Castles in the Sand

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With a little imagination, the right tools and patience, masters dream up and create astonishing sand sculptures.

By Amber Lanier Nagle

For days, the team of sand sculptors worked diligently—packing, pounding, forming, carving and creating an unrivaled castle. Magnificent towers materialized first, each topped with a delicate finial. Next, sculptors balanced on midlevel platforms while chiseling out familiar landmarks such as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Statue of Liberty, the onion dome of the Taj Mahal and the upper lattice work of the Eiffel Tower. The lowest level showcased Rome’s Colosseum, Egyptian pyramids, a suspension bridge, a cruise ship, sleek skyscrapers and a jet emerging through clouds.

The team—led by Ted Siebert, owner and lead sculptor of The Sand Sculpture Co.—transformed gargantuan mounds of Miami sand into a 3-D masterpiece. At nearly 46 feet tall, the four-story sculpture successfully claimed a coveted Guinness World Record for the tallest sand castle.

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Eight-time record holder Ted Siebert has been packing and sculpting sand professionally for 25 years. | Photo courtesy of the Sand Sculpture Co./sandsculpting.com

For the Record

“Turkish Airlines commissioned us to build … the record-breaking castle to celebrate the airline’s inaugural flight service from Miami to its hub in Istanbul,” explains Siebert of the origins of the project. “We only had three weeks to plan and prepare, but we gave it our best shot and it worked out. It was tall enough—and quite beautiful.”

The sprawling work of art stood its ground for a few days before succumbing to the elements. Most passersby paused, marveled and recalled the moat-circled castles from their own childhoods. Imbued in the sand and water, sandcastles are also built with a pinch of nostalgia; they instantly transport their viewers back to a simpler time when they creatively constructed the structures in their imaginations before carelessly knocking them down to rebuild their next vision. Unlike the crooked amateur castles of our youth, Siebert’s record-breaking engineering feat required immense preparation, 1,800 tons of sand, 

a 19-person team of both professional sand sculptors and experienced support persons, special tools, a bucket truck—not to mention patience and lots of man-hours. Plus, the team had to abide by certain building requirements in order to be a candidate for the Guinness record: The design had to be a free-standing structure with no internal supports that resembled a traditional sand castle.

“We encountered a few challenges along the way—we always do,” Siebert explains. “You never know what the weather is going to do. We had to deal with rain problems in Miami and about [six] cracks on the fourth or fifth day.”

Siebert and his team of sculptors made the repairs and kept going. Then, on another morning, they noticed some unexplained damage to their work.

“We finally figured [out the cause of the damage]: a three-foot iguana,” he recalls. “He was crawling all over our work at night. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and let me tell you—it’s hard work and there are always problems and a chance of collapse.”

Good Foundations

Surprisingly, one of the wild cards sculptors encounter is the sand itself.

“To build our record-breaking sculpture, we had to have nearly perfect sand,” Siebert explains. “Good sand holds together well. When I say bad sand, I mean sand that binds poorly or binds too [well].” His preferred material is river sand because it packs like brown sugar.

“A lot of beaches have older sand. It’s been washed, rinsed, tumbled [and] rolled in and out with the tides thousands of times,” he says. “It’s pretty, but it doesn’t clump together very well, and so it is hard to build elaborate designs with that kind of sand. But you use what you have to work with, and you adapt.”

Most ideas can be translated into a sand-friendly design. There are a few limitations, but knowing how to design around them is what separates the novice sand sculptors from the professionals. At The Sand Sculpture Co. overcoming such hurdles is an expected part of every project from beginning to end.

“After talking to the client, we create an initial sketch,” Siebert says of first step of the process. “My team and I pass thumbnails back and forth until we get it to a certain point. We don’t include too much detail in that initial design work. … Sand sculpting is a somewhat improvisational activity.”

From the preliminary plans, the team builds the necessary forms they will need to create the general shapes in the castle and packs sand into them. Once the forms are removed, the sculptors work their magic adding the details.

“At the end, all of us feel a huge sense of accomplishment,” Siebert adds. “We’re high-fiving each other and taking photos.”

It doesn’t bother Siebert to know that his masterpieces aren’t permanent. “We celebrate at the end, and then I start thinking about the next sculpture,” he says.

Competitive Castling

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Sandsations welcomes sculptors of all skill levels. | Photo courtesy of The Sand Sculpture Co./sandsculpting.com

Like many other pro sculptors, Siebert learned the nuts and bolts of sand sculpting by getting his hands dirty—or sandy, rather—participating in the many sand castle competitions around the country. Most of these have different entry categories to accommodate sand castle architects of all skill levels. One particularly welcoming competition, Sandsations, takes place in Long Beach, Wash.

“You don’t have to be an expert to enter Sandsations sand-sculpting competition,” explains Ragan Myers, Long Beach’s tourism and events coordinator. “Our judges vote for the top three finishers in four categories—masters, intermediate, novice and family. They judge overall appearance, creativity, teamwork, effort, design, suitability to sand and intricacy.”

The big sculpting competition takes place on Saturday, this year on July 23. Contestants have a few hours to create their work of art within a designated area. Winners in the intermediate and masters categories stroll away with hundreds of dollars in cash prizes.

With participants in the hundreds and spectators reaching about 6,000 last year, Sandsations is one of the largest sand-sculpting events in the country. Traditional sand castles, larger-than-life sea turtles, sandy cyclops, giant squids and other ephemeral works embellish the coastline by the end of the contest.

“The more experienced sand sculptors start their projects earlier in the week,” Myers explains. “You can learn a lot from watching them work. … Then on Friday, one of the masters gives free lessons covering techniques and tools. That’s a very popular part
of Sandsations.”

In addition to helping coordinate the Sandsations event and other competitions, sculptor extraordinaire Bert Adams, has been one of the festival’s consultants and master instructors for several years. “The only way to learn [sand sculpting] is to try,” Adams says. “Pretty much anyone can do this—no matter the age or gender.”

Adams has taught thousands how to carve castles and sculptures from sand. As part of his personal crusade to grow the next generation of sand sculptors, he conducts workshops, films YouTube videos and helps with festivals and competitions across America. “I’m encouraged because I am teaching a lot of young people these days,” Adams says. “… There [are] a lot of great lessons that come from sculpting sand by yourself or with others.”

For now, aspiring sand sculptors need only find a spot where sand and water converge to practice dreaming up and creating their own impressive creations. 


Schedule of Events

The U.S. is home to dozens of sand-sculpting competitions and exhibitions—beachfront and inland—each year. Discover a few of summer’s best sand-sculpting events that are sure to delight both competitors and spectators.

AIA Sandcastle Competition

June 4; Galveston, Texas

More than 60 teams vie for the Golden Bucket Award at this fundraiser for the American Institute of Architects Houston, the Architecture Center Houston Foundation and the city of Galveston. In honor of the 30th anniversary, new categories have been added, including best incorporation of the number 30, tallest standing structure and most sustainable team.

Hampton Beach Master Sand Sculpting Competition

June 16-18; Hampton Beach, N.H.

Master sculptors compete with the hopes of winning more than $15,000 in prize money. Once finished, the creations are treated with a windproof adhesive so audiences can appreciate them for a few weeks after the big event.

Blue Water Sandfest

July 8-10; Port Huron, Mich.

Proceeds from this ticketed festival support the restoration of the area’s historic buildings. The nominal fee grants access to demonstrations, master and advanced-amateur state championship competitions, hands-on lessons, an amateur contest and a Quick Sand Speed Sculpting Show.

Sandsations

July 23; Long Beach, Wash.

Sandsations has been a favorite sculpting event for more than 30 years, where competitors building stunningly imaginative sculptures. Cash is awarded to the top master and intermediate competitors, while winners in the Family and Novice categories receive commemorative art pieces.

Sun & Sea Festival

July 16; Imperial Beach, Calif.

Sand-sculpting geniuses vie for honors just north of the pier. Meanwhile families can enjoy the parade, farmers market or Kids ’n Kastles event where five-member teams compete for Best Sculpture and Best Sea Creature awards.


Sandsculpting 101

Eight-time record holder Ted Siebert has been packing and sculpting sand professionally for 25 years. Here, he offers a few of his sand-sculpting tips for beginners.

1. Use wet sand.

“Damp sand sticks together, so you can shape and carve it,” Siebert says. Add plenty of water to sand in the forming stages, and mist the sand with water from a spray bottle while you are carving.

2. Collect many different forms.

“It all begins with forms,” the expert explains of the molds into which sand is packed in to create shapes. “Kids can get started using small pails. Teenagers and adults can start with 5-gallon buckets. After you master sculptures using 5-gallon buckets, try 16-gallon garbage cans and larger forms.”

3. Don’t forget to pack.

“Pack the sand, then pack again,” Siebert advises. A dependable technique includes shoveling a little sand into a form, adding water, swirling the mixture, pounding the sand with your hands and repeating the process until the form is filled. Place the form upside down where it should be added, then tap it with a hammer or stick until it slides off.

4. Sculpt the finer details.

Start sculpting little by little from the top and work downward so you don’t sprinkle sand on your finished work. Sculpting tools can be anything from palette knives, spatulas, melon ballers and ice cream scoops to chisels, trowels and screwdrivers. Finally, use brushes to texturize or smooth surfaces, then blow excess sand away with a straw.

(Top photo by Miami2you/ Shutterstock)

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