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The Art Of Sand Sculpting

Updated on February 25, 2010

The art of sand sculpting is as old as, well, dirt. Men, women and children have always found a kinship with sand, the natural byproduct of water pounding against the shoreline. Pliable, portable and full of endless possibilities, sand is instant entertainment during a day at the beach, lake or river.

So it's no wonder that sand lovers began shaping and forming it into elaborate, striking designs. No simple overturned bucket with a few broken shells here. We're talking massive projects, some using more than 100 tons of sand: sophisticated Medieval empires, looming skyscrapers, voluptuous beach babes, Picasso-type 3-D paintings, lifelike Greek gods and biblical scenes, even Wile E. Coyote chasing Road Runner. Professional carvers spend days creating and using special sculpting tools, tampers, PVC pipes and RAD forms, to mold their masterpieces.

Yet, that simple overturned bucket and a plastic knife can produce impressive results, too. This is the ideal 21st century art form: Sand sculpting is free and nontoxic as the material is super-abundant and recyclable. And you don't need expensive tools to make very good sculptures. From 8 to 80, all can have a blast in the sand.

Sand sculpting in its "modern" form started over 100 years ago in Atlantic City, N.J., when men in bowler hats and suspenders carved elaborate sculptures near the boardwalk as passers-by tossed tips. But it was during the 1970s that it really blossomed as an art form in the United States and Canada (worldwide, it's just beginning to take shape). By the mid-1980s, sand sculpting became a category in the Guinness World Book of Records. Pursuant to Guinness Book of Records rules, sculptures can be built with mechanical assistance, but the builders themselves are restricted to using hands, buckets and spades.

Competitions are so popular is because sand sculpting is about teamwork, pure and simple. The act of figuring out what to build and then developing the skills to build it seems to foster a great bond among team members. Whether a pro or a fry, everybody can contribute in some way: Designing, shoveling, stacking, pounding, carrying water or sand, collecting seashells, carving, decorating, and providing food, water, sunscreen, and backrubs to workers.

Of course, on the beach, each sculpture is at the whim of driving rain, swashing tides and the ubiquitous stray Frisbee or beach ball. But fragility is simply another perk of this ephemeral pastime, in a special, Buddhist sort of way. It teaches that art is the process of creating and enjoying, not owning. Art is never finished, only abandoned.

It also does a body good, he adds. It's hard physical work that both gives you good exercise and gives you a charge. And the final stamp of approval? You're outside, creating. It's hard to have a bad day at the beach.

Spades, Straws and Skin

Tools: Your hands are magnificent sculpting tools. Otherwise, casual sandcastlers need a long-handled shovel and a few simple carving tools (knives, paints scrapers, trowels, etc.) Serious sand sculptors: compaction tools (forms, tamper) plus all of the above. To remove stray grains of sand, paintbrushes and drinking straws (to blow through) are imperative.

Design: Think ahead. The larger a sculpture and the more people involved, the more planning it will require. Of course, as for design possibilities, the sky's the limit.

Permanence: The only way to make a sand sculpture semi-permanent is to guard it 24 hours a day or treat it with something like epoxy. However, you can extend its life with a light solution of white glue and water. This puts a skin on it that will help keep the detail crisp, but will not keep someone from putting a foot through it!

Water: Water is the backbone of sand carving. A little bit of rain can be a boon, helping the sculpture retains its moisture and keep the details crisp. A lot of rain can very quickly wipe out hours or even days worth of work.


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    • Happyboomernurse profile image

      Gail Sobotkin 6 years ago from South Carolina

      Very interesting hub about the art and history of sand sculpting. I just finished writing a hub about building sand castles and sculptures. I'd just returned from the annual Rehoboth Beach DE sandcastle competition and was able to post a lot of photos of the contestants' entries. As you said here, contestants worked in teams and were banned from using motorized equipment. Some teams (consisting of 10 people) started as early as 5 am in order to be finished by 3 pm. They put so much heart and imagination into their wonderful creations!

    • Hal Licino profile image

      Hal Licino 8 years ago from Toronto

      Thanks! If I wasn't so half-brained I'd join ya! :)

    • nicomp profile image

      nicomp really 8 years ago from Ohio, USA

      Great piece. If I wasn't so left-brained I'd give it a try.