Let the beach be your canvas

What family hasn’t spent a summer on the beach building sand castles and admiring their handiwork until the waves wash it away? Most of us leave such pastimes behind as we get older, but there is a core group of artists who have taken that earlier experience and parlayed it into incredible sand sculptures that can be seen at events and competitions throughout the world. 

The Sand Sculpting World Championships are held in Atlantic City, New Jersey, every year with both solo and doubles competitors taking to the beach to create extraordinary, huge sculptures in the hope of winning those coveted trophies (and prize money).  

From simple grains of sand come angels, animals, gladiators, temples … basically anything magnificent that the sculptors can dream up. 

The competitors fly in from all over the world to participate. Most have at least 10 years’ experience and also work with snow and ice.  

There are other competitions as well. There are competitions held throughout the US, such as the Northwest Sand Festival, where the committee covers the flights, accommodations and meals of all the competitions, as well as the fee for their appearance. 

The rules are similar for all the sand sculpting competitions – no power tools are allowed, sculptors have to stay within their plots, and they are allowed to spray their finished works with a solution like diluted Elmer’s glue to protect them against the elements. There is a strict time limit set. For example, the Northwest Sand Festival allows 28 man hours for solo sculptors and 56 man hours for doubles teams. When it comes time for the judging, all structures and moulds must be removed, with only the sand sculpture remaining. 

Learning the basics  

If there’s one thing the Cayman Islands have in abundance, it’s sand. The type of sand is very important when it comes to sculpting, as finer grains are better, particularly when it comes to compacting – a very important stage in the sculpting process. 

Get a group of friends and family together and give a sand sculpture a try using the following helpful instructions, according to the Sandscapes website. Sandscapes is a company based in California that specialises in sand sculpting for special events. It has been in business for more than 20 years: 


Look for sand that feels packed hard when you walk along the coast. Beach sand can change drastically in a matter of yards, so walk around and dig down occasionally. Try to avoid any sand that contains large quantities of rocks, shells or other debris, as these items may lead to weeping and colourful language later on. 


Before you build, get acquainted with the tides. Nothing can be more frustrating than having the tide wash into your sculpture before you are through with it. You can usually look around and recognise where the high tide has been recently, then choose your plot appropriately. 

Stacking and packing  

For stacking and packing you’re going to need the following implements: 

  • Shovel – If you plan on making anything taller than your kneecaps, this is a must. 
  • Buckets – The 5 gallon plastic buckets used by paint stores and restaurants are best. 

Compaction is the ‘glue’ that makes the magic possible. Uncompacted sand can be used for low items, but if you plan on building something with height, steep faces, deep undercuts, arches and more, compaction is necessary. Choosing the right sand and properly compacting it is simply the best way to achieve maximum height with a minimum of shovelling. 

Casting buckets and other simple forms are the quickest way to make a well compacted block of sand with the least amount of effort. Get your bucket, remove the handle, and cut the bottom out with a saw, leaving a half-inch around the rim. Then sandpaper the coarse edge so it’s smooth and you’re ready to start! 

The bucket is flipped upside down on the beach and filled with 4-inch layers of sand. Water is poured into the bucket until the sand layer is slightly submerged and then you reach in and pack the sand down with your hand, foot or a short piece of two-by-four. Repeat this process – 4 inches of sand in standing water – pack. Stop when you’re about an inch or two from the top. Now place your hand on either side of the bucket and smack all around the bottom of the bucket simultaneously with both hands. Next, grab the rim on the top of the bucket and pull straight up. Time to carve! 


Many kitchen, masonry and garden tools will work as sculpting tools. You can use spoons, spatulas, melon ballers, pallet knives, clay loops … you name it. Some sculptors shun tools altogether, preferring to use only their hands. Use whatever is most comfortable for you. 

It’s a good practice to paint your tools bright colours. They will be easier to find. And get into the habit of sticking your tools (handle up) in the sand. Tools laying flat on the sand get buried and lost. Or worse, stuck in the bottom of your foot. 

A few basic sculpting rules  

Always carve from the top down. As you carve, you generate waste sand. You do not want waste sand falling on finished portions of the sculpture below you. 

For crisp edges, always carve into the mass of the sculpture. Pulling the blade off the edge of a sculpture can cause edges to break off. 

Immediately get rid of any sand that you’re sure doesn’t belong. Getting the rough shapes established first is what’s called “blocking out”, or “massing”. This makes it much easier to visualise what you need to do next. 

Bring a spray bottle. It’s much easier to carve a crisp edge in damp sand. 

It might be a good idea to bring pictures of a castle, an animal, or anything else you might have an interest in and try to duplicate it. Try different types of sculpture too. You may find you have an affinity for figures, faces, animals – or you may find you excel at “hard” sculpture such as architecture, cars, etc. 

Often a sand sculpture can have a fuzzy appearance; little bits of waste sand scattered on finished work. A soft brush can usually take care of this. Some sculptors choose to blow the sand off using a straw. These same sculptors can often be seen lying flat on their backs with their eyes spinning around in their sockets after about five minutes of blowing through a straw. 

When carving an opening or cavity, be it a window or any other type of opening, outline the shape and quickly gouge out the centre with a tool. Then, go in and trim the edge to your outline. Starting with a rough cavity gives the waste sand somewhere to go and helps maintain a crisp edge. 

Remember, this is a time of learning; do not become discouraged. Things are going to fall. This happens to everyone and is a very important learning tool. These events teach you volumes if you pay attention. Try to figure out why it fell, and try it again. Quality of the sand, level of compaction, water content, and undercutting the sand too far are all factors. 

Practice makes perfect. Everyone’s first sculpture is humble at best. But the good news is that anyone can produce awesome sculpture with practice.  

Now get to the beach and have fun!  


This “sandfish” sculpture reveals a smaller one within.


Radavan Zivny works on a sand sculpture of Golum.
Getty Images

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