Janel Hawkins, owner of Sandcastle University in Gulf Shores, Alabama, is the guru of the grain. Grain of sand, that is. A self-taught artist, the 23-year-old has studied under masters and has sculpted the NCAA volleyball logo for national television. Today, she teaches more than 300 construction classes per year along Alabama’s 32 miles of sugar-sand beaches. Students of all ages meet at her location – by the sea turtle statue on Gulf Shores Public Beach, for example — or she travels to their beach house.
We hooked up with Hawkins at Gulf Shores Public Beach behind The Hangout restaurant and bar. We know that lessons learned here will be handy at home on Lake Erie’s beaches.
When we arrived above the tide line, Hawkins was set up with four water-filled five-gallon buckets, two child-size spades, several carving tools, an aerosol can of WD40 and a plastic form made from a bottomless bucket. A three-foot wide pyramid of dry, loose sand was ready for construction.
The sand pyramid was essential. While some people dig down to place a castle, Hawkins builds up a foundation. She douses the pyramid with a ½ bucket of water, then uses her feet to mix and tamp the wet sand. With a hard, flat platform in place, the lesson begins.
Step one: Spray inside the form – the bottomless five gallon bucket — with WD40 to ease release. Then, center the form on the hard sand foundation.
Step two: Scoop fluffy surface sand into the form. Fill halfway. Saturate with ½ bucket of water. Stir with hands to saturate all sand. Let gravity pull water through sand and settle grains tightly. Do not press. Tamp sides of the bucket with your flat hand, around and around, to encourage water and sand to settle.
Step three: Repeat step two, filling the form to the top. Allow water to settle and sand to “dry.”
Step four: Give the form a gentle twist while lifting and reveal hard sand column ready for sculpting.
Step five: Unpack tools including large and small spatula, drinking straw, pastry brush, measuring spoon and red solo cup.
Step six: Create turret. On the top, one inch from the edge use two fingers to create a one-inch wide, one-inch deep channel. It will look like a target. Then, using a spatula cut teeth into the column. Remove every other “tooth” with a spatula. Dust rough edges with the pastry brush to improve definition.
Step seven: Carve a balcony. About halfway down the tower, use the spatula edge to draw a six-inch long horizontal line about one-inch deep. With measuring spoon, start two inches above the line and scoop down and away, removing small scoops of sand. The line will be the bottom of the balcony. Dust with pastry brush to finetune.
Step eight: Determine door and window locations, then twist measuring spoon for round portals. Scoop down and away for cathedral doors. Target fuzzy edges with straw and blow lightly to soften.
Step nine: Draw blocks or boulders using sharp edge of spatula. Brush or blow away fuzzy edges.
Step ten: Build garage. Place red Solo cup sideways against base and cover with wet sand to lip. DO NOT PRESS, let water and gravity work for you. When sand “dries” twist and remove cup horizontally. Use sharp edge of spatula to carve boulders or blocks into sand. Again, brush or blow.
Step eleven: Landscape. Mix sand and water until slushy. Fill hands with wet sand and dribble into pine tree pyramid.
Step twelve: Admire your work. Post pictures to social media.
Hooked? Hawkins works in the Gulf Shores-Orange Beach-Fort Morgan area. She also teaches an advanced two-hour class that includes multiple structures and additional details. She does custom sculptures for special events. You can reach her at 251-600-9771 or SandCastleU@gmail.com.