Construction tips from king of the sand castle

he reason I noticed this was because I had forgotten my own folding shovel, and wasn’t digging myself.

For me, a trip to the beach isn’t complete without making a sand castle. When the kids were younger, they would join me in making ramps, doorways, tunnels and moats. When the channel to the water was complete, the waves would rush in, filling the moat and eroding our creation.

As the kids grew older, I suspect they might have thought that Dad, sitting in the sand, dribbling wet sand out of a cardboard cup, had lost his marbles.

But I don’t mind. There’s a fascination with making something from sand that still attracts me, even if my castles are rudimentary or misshapen.

Maybe it’s a bid by an aging boomer to recapture some of the joy of youth. Maybe it’s the visceral thrill of creating something so fleeting. Maybe it’s a form of artistic expression.

It’s the artistic expression that draws Todd Vander Pluym, of Redondo Beach, Calif. At 55, you’d think he was too old to be playing in the sand, but after winning 188 of the 194 sand-sculpture competitions he’s entered, he parlayed sand sculpture into a full-time job, doing “installations” at fairs, malls and events across the continent.

“It’s man’s oldest art form, done since Neanderthal times,” he said from Cincinatti, on a break between jobs. “Ramses II used sand sculpture. Da Vinci used sand sculpture.”


“I think about one-third of the population is the visual builder type. They enjoy putting things together. Sand is an easy medium to work with. You just have to have the desire.”

Assuming you have the desire, here are sand sculpting tips from an expert.

You need the right sand. Pick up damp sand and squeeze the water out. Then open your hand. If it rocks back and forth in one piece, it’s good. If it breaks in two, it’s OK. If it breaks in many pieces or sticks to your hand, you’re in the wrong place.

To give yourself sculptable sand, cut the bottom from a five-gallon bucket. Invert the bucket firmly in the sand and pour in water. Then shovel in sand, and pack it down with a two-by-four until you meet resistance.

Add more water and more sand, repeating the procedure until you are about one inch short of the opening. Then slide the bucket off, with a helper tapping the sides to free the sand. You can use anything up to a 55-gallon trash can, but you’ll need a team to remove that.

Vander Pluym says that, undisturbed, this sand will last for years, but his explanation — involving capillary water action, the sand’s pendular state and the positive ionization of the sand particles — will make your head hurt. Just take him at his word.

Sculpting tools can be “anything that works. Just don’t take anything you want to keep.” Melon scoops are good for the notches under parapets, cake-decorating spatulas are good for sharp edges. A spray bottle with an ample supply of tap water (grit will clog the nozzle) is essential.

Dribble castles are fun for kids and adults. Cut the bottom from a plastic jug and drill a one-quarter inch hole in the cap. With your finger over the hole in the cap, half-fill the jug with water and half-fill with sand, leaving water standing at the top. Then take your finger off the hole to let the sand dribble out.

You can hand-build a castle by having your supply of wet sand one second away from the building site. Make a large sand egg in your hand and quickly lay it in position, like brick-laying. Or use both hands to make a hamburg patty shape and pile one atop the other to make a tall conical tower.

Just don’t move the shape once it’s placed.

Remington sculpture is very beautiful art form, that crosses all ages, races and religions,” says the expert. “It is a totally reusable resource, that takes nothing away from the earth, but leaves a visual pleasure.”

And if it’s OK for Ramses II and da Vinci to play in the sand, it’s OK for you, too.

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