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How to Build a Sandcastle

A private lesson from master sand sculptor, Lucinda “Sandy Feet” Wierenga, in South Padre Island, TX

First, dig a hole. I was surprised to hear that because we would be building sandcastles, which are above the ground, not below it. Digging a hole seemed counterintuitive.

My group of travel writers and I were taking a private lesson from master sand sculptor, Lucinda “Sandy Feet” Wierenga, in South Padre Island, TX. We met up with her on the beach, where she breezed past us–floppy hat on her head, shovels and buckets in hands–and started digging. We followed.

Sandy, as most call her, pioneered the world of professional sand sculpture. She’s a former English teacher who discovered her artistic talents in sand. For three decades she’s been creating amazing sand sculptures around the world and competing in challenge events. Here at home, she co-founded the Sandcastle Days family fun festival and the Sand Sculpture Trail of 30 or so more-or-less permanent and elaborately carved marine creatures, castles, lighthouses and monuments.

Her goal is to transform South Padre Island into the Sandcastle Capital of the Universe.

“We are fortunate to have such great sand for building,” she says.

The first step in sand sculpture is to dig a hole, not too close to the waves or it will wash away.

Back to the hole. Sandy dug it about two feet wide and more than a foot deep. Water slowly filled the bottom. That’s where we got our sand.

To build a sandcastle, sand has to be very, very wet, she told us. The biggest mistake people make is using sand that is too dry. It might look wet and feel wet, but it’s not wet enough to hold the individual grains together. Your structure will crumble. The best way is to start with super-saturated sand. Any excess water will drain on its own, compacting the sand and making it easier and sturdier to carve.

“Generally speaking, you need the exact ratio of sand to water for it to work,” she says.

In sand-sculpting, there are three methods of construction. The first is soft-pack, which is the simplest and rather freeform. Using your hands, create a mound, pat and shape it, and pretty soon you’ve got a decent-looking turtle.

Sandy demonstrates the soft-pack method of construction to create a turtle.

The second method is hard-pack, and it’s a lot more work. Sandy uses cylinders, and she handed us each a 5-gallon garden container with the bottom removed. (You can also use plastic cups or metal cans–anything tubular.)

“This is a billion times better than the plastic buckets everyone tries,” she says. “They pack it in, turn it over and hope for the best. This will work every single time.”

The next step was filling the cylinder with wet, goopy sand. Crouch near the edge of the hole. With both hands, scoop from the bottom. Scoop toward you–not away, so your hands hold more. Toss the sand into the cylinder.

“The muscles you’re using are primarily your abs,” she says.

When your cylinder is almost full of sand, gently raise it and add more.

Scoop until your cylinder is almost full. Then tap and jiggle it lightly, and raise it a few inches. The sand that is inside will stay in place, and you can add more on top. Keep filling and raising until your tower is as high as you want, and set the cylinder aside. For our lesson, our towers were about 3 feet tall. (Meanwhile, the hole grew bigger and deeper.)

We could have stopped there and started carving our castles, but Sandy wanted us to learn the third construction method: hand-stacking. This is where you layer handfuls of wet sand without a cylinder. It’s similar to how an accumulation of ceiling drips form stalagmites in caves.

Inexpensive tools transform a tower of sand into a lighthouse.

Finally, we were ready to carve. Because our time was limited, we technically built sand-lighthouses, not sandcastles, but the techniques are the same. Sandy brought out an array of inexpensive tools–plastic cutlery, putty knives and garnishing utensils. She deftly shaped a conical roof with overhang, shaved the tower into wedding-cake tiers, connected the tiers with staircases, and cut out 3D windows and doors. Then, quickly she made a second tower and a bridge between the two. She used a soda straw to blow away stray grains of sand to keep her edges sharp.

“You can buy molds, but it’s more fun and artistic to stack and carve on your own,” she says.

I copied Sandy’s lead as best I could. My lighthouse wasn’t perfection, but it turned out better than I imagined. And my sand held together. In the feature photo above, I’d like to claim the structure between us as my own, but my effort is behind Sandy.

When you’re visiting South Padre Island, Sandy will be happy to teach you her tips, tricks and techniques for sand sculpting. Or you can read her book, “Sandcastles Made Simple.” Learn more at Sandy Feet Sand Castle Services.

“It’s such a great way to interact with the beach without destroying it or leaving any trash behind,” she says of her passion for sand-sculpting. “Everyone can participate in some way.”

Lucinda “Sandy Feet” Wierenga of South Padre Island made a career of building sand sculptures and teaching beach-lovers how to do it themselves.

(Many thanks to the South Padre Island Convention and Visitors Bureau for hosting my visit!)

8 thoughts on “How to Build a Sandcastle

  1. I haven’t built a sandcastle since I was a teenager growing up in Newport Beach. What a fun and relaxing way to spend the day! Although I hate the part when you get sand stuck in your suit. LOL

  2. Building sandcastles is such a relaxing break from real life. I can remember times that we would engage in this activity, with our children, whenever we visited the beach. Thanks for helping bring back some great memories.

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