completely and add enough water to puddle the top (which becomes the bottom of your second form.).

Add your second form and repeat until you have reached the designed top of your structure. Plastic garbage cans with the bottom cut-out or plastic traffic cones may be added to the top form for additional height or definition. Most Master Sculptors leave the completed forms alone for a short time to allow excess water to percolate from top to bottom. Excess water from each form will percolate downwards, but only through water. That is, it will follow the easiest path through wet sand. It will not wet a patch of dry sand that you have left in the middle of your sculpture!

You are now ready to start carving the sand sculpture of your dreams. If you are at any height at all, only one or two team members can safely climb the structure and start removing forms. Other team members may be assigned to clear the base of the sculpture, receive the disconnected form pieces and take a well-earned rest break before starting to form other elements of the entire sculpture. A new safety note is now introduced as you have some sculptors working up top concentrating on carving, while other team members work below them.

As you will have appreciated by now, sand sculpture is an art form that is based on engineering. What you carve will have been predetermined to some extent, by the shape of the forms that you have constructed. It will be further defined by the quality of the sand and the quality of construction! Only years of experience will allow you to develop the carving techniques of the Master Sculptors in terms of narrowness, verticality, cut-throughs and overhangs that you can see in the Photo Gallery.

Similarly, sand sculpture will not allow you to produce a proportional human figure that is standing upright or with their hand pointing straight-out from the body, etc. Many sculptors who have worked in wood, bronze, marble, etc. have considerable difficulty in recognizing the limitations of sand sculpture. Again, only experience will allow you to complete the sculpture of your dreams. Practice, Practice, Practice is a good maxim for any sculptor.

If you want to enter the family in a local contest, go down to the beach and erect progressively larger sculptures that you will be able to complete within the time frame of the contest. The more you practice, the more confidence each team member will have and the easier the whole piece will come together. Build yourself a sandbox beside the carport and practice carving on small pieces at home.

For more information on sand sculpting techniques:

The Art of Sandcastling. Author Ted Siebert.

Sand Castles, Step-by-Step. Authors Lucinda Wierenga and Walter McDonald.


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