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Sand Castles Made Easy

Updated on August 23, 2017

Almost anyone can make a really cool sandcastle, if you know the basics.

My information is dedicated to the average beach family that would like to learn the tricks to making cool looking sand castles. I have seen many families with small kids arrive at the beach, start digging a hole or piling up sand to keep the little ones occupied. They may have some of the usual plastic "forms" to pack sand in to make some nice little castle creations, which can certainly be fun for little tots. But how do you and your more ambitious older kids really make an outstanding sand castle? I am asked this all the time. Since learning the basics myself and spending a little more time at it I have more and more people ask if I do sand sculpting for a living. (No I do not. But I consider that a very nice compliment!) A few basic laws of physics to learn and you will improve your results immediately.

This is the true story of how I became "hooked" on sand sculpting.

It all started for me a few years back when my 7 year old son and 4 year old daughter wanted to enter a sand sculpting contest at the resort we were vacationing at in Maui. I explained "I don't know how to build castles- much less enter a contest!" the kids were disappointed.

Later that night I pulled out my laptop (of course only to be used in emergency while on vacation, and this was indeed an emergency) I searched the web for "sand castles". I was amazed at how simple it looked on some of the You Tube videos and other simple tutorials.

The next morning I went out, eager to test my new skills.WOW! After an hour or so I had a crowd standing there asking if I had ever entered a contest before. That castle is the photo you see here above with the title. Hey! I am not a professional and do not claim to be! (My daughter added the white berries from a nearby shrub)

The following day we entered the contest and won. My kids were very pleased. I was their hero.

$50 worth of credit to the gift shops was the prize. ( Hey, not bad-this was before the recession).

I am now hooked. I love to build castles and enjoy the social interaction, not to mention good bonding time with the kids. Be the cool Dad or Mom on the beach- learn the tricks!

TIP # 1: Build above the tide line

You don't want it to get destroyed before you finish, right?

First thing you have to consider- where to build. I am not going to lie to you. Doing a nice castle takes some exercise. It is rough on the back as well so be careful. Water and sand are very heavy and you will need to carry buckets of water to your area, not the other way around. Do not get caught in the wave area an hour into your project. The tide sneaks up on you fast. When you arrive at the beach take a look at last night's peak for the tide. (see example in the inset photo here.) You will usually see a debris line of ocean plant residue, depending on the season.

Build approximately 3 or 4 feet on the opposite side of the ocean and also look for a high point in the area. This allows you greater height on your project which always helps your castle look better.

Carrying water is great exercise!
Carrying water is great exercise!

TIP # 2: Lots of water

The pros will tell you "Add sand to water, not water to sand" they are right!

Once you have your sight selected you need to build a great foundation. This is one of the keys to longevity (more than a few hours) for your castle. It also is the key to being able to carve details without collapsing. Start hauling buckets of water to your sight. This is where having several people involved can make a huge difference. You will likely see other kids want to help and you should use their help here. Pour a lot of water on the dry sand area where you will build. As you pour water, start piling the wet sand up and begin packing it as high as you can and as wet as possible. The gravity of wet sand does most of the work to tighten the binding of sand to water. I find having a person in charge of the pile is the best approach. Just keep pouring water and mixing wet sand up as high as possible. Once you have a decent pile a couple of feet high start pouring a mixture of 1/2 sand and 1/2 water from each bucket. It should pour like mud and then firm up in a few seconds.

This is the good stuff for carving. You can also make wet sand patties and stack those for towers. The key is to practice and you will catch on.

As you can see I am fond of incorporating the "drip" method into my castles.

The sand that drips like this is the right consistency for the best carving. This also demonstrates how wet the sand should be for proper carving.

Detail the top first then bottom last
Detail the top first then bottom last

TIP # 3: Carve from the top down

Don't have sand drop all over your hard work.

This is the one that everyone has that "DUH" moment when I explain. Once your wet pile is ready for sculpting start carving at the highest point and move down. You can't go back up and do more work later because waste sand will ruin what it falls on. The sand you scrape and carve away simply follows the laws of gravity and lands on whatever lies below it. You have to keep this in mind as you sculpt- keep a vision in your mind of what you want to create and remove anything that is not part of your plan. It does take a lot of time and patience but you get better every time you build. After doing all the carving I like to finish by doing some drip work details. This takes practice as well to keep from ruining other areas as you drip. Finish off by spraying bottled water over the castle to help preserve it. (Spray with tap water not salt water as salt water clogs the spray bottle)

If you buy just ONE tool for sand sculpting-this is it:
If you buy just ONE tool for sand sculpting-this is it:

Tools Needed for sand sculpting

Use household items or spend a little and get some great tools.

BASIC TOOLS: Garden shovel, buckets, steak knife, drinking straw, toothpick or small sticks, plastic knife or forks, sunblock.

THE ONE MUST HAVE TOOL: A MARGIN TROWEL (click on photo at right)

ADVANCED TOOLS: professional concrete trowels, large 5 gallon buckets, soil tamper, pre-made forms, spray bottle, a large shovel with straight blade edge, a 2 or 3 inch paintbrush.

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GETTING THE MOST OUT OF YOUR TOOLS:

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A DRINKING STRAW is one of the most useful items. Simply carve a line about 1/4 inch deep into wet compacted sand and use the straw to blow away loose sand on the edges for a crisp clear line. Make sure these lines are deep enough for the shadow for maximum contrast.

CEMENT TOOLS: Home Depot or Lowes- go to the cement section and you will see many tools that are great for sand carving.

A tool with a 6" x 2" blade set back from the handle called a MARGIN TROWEL is ideal. Also the tool used to smooth mortar between brick joins is very useful.A big flat hand trowel can be used for large cuts and smoothing large sections. Use your imagination- many possibilities.

5 GALLON BUCKETS - Carefully cut the bottom off and you can fill with wet sand as a form. Compact at the top using a tamper and you have a good solid piece of sand to carve up. Place 2 together and you can make a larger creation. Carefully tap the sides with a hand shovel to release the "form" and pull straight up to remove once you have packed the sand very firm.

TAMPER- A flat tamper is a good idea since packing the sand is the key to detail. Once you pack the sand place this tool out of sight. Kids like to smash things and DO NOT let them have this heavy tool to play with. Also do not tamp near your creations in progress- earthquakes destroy!

SPRAY BOTTLE- Do not use sea water- salt clogs it up. A spray of tap water over your work prevents drying out and erosion. The enemy of sand carvings is wind. Wind dries out the water, the "glue" holding things together. A fine mist will not alter your details.

PAINT BRUSH- Once you have large flat areas in their basic shape, a nice sweeping with a soft paint brush will clean and smooth thing up.

BACK UP TOOLS FOR SHARING- Once you start doing nice work you will have a lot of kids asking to borrow tools. I have my main tools I do not lend because they will be gone forever. I keep inexpensive household extras to permanently "lend" to kids who become interested. I always encourage kids to learn from me and you would be amazed at how helpful many will be for a while, bringing water buckets just to be part of your creations.

NEVER LAY TOOLS DOWN IN SAND- Unless you bring a metal detector because they get buried. Stick them into the sand with the handles up.

Our first winning castle

Our first winning castle
Our first winning castle

One of my "church" castles using a combination of dripping and carving.

One of my "church" castles using a combination of dripping and carving.
One of my "church" castles using a combination of dripping and carving.

sharked!

sharked!
sharked!

The "full" shark

The "full" shark
The "full" shark

A simple trick to bricks or stones is to cut lines then blow out the loose sand with a straw

A simple trick to bricks or stones is to cut lines then blow out the loose sand with a straw
A simple trick to bricks or stones is to cut lines then blow out the loose sand with a straw

Seal Beach, CA 2009

Seal Beach, CA 2009
Seal Beach, CA 2009

Experiment-I added candles to this one from Jan 2009

Experiment-I added candles to this one from Jan 2009
Experiment-I added candles to this one from Jan 2009

REDONDO BEACH 2011 - Before sunset and fireworks begin

SEAL BEACH 2011 - Notre Dame Cathedral... sort of.

Hawaii 2011

A cool set of sculpting tools

What are the best kinds of sand for sculpting? - The quality of your beach sand will limit the fine details you can add

Here are links that will provide information about different sand quality.

For example in the Los Angeles area Long Beach is supposed to have good sculpting sand. I have found in our local area the best sand is in South Redondo Beach while Hermosa Beach is not as good and only a mile or two up the coast. Learn more about sand quality factors here.

Creativity debate - A study on creativity

A recent survey indicates that 80% of all children under age 5 are considered "creative" thinkers. By age 25 this number decreases to only 12% of the general population. The basic conclusion drawn is that we are conditioned to remove creative thinking and conform to universal standards. The12% creative at age 25 tend to remain this way through life.

How important will creative skills be for today's children who will be required to rely on more technology for their career?

The Egyptian - Laguna Beach 2009

The Egyptian - Laguna Beach 2009
The Egyptian - Laguna Beach 2009

Princess Castle for my daughter

Princess Castle for my daughter
Princess Castle for my daughter

Books on sand sculpting

This is the only book I have seen that is a good fit for this lens. I have read it and found it very informative but remember: sand quality has a everything to do with achieving the results you see with professional sand sculpting. Proper prep of sand comes after that, then the rest is up to your imagination and using the skills I have described.

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