Your Ultimate Guide to Building the Perfect Summer Sandcastle

We asked an award-winning sculptor for his tips.

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Sandcastles are a hallmark of the American summer, where families pack up their cars and head to the nearest coast in search of sun, sea, and sand. If you recall a childhood spent sitting in the sand with your bright plastic pail and matching shovel, contemplating your next masterpiece made entirely of sand, then you know building the ultimate sandcastle takes planning and strategy. But before you start building your oceanfront masterpiece, you'll want to hear these tips.

Justin Gordon, a self-taught sculptor from Groveland, Massachusetts, knows a thing or two about creating magnificent sculptures all out of the sand. Gordon, who got into sculpting with wood carving in the early '70s and then started sandcastle sculptures in 1978 as he'd head to the beach on college break. Gordon calls his most standout sandcastle sculpture, saying, "My favorite castle I did was at the Champlain Valley Fair in 2018. It was 15 feet high, 50 tons, and took 10 days." When visiting the beach, many people create their sandcastles in an hour or two, all to be dissolved by a belligerent wave. However, not Gordon as his creations can take ten plus hours. Other memorable creations Gordon has made over the years were at Topsfield Fair in 2001 and Merritt Island in Florida in the late 1990s.

sandcastles beach

Tips for Building the Ultimate Sandcastle

With any form of architecture, there is a bit of math involved when building a sandcastle properly. "Use wet sand only and pack it as hard as you can in three- to four-inch layers at a time." Measurements aside, the source of your sand matters, too. Gordon explains, "Also use sand that is as close to silt as you can find. Silty sand lets you pack a nice hard pile and make something tall and narrow with nice undercuts and cut-throughs." Also, by using silty sand, you'll be able to carve more details into your beachside masterpiece.

Tools for Building the Ultimate Sandcastle

Like a painter, carpenter, or any other craftsman, you're only as good as your tools. Gordon recommends small tools like putty knives and spoons to start with. After you've created a few impressive sand sculptures, add pallet knives, towels, and levels to your sandcastle toolbox. Of course, a decent-sized shovel and an upside-down five-gallon bucket ($3.78, with the bottom cut-out helps with packing smaller piles. Gordon recommends using a piece of 2-by-4 board to pack the sand into the bucket.

Location and Sand Quality Matters

Location is everything and sand quality plays a big role in the success of your sandcastle building. Gordon shares that cove beaches usually collect the silty sand as they have a long and low tide. That is the kind of sand you want, especially if you have visions of recreating Horn Hill or a fortress of Westeros. So, what's terrible sand to build the ultimate castle? Gordon says it's a beach where the waves are rough and the beach itself has a steep incline causing the silt to be washed away.

If you find yourself at the beach, shovel in hand, and unsure of the location's sand quality, there is a test you can do. "Grab a hand full of sand, squeeze it firm in your grip, and release it slowly," says Gordon. "Then roll the sand ball gently in your palm. If the sand ball stays together, you have great sand. If the sand ball breaks apart, try another beach."

For more of Gordon's work and his latest sand sculpting competition in Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, visit his website.

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