They're Not Just Playing in the Sand

Beaches this summer will soon be full of people creating spires, turrets and castles out of sand – with some of the builders doing a lot more than just playing around.

For a few Americans, in fact, building sand sculptures (search) isn’t just a weekend pursuit – it’s a full-time job.

“I used to be in business administration … but I got a chance to try sand sculpting and I was immediately hooked,” said Jill Smith, founder of Sand Sational Sculpting, a professional sand-sculpting company. “A year later, I quit my job and started the company.”

There are no official numbers of exactly how many people build sand sculptures for a living. Smith believes it’s just a handful.

“There aren’t very many people who do this full-time. You live like an artist,” she said in a telephone interview from Texas, where she was putting the finishing touches on an Around the World in 80 Days-themed sculpture. “It would be a big number to say 50, but there are a lot of amateurs.”

Indeed, there are sandcastle-building contests, both professional and amateur, all over the United States, from New York, New Jersey and New Hampshire to Texas, California and even land-locked Idaho.

“I started eight or 10 years ago with sticks and shells and junk on the beach," said Matthew Long, creator of Can You Dig It Sand Tools, which are plastic tools for creating sand sculptures. "I had no clue there was any such thing as professional sand builders. I had no clue there were contests.”

Long, who also runs a wood-finishing business in New York City, says building elaborate scenes out of sand is easier than it looks, and feels like being part of performance art on the beach.

“You get an immediate response from the audience unlike in other art forms,” said Long, who recently taught a workshop to more than 100 families at a grade school in Staten Island, N.Y. “People stop and take pictures.”

According to the school’s arts coordinator, both parents and kids were thrilled to learn some tricks of the sandcastle-building trade.

“There was an overwhelming response. Parents were so impressed with Matt’s ability to show the kids how to build sandcastles so quickly,” Donna Rettle said. “Parents were standing around and they were oohing and ahhing because they saw the simplicity of it.”

While youngsters are usually the ones building castles on the beach, Long said the process turns everyone into a kid.

“It’s really, without question, an extension of that great tactile feeling you have from playing in sand as a kid,” he said.

One professional sand sculptor who is among the top in the business said his career came from a childhood spent at the beach.

“It’s a hobby gone crazy,” said Mark Mason, who grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and heads the sand-sculpting business Team Sandtastic. “I did it through high school and college. It’s what I was known for. People would call up the contest I just won and say, 'We want (a sand sculpture) for a birthday party.'"

So what do Mason’s parents think about their son's career of playing in sand, which brings him to such diverse places as Europe and Kuwait?

“My mom always said I’d dig ditches,” he joked. “No, they think it’s a hoot.”

Long said that he got hooked on the gritty world of sand when he saw the amazing things that could be done with it.

"As an art it’s a tremendous medium,” Long said. “It creates a surrealistic form because sand just isn’t supposed to hold form. It’s supposed to be under your feet. It falls through your hand like an hourglass. It defies gravity.”

But the best part of building sand sculptures is seeing people's reactions, Smith said.

“We love it when people say ‘wow’ and we make people happy,” she said. “If we can take two minutes from their day and make them smile, we feel successful.”