Fun in the Sun with Ultimate Sand Sculptures

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Multi-media carver and sculptor Justin Gordon, of Groveland, Mass., has been playing in the sand for decades, his sand art slowly getting grander and drawing bigger crowds. His larger-than-life sand creations have won numerous awards and accolades, as well as plenty of smiles from adults and kids alike.

“Some people are amazed that I would spend all day making a beautiful sand castle, only to lose it to the waves of Mother Nature,” Gordon said. “But, such is life.”

As summer winds down, let’s take a look at Gordon’s artistry recently showcased on the beaches of New Hampshire and learn how he builds the ultimate sand sculpture. Two hundred and fifty tons of sand was dropped for the 2015 Master Sand Sculpting Competition in Hampton Beach, where Gordon’s “B.F.F.’s :)” ogre and kitten won the People’s Choice award.

Like most competitions of this nature, the Hampton Beach event was timed. The sculptors worked over three days, from June 18-20, to complete their own solo sculpture using 10 tons of sand.

“The shoveling is the hardest part,” Gordon explained. “They usually put the sand pile in the center of your plot so you have to first remove enough sand to place your first form, then shovel it all back again.”

START WITH GOOD SAND

Obviously the foundation of any well-done sand structure is good sand.  To test it, grab a handful of sand and squeeze it hard to make a ball. Slowly release your grip, and roll the sand ball around in your palm – if it stays together, you have good sand. With good sand, you can build your structure tall and narrow with nice undercuts. Otherwise, your design needs to be on the short and squatty side. Gordon said the best sand has a lot of silt in it, “Good beach sand is usually in a cove.”

Sand is a great medium that’s easy and quick to carve. The only downside is the shoveling. For a beginner at the beach, Gordon recommends using the wet sand below the tide line.

“THE POUND UP”

Starting first with 2′-high reinforced, plywood forms, Gordon said he next puts in around 8″ of wet sand then either soaks it with more water or tamps it with a hand tamper. This step packs the 8″ of sand down to 4″ or so. Builders repeat this process until the form is filled and uniformly packed solid, continuing for subsequent forms on top, going as high as they can. Some people also use plastic pool siding as forms held together with C-clampsOnce the design is determined, the next step is to make a block of solid, packed, wet, sand to accommodate the shape of your project. “This is called ‘the pound up,’” Gordon said, “and it’s the grueling, not so pretty part of sand sculpting.”

The pound up ends up looking like the tiers of a birthday cake. Gordon’s Hampton Beach ogre was 8′ high with a base form of 8′ by 4′.

One of his largest works was a life-sized King Kong completed on Fulong Beach, Taiwan, in 2010, while working on a project for The Sand Sculpture Company. Gordon’s King Kong was featured on the corner of a 600-ton pile of sand which stood 22′ high. As you can see in the picture above, the “birthday cake” was pretty large for that project, and a crane was needed to get the sand and the higher wooden forms to the top of the pound up.

The overall shape of the sculpture has to fit within a sort of pyramid shape where the bottom supports the top. Only after you’re proficient at sand sculpting can you extend beyond the pyramid shape and dare yourself.

“But be careful,” Gordon stated. “When a fall occurs, it’s really hard to repair and takes up a lot of time.”

The biggest enemy in sand sculpting is gravity. If the sand pile is packed correctly, the only worry is exceeding the limits of the sand’s ability to stay together. And the only thing pushing on the sand is gravity.

START CARVING

When the pound up is done, Gordon removes the top form and starts carving from the top down and the inside out, while standing on the lower form’s boxes to reach wherever necessary. “This way you don’t spill sand over what you have already carved.” Gordon said. Another tip – “Keep your tools in a tool belt or stuck in the sand vertically so you can always find them. Just moving your foot can bury a tool for all eternity.”

Knowing his sculpture has to be seen from all angles, including the top view, Gordon frequently steps back as he sculpts to check scale and proportions, often using reference pictures as his carving guide.

Like carving wood with a natural finish, the trick to a good sand sculpture is in the shadows — deep shadows make for dark lines. “Take the iris of an eye, for example.” Gordon explained. “It is usually a dark spot. So we carve in a deep hole where the iris goes, with a rounded back, so its shadow creates the dark spot of an eye’s iris.”

To keep your sand structure from becoming a heap of sand, Gordon recommends keeping your undercuts from being too wide, your overhangs from being too big, and your verticals from being too high.

MAKING YOUR SAND STRUCTURE LAST

For outdoor sculptures, Gordon says he sprays a mixture of water and waterproof glue on them to weather-proof them as best as possible. The mix ratio is about 10 or 15:1, water to glue. This spray sealer does not hold the sculptures up in any way, but it does create a crust on the surface that will hopefully stop a heavy rain from texturing the design. When the spray has time to dry in the hot sun and is applied regularly, it can extend the life of a sand sculpture many months, provided no one touches it. 

Indoor pieces will last indefinitely, even without a coating, as long as they are not touched. Gordon’s Burlington castle (below), made in 1997, still stands today. The sand sculptures stay together because the sand is packed very hard in small layers at a time while the sand is wet or moist.

TOOLS OF THE TRADE

Gordon uses a variety of tools in sand sculpting, but his go-to utensil is the trowel with a very thin blade.

He also uses painter’s pallet knives of various shapes and sizes, 1-1/2″ and 2″ plasterer’s trowels, a plasterer’s spreader, a level for architecture-style sculptures, and a mini gardener’s shovel about 20″ long.

For inside radius cuts, clothes wrinkles, eye sockets, and drapery, he uses some homemade clay loop tools, typically used in pottery making.

If you’re just starting out, Gordon said, “Putty knives, spoons, and melon ballers also come in handy for the beginner.”

PEOPLE’S CHOICE “B.F.F.s :)”

One of the harder parts of Gordon’s ogre sculpture was the face. “Since he was looking down, his face was harder to see, harder to reach, and was difficult to scale with the rest of the sculpture.” Gordon said. “The clothes and wrinkles were also a pain as it was a timed event, and I didn’t want to get stuck with not enough time to complete the sculpture by putting in more details.”

Gordon said the ogre’s big feet were fun, even though they were rushed. “I was told that people were amused at me checking out my own foot for foot details as I was carving them,” he laughed. “Hey, a convenient model is handy under pressure.”

But he was happy with the outcome of his sculpture and said it was “worth the few days to recoup and some ibuprofen.” After winning the People’s Choice award, Gordon said, “I showed my gratitude at the awards presentation with the biggest blown kiss to the audience that I could muster.”

Watch Justin Gordon as he talks about his sculpture “B.F.F.’s :)” at Hampton Beach 2015 in this video.

Sand

ABOUT JUSTIN GORDON

Gordon worked for defense contractors building missile components after earning his Mechanical Engineering degree from the University of Massachusetts in 1983. After getting laid off from his engineering job, he said he got the proverbial “boot in the ass” to follow his dream and became a professional sculptor in 1991, now sculpting in eight mediums – wood, sand, wax, snow, ice, stone, clay and foam. He concentrates on commissioned fine woodcarved figuresarchitectural carvingrestorations, and custom clock cases.

View more of Gordon’s sand sculptures here: http://elwindesigns.com/sand-sculptures.asp, including work he has done for other sand sculpting venues such as malls, fairs, and trade shows. These sculptures range from small 10-ton jobs to 100 tons or more. For a fun view of the sand building process, check out this time lapse video from the 12th Annual Hampton Beach Master Sand Sculpting Competition in 2012.

The name of Gordon’s sculpting company, Elwin Designs, was found in a book of names – Elwin means “elf friend” or “friend of little people.” He teaches carving classes in Groveland and Randolph, Mass. See more of Gordon’s work on his web site: www.ElwinDesigns.com.

To check out another Woodworking Adventures blog where Justin teaches how to make a Christmas Elf - click here!

We hope you'll be inspired!

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