Sculpting Magic

Borrow tricks of the trade from Michigan’s top sculptors to turn ho-hum sand into something memorable.
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Sand sculpture
Photography courtesy Janet Moore Schrader

Get your sand wet. Equal parts sand and water is the correct ratio, says Janet Moore Schrader, a sand castle instructor and individual winner of last year’s Grand Haven Sand Sculpture Contest. Bill Boerman-Cornell, another Grand Haven winner, says his team spends the first 20 minutes of the two-hour competition soaking sand with buckets before starting to carve. He and other pros keep a water bottle handy.

Stack, pack well, then carve from top down, not ground up. You must obey the laws of physics, says Kevin DiMeglio, a competition regular and engineer by trade. If the sand is too loose, your castle will collapse. Enlisting kids to stomp the sand tight is a happy solution.

Tools are everywhere. Cake spatulas, butter knives and paint brushes are some favorites of the pros. Kids’ molds, like of fish, add a fun touch. A funnel, filled with sand and flipped, makes a perfect witch’s peak.

It’s all about illusion. An outline of a window, made with the back of a spoon, putty knife or a stick, will create shadows and illusion of depth. DiMeglio likes to add a just small patch of bricks that seem to be revealed by peeling plaster — again, offering the illusion that your castle is more than it appears. Stairs are a must. Start by making a slide or ramp of sand, then carve steps in from top down.

Little touches go a long way. Use a straw to blow away loose sand as you carve. Bringing a model — say a plastic dog, if that’s what you want to make — is helpful. If you’re making a shape like a dragon in lieu of a castle, Schrader says, a smoke bomb in the nostril leaves a lasting impression.

Put these techniques to the test. Grand Haven Sand Sculpture Contest, June 23 (visitgrandhaven.com); Pentwater’s Homecoming Celebration, Aug. 9-12 (pentwater.org); National Cherry Festival, July 8 (cherryfestival.org). Or, for more tricks of the trade, go to sand castle school (sandpirate.net).

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